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Turnover at the Top

August 7, 2009

Two months after ITT Educational Services, Inc. bought Daniel Webster College and transformed it into a for-profit institution, the company has abruptly fired at least two of the school's top administrators. A woman who answered the phone in the president's office said that Robert E. Myers, Daniel Webster's president since 2005, and Michael J. Quinn, vice president for institutional advancement, no longer work at the liberal arts institution in Nashua, N.H.

A local newspaper, The Telegraph, reported that Myers was fired Wednesday. It also reported that 23 staff members were laid off last week and that a total of 60 employees are expected to lose their jobs.

ITT Educational Services, Inc. announced in May that it would buy the debt-laden 1,200-student college, known for its aviation program. The sale was finalized in June.

When the acquisition was announced, Myers, who had been president for nearly four years, told The Telegraph that he was optimistic about the sale of the college, which was saddled with $23 million of debt. He said that the sale would allow the campus to improve and expand its offerings, including hiring more faculty.

Glenn Tanner, chief marketing officer of ITT Educational Services, declined to comment on the situation Thursday. "For obvious legal reasons, we can't comment on any personnel issues," he said.

Nadine Dowling, director of the Woburn, Mass., campus of ITT Tech, has been named interim president of Daniel Webster. In a letter dated Thursday and posted on the college's Web site, she does not mention the administrative turnover in a short list of items in a "busy summer" at Daniel Webster.

The list focuses on the renovations of the library and residential halls, and adds: "In addition to facility improvements, several offices within the college have been reorganized to provide better services. Additional improvements will be coming. Some offices may have moved to create 'one-stop shopping' and greater convenience for you, and you can continue to count on getting the same personalized attention you have always received."

Dowling did not return calls for comment.

Myers arrived at Daniel Webster in 2005 from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide, a learning network of teaching and learning centers for working professionals.

Current and former students say they have been kept in the dark regarding the changes. Lee Zerrilla, who graduated with a degree in information systems in 2006, said the administration has been doing a "terrible job communicating with alumni" about the recent departures, which he called "a sad situation no matter how you look at it."

The creator of a Facebook group titled "I went to Daniel Webster before it sold out," Zerrilla said that he and other students fear that ITT's reputation will cause the value of their degrees to diminish. "Many of us joke about converting our degrees into 'TV/DVD Repair,' " he said. "(Daniel Webster) was a little bit rough around the edges and we knew the economic sector of the college was not good, but at same time it was home and fit well for us. Seeing all this really takes it all away -- I'm worried that it's going to dilute the brand name."

Jeff LaPointe, a 2003 graduate, echoed Zerrilla's frustrations in an e-mail: "Myself and other alumni are now paying off 30-120K in student loans for degrees that now anyone with an internet connection can buy, we're kind of pissed."

The layoffs at Daniel Webster reflect the worst-case scenario for those at struggling nonprofit institutions that are acquired by for-profit companies -- a story that is becoming increasingly common in higher education.

But in this case, as in many such transactions, the nonprofit colleges being taken over are in poor economic shape to begin with, and it's not always clear whether severe actions like those unfolding at Daniel Webster reflect an increasingly bottom-line mentality, poor previous management, or some combination of the two.

 

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