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At 100, a Bay Area University Makes a Major Pandemic-Era Pivot. Will It Pay Off?

Beth Martin: When the sisters first arrived in 1923 in Belmont, Belmont wasn’t Belmont. It wasn’t incorporated until three years later. And so I see the hundred years as an increasingly large tapestry and the sisters and the educational institutions that they founded — not only a university, but also a high school and an elementary school — have really become inseparable parts of the community and have helped the community itself grow. I believe that their presence in the area has really also heightened the value of education, and over the years now, the university has managed to place so many teachers, so many therapists, and so many business people in our community and in Silicon Valley.

The university has lately been undergoing some pretty big changes. Tell us a little more about this shift and the impacts you’ve seen so far.

It was a major pivot. In addition to our graduate programs, we’re expanding our degree-completion programs, serving the post-traditional student, the adult student who has families [and] jobs. There are approximately 70 million people in the United States who have many units towards a bachelor’s degree but have never completed [it]. The mission of the sisters has always been to reach underserved populations. As you can imagine, when you’re a traditional residential facility, there are lots of people you can’t reach.

Tens of millions of people who have unfinished bachelor degrees — that’s a really huge number and strikes me as a real opening for a place like yours.

We see it that way. And we also see that our graduate programs are in high demand. We have clinical psychology that’s been in high demand for many years. And you know that the need right now is extreme. We have wonderful teaching programs. The teaching shortage is very high, especially in California.

The pivot is still a big change. Did it result in pretty big cuts?

We’re about 40% of the size that we were because we have a 45-acre campus with 25 major buildings that were primarily geared toward traditional undergraduate students living on campus. And now we don’t need a footprint that large. So there were quite a few cuts and then we had to build back.

One of the other big changes is the sale of Notre Dame de Namur’s campus to Stanford. Can you just talk a little bit more about that and what prompted it?

In 2020, the board of trustees were trying to figure out the best move forward. At one point, they said, In addition to our pivot, we really need to monetize the value of our campus. So they made the momentous decision to sell the property. They were hoping that it would [be maintained] as an academic site, so they were delighted to find that Stanford had an interest in purchasing it. The agreement is actually an option to purchase. So Stanford has the exclusive option to purchase our campus, but they have until June 2025 to exercise that option.

A person with long gray hair smiles at the camera.
Notre Dame de Namur University President Beth Martin. (Courtesy of Notre Dame de Namur University)

Does the exclusive option to purchase mean any immediate influx of money that might actually be much needed for your campus?

That’s an interesting question, and you probably can imagine we have signed many NDAs. The agreement itself is very private.

Fair enough. I had to ask. And once the sale is finished, what happens next? Does the university have to find a new physical home?

In our agreement, Stanford has given us a lease-back option. They would be happy for us to stay a considerable amount of time. Even though we’re probably at least three years out from leaving, we’re already starting to make plans. We would love to stay — and plan to stay — in the community very close by because we’ve been a member of the community for so long.

One consideration is that as we get more sophisticated technologically. We’re in the process now of setting up a center for excellence in teaching and learning with instructional designers to increasingly put programs online. So we’re thinking maybe a small newer building that is super high-tech. But we don’t have to be in any hurry to leave the campus.

Given how higher education has struggled for years now and the pandemic dealt a big blow to universities, do you think Notre Dame de Namur can survive another 100 years?

That’s our plan. And I’ll tell you, it’s interesting, because you probably remember for the last several decades, people have been saying lifelong learning is important. But now it’s very clear that lifelong learning is not only important, it’s necessary. People have switched careers three, four or five times. So people are continually having to relearn skills that didn’t exist five years ago.

On our orientation day, I talked to a woman in her sixties who’s coming back to get her degree in clinical psychology. She’s had another career for 40 years. We’re seeing more of those folks. I think we’re going to be a little bit ahead of the game in being able to serve that demand.

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