Notre Dame de Namur University administrators are marking the 100th anniversary of the Roman Catholic institution’s current San Francisco Bay area campus this month and celebrating a milestone that was far from a certainty just a few years ago when some people were predicting its demise.
Enrollment and revenue were falling when its president announced in March 2020 that the university would stop admitting new students while seeking a way to stay open.
The level of optimism on campus about the path forward was not high, especially among some faculty members. One faculty leader described the decision as a temporary stay of execution.
“It was a really unclear time … and I really didn’t know which way it would go,” said Helen Marlo, dean of the School of Psychology. “But I did have a lot of faith.”
The university didn’t close. Instead, it announced in 2021 that it would pivot and focus primarily on graduate programs specializing in psychology, education and business.
Marlo recalled that the graduate program in clinical psychology had “our strongest enrollment year ever” in 2019.
“We have a long history of providing, serving and training in certain select areas,” she said. “It wasn’t a surprise to me that professionally oriented graduate programs were doing well, but other—primarily liberal arts—undergraduate degree programs were no longer sustainable.”
Today, Notre Dame de Namur primarily serves working adults and professionals returning to college to earn master’s degrees. Courses are offered in a mix of hybrid, in-person and online formats. The university also offers several bachelor’s degree–completion programs for those who stopped out of college. Just 15 students are currently enrolled in those programs, but university administrators say they intend to grow them.
“We’re now into a world where we’re serving the posttraditional student,” said Beth Martin, president of the university. “We’re fighting the same headwinds that every other institution in the country is right now, but I can honestly tell you that I see a path to sustainability.”
She declined to discuss the financial status of the university and said only that it’s in “better shape.”
University administrators “see a path to sustainability” largely because of the anticipated sale of its 46-acre campus to Stanford University.
“We know that before too long, we will have a large bolus of money coming in,” said Martin.
The university is depending heavily on financial support from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in the interim. Four members of the religious order, which founded the institution in 1851, now sit on the Board of Trustees.
Marlo said she is “grateful” the university made it to its 100th anniversary, but that reaching the milestone is “bittersweet.”
“I’ve been there for so long that it’s been like a second home,” Marlo said. “But I think there’s also a sense that the land sale is enabling certain things to happen that matter more to us than the physical location.”
She said in an email that the pending sale allows the university to “re-envision and develop a sustainable plan and future for our University, one that capitalizes on our strengths as an institution. This meant we could run key academic programs and recruit and admit students.”
Notre Dame de Namur and Stanford are currently under an option-to-purchase agreement that gives Stanford the exclusive right to buy the property and keeps it in a fixed price range while it undergoes environmental impact studies and other regulatory processes required by the city. If all goes as planned, the purchase will be made before the agreement ends in 2025. Officials at the two institutions have not disclosed the sale price.
Martin described the board’s decision to “monetize the campus property” as “wise” and “momentous” for a university that will have a “much smaller footprint.”
Even as Notre Dame de Namur transitions to more digital and hybrid programs, the university is still primarily operating in person. With a modest 200 student head count in its graduate programs during the 2022–23 academic year, the university no longer requires the facilities it needed for the 795 undergraduates and 482 graduates enrolled in 2019.
“Now that we are focused on the posttraditional students and moving many of our programs online, we have no need, for example, for extensive residence halls,” Martin said. “The leadership team of the sisters agreed that this was the right way to go in the future.”
Joel Berman, director of land and local policy communications at Stanford, said the purchase of Notre Dame de Namur’s campus presents exciting opportunities for Stanford.
“The property’s existing use as a residential academic campus was an important consideration for Stanford, as was its location on the Peninsula in proximity to public transit and the existing Stanford and Stanford Redwood City campuses,” he added.
Martin said Notre Dame de Namur officials have not determined where they will relocate the college, currently located in the city of Belmont, if the sale goes through, but the institution hopes to sign a lease nearby in Silicon Valley.
“If not right in the city of Belmont, very close,” Martin said. “We want to stay in the community we’ve contributed to. So many of our alums are teaching in our school districts, and so many of our therapists are in our local clinics.”
Potential for Growth
Even with the prospects of a lucrative sale in one of the nation’s most expensive real estate markets, Notre Dame de Namur had to make significant budget cuts to get to this point. After terminating traditional undergraduate programs, the university laid off more than 60 percent of its faculty and staff, whittling 145 administrative staff members down to 45, reducing 32 full-time faculty down to eight and 150 adjuncts down to 45.
Marlo, who was a faculty member at the time, said it was “extremely sad” to see so many cuts, but she understood “there weren’t very many other options.”
“There was a lot of devastating loss that had to happen in order to preserve the things that could be preserved,” she said.
Notre Dame de Namur has been focused on rebuilding faculty and staff since it dropped its traditional undergraduate programs, Martin said. With the exception of Provost Gregory B. White, who has been employed by the university for 30 years, and Martin, who was a faculty member and dean between 1996 and 2006, much of the president’s cabinet, as well as staff in the departments of finance and enrollment, are new to the university.
Five new master’s degree programs have been added over the years: an online master of arts program in diversity, equity and inclusion leadership; a hybrid master of science program in technology management; an in-person master of business administration program in STEM; and two online programs in education therapy and business administration, acquired from Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif., when it shuttered this spring.
And this fall, for the first time in at least five years, the university is “on track” for an anticipated 20 to 25 percent growth in enrollment, reaching at least 240 students, according to university spokesperson Kurt Allen.
Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonpartisan think tank, said he sees “promising signs” for Notre Dame de Namur.
“The real estate that they’re sitting on, that’s a lot of assets. I assume that will help them with their enrollment plans,” Horn said. “And what we see consistently is that when you have more focus, that reduces complexity and an operation that reduces the need for administrative overhead.”
Horn also noted challenges ahead, including finding another location for the campus.
“That’s not going to be cheap,” he noted. “And obviously, the adult learner is like a potential, but I say potential because there’s a lot of things that have to go right to enroll that population.”
He said he’ll be “super curious” to see how much of this is “talk and projection versus actuality.”
If the university experiences more attrition, “then that’s not going to be a good sign,” he said. But “if they do grow, and then they get a cash infusion from the sales of real estate, and they’re able to find a new place … That could get interesting. That would seem like a potential path forward.”