Friday, November 11, 2005

Tiny Barat College closing after a century

June 11, 2005

by Nicole Ziegler Dizon

The final days of Barat College were spent much like those at any other school wrapping up for the summer: final exams, late-night study sessions, a boat cruise for graduating seniors.

But the mood was more somber and the tears flowed more freely among students realizing they weren't just saying goodbye for now, but forever. Barat will close its doors at the end of this month, a year after celebrating its 100th anniversary in Chicago's north suburbs.

''It was kind of the happiest and saddest time of my life because it was the best environment I've ever been in,'' said sophomore Morgan Lemmer, eyes welling up as she took a break from setting up chairs for the school's final graduation.

Faced with dwindling enrollment, tens of millions of dollars in needed repairs and a small endowment, the tiny liberal arts school -- which was taken over by DePaul University in 2001 -- is shutting down. About 150 students will make up the last graduating class at today's commencement.

Survival spurred merger

Barat's closure leaves six colleges of the 10 founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic order begun in France in 1800 by the college's namesake, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat. Originally an academy for young girls, it became a college around the turn of the century and thrived during a boom in Catholic women's schools in the 1950s. But enrollment lagged as women moved away from single-sex colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. The society got out of the business of running colleges in 1971, and those that remained struggled to stay afloat by going coed -- as Barat did in 1982 -- or by merging with bigger schools.

Survival was behind Barat's decision to merge with DePaul, the country's largest Catholic university, in 2001. But after spending $6 million to buy Barat and another $16 million on upgrades, DePaul trustees voted last year to shut down Barat, saying an enrollment hovering around 800 didn't bring in enough to break even.

''It was a long and disappointing decision process,'' said DePaul spokeswoman Denise Mattson.

Enrollment dropped to about 350 students this quarter. Lemmer was one of only a few dozen students in dorms that once held more than 300. Like many other underclassmen, she will transfer to one of DePaul's Chicago campuses.

Even with few students left, the school has worked hard to make its final year a celebration rather than a funeral, said acting Dean Gene Beiriger, a 20-year Barat veteran. Faculty made sure each gathering was not billed as ''the last,'' preferring barbecues and bands to teary-eyed speeches.

Students and alumni say it will be hard to replicate the family experience in a place where everyone knows everyone else.

''I'm going to miss this school. I would never have made it at a big school,'' said Lauren Harvey, a graduating senior who dug through school archives to put together a photo display of Barat's history that now lines the walls of the main building's basement.

It is unclear what will happen to the campus and its buildings.


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