For now, officials at Dana are blaming its demise on the North Central Association, an accreditation outfit that schools depend on for the green light for government and government-backed loans and grants for students. The accreditors apparently failed to okay the plans of an outfit that had set out to acquire Dana to develop a residential campus cum online offerings.
But here the accreditors have become just the whipping boy blamed at the last minute for what cannot but be a long line of failures that led to the critical moment at which it was sell or die for Dana.
First, like so many of the once-vibrant "sectarian" colleges, Dana came to offer what amounted to a hotch-potch of majors, with no central controlling narrative and a great deal of confusion between vocation and vocationalism. This is a story told time and again in the Lutheran higher educational institutions of the erstwhile Synodical Conference, as well. The survival of the institution, and not what it stands for or once stood for, becomes the brass ring, and this trips a downward spiral in which central mission fares in inverse proportion to the number and variety of courses of study. The idea, of course, is to become a player in the universe of regional competitors (in Dana's case, UNO, UNL, SDSU, etc.). The net effect, however, is to lose the raison d'être. The initial constituency, Danish Lutherans in Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota, no longer finds a reason to support the institution financially, morally, or by attendance. The Danish Lutherans haven't gone away; their college has left them.
Location, too, may have been a factor, but I rather doubt it. Blair, a town of nearly 8,000, is only 38 miles from Omaha, a nearly ideal setting: far enough removed not to be too expensive and for students to occupy the necessary "space apart" from distractions, but close enough to benefit from the many cultural offerings of a larger city.
Finally, however, it's not difficult to understand how the theological erosion that has occurred in the ELCA since its inception 1988 is a factor in the demise of Dana. The mainline churches in the States have become increasingly difficult to distinguish from the increasingly banal culture they inhabit and from which they take their spiritual and moral cues (in the pursuit of relevance?). Of course, like so many of the once Lutheran colleges in the States, Dana from its inception lacked the vim and vigor of a UAC commitment and, like so many Scandinavian Lutheran groups, any real appreciation for the precising of the Augustana that occurred in the Formula. As a result, because confessional subscription and the Confession itself was up for grabs, it could not but help fail to become merely window dressing, an understood, if unwritten, writ of divorce between the intellectual project and the spiritual project, leading to what Robert Benne has called a sort of "pietism," in which the Christian element of the institution is expressed through acts of piety, not through a vigorous integration of faith and learning.
Once a Lutheran college starts down this road, it has two choices, it seems to me. (1) Pursue the secularizing agenda with a vengeance and so try to catasterize oneself in the constellation of the Top-50 or Top-100 liberal arts colleges. Places like St. Olaf College have managed this quite well. (2) Continue on a path of mediocrity in all respects (in curriculum, admissions and graduation standards, and church relations), attempting to compete with regional "multi-versities" but without success and ultimately shuttering the campus. Dana's road is the one more travelled, and there's a lesson to be learned here.
And oh, by the way, apparently there's a campus for sale.