Note: This entry has been updated to reflect the 2018 announcement that the entire campus was to be shut down.
Benedictine University at Springfield, which began as Springfield Junior College in 1929, abruptly announced the closure of its undergraduate programs in October 2014. The school followed up in 2018 with plans to move its remaining programs elsewhere in Springfield and entirely shut down the 90-year-old college campus.
Benedictine’s two-step rollback also raised questions about the future of the campus, which had been greatly expanded after the school’s takeover by Lisle-based Benedictine University a decade earlier.
The 2014 announcement threw into disarray the college plans of more than 500 undergraduates and resulted in layoffs of three-quarters of the school’s faculty.
Springfield Junior College was founded by the Ursuline order of Catholic nuns on North Fifth Street, next to Ursuline Academy, then a high school for girls only, and just south across Eastman Avenue from St. Joseph Elementary School, also operated by the Ursulines. (Both Ursuline and St. Joseph have since closed.) Although a Catholic institution, Springfield Junior College and its successors have always been open to non-Catholics.
In 1929, higher education had “long been an urgent necessity in this city,” in the words of Bishop James A. Griffin, who helped the Ursulines establish the new two-year college. Classes were to be small, and they were to encourage “the prime factor in all education worthy of the name: close contact between student and instructor.”
The school — which immediately became known as “JC” — opened its doors on Sept. 9, 1929, only weeks before the stock market crashed.
SJC’s first classes were held in the George Brinkerhoff mansion — known as “the Castle” — in the 1500 block of North Fifth Street. The Brinkerhoff home later served as student housing and administrative office space. (Portions of the house were maintained as a historic site by a separate non-profit group, the Brinkerhoff Home Foundation, starting in the 1970s. However, Benedictine took over the entire building for office use in 2012.) The main classroom building, Dawson Hall, was built in 1930 and named for college benefactors Mr. and Mrs. C.A. Dawson in 1977.
During the Great Depression, a flourishing night school included pre-professional courses in addition to the basics. SJC also offered an aviation training program during the ’30s. Springfield Junior College was certified as a V-1 Naval Reserve training site during World War II, and $134,000 was raised for an ambulance plane called the “Mother of Mercy.”
With no local competition for students seeking a general education beyond high school, enrollment grew to a peak of more than 600 following World War II. The campus also expanded, with completion of the Ira A. Weaver Science Building in 1961 and the Charles E. Becker Library in 1966.
On Oct. 19, 1962, President John F. Kennedy drove along Fifth Street past the school on his way to a rally at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. “Hi, Sisters,” he called out to the nuns from the car carrying him. Later, on the way back to town, Kennedy stopped his caravan and thanked students for the warm welcome.
The school changed names, to Springfield College in Illinois, effective Aug. 1, 1968, partly a reflection of a corresponding change in governance. A lay board of trustees had been created in 1957, and in 1964 Mother Mary Borgia Fehlig was named the college’s first independent president. Robert T. Curran became the first layman president in 1987.
SCI’s enrollment, however, suffered after the opening in the 1970s of Lincoln Land Community College, a public, less expensive junior college, and what was then Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois Springfield).
SCI responded to enrollment challenges with additional curricula, like radiology and computer science, and expansion of existing ones, such as nursing and adult education. The Village student housing complex was built in the early 1970s and the Dockson Plaza housing units 20 years later. Athletics, which had been dropped, returned to SCI in 1991 with men’s soccer and in 1992 with women’s tennis.
However, the number of SCI students continued to fall until 2003, when the college entered a partnership with Benedictine, a 3,000-student Catholic institution based in west suburban Chicago. The agreement allowed SCI to begin offering a limited number of four-year degrees and stabilized enrollment.
As the relationship evolved, SCI merged with Benedictine in 2009, establishing Benedictine University at Springfield as a four-year institution with a full range of academic programs. The school reported enrollment of 893 at the start of the 2014-15 school year, prior to the announcement that the campus was abandoning undergraduate education.
Sources: History: Growth in Every Direction, article on SJC/SCI history by Peter Ellertsen (2003), in archive.today; Springfield newspaper files; Benedictine University.
Hat tip: To commenter Robert Best, who noted our error in the date of the name change from Springfield Junior College to Springfield College in Illinois. The date has been corrected above.
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