Amy Hakanson plucked her violin on a park bench in downtown Portland.
“I’m trying to decide what to play,” Hakanson said.
Hakanson, 24, recently withdrew from Marylhurst University — she thought it would be temporary. Now with the private college’s closure, she can’t go back.
Less than two weeks ago, Marylhurst University announced it would be closing. Leaders of the private university near Lake Oswego insist they had little choice but to fold after 127 years. Alumni wonder why they weren’t contacted to help.
Students are reacting with a mix of grief, anger and confusion.
Hakanson’s music education started 20 years ago at Marylhurst — she learned to play violin there as a preschooler.
“Our love of music was fostered at Marylhurst on that campus,” Hakanson recalled. “I took lessons there from the age of 3 to 14 or so. And it was a place of great stability and community, and it was one of the reasons I decided to return there, as a college-aged student.”
That community and sense of stability are ending.
The forces driving the closure were complicated, said Marylhurst President Melody Rose on the day it was announced: the suburban location is hard to reach, there’s more competition in online education and fewer people are going to college.
“We’re not alone in this challenge,” said Rose. “We see other like institutions across the country that have seen similar times.”
Students felt blindsided. But in hindsight, there were warning signs.
Christopher Zimmerly-Beck recalls transferring into the Marylhurst writing program last September.
“Literally, like a week or two before the program was supposed to start, a group of us all received emails that the program was being cut,” Zimmerly-Beck said. “Then a week later, we got an email that, no the program actually isn’t being cut.”
In a written statement to OPB, Marylhurst explained the English, literature and writing program was facing potential cuts last fall, because there weren’t enough students to support the four ELW strands.
“As a result of the English faculty’s willingness to streamline the curriculum, the four options were merged into a single pathway that resulted in having sufficient numbers to move forward,” the statement read.
So, students got that message, as well, leading to some confusion among incoming students, like Zimmerly-Beck.
Over the school year, Zimmerly-Beck said he had no indication of financial problems, and said he was led to believe any problems had been solved. He was excited to be part of a celebration just a few weeks ago when the English department launched a new Master of Fine Arts program.
“Before the closure was announced, they were going to be starting an MFA in creative writing, and I had been meeting with faculty and advisors about joining that MFA program at the beginning of next summer,” Zimmerly-Beck said.
Zimmerly-Beck, a first-generation college student, said he’s concerned about the financial effect on students like him, who took on debt to earn a Marylhurst diploma and are now scrambling for ways to complete their degrees.
University officials confirmed to OPB they were building programs and spending hundreds of thousands to rehabilitate buildings, even as enrollment and revenues were falling.
They were trying to attract students through a new vision.
“As part of its Renewed Vision and turnaround plan, Marylhurst University invested in two capital projects: a facelift renovation of a comprehensive Student Services area, which allowed us to relocate all student services to [one] building,” Marylhurst officials said in a statement.
That project was completed for $186,000.
“In addition, Marylhurst began a renovation project on the Villa Maria dorm, which was strategically important to the University’s Renewed Vision,” the statement said.
The dorm project was “budgeted at $2.36 million; $230,000 was spent before the project was put on hold.”
Students and alumni want to see budget documents and meeting records. Jenny Chu graduated from Marylhurst in 2008 and is now the program coordinator for the nonprofit Write Around Portland. Chu has been in regular contact with the university’s development office and had her face on recruitment posters for Marylhurst. She said she’d heard only “rumors” of financial problems — and is now angry about her alma mater closing. She wants more transparency from university leaders.
“There’s always going to be suspicion if the board or the leadership doesn’t come out with a more direct answer, or the financials,” Chu said. “The sense that — wait a minute, did you let this university fail?”
Marylhurst’s board chair Chip Terhune offered a simple explanation when the closure was announced.
“The declining enrollment ultimately created a structural deficit that was impossible to overcome,” said Terhune.
But students argue Marylhurst is partially to blame for declining enrollment.
“It’s really frustrating that they’re using that as a reason for closure, when I’m someone who was forced away, basically,” said Hakanson, the former Marylhurst student.
Hakanson started learning violin at the Marylhurst campus but ended up returning as a college student because it was one of only two colleges in Oregon with the program she wanted. Hakanson’s academic interest came out of her years playing the violin with her family, including on visits to see her ailing grandfather.
“He was in a nursing home for the last year or so of his life, and had dementia and was not really fully aware of what was going on, but we would go and we’d play music with him and he’d start singing with us and he’d start remembering things, which was one of the main precipitating factors that told me I should really go into this field,” said Hakanson.
That field is music therapy. It uses music for a range of health issues — from dementia to anxiety, to traumatic brain injuries.
Hakanson said she had to withdraw from Marylhurst after administrators cut a music course she needed to stay on track. She’s taking courses at Portland Community College and Portland State now. At some point, Hakanson expects to shift over to the state’s other music therapy program — at Pacific University in Forest Grove. Not everyone has that option.
“Art therapy is not a program that’s offered anywhere else in Oregon,” said Hakanson.
“So they’re really in a tough bind right now.”
More than two dozen colleges have offered options to Marylhurst students, but none has art therapy.
At a meeting last week, Marylhurst art therapy students stood before university leaders and read a letter with 24 specific demands.
“The institution is obligated to provide and maintain the necessary experience, resources, and support services to facilitate an educational program that is of acceptable quality and reasonably similar in content, structure and scheduling to that promised to the students upon enrollment,” the letter read.
Twenty-four art therapy graduate students signed the letter, ending with a dire warning.
“If these needs are not met, we are prepared to take legal recourse as a cohort,” the letter concluded.
The art therapy students are calling for a “teach-out,” in the Portland area taught by Marylhurst faculty.
In a written statement to OPB, the university said it has a legal obligation to provide a “teach-out plan.”
That plan offers three tracks to students: finishing this summer, transferring elsewhere or working within a “teach-out agreement.”
But the teach-out agreement anticipated in a written response from Marylhurst officials “might include an agreement to accept a cohort of students or the transfer of an entire program,” rather than supporting Marylhurst faculty and resources, as art therapy students requested.
Officials are working with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to ensure it is “satisfactory.”