DePauw’s Big Mess On Campus

Every morning when I arrive to teach English at DePauw University, I am struck by how peaceful and promising our campus looks. Construction crews solder giant beams for a new $23 million dorm. Students lug backpacks past bubbly fountains and majestic East College, the visual centerpiece of this 182-year-old Methodist school that seems to have it all—an ethics center, a nature park, a campus farm, an indoor tennis-and-track facility, and a gleaming Center for Diversity and Inclusion with shag pillows and a barber shop. Condé Nast Traveler named DePauw one of the 50 most beautiful campuses in America, and it’s easy to see why.

But just beneath the surface, things are less sublime. The school U.S. News & World Report ranks as Indiana’s premier liberal arts college has endured a year that rocked the place to its foundation and toppled its president. The story encompasses culture, demographics, and leadership, but begins and ends with money.

For years, DePauw ran at a deficit, drawing from its flush $730 million endowment to meet the gap, but last year trustees got serious about balancing its books. Meager 1 percent raises were followed by a mid-year switch to a cheaper healthcare plan. Morale plummeted. Frustrated by what some perceived as President Mark McCoy’s lack of communication, transparency, and vision, the faculty passed a no-confidence vote. Then the real shocker: In a “restructuring,” DePauw laid off 56 full- and part-time administrators and staff, and offered a voluntary buyout to more than 100 tenured faculty, some as young as 50. Administrators jumped ship, including the academic vice president and the dean of faculty. Come spring, the admissions department announced more bad news. The incoming class was 200 students short of its usual 630 target, creating a $5.4 million tuition shortfall. Within weeks, McCoy resigned.

“It was a tough year,” says Gary Lemon, who has taught management and economics at DePauw for 44 years. “A perfect storm.”

DePauw’s struggles are personal for me. I came to Greencastle in 1999 as part of the hiring spree the college is now trying to remedy. My husband is also a tenured professor here. We raised our children in Greencastle. Some former students are now parents and have careers that have surpassed my own. Within weeks of my arrival, DePauw received what was then the biggest donation ever made to a liberal arts college, $128 million from the estate of Philip Holton and Ruth Clark, who made a fortune from cardboard boxes. On opening day, faculty was asked to jot down ideas for how best to spend the new largesse. DePauw was on a roll.

So what happened? That, like the solution, depends on whom you ask.

The first thing any administrator will tell you is DePauw is not alone. Liberal arts colleges, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are struggling for a variety of reasons, including rising tuitions, a declining number of high school graduates, and Americans’ growing anxiety over jobs. More than a dozen small colleges have closed in the last four years, representing about a 7 percent drop in the total number of schools. Here in Indiana, Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer shut its doors in 2017. The next year, the president of Earlham College, Alan Price, resigned. A few months later, the school slashed its annual budget by 12 percent.

“Misery loves company,” Bob Leonard, DePauw’s vice president for finance and administration, told faculty on opening day. “Nearly all the Great Lakes Colleges Association schools experienced declines in first-year student enrollments this year.”

At DePauw, a few numbers explain the financial woes. While the school’s tuition, plus room and board, is $64,000 a year, the average student pays only a fraction of that sum, a figure known as the discount rate. And over the years, the college has deferred maintenance on older buildings and borrowed to build new ones. Meanwhile, more than half of DePauw’s faculty members are full professors, experienced but expensive.

Enter Mark McCoy, an imposing, serious man, the son of a coal miner, an accomplished musician. (He debuted as a conductor at Carnegie Hall in 2005.) When he came to DePauw as Dean of the School of Music, he wowed trustees with a “21st Century Musician Initiative,” opening a venue downtown where cellist Yo-Yo Ma cut the ribbon. As president, though, McCoy seemed to build few faculty allies. Several key hires collapsed, including his handpicked successor for music dean, whom he removed within a year. (She later sued the university.) His Friday emails touting campus accomplishments and thanking everyone “for all you do for DePauw” did little to gin up goodwill.

“The job is impossible. You have alumni, students, the board of trustees, faculty. We all have the right answers, and we can’t agree on anything. So what are you going to do?”

McCoy’s big idea was The Gold Commitment, a pledge that all grads will be either employed or in graduate school within six months of receiving their degrees or they can return for a tuition-free semester or be placed in an entry-level position for at least six months. A golden safety net! But some faculty members dismissed The Commitment as a marketing gimmick that diverted attention from DePauw’s core academic mission and turned students into box-checkers who attended cultural events only to fulfill The Commitment requirements.

Lemon, the economist, is one of those critics. He points out that a six-month post isn’t much of an incentive. “What are you committing to?” he says. “It’s nothing. Last year was the first year of The Commitment. How many students did we bring in? 430.”

But Lemon also understands the challenges McCoy faced. “The job is impossible,” he says. “You have alumni, students, the board of trustees, faculty. We all have the right answers, and we can’t agree on anything. So what are you going to do?”

McCoy stands by the restructuring, though he concedes he could have been a better communicator. “My proudest accomplishment is that I was willing to stand up and make really hard decisions that were in the best interest of this institution,” he says of the layoffs and buyouts. “People could have chosen to whistle past the graveyard, but I am just not that kind of person. Everyone wants to be liked, but that’s not what leadership is about. There is nothing in my contract that says anything about a popularity contest.”

At his last job, they named a hall after him. His DePauw presidency lasted just four years. “You can’t be a change agent and survive,” he says.

Dave Berque is one of the administrators now dealing with all that change. The soft-spoken computer scientist stepped in as interim vice president of academic affairs after the previous AVP left for another college. It’s his job to keep the faculty’s morale high and focus sharp in this year of transition. Berque wears a carpal tunnel brace from writing several hundred emails a day. Polite emails. Careful emails. He rises at 4:30 a.m. When he makes the case for colleges of liberal arts and sciences—he stresses that word—Berque quotes Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Or as Berque puts it: “You have to have a little faith.”

Or do the math. Even before The Commitment, 97 percent of DePauw students launched careers or went to graduate school immediately following graduation. DePauw ranks 8th in the nation for Fulbright winners and 7th in study abroad. Chinonye Chukwu, a 2007 alum, became the first African-American woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and Ben Solomon won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting five years after graduation.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Sharon Crary, Biochemist”]“I don’t care what their political views are, but I do care that they can back them up. I don’t care what job they have, but I want them to love that job and find meaning in it. Those are things we do well here.”[/pullquote]Still, parents want a guaranteed return on investment, McCoy says. They’d like the name of the job in the degree. Accounting equals accountant. Pharmacy equals pharmacist. English literature …

Andrea Sununu can connect those dots. The English literature professor bangs out a list for me of what her former students are doing: doctor, veterinarian, lawyer, teacher, college professor, writer, editor, actor, new media artist, librarian, fund raiser, publicist, software development engineer, speech therapist.

In other words, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree. Instead of mastering rote facts or skills, students learn to question, to read and write, to study, to analyze and hypothesize, to be humble and brave, to dream and imagine—forever—a good thing since experts say many of the next generation’s jobs haven’t even been created yet. Though I went to an Ivy League university, I would have been better served at a small liberal arts college. I never spoke to my professors. If I had an adviser, I don’t remember her name.

“We are trying to create thoughtful students who live with intention,” says biochemist Sharon Crary. “I don’t care what their political views are, but I do care that they can back them up. I don’t care what job they have, but I want them to love that job and find meaning in it. Those are things we do well here.”

But DePauw has never found a great way to talk about what it does well, despite hiring marketing firms to hone its message. What the school needs, sociology professor David Newman says, is a well-defined niche. “DePauw has to commit to something—not to The Commitment—but to following a path to a particular established identity where it can say, ‘This is who we are and what we have to offer,’” he says.

Newman uses phrases such as “It breaks my heart” when he speaks about his home for three decades. He predicts it will take years for DePauw to rebuild its reputation and get back on track. Newman took the buyout. Half of his department is leaving. “The whole soul of the university is being sucked out,” he says. “[The downsizing] seems so tragically shortsighted to me.” This year, Newman publishes his sixth book: A Culture of Second Chances: The Promise, Practice, and Price of Starting Over in Everyday Life.” He laughs about the parallels with DePauw. “Apt. Isn’t it?”

At DePauw, that second chance has already started. This fall, the board of trustees appointed trustee Justin Christian, CEO of Indianapolis consulting firm BCforward, to chair the search committee that will find DePauw’s 21st president with help of search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. In a meeting, Christian told faculty and staff what he’s looking for, a wish list that rivals the Bankses’ nanny ad in Mary Poppins.

“Our community wants a president who is an academic innovator, a relationship builder, a collaborative team player with high cultural competencies, a skillful communicator, a strategic fundraiser, a crisis manager, and an operational visionary.” Christian looked up and grinned. “That’s a lot.”

DePauw will lose a quarter of its tenured faculty in the next few years through buyouts and retirement—incurring vast savings. Those who remain will have to work harder. Meanwhile, admissions is focused on 30 high schools around Indy and Chicago, DePauw’s former base. They’re asking professors to stop tour groups and chat.

“Students have a short memory,” Bobby Andrews, vice president for enrollment management, told the faculty. “We have an opportunity to turn the page on this pretty quickly.”

Everyone has different ideas for the Great Recovery. Lemon wants to hire a heavyweight interim president—an alum of stature like Vernon Jordan, Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart, or former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton—a “healer-in-chief” who would give DePauw an immediate sense of mission and credibility. Then, begin a slow, careful search for a new president. Berque thinks liberal arts colleges should band together with a national campaign like “Got Milk.” He sends me an article packed with ideas written by the Indianapolis educational firm RHB: become a smaller college. Wait for other schools to die and grab their castoffs.

“Our community wants a president who is an academic innovator, a relationship builder, a collaborative team player with high cultural competencies, a skillful communicator, a strategic fundraiser, a crisis manager, and an operational visionary. That’s a lot.”

Accept weaker students. Develop a niche. Cut tuition. Beef up enrollment. Tweak marketing. Offer online classes and continuing ed to seniors.

I have a few suggestions. Provide students more entertainment than a beer bong. Build a presence in Indy. Help students of diverse backgrounds feel central to DePauw’s culture. Pay student tour guides top dollar to be sure they are top shelf. But most of all, this small school with big ideas needs to do what English professors do best: tell a story.

Joe Heithaus, one of those English professors, agrees. Shortly before dropping off his daughter at a rival institution for her sophomore year, he commiserated with Berque in an email that Berque later read aloud to the faculty as a rallying cry. “I’m on my way to Denison University,” Heithaus wrote. “We’re better than them. We will find a way to let the world know that.”

On a hot afternoon in August, the incoming class of 2023 paraded into the Green Center for the Performing Arts through a gauntlet of applauding faculty, a tradition marking their official arrival. Students were nervous as they entered the atrium packed with professors in black regalia. It was like an academic version of Noah’s ark. Athletes. Intellectuals. Goofballs. Farm hands. A trans kid or two. A woman in a burqa. Ripped jeans. Purple hair. Tattoos. Sparkly sandals. They were so very young. They knew nothing about the discount rates or draws on the endowment. They had come to DePauw to learn, to grow, to find themselves—and others. Watching their fresh faces parade past, clapping until our palms stung, even the most jaded college professors couldn’t help but feel hope.

DePauw will find a solution. A new president will bring fresh energy and ideas. The remaining faculty members are devoted, and alumni still love the school—and open their wallets. The college just finished a fundraising campaign, netting $380 million. What’s more, DePauw rose 10 spots in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, landing back in the top 50. As the legendary English professor Raymond Pence liked to write on student papers: “This is too good not to be better.”