Denver U. reshapes itself to weather `baby bust' '80s and '90s

The pinstripes tell the story: One year ago, Dwight Smith was a chemistry professor, a man who dressed casually for work and was known largely to his peers and students. Now Dr. Smith wears the power garb of a businessman and appears on the front pages of local newspapers, looking more like the chairman of the board. Last year, he was tapped by the board of trustees at the University of Denver to rescue it from financial oblivion and academic obscurity. Beyond the expectations of most, he has taken this 120-year-old institution -- widely regarded as the most prestigious private university between Chicago and Los Angeles -- and reorganized it top to bottom. He created a lean learning machine for the battle that all private universities face in the coming decade.

When Dr. Smith stepped into the job in January 1984, he faced: political turmoil; a $35 million debt; a $7 million deficit that threatened to swamp operations; a four-year decline in enrollment; and student dissatisfaction.

While many of DU's problems stemmed from internal mismanagement, many are typical of the plight facing all but a fraction of America's approximately 800 private universities. DU is among the first of the larger, more prestigious universities to confront it.

``They have all been caught in a crunch of rising expectations. Most of the private colleges thought the enrollment upswings of the 1960s would go on forever. In the '70s, it stopped,'' says Joel Bagbe, senior vice-president with Barton-Gillet Company, a Baltimore consultant and authority on strategic planning for universities.

The baby bust has hit the college level: There are not enough tuition-paying, 18- to 22-year-olds to go around. Demographers predict a 25 percent drop in this age group over the next decade as the number of high-school graduates skids from the 1977 high of 3.15 million to 2.3 million by 1993. ``The early 1990s are going to be very tough,'' Chancellor Smith says.

And with private tuitions averaging four times greater than those at public institutions, students increasingly lean toward the latter. In the 1950s, the two split the college population between them. Now, 78 percent of all college students attend public universities.

The academic elite, who formerly shunned the word ``marketing,'' are currently planning long-term strategies and identifying market niches. ``Our business is up many, many times,'' Mr. Bagbe says.

At the University of Denver, Chancellor Smith slashed the budget, cut programs, and launched an endowment drive. He reduced the faculty -- in line with declining enrollments -- from 450 to 360 members. Total staff is being cut by 200. The nursing and library schools and other academic programs were dropped completely.

More important, though, Smith leaned out the curriculum from what he terms a ``smorgasbord of classes to what we are calling a `core college' '' that provides an essential, well-focused liberal arts education.

Smith's aim was not just a better college but a more marketable one. Competition among universities is fierce, and DU needed an identifiable and attractive product to front its recruiting efforts. Coincidentally, DU's reorganization preceded by a year the American Association of Colleges report that decried the mediocrity of a college education in United States.

``We had lost focus,'' Dr. Smith said in an interview, ``lost direction. We were trying to be a `people's college' by coming up with a program to meet every student desire. Other colleges are looking at the same problems. The difference with us is that we are confronting all of them at once and in a very short period of time.''

``The way DU was, a freshman could choose from 300 courses. . . . Students prefer to see a program that has a purpose and a small number of subjects that will hit that program.''

The faculty will team-teach courses, drawing on various academic disciplines to stress different perspectives on the same subject. Professors from DU's well-regarded graduate schools -- particularly the law and business and human-services schools -- will teach professionally oriented freshman courses.

In short, DU plans to give students a lot of service and product in return for their $6,500 in annual tuition.

DU officials expect progress to be slow -- ``it's like turning a battleship around in midsea,'' says one -- but positive signs have already appeared. Deposits are ahead compared with last year. Over 60 percent of the students accepted for early admission have enrolled compared with the 30 percent who enrolled out of those accepted in 1984 (when there was no early admission). A year ago, DU held an open house for area guidance counselors; 12 showed up. This year 95 arrived.

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