What you need to know about the closing of Marygrove College

An esteemed Detroit learning institution, Marygrove College, will mark its final chapter this December with the closing of its graduate school. Established in the 1920s, the Catholic college has long served as a pillar of Northwest Detroit’s Livernois-Six Mile community. The shuttering of the school — first announced this summer — is certain to have big ramifications for area students, employees, and residents. Steps, however, are being taken to ensure a measure of stability for both students and the community at large.


Marygrove’s closure follows a rocky period of leadership changes, declining enrollment, and financial uncertainty. For many years, the school had offered both undergraduate and graduate programs. But in an effort to turn around declining fortunes, it transitioned in 2018 to a graduate-only school offering master’s degrees and professional development in education, human resources management, and social justice. In addition to traditional graduate classes, the college also adopted a significant online presence under this new vision in an effort to attract more out-of-state students.


As part of its reorientation, the college also declared it was joining forces with partners like The Kresge Foundation, University of Michigan, Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Starfish Family Services to embark on an ambitious cradle-to-career educational (P-20) effort. The P-20 initiative plans called for a state-of-the-art early childhood education center to be built and a K-12 school set up in a rehabbed building on the campus. In an effort to preserve the historic school grounds, a nonprofit conservancy was also established in 2018 to maintain and provide stewardship over Marygrove’s 53-acre campus.


Unfortunately, the Catholic school was unable to successfully reinvent itself as graduate-only institution. From a peak of 1,850 undergrad and grad students in 2013, Marygrove’s enrollment number had plummeted to just 305 grad students this June, when the college first made public its plans to shut down permanently. At that time, the school only had about 30 new students taking summer classes summer and only two students signed up for the fall semester.


Dr. Elizabeth Burns“Marygrove’s grand experiment to transition to graduate-only studies was a brave and bold attempt to continue to serve students,” Marygrove President Dr. Elizabeth Burns said in a June statement. “However, intensive marketing and recruitment efforts have failed to attract enough students. Coupled with a heavy debt burden, the low enrollment numbers provide insufficient revenue to continue operations into the future.”


Social justice education legacy


Known for a unique curriculum that imbues all its academic programs with social justice and citizen-leadership themes, Marygrove has held a special place in Southeast Michigan’s educational landscape for more than nine decades. During this time, more than 44,000 graduates (of both bachelor’s and master’s programs) have been instilled with Marygrove’s distinctive educational vision.


Founded in 1927 by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM Sisters), a Michigan-based congregation of Catholic nuns, the school began as an offshoot of their St. Mary’s Academy campus in Monroe; with Marygrove, the IHM Sisters aimed to expand educational opportunities for Detroit residents during a time of rapid urban growth.


Although originally created as an all-female institution, the college began admitting men in 1971. In the wake of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion — five days of civil unrest that emerged against a backdrop of entrenched institutional racism — Marygrove made a strong push to diversify its predominantly white student body by inviting 68 African American women to become students there.


“The sisters provided higher education to women and a means to earn a living when very few options were available to women [and] chose to … remain in the city as other institutions fled after the riots and reflect the makeup of its community,” Burns says.


Tough times for students

This rich history as an institution of higher learning will come to an end on Dec. 17, after the fall semester of graduate classes wraps up.
For students, 2019 has been a time of great flux. From the 305 students attending Marygrove’s grad school this June, 74 completed degrees in August. Of the remainder, 241 are enrolled in the current fall semester, and 155 of them are eligible to graduate this December. Those not slated to graduate this year, however, are faced with the conundrum of what to do next.  

They do have options. In accordance with the rules of the Higher Learning Commission, a regional body responsible for overseeing accreditations, colleges closing their academic programs must provide a path for students to complete their degrees within a year of shutting down. Known as a “teach-out,” it’s a way for students to continue earning their degrees with other institutions. Due to the special nature of Marygrove’s programming, however, it’s not an option that’s available everywhere. However, the college has made arrangements for students to continue their graduate programs in education, human resource management, and social justice at Oakland University, Wayne State University, and Eastern Michigan University.


“Students are assured that all their Marygrove credits will transfer and they can attend the teach-out school at the same tuition rate,” Burns says. “They will receive their degree from the teach-out partner institution.”


People enrolled in Marygrove’s grad programs can also opt to transfer to other institutions. But, if they do so, they won’t be able to take advantage of any teach-out benefits.


Nina Chacker, a Detroit teacher who lives in the neighborhood, graduated from Marygrove last year, earning a master’s degree in education. She began taking graduate classes online in 2013, while working full time and raising a young child, and describes the experience of navigating her degree in the period following the 2017 closing of the college’s undergrad program as “nerve-wracking.”


Reading the writing on the wall last year while Marygrove was facing an accreditation review, she doubled up on classes and lobbied the school to allow her to meet some of her requirements with independent study in order to complete her studies as soon as possible.


“I thought it was a good program. I was getting a lot out of it,” she says. “It was a bummer to have to rush it, but I wasn’t going to lose out, because I couldn’t graduate on time from [an] accredited university.”


Although Chacker was able to graduate last year, she sympathizes with current students who’ve had to chart a different course due to the college’s imminent closing.


“Obviously, everyone who was in the middle of the program or didn’t get out in time is going through a difficult time,” she says. “It’s not a total loss, [but] they didn’t choose to go to those other schools, they chose to go to Marygrove.”


The future of the campus


Just because Marygrove is singing its swan song as a college, it doesn’t mean the curtain is closing on the campus itself. Efforts are still underway to carry out the P-20 initiative announced last year, which will be bringing an early childhood education center and combined primary and secondary school to the site. In fact, part of the K-12 school is currently active on the campus, with 118 ninth-graders attending a pilot program on part of the second floor of Marygrove’s Liberal Arts Building. Plans call for a 10th-grade class and other grades to be added over time, and the school will eventually set up shop in the former Bates Academy on Marygrove’s campus.


“At the end of the year, Marygrove College will, of course, no longer be a partner in the P-20 partnership,” Burns says. “The P-20 partnership will continue to evolve with the assurance that the campus will be used for educational purposes.”


Beyond that, the Marygrove Conservancy is now in place to oversee the campus. Established in 2018, the conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to stabilizing and protecting Marygrove’s historic college buildings and grounds while identifying ways they can be utilized by the community. The Marygrove Conservancy is governed by a board of directors, which includes former Marygrove President Glenda Price and Live6 Alliance adviser Michael Forsyth as community representatives, as well as members representing Marygrove College (for the remainder of 2019), the IHM Sisters, and The Kresge Foundation. In addition to other stewardship responsibilities, the conservancy also oversees the P-20 educational initiative partnership on the campus.


Through the end of the year via the newly created Center for Detroit Arts and Culture, Marygrove College will continue to provide community outreach programs; these include the Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series (which brings African American authors to Detroit for free public readings), the Institute for Arts Infused Education, the Institute of Music and Dance, the Institute for Detroit Studies, and the public lecture series Defining Detroit. This programming is expected to continue under the oversight of the conservancy into next year. Campus facilities will also be available for rent and lease for private events and educational programs. Management of the college’s buildings is currently being handled by Beanstalk Real Estate Solutions.

Dolphin Michael, president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association, is hopeful that the Marygrove Conservancy will find a way to maintain the campus in a way that is beneficial to local residents and stakeholders.

Meanwhile, community members are lamenting the loss of Marygrove College.


As president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association, a group that supports businesses along a strip of Livernois Avenue, Dolphin Michael is sad to see Marygrove go.


“It’s not good for the community," he says, “Marygrove was a great asset to us.”


While the biggest challenge facing Livernois businesses right now is a downturn in foot traffic tied to the construction of a new streetscape along the corridor, the shuttering of the undergrad school in 2017 and the impending closure of the grad school certainly don’t help matters.


“Anytime we lose institutions like Marygrove, it definitely has a negative impact on businesses and the community itself,” he says.


That said, he is hopeful that the conservancy will find a way to maintain the campus in a way that is beneficial to local residents and stakeholders.


As a longtime resident of the Livernois-Six Mile area who’s been going to events there her entire life, Chacker is also dismayed by what the college’s closure means for the neighborhood. Though she wants to be optimistic, she’s unsure what the future holds for the 53 acres of land where Marygrove College now stands.


“I’m hoping it will continue to be more of a community-centered establishment and not just have predatory New Detroit investors capitalizing on the space,” she says. “It’s such a tumultuous up-in-the-air time for the city as a whole, so you never really know what direction things are going to go.”

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.