Sunday, June 09, 2019

The DeVry Reunion Picnic

For the past few years, some former employees of the North Brunswick (NJ) campus of DeVry have organized a reunion picnic at a local park each June.  I went again last week.

It’s a strictly unofficial function, which is to say, it’s not sponsored or sanctioned by the company.  It’s just a bunch of former colleagues getting together socially. A few current employees show up, but it’s mostly folks who either left (hi!), retired, or were pushed out through the various waves of downsizing.  

It’s great fun to see old friends again.  While I had no love for the organization, some of the people who worked there were great.  We caught up on family news, career news, comparative aging, and the things that people usually catch up on when they haven’t seen each other in more than a decade.  (As far as the “aging” point goes, it’s one of the last places in which I’m one of the youngest people there. That used to be common…) Teaching 45 credits per year as a regular load led to a certain battlefield camaraderie.  I took it as a personal victory that even my foray into administration wasn’t held against me.

Sociologically, though, it’s fascinating.  These are folks who rode the first tech boom up, and then down.  For the ‘general education’ faculty, as we were called, DeVry served as a port in a storm.  It’s mostly forgotten now, but for a while in the late 90’s, for-profits were on a full-time hiring spree.  Public colleges weren’t, except for adjuncts, so the place was able to build up a surprisingly strong faculty for a while by virtue of being the only game in town.  

At the picnic, I heard a slew of stories about people trying (or having tried) to guess when was the best time to take a retirement incentive.  It reminded me of the way that airlines bid up offers for passengers to get bumped, except that the bids went in reverse. The first round of buyouts offered 18 months of salary.  Then, 12. Then, 6. Some folks were planning to retire anyway; they chortled at being offered a large check to leave shortly before they would have left for free. But most would have preferred to hang on longer.  They didn’t have the option.

Among the ones younger than retirement age, there was plenty of job seeking.  I had to bear the bad news that most of the local community colleges aren’t doing much hiring these days, either.  There’s a little, but plenty of competition for the jobs that exist. Last month I wrote a glowing -- and truthful -- recommendation for a former colleague who was applying to another community college; she didn’t get it.  It’s their loss -- she’s outstanding -- but also hers. The same enrollment decline that hit the for-profits first is hitting the community colleges now. And as with the for-profits, the internal denial is so strong that I’m concerned that some folks will be left stranded.  I feel like I’ve seen this movie.

To return to the nautical metaphor, I jumped ship in 2003, when I got the offer to work at CCM as the liberal arts dean.  Several other folks of my generation left around the same time, usually for a parallel job at a community or state college.  The ones who did are mostly doing well. The ones who hung on much longer, and aren’t yet at retirement age, are mostly in tougher spots.  That includes some folks who were terrific at their jobs, and likeable on top of that. Some of them were highly respected on campus, and considered leaders, in their way.  But when the ship takes on water, it doesn’t really matter which seat you’re in.

When I reflect on the demographic time bomb that Nathan Grawe has identified in the Northeast and Midwest -- 2008 plus 18 equals 2026 -- I wonder if DeVry is less of an outlier and more of a canary in the coal mine.  When I moved to CCM, I commented that it felt like going back in time. In some ways, DeVry was about ten years ahead. It moved into online coursework faster. It targeted working adults in a serious way earlier. It boomed around 1998-2000, as opposed to the 2008-10 boom for community colleges.  Now it’s a shell of its former self, and I wouldn’t bet on its continued existence in five years. Community colleges in the area have sustained significant enrollment declines for several years now, and most have had at least one RIF, if not several. One has even folded. The trend lines aren’t subtle.

The picnic was a lovely blast from the past.  If it’s not also going to be a glimpse into the near future, we’ll need to learn some lessons from it.  It was hard to see good people stranded. I’d hate to see more good people meet the same fate.