Like many who work in higher education, I love university traditions--the rituals, events, and stories that carry on and bind together each generation of students. Those traditions engender devotion to our institutions on the part of our alumni and make us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.
But as much we love our traditions, they carry a risk. They can render us slow to adapt to change. Sometimes colleges allow tradition to tie them to outdated practices that no longer match the institution’s mission or the external environment. We need courage and wisdom to discern when it is time to hold on and when it is time to let go.
That’s the choice Robert Morris University (Pa.) confronted when we decided to put up for sale the classroom building we had owned in downtown Pittsburgh since 1959. Three years later the university had purchased property for a residential campus in suburban Moon Township, 18 miles from downtown, but the city remained a focal point of the school for many more years.
Downtown Pittsburgh had been the home of Robert Morris since its founding in 1921, and many of our alumni completed their degrees as commuter students at the downtown campus. Nonetheless, RMU’s center of gravity eventually shifted to its residential campus. Downtown enrollment had declined steadily since the early 1980s. In 2001, RMU stopped offering most undergraduate programs at that location, and at the time of the sale in 2010, we used only about one-third of that building.
Meanwhile, we’re experiencing tremendous growth in Moon Township. We welcomed 900 new freshmen this fall--breaking last year’s record of 720. We have a record number of residential students, and we’re building a new apartment-style residence hall to ease a housing crunch. Along with this hall, a new facility for our School of Business will open next fall. With the Pittsburgh building in sore need of renovations and upgrades, we realized the resources necessary to maintain it would be better spent at our Moon Township campus.
This decision entailed numerous challenges. Although the building was underutilized, it housed several important programs. Undergraduate media arts classes take place there, mostly for freshman and sophomores, and while plans are underway to build them a facility at our main campus, we don’t currently have room for those classes in Moon. Pittsburgh is also home to graduate business programs and other programs aimed at nontraditional students, and we needed a suitable, convenient location for them.
Last but not least, we needed to find a buyer, no small feat in a crowded commercial real estate market and during an economic downturn. That’s why it was relatively easy to decide to sell the building to Duquesne University, ostensibly our competitor. We knew Duquesne would make good use of the building and be a good downtown neighbor. This was important to RMU as a longtime denizen of the city’s business district, with continued interest in its vitality.
Duquesne respected our need for an orderly transition. Under the sales agreement, our Media Arts program will continue to use its space in the building through the end of 2011-12 while we build the program’s new facility in Moon. The Pittsburgh Center’s other programs will be taught there through the end of the current academic year, when we’ll move those programs to our Moon campus. We have also added eight wholly online degree programs catering to working adults, and we’re exploring offering courses via videoconferencing in the future.
In terms of publicity, the sale could not have happened at a better time. Only a few weeks earlier, nearly every local media outlet reported on our record enrollment, and we had launched a much-publicized advertising campaign. We coordinated our communications regarding the sale with Duquesne, so that each institution’s messages were properly conveyed. Since then, RMU has received a $5 million gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, including $3 million for the business school building. That gift has cemented that we are a growing institution.
We were, of course, concerned with how the decision would be greeted by our alumni, since many have fond memories of their time in the building. So far, the reaction has been positive. They seem to understand we were selling a building, and not their memories. The university they love is alive and well, and will always welcome them home.
Gregory G. Dell’Omo has been president of Robert Morris University since 2005.