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PIECE BY PIECE, COLLEGE IS SOLD TO HIGHEST BIDDERS

Tears welled in Bridgid Burns' eyes as she watched reminders of her college career - her adviser's chair, the mascot costume, a church pew - go to the highest bidders.

News that Nazareth College would close because of falling enrollment and dwindling financial support came 18 months ago. But for many faculty members and students, some of whom graduated just last month, the most painful part was watching as pieces of their college were hauled away by strangers at an auction."I'm not usually emotional," said Burns, 23, of Grand Rapids. "But this is heartbreaking."

The 68-year-old Roman Catholic liberal arts college announced in March 1991 it could not afford to stay open past this August. Enrollment had fallen by half from a peak of about 1,200 in the 1980s. The school relied on its $8,300-per-student tuition for 85 percent of its operating budget.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 1,300 crammed Nazareth's former banquet room Thursday as an auctioneer, his sleeves rolled up, stood before an ornate, wood-carved fireplace and rattled off bids.

Desk chairs sold for as little as $1. A slate pool table went for $400. Pews from the college chapel fetched $40 apiece.

The intimate, grassy campus, with its four tan brick buildings connected by underground tunnels, also is for sale.

Albert Caniff, who taught art at Nazareth for five years, was bidding on a kiln and some pottery wheels - and saying goodbye.

"This place has always been like a sanctuary - a pure environment for learning," said Caniff, who has found a job at West Shore Community College near Ludington.

He wiped his brow as he watched globes, blackboards and desks sold in a matter of seconds in the stifling room.

"They seem like vultures," he said. Then he laughed. "Where were all these people when we needed them?"

Even the costume of the college's brown, furry mascot - a mole, because of the tunnels - was sold. A businessman whose mother graduated from Nazareth in 1954 bought it for $60.

The auction's proceeds had not been disclosed as of Friday.

Many bidders came from small colleges and school districts. Others were just looking for bargain-basement prices on furniture and appliances.

Nazareth, a four-year college, was established as an all-women's nursing school in 1924 by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In 1966, control was transferred to a board of trustees, but the Sisters still live in a building on campus and had several members on the board. The school began admitting men in 1971.

Small endowments and rising costs jeopardize the future of many other small, private colleges, said Russell Garth, vice president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

"Most of the approximately 600 smaller liberal arts colleges around the country are strong," he said. "But many don't have huge endowments and can't make it through the hard times."

Of the 615 students at Nazareth when its closing was announced, 325 decided to stay to the end. Nearly every faculty member chose to stay, too.