American College Delaware seeking eastern Sussex campus

March 9, 2012

Malcolm Forbes once called Don Ross an educational entrepreneur. Ross wasn’t quite sure how to take Forbes’s description, but now he wears it as comfortably as he wears the title of college and university president.

It’s not that Forbes was reaching.  Ross and his wife, Helen, part-time residents and commercial property owners in Lewes for the past 25 years, founded Wilmington College in 1967.  “We started with 190 students,” remembers Ross.  “Now it’s Wilmington University with six campuses around Delaware and 15,000 students.”

In the early 1970s, feeling the entrepreneurial urges that Forbes eventually labeled, Ross found himself in Boca Raton, Fla.,  looking at the library collection of a struggling junior college known as Marymount.  Instead of helping that institution with its demise by buying the collection, Ross instead saw the opportunity to be on the ground floor of another four-year and graduate institution.  For 35 years he served as president of what is now known as Lynn University in Boca Raton, which has grown to 4,000 residential students.

You would think that would be enough to keep one person busy.  But 18 years ago Ross saw another opportunity, a little farther afield, in Dublin, Ireland. American College Dublin resulted, one half of Ross’s vision for his Irish American University. The other half brings us to the real local implication of the Ross story.

American College Delaware is licensed by the state of Delaware but has yet to locate a campus in the state. Original plans would have placed the campus in Claymont, but for various reasons, that didn’t happen. Now Ross has his eye on eastern Sussex County as what he considers an ideal location for a four-year liberal arts college to complete the international studies focus for the Irish American University.

Chris Weeks, an architect who lives in Rehoboth Beach, and Ross have been working together for 20 years on a variety of projects.  Last week they made rounds in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach trying to find individuals or groups willing to put up either 50 acres of land for a campus or $3 million to jump-start the initiative.

“We see this as a tremendous economic and cultural opportunity for the area,” said Ross.  “The college cycle runs on the opposite cycle of the tourism industry and would help stabilize the local economy to keep things going in the winter.”

“In terms of economic impact, we see a college like this bringing another thousand wallets into the area,” said Weeks. A strategic plan put together by the men further spells out that impact: “Not only do colleges attract young people, colleges also need many professionals including faculty and administrators, but also security, operations and maintenance personnel.”

Ross said international and four-year hospitality studies programs would make an American College Delaware complementary to other colleges in the state.  “There are also obvious opportunities for students to work in the hospitality industry here and learn skills they could then employ in this country or abroad as the global community continues to evolve,” said Ross.

College philosophy spelled out
The philosophy of the college is summed up in the strategic plan: “Dublin is American College’s gateway to Europe.  America is still the global leader in higher education.  A bridge between Delaware and Dublin opens up import/export revenue.  Globalization is happening at a rapid pace.  Interactions between cultures, either physical or virtual, are happening constantly.  The common denominator is people and regardless of technological advances, success is based on the ability to communicate and interact with others.  American College Delaware believes in a classical liberal arts education where an understanding of history and culture coupled with communication of ideas leads to future success. American College Delaware, together with its sister American College Dublin, seeks to bring people and ideas together from around the world.”

Ross and Weeks see the culture and climate of eastern Sussex as a major recruiting strength.

Operating as a private, not-for-profit, Ross said he would bring the same lean, hungry and creative approach to American College Delaware that has brought him success elsewhere.  He projects annual average tuition for the college at $15,000, which, the strategic plan shows, is about the same as Delaware State University and quite a bit less than University of Delaware at $27,462, Wesley College at $20,685, Salisbury University at $24,364 and Washington College at $37,882.

Ross said Wilmington is pushing for the college to locate in its downtown area and a Middletown developer has offered land for a campus in that rapidly growing area of southern New Castle County.  While deciding where to locate will ultimately hinge on where the college gets its best land or financial boost, Ross and Weeks clearly believe eastern Sussex would be the best location.

The Irish belief in luck and magic has rubbed off on Ross, who now splits his time between Dublin, Boca Raton and Lewes. “On Oct. 22 this year, Lynn University will host the final presidential debate before the November election,” said Ross. “Who knows? Fifteen years from now that debate could be held here.”