By Lynne Viccaro O’Leary
An institution of higher learning for over 40 years, Dowling College gained a reputation as a solid liberal arts and aviation school set against the backdrop of the former Vanderbilt mansion on the banks of the Connetquot River. In its heyday, Dowling enjoyed a reputation for providing students with one-on-one attention, and for keeping Long Island’s schools well stocked with capable and talented educators. While some say that its decline was a long time coming, I don’t think too many observers would have predicted that Dowling would crash and burn so monumentally this spring, taking hundreds upon hundreds of faculty, staff and students along with it. It is almost as if the administration followed the playbook of what NOT to do, and followed it to a T.
How could a governing body composed of the school’s president and board of trustees—educated and accomplished professionals from across Long Island—have allowed things to get to this point? What were they doing while the college was racking up $54 million of long-term debt? Where did all of that money go? Who was signing off on the books every fiscal year? Where was the oversight?
Not only are these questions troubling, the lack of clarity regarding Dowling’s demise is beyond appalling. The complete and utter chaos, the dearth of communication, and the disregard for the faculty, staff and students is almost sociopathic.
As a recent graduate from Dowling’s MBA program, I completed my studies literally under the wire as the institution spiraled downward. It took two years of hard work, involving studying nights and weekends to fulfill my longtime dream of earning my master’s degree. Choosing Dowling was easy, because my company had a corporate partnership with them, which let me defer billing via their tuition reimbursement program. The rush from my academic success getting my MBA ended abruptly, when years of fiscal mismanagement suddenly came to a head.
First and foremost, the faculty and staff were wonderful. I learned a great deal, and found the academic process extremely gratifying. While completing the capstone class, I met a fantastic group of professionals from all different backgrounds as we collaborated on our final project. It was exhilarating to reach this significant goal collectively as we celebrated our graduation on May 21 with our families and friends.
That great feeling of accomplishment lasted about a week. The bottom fell out on May 31, when the administration made the first of many convoluted and panic-inducing announcements.
The illustrious leadership said that Dowling College was closing and students had one week to get their transcripts, or be faced with the prospect of finding them in the black hole of the state’s education department. Students and staff faced five- to six-hour long lines as they waited desperately to get some proof of their degrees and coursework so they could plan their futures. Then came the reprieves from the administration, claiming they’d made deals in the 11th hour to save the school. The news prompted the Dowling Alumni Association to go cyberbegging, urging the faculty and staff to return to work after they’d been terminated with little notice. These last-minute machinations were almost surreal.
As the final closure approached, things got worse. Along with my fellow graduates, we paid the requisite $150 graduation dues, which were to include a printed diploma. I went back to the campus at the end of June to pick up my transcripts. I found beleaguered staff left to fend for themselves against an angry and confused mob. The college was basically holding our transcripts for ransom until every cent of any outstanding tuition bill was paid then and there.
I happened to run into Dowling College President Albert Inserra in the hallway and asked him point-blank if we would get our degrees mailed to us. With a smile, he assured me that they would be in the mail in July. Now August rolls around, and we hear that this is not happening due to Dowling’s failure to both pay the printing company and send them the names of the graduates. It would seem that the college was unduly enriched by accepting those graduation dues and failing to provide degrees. We paid our money in good faith for the privilege of obtaining physical evidence of the degrees we all had worked so hard for—and we were let down yet again in every way imaginable.
As for Dowling’s failure of leadership, there has been nothing but radio silence from the Board of Trustees. Apparently they’re too busy with their summer plans and their day-to-day lives to care about the faculty, staff and students scrambling to find viable employment or search for places that will accept the educational credits that they had paid Dowling top dollars for, only to have that tuition money squandered, thrown into the gaping hole of the massive debt that was allowed to fester for years without end.
At the very least, Dowling’s Board of Trustees should pass around the collection plate to pay for printing those diplomas for those of us whose degrees are now, for better or for worse, tainted by this fiscal debacle. On behalf of the 300-plus graduates who stood on that football field at Dowling’s Brookhaven campus on May 21, I implore the Board of Trustees to listen to their consciences and not let our lasting impression be that Dowling cheated us from what was rightfully ours. Only then will they gain a glimmer of redemption in this dark chapter of Long Island’s history of higher education.
Lynne Viccaro O’Leary is an award-winning marketing and communications strategist and is vice president of marketing at a financial services organization on Long Island. She writes on marketing and management strategies and can be found on Twitter @MktgDriveThru or on Linkedin at linkedin.com/in/marketingdrivethru.