After 85 years, Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee is closing in May

President Dan Scholz calls closure 'devastating' but unavoidable in 'no-win' situation

Cardinal Stritch Sign
After more than 85 years, Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University will close at the end of its spring semester in May. President Dan Scholz said the news is devastating for students, employees and the community but declining enrollment and “fiscal realities” left no alternative. Evan Casey/WPR

After more than 85 years, Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee will close at the end of the spring semester next month. Students, administrators and alumni are now grieving for the university which has helped shape southeastern Wisconsin and beyond.

In a somber video message posted Monday, Cardinal Stritch President Dan Scholz shared the “profoundly sad” news that the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi accepted a recommendation from the university’s board of trustees to close the campus in May.

Scholz said the decision wasn’t reached lightly. After examining alternatives, he said it was necessary.

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“I wish there was a different path we could pursue,” Scholz said. “However, the fiscal realities, downward enrollment trends, the pandemic, the need for more resources and the mounting operational and facility challenges presented a no-win situation.”

In the end, Scholz said, “it was determined that we could no longer continue to provide the high quality education experiences our students rightly deserve.”

Sophomore Riley Enders followed in her sister’s footsteps and attended Cardinal Stritch for its theater and business programs. She called it her dream school.

“It’s definitely a shock because I was real close to graduating from here and only had a year and a half left,” Enders said.

The private university was not only a dream school for Enders, it also represents her home and livelihood. She’s living in one of the campus dormitories and has worked in the theater department’s costume and set design shop.

“It’s just sad to see a school that’s had so much of an impact on so many people’s lives just fall apart, and it’s definitely going to be sad to see some teachers and friends who’ve grown up here have to find new places and relocate themselves,” Enders said.

Cardinal Stritch University, like nearly all other colleges and universities in Wisconsin, has seen enrollment decline in recent years. During the 2019-2020 school year, there were 2,345 students at the school. In Fall 2021, there were 1,365.

The university has become known for its diversity, with a quarter of its student body identifying as Black and Hispanic. Among 2021 graduates, 21 percent majored in nursing, around 10 percent majored in business administration and management.

Scholz said the university’s focus is now on helping students, faculty and staff as they look for new schools and employment this summer. That includes finalizing partnerships with other colleges and universities in southeastern Wisconsin to accommodate student transfers and continuing employee assistance programs for workers.

Joaquin Altoro graduated from Cardinal Stritch Unviersity in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in business management. In 2019, he was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to lead the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Two years later, Altoro was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the USDA’s Rural Housing Service. He told WPR the news of the university’s closure was emotional as he recalled spending years as a nontraditional student working toward a bachelor’s degree in business management.

“That program was absolutely perfect for me with the flexible class options,” Altoro said. “The other thing that I appreciated was that professors, they also were real world industry professionals. And so you could imagine being in a classroom knowing that you had somebody that lived and breathed it, which was really important.”

Equally important, Altoro said, was the university’s focus on the Christian faith. He said even for students who weren’t religious, students were tested to think “purposefully about the differences of people in place.” Altoro also applauded the university’s efforts to boost the diversity of the student body and said other colleges and universities in the state can learn from.

“It has a direct impact on one’s ability to acquire jobs, of higher income, to acquire influence, to acquire wealth,” Altoro said. “I mean, just so many things are tied to higher education and that has a direct impact on all of the disparities and racial disparities that we can discuss that happen in the state of Wisconsin.”

Menomonee Falls Fire Chief, Gerard Washington, said receiving his graduate degree in management from Cardinal Stritch in 2015 “took me to a whole other level.”

Washington served as a firefighter in Milwaukee for 28 years and worked his way up to assistant chief before retiring and going back to school. He did his research and heard from others that the school was a nurturing and inclusive environment — key points for Washington.

“Once I was enrolled and became a part of a cohort, the classes, the instructors, the environment, it was like nothing I had experienced,” Washington said. “It was very engaging. It took me to the next level, especially when it came to critical analysis and just making those contacts and just getting outside of the fire service and seeing and understanding about business.”

One of the biggest takeaways, Washington said, was when an instructor told him to have a personal “board of directors” to bounce ideas off of. He said he still relies on them to this day.

Washington said the announcement that his beloved school, which opened in 1937, will close its doors is shocking.

“You know, being in the fire service and resolving crises for people, the first thing I want to do is say, ‘OK, how can I help you? What can I do?’” Washington said.