Dana College closes doors - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 12:00 am / Updated at 7:25 am
Dana College closes doors

Dana College in Blair, Neb., is closing its doors after 126 years - leaving more than 500 students without a school and dozens of professors without jobs only weeks before the start of the school year.

School officials announced the closing Wednesday night.

They blamed it on an accrediting body's decision earlier in the day not to reaccredit Dana if officials completed a planned sale of the college to a group of out-of-state investors.

Dana's announcement contained little information about where students and faculty members should turn seven weeks before the first scheduled day of the fall semester.

That lack of direction angered some, particularly because Dana officials had portrayed the college as sound when they announced the proposed sale in March.

“It kind of just feels we were lied to,” said Bo Darrow, 19, of Glenwood, Iowa, who expected to start his sophomore year as a secondary education major in August.

“When the corporation took over, they said everything was going to be fine ... now about a month before school starts, we don't even have a school anymore.”

The college did say it has cooperative agreements with the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Grandview University in Des Moines. It wasn't immediately clear how those schools would assist students interested in transferring.

Ben Sasse, president of Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, said his school would soon announce a plan to bring in Dana students and potentially some faculty members and staff.

College officials said more information for students would be posted on the college's website, dana.edu, as it became available.

Dana College, a private liberal arts school, was founded in 1884 by Danish Lutheran pioneers. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

The college made history this year when it became the first nonprofit college or university in Nebraska history to attempt the plunge into for-profit education.

Raj Kaji, CEO of the outside investment group planning to buy the school, told faculty, staff and students in March that he was planning to double enrollment while keeping Dana's longtime mission and campus intact.

“In 20 or 30 years, I will be able to say I helped move a college forward, save jobs and ensure consistent outcomes for students,” he said that day.

Those plans were sidetracked Wednesday by the Higher Learning Commission, Dana's accrediting body.

In a move that surprised the college's president and board, the commission said it wouldn't extend accreditation if the college were sold to the for-profit group.

The HLC cited numerous concerns relating to the investment group's lack of experience, the school's financial solvency and changes to the college's core liberal arts mission.

Without accreditation, Dana students wouldn't have been able to obtain federal financial aid and other benefits commonly needed for a college to remain open.

“We are devastated that despite meeting all requests and assiduously working to meet all requirements, the (HLC) decision does not allow for Dana's continuing operation,” said Dennis Gethmann, chairman of Dana's board of regents.

Marshall Hill, director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, said a number of factors have long worked against Dana.

Many small, private liberal arts schools have been wounded by for-profit universities that teach only popular academic majors and spend millions annually on advertising, Hill said. And Dana hadn't changed to survive like other private colleges in the state.

Hill said he was surprised to learn during the reaccreditation process that the college had few online classes and lacked amenities, like extended cafeteria hours, that other schools long ago adopted.

The college also resisted pleas, from former donor Howard Hawks and others, to consolidate or more closely cooperate with Midland, another private Lutheran-affiliated school in nearby Fremont.

“I think Dana was just bled to death,” Hill said. “They just had no money for the kinds of investments in the sort of recruiting and advancements that they needed to survive.”

Vern Wirka, assistant professor of communication, said the closing leaves faculty members in the lurch. It's too late to get hired at another college for the coming school year.

“Maybe the spring semester somewhere, but the fall semester definitely not,” Wirka said.

Wirka, director of the campus radio and TV stations, wondered what he will do Thursday morning. Should he shut off the radio station? Contact the station's employees and deliver the bad news?

Jim Realph, Blair mayor, said many in town knew of Dana's struggles but few knew the extent of the college's financial problems.

The city has long benefited from the college's ability to employ hundreds of faculty and staff, he said, and the graduation of thousands of students, many of whom stayed in the city and became business and civic leaders.

“We've had companies who located here because of our college,” Realph said. “This is a tremendous, tremendous loss.”

World-Herald staff writer Andrew J. Nelson contributed to this report.

Contact the writer:
444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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