Mesa is negotiating with Benedictine University to open a branch campus downtown, giving the Illinois-based private Catholic institution a foothold in the West.
The city and the university announced Wednesday a vision for an urban campus with on-site student housing that will enroll 1,500 students within a decade.
Benedictine is one of nearly 20 universities the city has been in talks with since last year as Mesa tries to expand its higher education offerings. Benedictine is the first college to announce a possible new campus in Mesa, which could open in fall 2013.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said the city still is in talks with another two or three other colleges that are on par with Benedictine.
“Benedictine was certainly near the top of our list since day one because of their background, their history,” Smith said. “This is not a fly-by-night operation. This is exactly the kind of university and higher education opportunity we were looking for.”
Based in suburban Chicago, Benedictine was founded in 1887 and has 43 sites in Illinois. Its programs include criminal justice, psychology and business. It also offers programs in Vietnam and China. Its enrollment totals about 7,100.
Benedictine Executive Vice President Charles Gregory said he expects to recruit students from high schools, community colleges, its sites in Illinois and from across the West. The main campus in Lisle, Ill., reflects the university is open to more than Catholics, Gregory said.
“It looks like the United Nations,” Gregory said. “You see all different kinds of kids, adults. It’s a very welcoming campus and it’s deliberately made that way.”
Gregory said he believes Benedictine’s Mesa campus will be the first Catholic college in Arizona.
Mesa’s City Council will meet Monday to approve a period of exclusive negotiations with the university. Mesa is offering a 15-year lease on a 68,500-square foot city-owned building at 225 E. Main St. That’s the site of the former Tri-City Community Center.
Benedictine wants the Mesa campus to become a lively part of downtown and to help surrounding businesses.
The negotiations will determine lease rates as well as who pays to remodel the 68,500-square-foot building. City Manager Chris Brady said the city doesn’t expect the project will grow to the scale where it will need voter-approved bonds to fund the campus. Phoenix won voter approval for a $233 million bond package in 2006 to begin the downtown Arizona State University campus, which Brady said is far larger than what Mesa envisions. But if Mesa attracted several colleges that proposed significant campuses, Brady said it’s possible the city would turn to voters.
The university will likely offer programs in business, criminal justice and psychology at first. It will start small with classes for juniors and seniors while administrators study what other programs are in demand in Arizona, Gregory said. Part of that will involve talking with various employers to learn what kind of skills they’re looking for in employees.
Gregory emphasized the university will need approval from the Catholic Diocese, the North Central Association of the Higher Learning Commission and a license from the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education to operate in Arizona.
Mesa mailed invitations to 1,000 colleges in 2011 to seek proposals for branch campuses as part of an economic development push. The city wants to boost the number of residents with college degrees while matching those degrees with skills that high-tech employers want.
The city focused on nonprofit universities because of the large number of for-profit colleges that are here already. Smith said community colleges and Arizona State University are good options but that a metro region like this demands a wider rang of universities.
“The more opportunities you can present to kids at an early age, the more they start talking about taking advantage of these opportunities,” Smith said.
The city is seeking colleges with specialized programs that don’t compete head-on with what existing colleges offer, Smith said.
Mesa is in talks with two or three other colleges, which are looking downtown or at privately-owned properties around Fiesta Mall.
Before the Benedictine deal was in the works, Mesa approached the diocese about the concept of a Catholic college and found support, Councilman Alex Finter said. While Mesa was founded by Mormons and its identity is still tied in many ways to that faith, Finter estimated the city has at least twice as many Catholics as Mormons.
Finter expects the Benedictine announcement will bolster the city’s standing as a place for universities to establish branch locations.
“I think that’s going to send a really clear message that this is a successful process and we’re looking at every opportunity to expand this effort,” Finter said.
Forbes magazine named Benedictine among the top 20 percent of colleges in the U.S. in 2011 and The Chronicle of Higher Education ranks the university the seventh fastest-growing institution in the nation.
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