Daniel Webster College in search of a new identity

If Michael Diffily were in the restaurant business, he would be wondering how to attract new customers to a popular eatery after it removes its most popular entree from the menu.

Diffily isn’t in the restaurant business – he is the president of Daniel Webster College – but his challenge is pretty much the same: Convincing prospective students to enroll at a school that no longer offers a nationally renowned flight aviation program, which was grounded shortly after DWC was acquired by the for-profit ITT Educational Services in December 2009.

Last month, Diffily and Richard Zeeman, vice president of operations for ITT, hosted the Telegraph editorial board on campus to review what has happened during the past three years and where they hope to take the college in the future.

And while we covered a lot of ground during that informative session, we couldn’t help but be most struck by the following statistic:

Enrollment at the college has dropped by nearly half – from between 1,000 and 1,200 students then to roughly 650 today – largely but not solely due to the cancellation of the flight aviation program.

Typically, Diffily said, the flight program attracted between 150 and 200 students each year, many from across the country. Today, the majority of students come from New Hampshire and the other New England states.

“I consider us to be a young college all over again,” said Diffily, who was named president in December 2010, a year after the sale became official. “Our identity has been taken away from us, so we’ve had to reinvent ourselves. We’ve rallied from previous difficult times, and we’re doing it now.”

Those “difficult times” included the abrupt firing of four-year President Robert Myers, the laying off of several dozen employees and the community outcry to news ITT planned to phase out the signature flight program, which dates back to school’s founding in 1965.

DWC officials are banking on two key advancements to reinvigorate the college: online degree programs and an expansion of engineering programs to include master’s or doctorate degrees.

Currently, about 200 ITT and DWC employees are test-driving online courses that will become available to public this fall. The college is offering online undergraduate degree courses in business administration and graduate degree courses in management.

Diffily said he also would like to “hang the school’s hat” on a beefed-up engineering degree program. Currently, the school offers bachelor-
level engineering degrees in aeronautics; computer science and software; computer systems; gaming, simulation and robotics; and mechanical.

Clearly, DWC’s decision to stake out a new identify for itself is a sound one. The question is whether the introduction of its online degree program and an expansion of its engineering program will be enough to achieve it.

After all, it won’t be the only New Hampshire institution to offer online degree programs this fall, including the University of New Hampshire, Southern New Hampshire University and Rivier University some 15 minutes away.

Still, DWC has a long tradition in Nashua, ever since its founding as New England Aeronautical Institute in a hangar at Boire Field by Nashua natives Warren Rudman, James Tamposi and Harry Sheffield.

We can only hope Diffily and his team can cook up the right recipe to ensure its existence for years to come.