Aquinas VP outlines ambitious long-range plans

With Welch deal in works, college looks to add programs, housing; Italy campus a possibility

Last week, Aquinas College officials announced plans to purchase the Welch College campus property located in the historic Richland-West End neighborhood.

The acquisition and transition for the two institutions of higher education will take 18 months, including 12 months during which both colleges will occupy the Welch campus property while Welch builds the first phase of its new campus in Gallatin. In June 2014, Aquinas will renovate and occupy four buildings on the campus, and will occupy the total campus in August 2015. (Read more here.)

Until that time, much work is needed, according to Andrew Shafer, Aquinas vice president for advancement. Nashville Post Managing Editor William Williams recently caught up with Shafer (pictured) to get his take on various issues related to the effort. 

How long had this announcement been in the making?

This announcement and the planned acquisition of the Welch campus is a result of a conversation that began in early 2013.

What have been and will be the major hurdles?

Many hurdles have still yet to be overcome but up to this point we have paid extremely close attention to the need for historic preservations of the campus, the need to follow zoning guidelines as set forth by the city, and the simple fact of laying to rest incorrect rumors about plans that may have surfaced.

Was there hesitation among some members of the Aquinas family about this ambitious transaction? If so, what concerned them?

The entire campus community has been very supportive of this expansion effort. Of course, our students want to be assured that their day-to-day student life will not be negatively impacted in any way. We believe that this will be quite the contrary and that the new campus will enhance the student life experience exponentially and allow us to expand our academic offerings.

Aquinas will maintain two campuses. Will there be a “main campus” per se?

Both campuses will be in full use and the exact assignments for each are yet to be determined. We believe, initially, that the nursing and health sciences programs will remain on the Dominican Campus while the liberal arts, business and education programs will be focused on the Welch Campus.

On this theme, from which campus will the highest-ranking Aquinas officials work?

Administrative offices will be housed on both campuses. But at this time, specifics on where the president's office is going to be are not yet determined.

Welch College has on-campus residential buildings and Aquinas does not. How does on-campus living figure into your future plans?

Residential life is an area of growth opportunity for Aquinas and a big driver for this expansion effort. We began our residential housing program in the fall of 2012 and in the fall of 2013 the number of residents tripled. They are currently living at Seton Lodge on the adjacent [to the Aquinas campus] Saint Thomas Hospital West campus. The Welch Campus can accommodate up to 280 beds at this time, and we do hope to maximize this space.

So does this mean you will eventually no longer use Seton Lodge for housing?

At this time, we plan to continue to use Seton Lodge.

Currently, Aquinas has an enrollment of about 575 students, bachelor’s degree programs in four schools and master’s degree programs in two schools. What are your target numbers in, say, five years?

In five years, we hope to be at a capacity of about 800 students on both campuses. From there, we of course hope to continue to grow both our enrollment and program offerings. As the college expands, the property on the Dominican Campus will allow room for additional building and growth in the future.

Is this a chance to start some new academic programs that would not have been possible on the Harding Pike campus solely.

Our new strategic plan will be published in January 2014, and it includes the addition of several new academic programs at the graduate and undergraduate level. The opportunity to house these new offerings at the new campus will be a great benefit to our students.

Can you name the programs?

The programs will be in the health sciences.

Other than accommodating growth — and owning prime West End Avenue land that will continue to gain value — what are the reasons for this purchase?

Aquinas College's shift from a commuter to a residential campus two years ago has allowed us to draw from a national population and has made a positive impact on the college community. The added residential space and important amenities for our students is key, and the proximity of the Welch property to our existing campus allows us to keep the school community intact and to allow for flexibility in scheduling. This growth is actually only one part of a two-part plan for campus expansion. The second campus that we are also planning to acquire is in Bracciano, Italy, about 25 miles north of Rome. This will allow Aquinas to offer first-rate study abroad opportunities for students while exposing them to a liberal arts core in Rome.

A campus near Rome? Will that be pricey real estate?

I can’t disclose too much, but I can say the property has been run by the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, which are a French Dominican community. The Bracciano campus was an orphanage starting in 1961 but has been unused for about 10 years.

Could this property acquisition and eventual enrollment increase be a precursor to Aquinas eventually jumpstarting its long-dormant athletics program?

The athletic program was an important part of Aquinas College for many years. With time, we hope to bring athletics back to Aquinas, because it is such an important part of student life.

There are some folks in the Richland-West End district who will be disappointed the Welch campus will remain used for academic purposes. Some were hoping that eventually Welch would be replaced with residential construction. Your thoughts?

We respect the opinion of the neighbors and have been in close conversations with leaders from the Richland-West End Neighborhood Association. In fact, we most recently met with them, along with leaders from Welch College, on [Oct. 15]. We want to assure these residents that the historical integrity and nature of the campus will be maintained, that all zoning requirements will be followed and that traffic patterns are not to be interrupted.

After you acquire the Welch campus, will you rehab, demolish, retrofit or construct any buildings on the site?

There are no proposed plans for construction or demolition, but most of the campus will receive some level of facelift and rehabilitation.

Could Aquinas sell a portion of its current 83-acre site? For example, the southern third of the campus — much of which fronts Harding Pike — has no buildings and could be sold for a prime price to fund growth. Thoughts?

We do not have plans to sell any of this property at this time.

Any other thoughts?

Aquinas is very excited about this opportunity for growth.  The Dominican Sisters and have lived and worked in this neighborhood for the last 90 years, and the culture of Aquinas is based on the four pillars of Dominican education, which are prayer, study, community and service. The 800-year-old Dominican mission is to live our faith in the world in an integrated, intelligent, joyful way. The fruits of this is seen in our students, faculty and staff.  We are looking forward to a long-standing relationship with our new neighbors as we grow to become a renowned institution of higher education.