Virtual Voices

N.Y. Journal: Urban campus challenge

Education

At Nyack College in New York City, they were praying for a miracle. In an overflow room, students and other attendees watched on camera the proceedings from two floors below. They raised their hands and said, "Amen!" as professors came forward to read Psalms and lead the group in prayer for what they called the "Miracle in Manhattan"---namely, $70 million to $100 million for 160,000 square feet to call their own.

The college's story highlights the challenges of a private, urban college---or any Christian organization with an urban calling. A.B. Simpson, a leader in the American missionary movement, formed Nyack's precursor in 1882 in the city. In the words of college president Michael Scales, Simpson chose New York because "here the world came to him." It met in the back of a Broadway stage and then bounced from place to place until it settled 20 miles out of town in Nyack, New York. But the college never lost its mission to go back to the city so it returned in the 1990s with a campus in Manhattan.

Nyack has about 1,300 students at its Manhattan campus and it hopes to double that number along with its square footage. Just to give some perspective to the challenges of a private urban college, contrast that with my little alma mater, Hillsdale College, a private liberal arts school in south-central Michigan. Hillsdale has about the same number of students but is close to completing a $608 million fundraising campaign that will include $17.3 million to build a 42,000-square-foot chapel and performance hall and $3.1 million to add about 10,800 square feet onto the library. That's about $378 per square foot to build, whereas it will cost Nyack about $625 per square foot just to buy.

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There are practical obstacles, along with cultural ones. At Hillsdale, the college swallows up the surrounding culture, sustaining the jobs and the rural town with its business. College students barely interact with the lower-income "townies" around them, unless it's to chat with the housekeepers who clean the dorm or to go out into the community to do charity work. It's easy to become cocooned in the big ivory clock tower that is Hillsdale's focal point. But in an urban setting, it will be the other way around: The city can swallow up the college and the college will have to fight for its identity---and in a city of 8 million people, fight to be noticed at all. One set of challenges is not better than the other, but the urban college faces a whole new set of practical ones and others that shape its mission and purpose.

Meanwhile, Barbara Pierce, Nyack's re-enrollment specialist, fired up the crowd in the room with a rousing call: "It will happen! It will happen! I'm looking for a miracle. I expect the impossible. It's a battle cry for those of you who know what it's like to be against a wall." They responded with "Amen" and stood to their feet with her as she prayed: "Right now move around this room. . . . Remove all doubt. . . . Remove all uncertainty."

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