To Shannon Winegardner, Cascade College in Portland, Ore., is a little piece of heaven — an oasis of Christian faith and learning in one of the most unchurched cities in America.
The 22-year-old senior from Richland, Wash., knows most of the 280 students and 45 full-time faculty and staff members by name.
“We have our own community here,” she said, “and we’re all a part of the community.”
But that community suffered a devastating blow on a recent Monday: News that Cascade — a branch campus of Oklahoma Christian University — will close at the end of the spring 2009 semester.
Cascade canceled 1 p.m. classes and called a mandatory meeting for students, where President Bill Goad disclosed that financial problems and other concerns had prompted the closing. Ninety minutes earlier, Goad had broken the same news to faculty and staff members.
“It was like a death,” Winegardner said of how students reacted. “People are just really sad.”
For leaders of Churches of Christ in the Pacific Northwest, the decision brought similar disappointment.
“The loss of Cascade College is a huge blow to our ability to train and retain Christian talent in this area,” said Gary Tabor, an elder at the Olympia, Wash., church.
But Tabor, a Cascade board member, voiced appreciation for Oklahoma Christian’s 15-year effort to keep Christian higher education alive in the Northwest.
Cascade opened as a satellite campus of Oklahoma Christian in 1994 after financial issues forced Columbia Christian College — founded in 1956 — to close in 1993.
“I believe that many positive and lingering effects from Cascade’s legacy will continue to bless churches in the Pacific Northwest,” Tabor said.
Leaders of other colleges associated with Churches of Christ voiced sympathy and regret at Cascade’s closing.
“To lose this institution is a sorrowful calamity to the Pacific Northwest,” said Kevin Vance, president of Western Christian College in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Dennis Jones, president of Heritage Christian University in Florence, Ala., said: “Our hearts go out to Cascade’s students, employees and supporters. While God can turn this closing into a blessing, these will be difficult days for many good people.”
DIFFICULT DECISION FOR BOARD
Don Millican, chairman of Oklahoma Christian’s board, said the parent university was “unable to find a viable financial or academic model that would sustain and allow Cascade to flourish.” He called the decision “one of the most difficult” ever made by the board.
Cascade draws about 83 percent of its students from Oregon, Washington state and northern California. Church of Christ households account for 44 percent of students, down from 70 percent five years ago.
Oklahoma Christian President Mike O’Neal voiced sadness at Cascade’s closing but said he agreed with the decision.
Over 15 years, Cascade’s operating expenses exceeded its revenue by $4 million, officials said. Oklahoma Christian also invested thousands of administrative staff hours and many other resources into Cascade over 15 years, O’Neal said.
“The current economic crisis was not a significant factor in the decision, but it obviously did not help,” O’Neal said.
Kerry Barnes, chairman of Cascade’s board, expressed his thanks for Oklahoma Christian’s investment. “OC has done much more than they agreed to do 15 years ago and much more than anyone would reasonably expect,” Barnes said.
Amid financial difficulty, Columbia Christian had lost its accreditation in 1991. As a result, it could not offer federal financial aid programs. When enrollment decreased, officials decided Columbia Christian could not operate.
In 1992, Oklahoma Christian had started a “distance learning program” at then-Ohio Valley College in Parkersburg, W.Va., an effort that helped sustain that sister Christian college.
The decision to create Cascade represented a second venture by Oklahoma Christian to meet needs far from the Bible Belt.
And as recently as two years ago, the effort seemed to be succeeding. In 2006, Goad was named president of Cascade after serving as its chief officer for three years. About the same time, the college celebrated a $2.5 million gift from donors. But the financial problems associated with operating the small Christian college apparently never subsided.
In an online response to “frequently asked questions” about the decision to close, Cascade officials said it represented “the culmination of a multiyear process of trying to identify a sustainable financial model.”
As for why the public was not made aware of the struggle to recruit sufficient numbers of students and raise needed dollars, Cascade’s statement said: “History tells us that you can’t build a successful organization by continually telling everyone that you are failing.”
‘A HAND-TO-MOUTH EXISTENCE’
Cascade is far from the only small college associated with Churches of Christ to struggle.
The same year Columbia Christian shut down, financially strapped Northeastern Christian Junior College closed its Villanova, Pa., campus and merged with Ohio Valley.
In recent times, Ohio Valley University, York College in Nebraska and Rochester College in Michigan — among others — all have dealt with financial concerns.
“The closing of Cascade should be a wake-up call for everyone who promotes Christian higher education,” Ohio Valley President James Johnson said.
Wayne Baker is president of York College, which was forced to trim $1 million from its operating budget last year.
“To maintain financial viability of a small Christian college is a challenge beyond understanding of folks who have not tried to accomplish it daily,” Baker said.
As Rubel Shelly, president of Rochester College, put it, “In the best of times and under normal circumstances, small Christian colleges live a hand-to-mouth existence.”
That challenge becomes more difficult in a state such as Michigan, which has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Shelly said.
“Plant closings, job loss, foreclosures, personal bankruptcies — Michigan leads the pack,” he said. “So everything from student recruitment to institutional borrowing to gift solicitation has become more challenging.”
FOR NOW, NO PLANS TO SELL CAMPUS
Cascade’s 12-acre campus was appraised at $8.7 million about 2½ years ago, according to Goad. However, he said there is no immediate plan to sell the facilities. For now, Cascade will keep renting space to Columbia Christian School, a K-12 school, and others needing classroom or dormitory space.
However, if a liquidation of assets occurs at some point, Oklahoma Christian will use all the money — minus paying off Cascade’s operating debt and other obligations — to create a scholarship fund, officials said. The fund would allow Pacific Northwest students access to faith-based institutions.
For Cascade students willing to travel 1,500 miles to continue their education, Oklahoma Christian will offer $3,000-a-year scholarships — in addition to any financial aid they were already receiving.
“I know a number of students have decided to band together and go down to OC,” Goad said.
FIGHT FOR CASCADE
Although she will graduate in the spring, Winegardner started a Fight for Cascade group on Facebook, an online social networking site. Hundreds of Cascade supporters joined the group.
But as the situation has become more real to her, Winegardner said, she has come to view the fight as more of a prayer for a miracle than an endeavor with a realistic chance for success.
“For me, just seeing the impact that the closing will have on the churches … is what makes me most sad,” she said. “I also know that God has a plan. I have faith that he knows what he’s doing.”
Like many, Amanda Evans, a 2005 Cascade graduate who attends the East County church in Gresham, Ore., grieves the demise of her alma mater.
Her late grandfather, Orville Evans, and her father, Dennis Evans, both served on Cascade’s board. Her parents, aunts and uncles attended Columbia Christian. She met her best friends at Cascade.
“I was able to explore my faith and grow in my relationship with Christ more than any other time in my life while attending Cascade,” said Amanda Evans, who referred to Cascade in a blog post as “that Northwest corner of heaven.”
For Goad, the challenge is to help Cascade finish strong, he said.
He said he will work to make sure all students and employees “land in a good place for the next chapter of their lives.”
Since the announcement, Goad said, he senses that school spirit is at an “all-time high.” Just days after the unwelcome news, hundreds gathered to cheer on the Cascade soccer team in a playoff game.
A 15-year reunion for all past and present students, faculty and staff members is planned the weekend of the final graduation ceremonies in early May.
“If this is our last year, we’re going to go out with a bang,” said Kyle Hutchinson, vice president of the student government association.