Former MacMurray College, Jacksonville, Illinois

The picturesque church looks like you’re standing in the middle of a Colonial era commons, and Red Coats could march into the middle of the swath of greensward any moment.

But in reality, you’re looking at the Annie Merner Chapel, at the former MacMurray college, which closed back in May of 2020. It had opened as an all-girls school in 1846. Like many of those colleges, it experienced the upheaval of the 1960s and tried to adapt. Some have survived, some are on extremely shaky ground, some have already gone out of business (I remember when living in Washington, DC, the landscape being scattered with closed girls’ finishing schools that were gobbled up by traditional four-year universities) and some that are probably going to close soon.

A great article from the Detroit Free-Press sums up how MacMurray College failed–though I don’t think it emphasized the difficulties that former all-girl colleges have faced since the 1960s–and how its neighbor, Illinois College across the town of Jacksonville has thrived.

It is a beautiful campus, now divided up by the auctioneer in an auction in what I feel like is a shocking low amount (though as my realtor patiently explained to me, real estate is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it), with the organ going for more money than some of the buildings. Colonial Revival buildings are still popular, and I suppose that Jacksonville, which is overall a healthy town that has long been a part of the popular imagination of Illinois and still the center of education with one Illinois College and several other institutions left, as well as industry and a prison, has a stable economy.

This looks like a building straight out of Colonial Williamsburg, which if I remember correctly, is based off the Governor’s Palace. Though I guess that place isn’t doing so well nowadays, either. I suppose my standard answer in these situations is that surely at least one or two of these buildings would make great senior housing.

The closure of small, expensive universities such as MacMurray raises interesting questions, particularly of issues that I have been considering lately, particularly the concept of critical mass, and how to truly be sustainable, you have to have a certain amount of something to survive economically.

Things become prohibitively expensive when you have less of them, and the more you have of something, they become less expensive. A huge university can lower costs because it just can. It’s Economics 101.

Small universities can try and keep up–note the typical mid Twentieth Century residence halls built below to deal with the influx of Baby Boomers.

And the Brutalist athletic facility. But ultimately, you need money at a critical mass to be able to afford to fix things up and keep yourself up with the latest trends. If it’s too expensive because you’re too small, you can’t keep your little boat above water, and you’re forced out of business.

Only days after my visit to MacMurray College, another small private institution in nearby Lincoln, Illinois, Lincoln College announced its closure at the end of the spring 2022 semester.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. W. White says:

    All-female colleges and HBCUs are similar. After integration efforts of the 1950s and 60s, those institutions began to be seen as superfluous in comparison with the institutions their student bodies integrated into. The irony is that the leaders of all-female colleges and HBCUs often lead the movement for integration, not realizing that they were largely putting themselves out of business, as white men had no interest in attending institutions that were often inferior and lacked many of the rigorous courses (engineering, mathematics, pre-med, etc.) that would provide them the educational foundation for successful careers. Too many of those schools (and some smaller, male liberal arts colleges) focus on the soft sciences and humanities. Such an education had its benefits when that education was based on how those subjects were traditionally taught, which instilled critical thinking and a thorough knowledge of facts and ideas. Those skills could be applied outside of the humanities and academia, as someone who knows how to think is useful in all manner of fields. But, the emphasis on Postmodernism, Deconstructivism (neither of those just confined to architecture), and other educational fads popular in parts of academia have replaced teaching students the ability to think with teaching them what to think. That is much less useful in the real world, outside of academia, making those degrees worth less then they formerly were and making those who earned those degrees less likely to be able to pay off the debt they incurred getting them. Although this problem affects all colleges and universities, it affects smaller liberal arts colleges more acutely.

    1. cnaffziger says:

      I agree with many of your points.

  2. Steve Thompson says:

    The importance of developing a critical mass for sustainability, as expressed in this post, is crucial to success of colleges and universities. Small private liberal arts colleges often have been built built with the support of benefactors. James MacMurray gave substantially to the college in the 1920s and 1930s, and the college was re-named in his honor in 1930 from Illinois Women’s College to MacMurray College.
    With substantial increases in the cost of obtaining a bachelors degree, the small private liberal arts college must seek most of its support from alumni. Those colleges fortunate to have enough who are positioned to give to building funds, scholarships, and the general endowment will continue their educational mission.
    While public educational institutions including community colleges and public universities rely on alumni support too, infrastructure improvements can be financed with publicly supported bond initiatives. However, public institutions are not immune from financial challenges. This is so because public funding makes up an ever smaller share of incoming revenue. Thus, tuition and fees are continually on the rise. This shifting of financial responsibility to the student is changing the dynamics of achieving critical mass for public educational institutions too.

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