Saint Leo University expands its footprint, buying California school

The acquisition of Marymount California University gives Saint Leo a presence in five states, but faculty members question the cost.
Marymount California University, newly acquired by Saint Leo University, is located in Los Angeles County. Under the merger, it will be renamed Catholic Benedictine.
Marymount California University, newly acquired by Saint Leo University, is located in Los Angeles County. Under the merger, it will be renamed Catholic Benedictine. [ Courtesy of Saint Leo University ]
Published July 30, 2021

In a move to expand its reach, Saint Leo University announced Thursday that it has merged with Marymount California University.

Saint Leo president Jeffery Senese said in an interview that the university, based in Pasco County, would take control of Marymount’s buildings and property, valued at $60 million. The school is located in Rancho Palos Verde, a coastal city in Los Angeles County. As part of the deal, Saint Leo will take on about $3.7 million of Marymount’s debt. Other details of the transaction were confidential.

“It’s a good deal,” Senese said.

He said that when he arrived at Saint Leo, which currently has 16 campuses across five states, the school conducted a study of major cities to see where its next location should be. Los Angeles topped the list, Senese said, for a diverse population with large numbers of veterans and Catholics. Marymount’s teaching-focused culture also made it a good fit, he said.

“We are about twice the size of Notre Dame,” he said. “This gets us into a visibility level that Notre Dame has in terms of really having a strong Tampa Bay presence. We’re in four other states other than Florida and now the West Coast.”

Valerie Wright, who was president of Saint Leo’s faculty union before the university’s board of trustees voted to no longer recognize it last year, said the move came as a surprise to many faculty already facing low morale from dwindling budgets.

Related: RELATED: Saint Leo University draws challenge after sidestepping faculty union

At the onset of the pandemic, Saint Leo closed 17 of its more than 30 campuses due to dwindling enrollment and financial concerns. Wright said faculty members haven’t seen pay raises recently and are facing budget freezes on travel and for basic supplies, like buying folders.

“Of course, faculty at Saint Leo support the university,” she said. “We want it to be successful. … It is kind of confusing: How can we have frozen budgets, no travel, no raise and yet they’ve acquired a university?”

While many schools have faced financial setbacks during the pandemic, Senese said he expects Saint Leo to recover quickly, enrolling the largest class in its history this fall. He said the decision to merge with Marymount California University allows the campus to grow in scale, something he said is necessary for the school to retain its financial footing, provide competitive raises for faculty and keep facilities and equipment up to date.

“Part of the problem with Catholic higher ed in particular, there’s 230 Catholic institutions across the country and their average size is about 1,200 students,” Senese said. “They can’t compete in the marketing world that is required in higher ed.”

He added: “Higher ed, when it comes down to it, is a business. It’s tough to compete when you’re really small and local.”

The newly acquired California campus will now become Catholic Benedictine, and Saint Leo will seek approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.