The Profile: The Old College Try--Again
Against the odds, Donald Ross launched Wilmington College. Now he's back with another upstartÑand he's sure this school will fly, too.
Ross expects American College’s Delaware campus to begin offering degree programs in hospitality management, international business and humanservices in September.
Photograph by Thom Thompson http://www.thomthompson.com
In 1968 Wilmington was hardly a promising location for a new college. Violent riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April had prompted then-Governor Charles Terry to call in the National Guard, and Jeeps patrolled the streets.
But Donald E. Ross, then just 27, was undaunted.
Never mind that he knew little of Delaware. Never mind that the college resided in an old motel on a sketchy stretch of U.S. 13. And never mind that the college was barred from recruiting in Delaware its first year.
Ross and his new bride, Helen, dreamed of a four-year college free of rigid curriculums and SAT-oriented admission criteria. Under the tutelage of a dedicated faculty, students once labeled as underachievers could blossom. They were determined to make their dream a reality.
Today Wilmington College is arguably Delaware’s biggest academic success story.
“I have a high regard and respect for what Dr. Ross did,” says Michael DiGangi Jr., now president and CEO of Webster Furniture Outlet in Rehoboth Beach, who was in Wilmington College’s first graduating class. “I can tell you categorically that I grew as a human being. We bonded together like a family.”
DiGangi’s son currently attends Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, a school Ross saved from closing in 1972. After leaving Wilmington College, Ross was Lynn’s full-time president from 1977 until 2006.
“Wherever Don was, my son was definitely going to go there,” DiGangi says. Future generations of the DiGangi family, however, need not travel to Florida.
Ross is now president and CEO of American College, which will launch its first degree program in Claymont this fall. The school, which specializes in international hospitality, is part of American College in Dublin, Ireland, which Ross helped to start in 1993 as part of Lynn University’s study abroad program.
Once more, Ross faces an uphill climb.
He plans to build a campus in Claymont, which is in the early stages of revitalization. It is hardly a collegiate atmosphere. His office, once home to a radio station, resides near apartments slated for destruction and redevelopment—perhaps this summer.
The challenge seems to invigorate Ross, who, like a startup entrepreneur, is not drawing a salary.
Indeed, Ross’ outside-the-box approach seems more fitting for a high-concept software guru than an educator. Yet there are no Hawaiian shirts and Birkenstocks for this free-thinking academician.
For a recent appointment, he wears polished leather shoes, a smart suit and a red tie with a perfect dimple. He looks like a politician preparing for an on-camera debate. In fact, he narrowly lost a race for Congress in 1984.
Despite the conservative attire, Ross is far from stern. His blue eyes twinkle with good humor, and his ready smile is the same aw-shucks grin that beams from his 1957 high school photo.
Ross, an only child, was raised on the North Shore of Long Island. By age 23, he had received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the New York Institute of Technology and he was a graduate student and teacher at NYIT. (His master’s in education is from Hofstra University, and he has a doctor of law degree from NYIT.)
Ross became dean of student services at NYIT when the former dean left. While helping to open a campus on a 280-acre tract of the Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney estate, he met Helen Landgren, who had a Ford Foundation grant to work on the campus master plan.
“We met and were married in six months,” Ross says. “I think her parents were very worried. And six months later we were opening a college.”
The idea, born on the couple’s first date during a blackout in 1965, undoubtedly stemmed from 1960s idealism. But it also had roots in the anger that gripped the nation’s youth.
“John Kennedy’s death changed the country,” says Ross, who vividly recalls the student who rushed into his office with news of the assassination. Ross reprimanded the student, saying, “You shouldn’t joke about that.”
Emerging from mourning and facing the Vietnam War, people started questioning the status quo. For the Rosses, both educators, that meant challenging prescribed curriculums sans electives. Colleges were becoming too big and impersonal. Not enough attention was spent nurturing C students.
“We believe the C students run the companies and hire the A students,” Ross says. Then he gets serious. “Many C students may have had learning disabilities. We all learn differently.”
Wilmington College, which accepted students regardless of previous academic performance, required only a high school diploma or GED for undergraduate enrollment. It was a good niche to fill, DiGangi says.
“He is an astute businessman,” DiGangi says. “The Vietnam War was hot and heavy. People were rushing to colleges because of the draft. He knew that if he opened up a college for the C student, he would be helping out a market that needed some attention. He knew there was a sweet spot in the marketplace.”
Helen, who was the admissions director, recruited most of the first 194 students from New Jersey and New York. The school could not recruit in Delaware for one year. Some might credit the indignation of established colleges and universities.
Wilmington College opened in the vacant Tour Inn on 25 acres on U.S. 13 in New Castle. Guest rooms became a makeshift dormitory, and a cocktail lounge served as a study area. The library was housed in a converted gas station, whose floor sloped toward a center drain.
Despite the unconventional digs, the school was a community. Everyone—especially the Rosses—were dedicated to helping students succeed. By the second semester, students who had commuted home on weekends were staying on campus.
In 1971 Ross traveled to Marymount College, a two-year women’s school in Boca Raton, Florida, to buy library books. In the wake of coed dorms, women’s schools were struggling.
Encouraged by Marymount’s potential, Ross convinced Wilmington College’s board to affiliate. He and Helen signed personal notes to help offset Marymount’s $6 million debt. Wilmington College students were urged to spend six months at the Boca campus, which began accepting men. In a way, Ross was sowing the seeds for his future study-abroad approach.
In 1977 Ross left Wilmington College to become president of Marymount, renamed the College of Boca Raton. He needed to establish permanent roots from his two school-age children, Ellen and Kevin.
To most Delawareans and future Wilmington College students, Ross became a name in Wilmington College’s promotional and alumni literature.
His successor, Audrey Doberstein, is often credited for the college’s rapid growth. She helped secure grants to handle the school’s $700,000 debt, and she worked agreements to buy the land on which the school sat.
Under her tenure, the school closed its dorms and reinvented itself as a career-oriented commuter school that today has six locations in Delaware.
Down South, Ross was equally busy building a college. It was not easy. The Boca Raton school, re-named Lynn University after a benefactor, sat on a dirt road that drivers traveled for two main reasons: They were en route to the school or they were lost.
In an alumni magazine article, former Lynn University professor Ernie Ranspach recalls a meeting with Ross that was interrupted by Ross’ secretary. The electric company was threatening to turn off the power.
“Without missing a beat, President Ross retorted, ‘Tell them, if they want to be known as the kind of company that would shut off the lights on a bunch of students learning, to go ahead and do it.’” Ranspach says. “Of course, the lights were not shut off.”
Ross had to toss numerous developers off the campus when he caught them staking it out. Like vultures, they were waiting for the college to die.
To build enrollment, Ross embraced career-oriented programs that met area industries’ needs, such as accounting, fashion merchandising, and hotel and restaurant management.
Lynn also began encouraging students to study abroad, a reflection of Ross’ belief that most Americans are woefully underexposed to other cultures. “Middle America is very provincial,” Ross says. “They’ve been to Chicago, but not L.A. or New York.”
In 1993 Lynn opened a campus in Dublin, Ireland, to give American students a user-friendly experience abroad. “It is English-speaking, and many Americans are bad when it comes to languages,” Ross says. London and Europe were quick plane rides away. It may also have helped that Ross’ mother was born in Ireland, that he’d traveled there often.
When the school opened, Dublin was in distress. Ross, by then a veteran of starting schools in uncertain areas, persevered. Fueled by software and financial services, Dublin is now booming, and Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union.
“Dublin,” says Ross, “has become fashionable.” With no need for visas, people from other European Union nations are moving to Ireland to work. Ross gets a kick out of calling the entity the “United States of Europe.” The Europeans are rarely amused.
American College, which started as a study abroad campus for Lynn, became a separate entity in 1998, in part to accept students from around the world. About a third of the student body is from Ireland. Another third comes from the United States. The rest are from other countries.
Ross retired from Lynn in June 2006 to devote his time to American College. His son, Kevin M. Ross, became Lynn’s next president. As the outgoing president, Don Ross couldn’t vote for his son.
After leaving Lynn, Ross stayed away for seven months. “Kevin had to know he was boss,” says Ross, who says he would have followed the same policy even if someone else had landed the job.
As president of American College, Ross decided to open an office in the United States to process applications and assist American students with securing the proper documents for study in Ireland.
Ross chose Delaware because the family kept a vacation home in Lewes. Moreover, he appreciates Claymont’s location near interstate highways and the Philadelphia airport, from which US Airways offers direct flights to Ireland.
Ross soon realized that studying abroad could work both ways. “We got the idea that it might be nice to have students from other parts of the world come here as well,” he says. The “we” includes his daughter, Ellen Ross Sarafian, and her husband, Christopher Sarafian, who both work at the Claymont site.
The college will kick off its degree programs in September, which include programs in hospitality management, international business and human services.
American College is in negotiations to purchase property—ideally, six to 10 acres. Ross is determined to place the residential campus in Claymont. It is one of the only New Castle County corridors with potential for growth, he says, and the area is dedicated to revitalization.
Possible sites include portions of Holy Rosary Church and school or Renaissance Village, which will be built on the Brookview site. Holy Rosary’s Grubb House, which is badly in need of restoration, appeals to Ross.
“We’re preservationists,” he says. In Dublin, Ellen was curator of the childhood home of Oscar Wilde, which American College restored.
No matter its future location, the Claymont revitalization project is fortunate to have Ross as a stakeholder, says Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp.
“His experience and reputation will ensure that our community will be home to a top-notch liberal arts college, which will not just diversify Claymont’s population, but will also diversity the types of businesses that will be attracted here.”
One might wonder how well Claymont residents will welcome international students. “That is a very good question,” Ross says. “But if you go back far enough, we all came from foreigners. Assimilation takes a while.”
The economic advantages should help. He’s also encouraged by the diversity in his own neighborhood, Brandywine Hunt, an enclave of tony homes off Concord Pike near Target.
“My neighbors are Korean, Chinese and African American,” he says. “Did I expect that when I moved back to Wilmington after 35 years? I sure didn’t.”
When he is not pioneering schools, Ross is an avid skier. Although he also plays golf, he considers himself a “duffer.” Mostly, he is jetting between American College’s campuses. Getting Claymont off the ground is a 5- to 10-year project, he says.