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Delaware Tech Celebrates Golden Anniversary

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Sometimes those governors conferences can turn out to be real learning experiences.

In September 1965, Delaware’s Charles L. Terry Jr. attended the Southern Governors Conference at the Cloisters resort in Sea Island, Ga. He heard three of his peers—Carl Sanders of Georgia, Robert McNair of South Carolina and the fiery George C. Wallace of Alabama—extol the success of their new technological institutions. Terry was impressed by these “dynamic educational reforms,” press secretary Ned Davis wrote in his oral history of Terry’s administration.

Terry determined that Delaware should have a similar institution, one that would provide additional learning for high school graduates who weren’t equipped for a four-year college while providing training in skills in burgeoning fields like computers, aerospace and engineering that would serve the state well in attracting new businesses or strengthening those already here.

Bill Quillen, Terry’s administrative assistant, who would go on to a distinguished career as a judge in three Delaware courts, drafted the legislation and in 1966 the General Assembly passed House Bill 529, creating the Delaware Institute of Technology, soon to be renamed Delaware Technical and Community College. (In a minor name change, the “and” would disappear in 2011.)

On June 9, Delaware Tech will celebrate its golden anniversary of Terry signing the bill into law and officially install Mark Brainard, a 1981 graduate, as its fifth president. 

Mark Brainard

Brainard, chosen by the college’s board of trustees in August 2014, inherits a stable and steadily growing institution, one that was literally and figuratively built from the ground up in the Delaware Way.

“You’ve got to remember what it was like in the 1960s,” recalls longtime Delaware Tech President Orlando J. “Lonnie” George Jr. “There was no college in Sussex County. There was the University of Delaware and Goldey-Beacom in New Castle County, and Delaware State College and Wesley in Kent. This new concept called community colleges was springing up across the nation, and Sussex wanted one.”

As upstate legislators became familiar with the concept, they decided that they would like a community college too, George recalls. So they did some bargaining. If the Sussex lawmakers would agree that the new college should be a statewide institution, the upstaters would vote for the bill. 

In the meantime, Davis recalls in his book, Terry had to impose his will, telling the leaders of the University of Delaware that, despite their arguments, the new college would not be part of their growing political empire.

“Think about it—the art of the political deal,” George says, a bit of wonderment slipping into his voice. “It was the Delaware Way, in the best sense of the phrase.”

To get the college started, Terry reached down to South Carolina to pluck Paul K. Weatherly, a respected leader of tech schools in that state. He proved a perfect fit.

“The last thing the people in Sussex County wanted to see was a city slicker in a three-piece suit,” George says. The pipe-smoking Weatherly shared the values of the downstate farmers and exuded a folksy charm that would have played well in Mayberry, but he still possessed sufficient sophistication and gravitas to play well with bankers and chemists when he put on his suit and ventured into New Castle County.

True to Terry’s plan, the college opened its first campus in Georgetown in September 1967, enrolling 367 students who attended classes in the building that once housed the William C. Jason Comprehensive High School, the last segregated high school for black students in Delaware. 

A year later, the “Northern campus” opened with 375 students at 30th Street and North East Boulevard in three buildings of the former Blue Rock Shopping Center, so named because it had been the site of Wilmington Park, home of the original Wilmington Blue Rocks from 1940 to 1952.

“In the early days, the buildings were very innovatively named: Building One, Building Two and Building Three,” says George, who started his Delaware Tech career there as a math instructor in 1969.

He still has fond memories of the place, claiming, “It was the only campus in the country with a liquor store on it,” and noting that the walls were so flimsy, “When the chemistry students were doing an experiment, everybody in the building could smell it.” It was also the site of one of the few failures of his professional career. In 1972 and 1973, he was one of the leaders of an unsuccessful drive to organize a faculty union.

In 1972 Delaware Tech realized its goal of serving all three counties by opening its Kent campus in Dover. Four years later it would be renamed in Terry’s honor. In 1973 and 1974, the school expanded and established permanent sites in New Castle County. It first closed the Northern campus and opened the Stanton campus, then opened the downtown Wilmington campus at Fourth and Orange streets. (It is now named the George Campus.)

Weatherly would guide Delaware Tech into 1978, when he retired and was succeeded by Jack Kotula, who rose through the college’s ranks after starting as a counselor at the Southern campus in 1967.

As Kotula steered the college through 14 years of steady growth and Thomas Kubala added three more, George and Brainard advanced on career paths that would eventually lead them to Delaware Tech’s presidency. Those paths would sometimes intersect.

Changing leadership

George moved on two tracks, serving a term on Wilmington City Council before winning election to the state House of Representatives in 1974. His 21 years in the House included serving as minority leader, chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee and speaker of the House. While amassing power in Legislative Hall, George climbed the ladder at Delaware Tech, moving first from instructor to math department chair. Starting in 1980, he advanced to assistant to the Wilmington campus director, dean of instruction, assistant campus director, vice president and campus director, and finally to president in 1995. With his appointment, George resigned from the legislature.

Past service in the General Assembly was a tremendous help as he took over as Delaware Tech’s leader, George says, and not because, as his critics alleged, his influence helped secure more state funds for the college’s projects. “As a legislator, I got to meet everybody—community leaders, ministers. I mean everybody,” he says. And he got to learn about and help solve a lot of problems, even things related to farmland preservation that a self-professed “city boy” wouldn’t be expected to know.

Meanwhile, Brainard, after earning his associate’s degree in criminal justice at Delaware Tech, completed work on a bachelor’s in behavioral science at Wilmington University in 1983, then landed a job as a legislative aide in Dover. There he bounced between the Senate and House, where he became chief of staff for the Democratic minority and occasionally worked on projects for George.

By 1991 he had enrolled in law school at Widener University. Two years later he became director of external affairs for the state Department of Transportation, handling legislative and media relations. 

In 1996, George hired Brainard for a new position at Delaware Tech: assistant vice president for personnel and legal affairs. Three years later he became executive vice president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, followed by six years as chief of staff for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, where his accomplishments included the heavy lifting for passage in 2005 of the Student Excellence Equals Degrees (SEED) scholarship, which provides free tuition for qualifying students enrolled in full-time associate degree programs at Delaware Tech and the University of Delaware.

In 2009 Brainard went back to Delaware Tech and George, this time as assistant director and director of the Wilmington and Stanton campuses. In 2013, Brainard was named executive vice president, an appointment that signaled that he was George’s heir apparent as president. 

But that almost didn’t happen, as the college trustees chose Murray Hoy, a Maryland college administrator, to succeed George in July 2014. Contract negotiations, however, hit a roadblock, Hoy backed out, and Brainard was named president a month later. 

Staying relevant

Since the founding of the college, Delaware Tech has made it its mission not only to train workers for jobs that Delaware employers needed to fill, but also to anticipate future needs.

Ask George about it, and he’ll recite a quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Gretzky was just a kid lacing up his skates alongside frozen ponds in Ontario when Weatherly embedded this philosophy into Delaware Tech’s culture by creating advisory boards composed of business and community leaders for each major field of study at the school. The system endures. Currently, Brainard says, the college awards associate degrees in more than 100 subjects, and more than 2,000 people serve on those advisory committees.

“They tell us what students need to be able to do when they graduate, and we go through the curriculum together, determining what technology needs to be addressed, what competencies students must fulfill,” Brainard says.

The work is quite detailed, says Debbie O’Donnell, business administration instructional coordinator at the Owens Campus in Georgetown.

(The Southern campus was renamed in 1995 to honor longtime director Jack F. Owens, a member of Weatherly’s original management team.)

The campus is adding a new degree program in logistics this fall, some two years after leaders of a Seaford business, Trinity Logistics, told college officials that they needed more workers skilled in the specialty. The college reached out to two other local employers, Burris Logistics in Milford and H&M Bay in Seaford, set up an advisory committee, then went to work. “It took us about a year and a half to figure out exactly what we need, but we are listening to what our employers are telling us,” O’Donnell says.

Also on the way, pending approval by the board of trustees, is a bachelor’s degree program in nursing, the first four-year degree to be offered by the college.

In 2003, with local hospitals facing a nursing shortage, the state poured additional funds into Delaware Tech to finance a 135 percent expansion of its nursing program. Even with the added enrollments, students in the associate degree program have a 91 percent pass rate the first time they take national licensing exams for registered nurses, the highest in the state, according to Justina Sapna, vice president for academic affairs.

Now, Brainard says, the college is adding the bachelor’s program because higher accreditation standards for three acute-care hospital systems (Christiana Care, Nemours and Bayhealth) require that 80 percent of their nurses have a four-year degree by 2020. “The reality is that the workforce is changing,” he says. “We see this not as whether we want to do it, but rather that we have to do it.”

The college has no plans to add other bachelor’s degree programs, he adds.

The college has also developed programs to ease the transition from high school. A “learning communities” program assigns groups of students to two to four classes together for their first year, fostering friendships that help them get through unfamiliar situations, says Gail Charrier, the program coordinator at the Owens Campus. A four-week summer bridge program gives students who need remedial classes a chance to get them out of the way in time to start regular college work in the fall semester, she says.

While Delaware Tech has gradually expanded its associate degree offerings, some of its most significant growth has come in areas that stretch the boundaries of a community college curriculum.

To keep abreast of business employment trends, the college used a U.S. Department of Labor grant in 2011 to set up its Center for Industry Research and Workforce Alignment, a labor-market research and analysis center whose goal is to help foresee labor market changes and niche opportunities, so the college and the state can remain ahead of the curve in economic development and workforce education.

Workforce education—providing new training in non-degree programs—has come a long way since the college set up classrooms for autoworkers more than two decades ago in the old General Motors and Chrysler assembly plants. 

While the college still brings its classrooms to the workplace, it now has two Innovation and Technology Centers, one near New Castle and the other in Bridgeville (with a third opening next year in Kent County), where companies can send their workers for customized instruction and to learn more about construction, plumbing, refrigeration, heating and cooling, and many other skill areas.

When PBF Energy retooled the Delaware City Refinery, it sent its workers to Delaware Tech for training on how to use and maintain the new equipment. 

Brainard says some businesses are also telling Delaware Tech that their employees could benefit from learning more information technology skills, but not enough to justify studying for an additional degree. In response, the college has set up what it calls an “academy model,” offering two or three months of training focused on a single topic, like Cisco networking or Javascript.

In addition to reaching out in new ways to the workforce, Delaware Tech is reaching down into the high schools. 

Through its advanced manufacturing program, the college has developed programs that serve the needs of area businesses while helping students learn skills they couldn’t pick up in high school. Groups of about 20 juniors and seniors are bused from their high schools to the Innovation and Technology Center, where they take classes in manufacturing principles and either material handling and production (logistics) or maintenance mechanics. In the summer between their junior and senior years, they have the opportunity to work for up to 200 hours for a business participating in the program.

Students who complete the program earn not only high school credit but also seven to 13 credits toward a Delaware Tech associate’s degree in an engineering specialty. In addition, they will be ready to take exams to receive nationally recognized certifications in their subject areas.

On the academic side, the college has dramatically expanded its offerings of dual-enrollment classes, for which students earn both high school and college credit. More than 1,000 students in 32 high schools are taking the classes this year. Delaware Tech faculty provide the instruction on campus or through distance learning connections, or students learn from their high school teachers, who are being mentored by college faculty.

Since the program is only in its third year, Sapna says it’s too soon to gauge whether it will have an impact on college enrollments. “It’s a great way to jump-start a college career, to finish quicker, and to not have to pay tuition for a couple of college classes,” she says.

Defining success

If there is a sore spot at Delaware Tech, it’s the graduation rates reported to the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. These numbers, measuring first-time, full-time degree-seeking students who graduate from a two-year program in three years or less, seem alarmingly low. They range from 10 percent to 14 percent for students who first enrolled between 2007 and 2012.

But lots of things get in the way of students at open-enrollment community colleges, Brainard and Sapna say, things like needing remedial classes at the start, going back to work because they need the money, having to take care of family, or not being able to afford child care.

That’s why Delaware Tech prefers using what it calls a “success rate,” a broader calculation that includes graduates (no matter how long they take), those who are still in school seeking a degree and those who transfer to another school before graduating. Adding those numbers, the college comes up with a success rate of 55 percent to 58 percent for students who enrolled between 2008 and 2010.

The college is working to improve the graduation rate, Brainard says. 

Among the possible solutions: eliminating some required classes from several degree programs that require more credits than a student can complete in two years.

They’ve also added a mandatory “student success” class for all first-year students, a seminar that focuses on improving study skills and time management.

The college has also changed its advisement model. “It’s very collaborative,” Sapna says. “Faculty advisers help students create career plans, discuss how long it will take to graduate, what kind of job they want. It’s all about trying to get students to think about the finish line.”

Many students who have crossed the finish line have fine things to say about their alma mater.

“All it takes is a dream and ambition, and Delaware Tech can help fill in the rest,” says 2003 graduate Aaron B. Schrader, a human resources manager with the state Office of Management and Budget. Schrader got his state job after one of his college teachers recommended him to Brainard, who was then working in the governor’s office.

High school dropout Carlos Cotto struggled for six years to earn his associate’s degree 16 years ago but has strong memories of passionate teachers who helped him get through. After failing an online statistics class, he enrolled in a lecture version. His instructor saw him struggling and suggested that Cotto do his homework in the hallway while he caught up on his office work—and that he could interrupt him if he had any questions. Cotto passed the course. He is now a vice president with BNY Mellon in Wilmington.

Looking back—and looking ahead—George says his one regret is that Delaware Tech, unlike community colleges in many other states, never received a stable source of funding through a property tax. 

It apparently wasn’t a consideration during the 1960s and 1970s, and his efforts in the final years of his tenure never gained traction with the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 137, now under consideration, would authorize a property tax to create a “community college infrastructure fund” and would give the college authority to issue bonds for construction projects. It wouldn’t cost much, Brainard says, anywhere from $7.50 a year for the average property in Sussex to $24 for one upstate. But the funds would help the school, which he says is now facing about $800,000 in deferred maintenance costs.

Neither Brainard nor his administration and faculty have a clear idea of what the future might hold. That’s part of the challenge and the thrill of having to prepare a new generation for careers that don’t exist today.

Lisa Peel, instructional director for early childhood education at the Terry Campus, may have put it best.

“It’s truly rewarding here,” she says. “If we don’t have something for you, we can help you find it—and we’re always creating new programs.”   

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