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College of DuPage Races Backwards: Can Trustees Stop Runaway Train?

Emeritus English Professor David McGrath

Emeritus English Professor David McGrath

Last week I toured the newly built facilities at College of DuPage. They were beautiful. They cost $50 million. They were mostly empty.

It was hard, almost painful to see taxpayer subsidized investments recommended by college president Robert Breuder gone to waste.

The Inn at Water’s Edge, the 6 unit hotel which rents rooms for up to $199 a night was vacant when I visited. The parking lot empty. And I was there at the start of a weekend.

A “boutique” hotel built on campus, intended for profit and for use as a training center for the college restaurant and hospitality department, is an apparent bust.

In fact, I went online to check room availability, but there was not even an internet tool for making a reservation.

Reports had been circulating that the new complexes were struggling, but it was distressing to witness it first hand.

Breuder’s dream, Waterleaf, the gourmet for-profit French restaurant, complete with a fully stocked wine cellar, has evidently not been fulfilled. When we arrived at dinner time, a waitress explained that guests occupying an approximate third of the 130 seat dining room, had purchased a combination dinner and theater package from the McAninch Arts Center. When it was time for the show to begin, we found ourselves all but alone.

It’s one thing to launch a business, a risky proposition that fails 80% of the time. It’s yet another to start a restaurant, among the most problematic of entrepreneurial endeavors, which fails at a rate greater than 90%.

Waterleaf is no exception. If startup costs, professional staff pay, and operating expenses since its October, 2011 opening were not being borne by taxpayers, it likely would have already been shut down.

The reason Breuder’s add-ons were bound to fail is clearly explained in a feature this month in the New Yorker, which profiles challenges being met at Stanford University in California, a leader in higher education for the past three decades. Located in Silicon Valley, Stanford has had phenomenal success because of its close alliance with computer engineering corporations. The CEOs of Google and Yahoo were graduate students at Stanford.

But President John Hennessy stated that to continue to lead the pack, Stanford must gear up for a future of distance learning which delivers inexpensive, low-overhead versions of traditional courses to anyone anywhere in the world. Investments in the most modern platforms for internet education must replace construction of obsolete brick and mortar, room-and-board spaces in education.

This week, the New York Times’ David Brooks corroborated the same education inevitability in “The Campus Tsunami” (May 3rd).

Stanford is now shifting its resources in the virtual learning revolution, which Hennessy guarantees will “disrupt higher education by reducing the cost of college and by offering the convenience of stay-at-home, do-it-on-your-own-time education.” His goal is to harness Stanford/Silicon’s unique formula of creativity and drive to make sure the quality of its distance learning matches Standford’s historic excellence.

Meanwhile, COD slides in the opposite direction. Breuder has persuaded the College of DuPage trustees to approve millions in expenditures to expand the traditional physical plant, where already an empty parking lot and darkened hotel rooms confirm Hennessy’s insight.

And Breuder’s not through, having recently requested zoning changes to accommodate additional construction, including dormitories, that could support a four year school.

While modern universities work to make college mobile and flexible, Breuder is doing the reverse in current faculty contract negotiations, with the following demands: 1)to increase online class size limits, in spite of the consequential reduction in quality; 2)to halt continuing education for faculty with cuts of tuition credits; 3) to isolate faculty from innovations in the academic community by withdrawing support for annual conferences; and 4) to require that professors be effectively chained to their office desks on the physical campus five days a week.

And ostensibly, he’s maneuvering to counterbalance the losses incurred by his architectural boondoggles by cutting teacher summer school pay and health care benefits.

During my tour of the brand new Homeland Security building, where many labs appear unused, I was especially interested in the "tactical village" streetscape—a replica of a city street from yesteryear—for police training. Among its colorful storefronts was a tailor shop adorned with Breuder’s surname in big letters on the façade.

But whatever the motives are for his course of action, his school is in crisis, caught between antiquated concepts on one side, and a faculty that wants to learn, engage, and move forward in the 21st century on the other.

Hope remains that the COD trustees can step in the way of Breuder’s destructive path. Three of them, for example, recently voted against his posting of anti faculty propaganda on the school’s website.

But it will require courage on the part of at least one of the other four to join those three to put the brakes on Breuder’s wayward, runaway train.

David McGrath is Professor Emeritus, College of DuPage, and a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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