If I call this article my third installment in a trilogy on abandoned campuses, I guess that implies that I’m done with the subject for a while. And I am. But after exploring old campuses in small cities (or perhaps “big towns” is the better term) in Nebraska and South Dakota, it’s time to take a turn to a much more densely populated setting: an abandoned campus in metro New York City.
Upsala College, in the city of East Orange, New Jersey—the suburb immediately to the east of Newark—closed in 1995. Like Dana College, it owes its origins to Scandinavian Evangelical Lutherans: the Swedish-based Augustana Synod, instead of the Danish Lutherans that built Dana. Founded in 1893 in Brooklyn with the intention of providing a sound liberal arts education to Swedish-American immigrants, it quickly moved first to the Borough of Kenilworth, about eight miles to the southwest of Newark. Its enrollment grew steadily, accommodating foreign-born students of non-Swedish origin as well as African Americans. Among New Jersey colleges, Upsala was the first to grant a four-year degree to a woman. Then, by the mid-1920s, the Trustees purchased a larger tract in East Orange, more ideally suited for a college that at that point taught over 300 students.
At that point in time, East Orange was surging in population, establishing itself as a middle and upper-middle reprieve from the high-density residential patterns of nearby Newark. In its new home, Upsala College continued to flourish through the mid-century, retaining a reputation as a highly selective liberal arts college with a diversifying student body—far less dependent on Swedish immigrants than its early days. The school enrolled nearly 1,400 at its peak in the 1960s.
East Orange and Upsala experienced a reversal of fortune in 1967, in the aftermath of the Newark Riots—one of the worst and highest profile of many riots that took place in the latter half of that decade. An already mounting exodus of middle-class from Newark suddenly burgeoned after the riots, with neighboring East Orange absorbing much of the Newark Diaspora. In the process, East Orange suffered as well. Middle-class whites fled the city, as blacks from the troubled streets of Newark escaped to what they no doubt hoped was a more welcoming, safer environment. Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s, East Orange’s reputation largely echoed that of Newark as a predominantly dangerous place. Not surprisingly, Upsala College suffered grievously as a result. Enrollment plunged, as its previous middle-class student demographic avoided a city with the reputation for crime. The college’s response was to change its academic mission to better synchronize with the demographics of its surrounding neighborhoods, which translated to a school that overwhelmingly attracted first-generation college students, largely either African-American or international students from the developing world. The shift failed to stem the decline, and by the late 1970s, enrollment had dropped by half.
In 1978, Wallace Wirths, a retired executive of the Westinghouse Corporation, made a stopgap philanthropic gesture: the donation of a 229-acre farm in the rural township of Wantage, close to the New York state border. The leadership at Upsala wrung their hands over this generous offer, holding some graduate classes in makeshift barns on the site. Ultimately the trustees chose not to build at Wantage, instead remaining committed to location in East Orange, despite the ever-worsening socioeconomic conditions there.
Fortunes did not improve. Not only did Upsala’s enrollment drop below 500, but the academic standards shifted to adapt to a student body that came from much more disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s possible that prejudicial attitudes from former Upsala supporters may have exacerbated the situation, since most evidence suggested that the mostly white alumni and major donors impugned the board of trustees’ decision to shun the Wantage offer and to continue plunging resources into enrolling non-white students, many of whom the school accepted under lower qualifications. The students often were not academically prepared for the Upsala mission and failed to complete their schooling. The school began to bleed over $1 million annually.
A final effort in the early 1990s almost seemed to rescue the floundering school. Hiring a new president in 1992 spawned a major fundraising campaign that brought in $5 million and doubled the enrollment. The trustees approved expenditures on considerable improvements of the buildings and campus. By 1994, some estimates suggest that Upsala may have boasted a greater number of students than ever before. The school focused its energies on additional training for students with particularly low SAT scores. But the stimulus came at a lethal cost: the school’s formerly rigorous academic standards. And it radically outspent its capacity, even with the renewed enrollment. From what I can tell, a mid-1990s review of Upsala’s accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, coupled with the revelation of a $12.5 million debt, sealed the school’s fate. The Association withheld its decision until 200 seniors could graduate on May 14, 1995. Then it withdrew accreditation. And the ninth president of Upsala—a different individual than the one who initiated the school’s brief revival just a few years earlier—oversaw the dissolution of the school’s assets. Auctions of the college’s prized artwork and historical documents helped raise about $900,000, a far cry from the eight-figure debts.
Thus, Upsala College closed, leaving a blighted space in a city that was already suffering its fair share of residential vacancy. And that’s where this article’s exploration begins.Approaching the campus from the south, it’s easy to tell that the adjacent Doddtown neighborhood was prestigious at one point in time. The trees are mature, the front yards generally seem well-maintained, the lawns are certainly much more expansive than one would typically expect to encounter in Newark. It looks like the sort of neighborhood one would expect adjacent to a college campus. But a premier neighborhood shouldn’t have homes like this:Obviously vacant and neglected. The fact is, Doddtown is probably among the strongest and most stable neighborhoods in East Orange, but it apparently wasn’t enough to attract many prospective students to Upsala during the rapid decline of the 1970s.
Upsala’s campus essentially stretched across about 40 acres, bisected by Prospect Street.The east side of the campus has fared well. The East Orange School District purchased the property almost immediately after the college’s closure for $4 million, then used the buildings and grounds to host a relocated East Orange Campus High School. One of the most prominent buildings is visible from Prospect Street.Looks good. And it’s clearly identifiable under its new role.But that’s a mighty tall fence out front.The powerful wrought-iron gate clearly hints at the crime problems the surrounding area continued to face. Incidentally, it’s a much taller fence than the one at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp that I referenced a few weeks ago. Two decades after Upsala’s closure, crime remains a serious concern in East Orange.
But it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this school, with an enrollment of approximately 1,600 students (about the same as Upsala at its peak), has adapted so much of the campus for different academic purposes, most of it clearly branded through the tall fence.A more contemporary building nearby looks like 1960s-era construction, probably from Upsala’s final days as a successful, financially solvent enterprise. I suspect this might have been the student union.Either the School District demolished many of the other buildings from Upsala’s East Campus, or it retained what used to be the school’s athletic fields.Surprisingly, the back entrance, from Clinton Street, was completely open on a Sunday afternoon.The Ballard Gymnasium survives.The typical American public high school does not split its instructional efforts across multiple buildings, but this may help endow East Orange High School with a more college-prep physicality, creating a more manageable method of working with the large student body by splitting pedagogy into smaller structural units. (I’m really guessing here, because I can’t quite discern the advantage of this approach, other than it was available cheap real estate.) But it hasn’t necessarily spawned any revitalization in the surrounding neighborhood. Though some of the homes fronting the old east Upsala campus are in good repair, others are not, and still others appear completely abandoned. The homes in the photo below directly face the athletic fields that once belonged to Upsala’s grounds.
The portion of Upsala campus west of Prospect Street suffered a direr fate. After determining that its development plan would only involve the eastern campus, the School District sold the remaining western half of the campus to the City of East Orange for $1. Despite much effort marketing the property, it did not attract a buyer—at least not one that had the financials to pass all the tests through a two-year approval process. According to the bankruptcy court trustee, each month it cost $50,000 to maintain, secure and service utilities to the Upsala property. But after the School District bought the eastern half, it was difficult to justify even the reduced expenses for upkeep on the remaining western half of the campus. The City could not afford it. Before long, the buildings went neglected; they suffered vandalism and looting. One fell prey to arson. (Numerous online photo collections chronicle the west campus in an advanced state of blight.) Finally, a decade later, the Alpert and Alpert Development Group agreed to redevelop the site, demolishing the buildings and replacing it with The Woodlands at Upsala, a mix of single-family houses and townhomes.
Today, the western half of Upsala College looks like this:Notice the street sign.Upsala Court. Most of the new homes feature three or four bedrooms, and it appears that, ten years after the redevelopment announcement, the majority of the neighborhood is complete.The developers attempted to integrate the street grid with the surrounding area, so, despite the fact that the homes are obviously newer, the transition is reasonably subtle. Reasonably.The old Doddtown housing that faced the Upsala Campus offers a different streetscape, and the pedestrian connectivity isn’t always as consistent as it could be.And much of the time, the older housing is simply obvious because it’s in much poorer condition.
Considering the reputation that much of East Orange suffers these days, it may come as a bit of a surprise that The Woodlands at Upsala would offer market-rate housing. After all, the City has suffered decades of disinvestment. But the estimated asking price for single-family homes at the Upsala site is around $400,000—well above the national average for single-family detached housing, but only half the typical price for homes in the area. Less than two miles from Doddtown, affluence prevails, so a 2,000-square-foot home at $400K is quite a bargain.
Upsala College’s fate is hardly all that distinctive, and, in hindsight, it demonstrates the capacity for a non-profit institution’s persistent mismanagement to sew the seeds for its own demise. Plenty of schools have operated in declining neighborhoods and continued to thrive. Others, particularly the larger and most prestigious, have successfully galvanized a revitalization of their surrounding communities. Upsala lacked the resources to stimulate such a turnaround, and it seems to have wrung its hands over the costly prospect of a complete relocation. By adapting itself to East Orange’s decline, it declined in tandem. As is the case with Dana and Yankton, the most ardent alums will offer the best opportunity for extending Upsala’s legacy into the future. And, in hindsight, the school serves as an example of what not to do when faced with socioeconomic change at your front door.
Life after Upsala may serve as a lesson for future liberal arts colleges, which, I suspect, will face profound challenges in the decades ahead. The cohort born during the peak of the Great Recession (a time when the US birthrate was at an all-time low) will eventually reach college age, only to find that some schools couldn’t handle the dip in enrollment. Hopefully most colleges will anticipate this shift in demand and avoid the fate of Dana, Yankton or Upsala. Because, as Upsala proves, the odds of a single buyer finding a use for an entire college campus are slim. It is almost inevitable that subsequent transactions will subdivide the grounds, leaving some parts in a mothballed limbo that will eventually face the wrecking ball. Otherwise, the only prospect that might preserve the buildings is another institutional use. Or turn all the grassy areas into parking lots. We never can get enough parking.
Special acknowledgement to Chris Henry for pointing out to me the existence of the remaining buildings from the Upsala College campus.
55 thoughts on “Another defunct college campus, cleft in two.”
Have you ever done a write up about now-closed water park hotels? I saw a couple on my way to Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago and there’s one on Indy’s north side… They all kinda look alike. I wonder if there is any connection as to why so many opened and have since closed, or at least the water slides.
Good observation, Rebecca. And thanks for the comment! To be honest, I haven’t done one on that topic, mainly because it hasn’t occurred to me. And I didn’t realize that so many had closed (including the one on Michigan Road), but now that you mention it… I suspect it was a fad whose time has passed, especially considering that 1) public pools often now have good water parks and 2) the “really good ones” that are open only in the summer meet the demand, even if they cost more. The hotel water parks might not have gotten enough cold-weather visitors (could they even operate in winter?) to justify the expense, and all that aquatic infrastructure might have seemed like an albatross. If hotel A chooses to depart or closes, that extra baggage probably doesn’t help the resale value and may scare off hotel B, driving down the overall value of the building. If it’s a good location, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets demo’d for another, more “contemporary” hotel at the same site. But probably you know more about this than me! What are your thoughts?
I also wonder if there are more year-round water parks now that didn’t exist then. For instance, there’s a chain of indoor water parks called great wolf lodge https://www.greatwolf.com/ There’s also a pretty new outdoor/seasonal water park in Carmel, the Monon Center, but I’m not sure when it opened compared to when the water park on Michigan Road closed. I had the same questions you have, plus I wondered if someone was selling the idea of these indoor water parks to hotels as a novel idea if they all popped up around the same time, but even if they were popular at first, I imagine they weren’t getting enough business or maybe they were just too expensive to operate (insurance, heat in the winter, etc.).
I wasn’t familiar with Great Wolf. You might be right about market saturation on these sort of things, and that second-tier waterparks quickly fall out of favor because they don’t upgrade their facilities to meet the standard of the latest and greatest (which might easily just be 30 miles away). It’s amazing how many amusement parks have closed over the years, so why should water parks be any different? Didn’t Indy have a water park called Thunder Island that closed in the late 90s? I remember going there once. One other thing…I learned recently from a hotel manager that, even especially in the winter, many families “make a weekend of it” in mid-price hotels like Holiday Inn, bringing the kids to play in the indoor pool and watch movies and clown around…5 miles away from home. That was never something I did growing up, but I guess it’s popular. Probably explains why Holiday Inn typically has had a very pro-kid/pro-family image (which it seems to have tamped down on in more recent years).
I also went to thunder island once … I think the slides were still there for a long time after it closed. I also vaguely remember passing there after it closed and wondering what happened. Now that you mention it, my family did the hotel weekend a couple times when I was a kid. I remember staying downtown once or twice. I think we would are a play at IRT or a performance of the symphony but maybe we did just hang out at the pool.
I taught at Upsala for a couple years, my first job. I thought I knew all the questions to ask, when I accepted job in the spring of 1972. One I didn’t know to ask was about financial solvency. When I was, eh, terminated after two years, it was because department had to cut a body and I was it. Students were great, faciities not bad. Many teachers just kid of came and went on any given day. I loved doing public programming, just because i thought it was important. Even got Isaac Asimov there for a talk. (He charged $750, but we charged $2 admission, and made money.)
Thank you for sharing, Paula. It’s hard to imagine now that Upsala was probably financially faltering even back then, yet it still managed to linger an additional 20 years. No doubt it was just broadly assumed that these schools were financially solvent. Now we’re seeing some of the same penny-pinching with schools today, and while I’m sure it’s not always the case, it certainly seems that faculty bear the brunt of the cuts. Given current financial climate and the faltering public attitudes toward higher ed (combined with their astronomically rising costs), I expect we’ll see a lot more Upsala conditions in the next few years. It doesn’t help that the “baby busters” (children born during the Great Recession) will be approaching college age in the next couple years, meaning the pool of candidates will likely shrink for most of the schools.
They used to have real good football and basketball teams when they were in existence
Thanks Chris. From what I can tell, the old gymnasium where they used to play is one of the few buildings that survived.
And baseball teams. I was there from 1959-63. In 1961 Upsala won the Collegiate League- a league of seven teams and all but Upsala became a Division I school. In 1963 Upsala won the Northern Division of the Middle Atlantic Conference. Both titles were under Coach Walker. Later, when the baseball program was expanded in all the colleges, Upsala was a Division III baseball powerhouse under Coach Lyons.
Baseball player and 1962-63 Student Council President
Thanks for your memories, Dene. Always happy to see how this article has gained so much traction, and how it’s brought alums from various years back together in a way.
I played lacrosse there in early 80s when they just started the program. I must say for a start up we gave several established teams a run for their money with just enough kids to field a team. The good ole days for me.
I played there in the early 80″s as well with our first coach- John Hooper. Great guys and we did scare a number of D3 teams and actually became a D3 program for several years. Had a great pub on campus.
Hey Pat. I played on the lacrosse team there too in the early 80s. Good times indeed.
How were the men’s tennis teams from 65-69? I almost went there to play tennis for coach Lundgren.
By the Grace of God in 1977 I purchased a home on Westcott Street that was one block that ran out to Dodd Street.It was a beautiful area .About three to four blocks from Upsala College. My father the Late Elder John Avery Brevard born in 1902, told me he helped build buildings at Upsala College.
All For His Glory
Madam Johnsie R Brevard
If you haven’t been, you’d love exploring Ft. Sheridan in Chicago’s north shore suburbs. Unlike Upsala, where half was demolished and redeveloped and the other half mostly repurposed, Ft. Sheridan had its wonderful historic buildings renovated or remodeled, with new homes interspersed among them. The new construction is quite blah and inappropriate with big driveways and front-facing garages, but it’s a very interesting example of institutional redevelopment because the existing architectural bones are just so good.
I have been to Ft. Sheridan, Jeffrey. But many years ago. My undergrad was just a few miles to the south. It’s probably changed quite a bit since then; my last visit was only a handful of years after its closure and de-commission.
I didn’t really notice the “blah” new construction, but I wasn’t really attuned to that sort of thing back then. The whole image was striking to me, since I had never seen such a conversion before. I can’t help but wonder if the blah architecture might have had something to do with risk-averse developers at a time with BRAC-induced closures were still a novelty. Something tells me that the more recent repurposed bases have a more seamless integration, since, to a certain extent, they serve as a grandfathered new-wave Traditional Neighborhood Development. And, in some circles, that sort of thing is trendy.
Military bases are an institutional use that seems better suited to repurposing than most college campuses. After all, they largely feature single-family detached housing juxtaposed with buildings well-suited for multi-family. They usually have plenty of parking. And the fact that they encroach on the surrounding neighborhood much LESS than a typical college may be to their advantage, since the surrounding residents don’t feel they have as much at stake. Campuses are trickier. They seem far more likely to remain tethered to institutional uses–whereas bases can effectively get “de-institutionalized” through redevelopment and adaptive re-use.
On Long Island the state run psychiatric center in Central Islip was converted to NYIT and then abandoned. Maybe a use for these abandoned collages could be very large old age homes. A large medical complex that is mostly outpatient services could be another use.
I think you may be onto something with the old-age homes. In another decade we’re really going to see that “silver tsunami” with most, if not all, the Baby Boomers being Medicare beneficiaries. Granted, many of them will have incomes that allow them more appealing choices than converted classrooms. But maybe a smart developer will turn a campus into a large assisted living community, with various continuum-of-care support services. But the converted campus will have to be an appealing environment. Dana, Yankton and Upsala are not necessarily in environment that will appeal to many.
Assisted living communities have such specific and onerous building and fire code requirements that retrofitting an existing structure, even a hospital, could be an exercise requiring quite heroic design interventions. Not that it can’t be done, but while on the surface it looks easy, the reality is anything but. Even fully new construction is quite difficult to manage with different requirements for assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, ambulatory care, common areas, fitness rooms, rehab, you name it. Of course, if you have an existing building already made up of fire rated wall assemblies due to its construction type (concrete block and poured concrete floors instead of drywall and wood/steel framing) then maybe you gain some advantages, but woe be you if the corridors are 1″ too narrow.
You no doubt know better than I do, Jeffrey. It’s not like a developer can seek a variance on a building code, even if an adaptive re-use would be feasible if only the corridors were 1″ wider. Perhaps the need for adaptive re-use, and the escalating demand for various types of assisted living communities (coupled with the simultaneous declining demand for liberal arts colleges) will spawn some sort of widespread overhaul of building codes. But it won’t come without significant pain, and, of course, as you noted, the standards can vary greatly depending on the type of assisted living: memory care, ambulatory care, rehab, etc. And have we yet made a compelling case that we NEED adaptive re-use? Sure, we (the beknighted “we”) want it, but…is there a latent demand for it?
yes that was the student center:> lori, class of 79
is there any old signs of the memory of “upsala College” would love to learn and possibly visit.
I think this blog article covers the majority of it, Stephanie. The buildings that now comprise the high school are really what survive, but they don’t really reference their history as Upsala. The other half of the campus (west of Prospect Street) is gone, replaced by a contemporary residential development that uses “Upsala” and “College” in the street names.
Augustana College in Rockford, IL seems to serve as the primary curator of Upsala College’s old records.
Only online; there’s an alumni Facebook page. Lots of photos
Upsala had a wonderful little theatre and a great drama program. The theatre program ran a very popular playwrite series that produced quality plays that were both deply insightful and highly entertaining. Some of these went on to off-broadway runs. Loss of that little theater is among the saddest aspects of the closure if this college. It is programs like college theatre that create cross community experiences that enliven both the college and the community in which it “lives”.
I was not aware of the theatre program at Upsala. From what I’ve learned, the most lasting legacy of the college was its radio station (now WFMU and still highly regarded). It’s possible that the old Upsala College auditorium still survives as part of the high school campus, but the campus is gated and I was only able to stroll around the perimeter.
As one of the actors in a few of the Upsala theater productions I can attest to that.
Yes, and the then solely Upsala-affiliated radio station WFMU was fantastic.
Yes, the theater program was unique and appealing. Taking part in several of its productions was one of the high moments of life at Upsala.
Yes great theatre program, fantastic radio station, excellent pub, 16 miles from Manhattan. Shame Upsala was run into the ground by the lousy management. Class of ‘83.
From what I can tell, Pat, the strongest surviving legacy of Upsala is that radio station, which survives in spirit and name (WFMU), even if the original owner and creator is long defunct. I’m not in the area all that often these days, but it sounds similar to WNUR at Northwestern University, which generally serves the north side of Chicago and some of the near-north suburbs, and where I was a DJ many moons ago. WFMU might even be more acclaimed than WNUR.
We used to listen to a radio show on FMU for which the DJ would play “rrrreeeeaaaaallllll rock and roll” and he played the most obscure 60s type psychedelic rock from bands that never made it big but man it was good music. You could hear any and every type of music on that station 91.1 on the FM dial. We used to have it on 24/7 and you never knew what was going to be played next and when people asked what station we were listening to we’d “AFM” which among us meant “Any F%%ing Music.”
Sounds exactly like the sort of thing they’d go for at WNUR in Evanston–I might have the MP3s for a few of those now-forgotten 60s psychedelic bands.. You could actually get reprimanded if you played too much well-known content at WNUR. The whole point of a radio station like NUR and FMU is to give artists a chance who would never get airplay on commercial radio.
That would be Bill Kelly, Sundays 3 to 6 PM. He’s no longer on the schedule: he opted out of his slot after contracting COVID-19. He’s still going strong though.
In the mid 80s the NY Knicks would practice in the Upsala gym. The court floor was replaced when Patrick Ewing was a rookie. Just to the right of the modern building, which served as the student center and cafeteria , was Old Main. A vintage large Victorian style building that housed many of the student clubs and organizations. We ran the Upsala Gazette out of an attic office. It seems like East Orange has connected what were two separate class room buildings for the current campus.
On the west side of Prospect, all demolished, was the library and other large former homes similar to Old Main, used for administration. Then the dorms,which were demolished on an episode of Dirty Jobs, upper class townhouses, frat and sorority houses, pub and tennis courts.
I worked maintenance and mail room so I saw most of what were once grand buildings.
Thanks for your comments, Mark–you probably saw the best and worst of the campus as it deteriorated over the years. It seems like the buildings that got saved by the School District were based more on their convenient location, rather than having particular architectural significance. I guess that’s no surprise.
well eric, both puder hall and beck hall were preserved precisely because they fit the vision of the ‘campus theme’ – the red bricks, arches, and sadly, two 4 story structures. and your comments about the arrangement of the high school are simply erroneous. i taught at upsala from 1982 until it closed in 1995. then i taught at east orange campus high school from 1995 until i retired in 2016. my family moved to east orange in 1985 – 4 houses away from the campus. and we still live in the same house. i have some critical comments about your understanding of the reasons for many changes in newark, and then east orange, and subsequently upsala college. i have a significant list of differences with your understanding the important aspects of the high school. my simple question to you: given the time that has elapsed from when the story first appeared, do you have any interest in hearing my critical comments? if yes, i would be happy to present them.
While I’m certainly open to criticism, I based my entire visual understanding of the campus on a single visit, then followed up with the research. I’m not going to flog myself for not understanding the spatial particulars of a building as well as someone who taught there, and much of my recounting of the school’s final years and closure comes from exactly what I linked: a series of New York Times articles.
As for my understanding of urban decline, no two places are the exact same, but common trends make it reasonable to draw similarly reasonable conclusions. And I’m certainly fairly proficient in the sort of mid-century trends that prompted the decline of cities similar to Newark and East Orange.
You’re welcome to post whatever you like. The only time I remove posts is when they are spam or when they are repeatedly abusive to other commenters.
Editor-in-Chief of the Gazette here from 1968 to 1969.
Selected 3rd best small college newspaper in the country. We had fun.
Sure would like to see old issues if anyone kept them.
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Uppsala College had a successful run in Men’s tennis under legendary coach Charlie Lundgren. Played 83-85 and competed successfully against best top D3 teams year after year.
Knicks were there for practice daily when not in the road- coaches Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino were in the coffee shop regularly before practice.
Graduated in 1967. Worked at WFMU and had many friends at theatre. Mr. Faris was director until Chuck Please brought new life. Married one of his stars, Susan, and keep in touch. Noone mentioned frat life, all local ex APO. Mine was ETA DELTA and most guys were in north hall. ETA DELTA ran the concessions at football games and we loved to watch Ritchie Davis rack ’em up. Hard to understand why he missed a great career in the NFL – he was good! A really good small college overtaken by political correctness. A shame on the administration to lower standards to “keep alive”. Look at Seton Hall – also in a tough neighborhood but somehow they keep standards high!
Thanks for your observations, Ed. I think you raise a good point about how the administration felt compelled to “lower standards to ‘keep alive'”. Unfortunately, I think many, many other schools are now embracing the Upsala Solution when faced with enrollment declines, lowering standards to keep up their numbers, while dancing a fine line with ongoing threats of losing their accreditation…IOW, exactly what finally put the last nail in Upsala’s coffin. I hope this doesn’t foreshadow the closure of many other liberal arts colleges in the years ahead, but I think that’s exactly what is going to happen. It already is–most of the schools that have closed these last few years have been regional in scale and not widely known. But how much longer before a school like Drew University faces the same problems? And, after that, what’s to stop bigger schools like Seton Hall?
eric, re-read the nyt’s article that is embedded in your article – and president karten’s recitation of successes for lowering standards. my communications with the dean of the college – in the past 2 weeks – he made the following statements, and i paraphrase. “we devoted significant human resources to assist newly accepted students who needed to ‘catchup’ . our graduation rate of students within the educational opportunity fund EOF- was close to 80%. at rutgers new brunswick their percentages were about 20%. using the phrases ‘lower standards to keep alive’ elides the relatively successful efforts to accept students that did not fit the basic metrics of certain sat and act scores. from president karsten, the retention rate of our students in special groupings was close to 90%. that figure is the the article that you reference. enrollment was growing, and yearly revenues from tuition, etc., were growing. the main reasons for loss of accreditation were: number 1 – the yearly costs versus yearly revenues was not sustainable – including outstanding debt levels – the college was out of money: and number 2, there was little interest by the power elites, especially at the state level, of salvaging a college in a ‘black town’, with lots of black students, bordering newark. we were on our way back. i agree with president karsten when he says that upsala was beginning to use all dimensions of ‘diversity’ to save the college. oh well –
That’s an interesting take, and not in contradiction with my recollection of the research I did in capturing the school’s reinvention in its final years. It was a bold effort, and, as I recall, optimism was abundant from the mostly sympathetic media coverage just 2-3 years prior to closing (around 1992). I’d agree that the enrollment numbers were lurching back upward; I didn’t know the retention rate was as high as you stated, but I’m glad to hear it.
There may very well be examples of private schools getting financially rescued by the state, but I’m not aware of them, and I’ve covered a few (Dana College in Nebraska, Yankton College in South Dakota). In recent years we have at least two schools that have managed to avoid such a demise: Sweet Briar in rural Virginia (largely rescued by campaigns through its alums) and St. Joseph’s College in northern Indiana (I believe to be the same, though it was defunct for a few years; someday I’ll cover it with photos from when it was vacant). Both of these schools still appear to be in precarious condition, but it’s a testament to a commitment of their alums that they’ve been able to resuscitate them through largely organic development campaigns.
These two schools had an advantage that Upsala lacked: the perception that the surrounding community was generally safe. My own experience in East Orange was just fine and I could tell the Upsala area was generally very nice, but perception can be more lethal than a reality, much the way a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth puts on its socks. And the apprehension of alums to attempt to save their school could as easily be attributable to a sense that East Orange itself was likely to get worse before it got better, or that (as I noted in my article) many alums were deeply frustrated to see a diminution of academic standards, racial prejudice notwithstanding. Keep in mind that Dana College and Yankton College were in small cities with no major crime perceptions, but their alums failed to rescue them. Dana College, I believe, was pursuing a similar trajectory to Upsala, seeking to stave off declining enrollment through a reinvention that targeted first-generation and historically under-represented communities. Its academic standards, never as high as Upsala’s, diminished. It closed in 2010. And supporters have attempted to invigorate academic visions on the Dana campus, but none have come into fruition, and the many surviving buildings are aging quickly due to neglect and repeated vandalism.
Given the record-low birth rates in this country right now (among other things), exacerbated the last few years but quite low since the Great Recession, American higher ed is facing a crisis of declining enrollment that will grow exponentially in about 4-5 years when the unusually small cohort born during 2007-09 begins to matriculate. A shrinking public perception that it is worth the skyrocketing price tag doesn’t help. Hundreds of small liberal arts colleges are skirting insolvency issues that Dana faced. Some of them enjoy international repute (i.e., part of the Oberlin Group). The debt-to-equity ratios for many of these schools are based on demographic models from the mid 2000s that leave them highly leveraged, since they went on spending sprees before 2010 to compete with elite and plush facilities. Many do not have nine-figure endowments. As enrollment declines, many of them have no choice but to modify their standards, so it will be interesting to see if the can retain numbers amidst demographic challenges that weren’t present in the early 1990s or late 2000s. And, if they cannot keep accreditation because of the combination of financial problems and significantly reduced academic performance of lower-caliber students, will their alums rally behind them like Sweet Briar and St. Joseph’s? Hope springs eternal, I guess. I don’t want to see dozens of abandoned campuses, but–and I recognize this as a generalization–higher ed overall has made adaptive decisions (administratively and pedagogically) that cannot help but explain the reduced public demand.
I was born and raised in Orange-East Orange almost on the corner of Park St./Park Ave. The line between the two cities ran across my back yard. I lived 4 blocks from Upsala. I biked around the campus and area as a young kid. It was a very safe area back in 1952-65. We had everything(Main St. had a large business district) 6 blocks from my house. Seton Hall was 5 miles away. A bus ran on Park Ave. (east / west) to Newark. Newark was about 15 miles from Times Square in NY City. The Newark riots came in 1968. My family lasted till 1978. Many great memories and many bitter ones also.
I know the area well. My friend Greg Wright, who loved tennis, lived on Park St between Park Ave and Washington. In 1968 I went to 8th grade at the East Orange Intermediate School, a huge old mansion on the corner of Park Ave and Washington. I think the East Orange school system owns it again now. The bus we took to get to downtown Newark was the #2 Ampere which ran down Springdale, but I forget the exact route. Downtown East Orange was either Main St or Central Ave; both had very nice stores. Main St had Muirs (burned, redeveloped into something ugly) and also Best & Co. which was very hoity toity. It’s now an empty lot which seems to be quite common in East Orange these days. There was even a magic store on South Harrison right off Main. And of course, the big National, Newark and Essex bank building across the street from the Brick Church. Before anyone ever thought about the Short Hills mall, all the New York 5th Ave stores had branches on Central Ave. East Orange was a well-off bedroom community for NYC.
The newer building closest to Prospect St was Pudet Hall, the science building.
Upsala was a wonderful college.
I graduated in 1970. The campus and surrounding area were beautiful. I walked everywhere and never felt unsafe at that time. It’s heartbreaking to see what happened to that little campus.
I graduated in 1962 and still feel so sad about what happened to my college home.
I grew up on the Upsala campus as my dad taught there from 1959 until his retirement. We lived on Franklin St., directly behind the library. Across the street from us lived first Ted Fleck (Registrar) and then later Dean Peter Scudder (this was an Upsala owned house). Two houses down lived Don McKee and his large family. There are actually five Upsala buildings to survive on the west side of Prospect: Viking gym, the Agnes Wahlstrom student center, Beck Hall, Puder Hall, and the house on the opposite side of Edgerton Terrace from Puder which was once Admissions. There were two other Upsala houses extending from there towards Springdale; the one on the corner was the home of WFMU (later moved to the basement of Froeberg after dining services moved to Wahlstrom center). Upsala also owned a former church (now a church again) at the corner of Prospect and Norman St which held the Art department. On the east side of campus, Upsala owned three houses that were a bit off-campus: two of them near the corner of Springdale and Glenwood which held the Art department (again; they moved around a lot), and Development (aka Advancement), the fund raisers. The third was at 27 Franklin St where Fleck and Scudder lived. The only thing remaining of the main campus on the east side is the curb cut on Springdale that once opened to the Bernadotte gate entrance to the campus. Before the library was built it lived in the white administration building next to the chapel which later held the Treasurer’s office. Once the library was built the big front lawn became the site of commencement (graduation). Before Puder Hall was built in 1968 the sciences lived in Old Main, the mansion between Puder and Beck. You could see the World Trade Towers across the river going up in Manhattan from the hill where Old Main was. The small theater, Workshop 90, was the former carriage house for Old Main. It has been destroyed, along with a row of maintenance sheds and utility buildings that extended from the both sides of the gym. Before the Wahlstrom center was built there was a house holding the English department (English House) and several WWII-style barracks buildings that held Geology. There was a big house at the end of Fernwood Drive, next to North Hall, that belonged to Upsala. The Faris family lived there but it was torn down in the early 1960s for no reason I know. The scenes in the episode of Dirty Jobs that showed Upsala being torn apart for salvage were: between the student service building and Nelsenius (dorm), then in the Music/Art house next to Bernadotte gate (in my dad’s old office!), then in the top floor of Kenbrook ripping out a toilet, and finally tearing off a piece of the front of Bremer (dorm). You can see an aerial photo of the campus from 1960 at http://upsala65.com/upsala/index.html
Thanks, Dave, for your thorough account of the Upsala College campus, pre and post-closure. You have an eye for detail that I really appreciate, and it definitely lines up with my memories of visiting the campus about six years ago. I’d be happy to include a reference to the website you attached, or would at least be willing to reach out to the caretaker of the site if you had his info. Please let me know.
The upsala65.com website belonged to a former student, Bill Taebel, who has since died. I have no idea who owns it or runs it now; it appears to have been suspended in time. There used to be an upsala.org and upsala.com website but both have gone to Internet heaven. Also, I made a mistake in my original post when I said that only the curb cut remained on the east side of Prospect – I meant to say west side. Back then we didn’t think about an east and west side – it was just the campus, with Prospect running through it The spisode of DIrty Jobs with Upsala is called “Coal Miner”.