Adrian College looks to Rize, a company co-owned by president – Detroit Free Press


An entrance sign to the campus of Adrian College is pictured. For the 13th consecutive year, Adrian College has been featured as a top institution of higher learning by the U.S. News & World Report. Most recently, the college was recognized as the No. 1 “Most Innovative School” in the Midwest, as announced in the report’s 2022 edition of “America’s Best Colleges.” Provided by Adrian College
Adrian College is gambling that a for-profit company co-owned by its president will help it survive by offering more programs of study, with the goal of increasing enrollment and putting more tuition dollars in the college’s bank account — all without having to hire more full-time professors and pay their salaries.
The concept is simple: Adrian and other colleges partner together to offer online classes with Rize Education, the for-profit company, acting as a middleman. However, the implementation has been complex, largely because of an ongoing lack of trust between many of the faculty and the school’s administration. That lack of trust has led to suspicions that making money for Rize is more important than the college, according to more than a dozen current and former faculty members interviewed by the Free Press.
“I think the priority is to build up Rize as big as possible,” said Michelle Beechler, a former professor at Adrian who resigned in 2021 because she disagreed with the college’s direction. “They are just trying to get by with as few people as possible. Rize makes more money the fewer faculty are teaching at Adrian.”
Adrian had 98 total instructional staff members in 2016, federal records show. In 2020, that number was 87.
That lack of trust largely centers on Rize and its relationship with President Jeffrey Docking, with multiple faculty members telling the Free Press that Docking’s role with the company represents a conflict of interest.
Docking conceived of the idea that led to Rize, recruited two young entrepreneurs to develop the concept and brought the two to Adrian while they got the company up and running. He remains listed on corporation paperwork as the company’s co-owner. He recently wrote a book — titled “The College of the Future” — touting the course-sharing idea in general, and Rize in particular, as the answer to small colleges’ struggles to attract students and survive financially.
Docking says his name is attached to Rize to lend credibility to the company, especially as it got started. “I’ve never made a dime on it,” he told the Free Press.
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Adrian hired Docking’s son in 2022 to work on enrollment management issues, including representing Adrian in its partnership with Rize. Docking’s son, Jacob, has a doctorate degree in higher education administration and has worked in higher education for a dozen years, the college pointed out in a statement responding to a Free Press inquiry about the hiring. “His credentials are unassailable and Adrian College is fortunate to have him,” the statement said.
The company has had success, both in terms of colleges signing on and raising money. According to forms filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rize raised nearly $8.5 million from investors in spring 2021. In the SEC filing detailing the move, Docking is listed as one of four directors of the company. Rize co-founder and CEO Kevin Harrington told the Free Press that Docking is an adviser to the company. “I talk to him regularly,” Harrington said.
Docking sees the company as the second step in his plan to ensure Adrian doesn’t struggle like many of its fellow small liberal arts colleges. The first step was to have Adrian invest in a plethora of sports teams, bringing more and more athletes to campus. Adrian doesn’t offer full-ride athletic scholarships, meaning each athlete also pays some tuition. That’s led to an explosion of traditional and nontraditional sports on campus.
“Small private liberal arts colleges, generally speaking, are in a world of trouble; the business model is broken,” Docking said. “It does not work anymore. What I say is innovate or die.”
Adrian’s experience as the plans have rolled out serves as a caution — and perhaps a shining light — to the dozens of small colleges, often located in small towns across the Midwest, that are looking for the next best thing to save their school. There’s no arguing that enrollment is up and more majors are available on Adrian’s campus than had been offered before Docking’s tenure. There’s also no arguing that faculty — especially those in traditional liberal arts disciplines — are worried about the effects of the move, in terms of the face-to-face interaction between students and faculty, the number of faculty at a college and whether colleges are turning away from the liberal arts.
Located about 75 miles southwest of Detroit, Adrian College dates to the mid-1800s and is affiliated with the Methodist Church.
In 2005, as Docking began his presidential tenure, Adrian was struggling. Enrollment was around 840 students.
During his interview with Adrian’s board, members told him Adrian’s enrollment needed help. He told them he had a plan ready to go, especially because Adrian had a 35-acre parcel of land ripe for development.
Docking decided to use it as part of his plan — invest heavily in athletics, both in terms of programs and facilities. He launched sports team after sports team, bringing traditional sports to campus along with others like bass fishing and cornhole.
Each sport brought in students who, while not good enough to play in the highest levels of college athletics, weren’t ready to end their athletic careers upon high school graduation. Because Adrian doesn’t give full-ride athletic scholarships, each new student added tuition income. The costs for each sport started weren’t astronomical, allowing Adrian’s budget to grow.
More:Seidel: Fishing among sports helping revitalize Adrian
Over time, the strategy worked. Enrollment swelled and tuition dollars rolled in.
“We were on the brink of extinction,” said Fritz Detwiler, who retired at the end of last school year after 39 years as a religion and philosophy professor at Adrian. “He turned all that around. In that sense, he saved the college.”
Enrollment is now around 1,900 students, college officials said. The student body is heavily weighted toward athletes. In 2011-12, approximately 44% of the then-1,675 students were athletes on 31 athletic teams. In 2021-22, approximately 63% of all students were athletes on 50 teams, school officials said.
The strategy and Docking’s work on various national athletic-related committees also attracted the attention of two young Harvard graduates.
There’s no real reason Docking can think of for why the email from the two Harvard graduates, Harrington and Connor McCarthy, would have stood out from all the others arriving in his inbox on April 30, 2018.
But he read it and learned that Harrington and McCarthy had played soccer in college and were then working in the financial sector. They wanted to talk to Docking about helping them get through NCAA regulations for a program they were trying to get off the ground to give disadvantaged high school athletes access to college coaches.
The college president and the two young men — then just five years out of school — soon began talking and working together on the NCAA issue. Then, in October 2018, Docking suggested he fly to New York to meet the two men for a dinner.
He had an idea he wanted to pitch to them.
The three met at Loukoumi Taverna in Queens, New York, and Docking outlined a problem he was facing. He told Harrington and McCarthy that he had been working with Google to offer computer science classes shared among several colleges but was running into administrative problems while trying to get all the required paperwork and coordination done.
“There are corporations all over America that need talent badly; they can’t get it,” Docking recounted to the Free Press about his discussion with Harrington and McCarthy. “They’re dying for it. And I said, ‘and you got a lot of colleges that are in a whole lot of trouble. If you’ll move to Adrian and you’ll be an assistant to the president for innovation and you’ll help me solve this problem by putting together a platform that will do everything’ from handling registration to letting students know how and when to take the class. The kid can take it synchronously, they can take it asynchronously, that if there’s a grade problem they know where to go. … We’ll do all of the stuff.
“I said, ‘you can start a business much like people do with these incubators all the time.’ … But I said, ‘it’s got to help all of these schools.’ “
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Docking outlined five key things he wanted the new company to accomplish: Keep small classes; keep the four-year residential experience; keep the values of a liberal arts education; keep the role of faculty approving academic programs, and produce positive cash flow for the college.
The duo moved from New York to Adrian on Feb. 1, 2019, and began to learn the challenges facing small private colleges.
“We needed to have an appreciation for Adrian students,” Harrington told the Free Press. “We really got to know the challenges.”
The challenges at Adrian were much the same as those facing small colleges across the nation, and especially in the Midwest: a shrinking pool of potential students, thanks to demographic changes, leading to more competition for those students. That led to steep tuition discounts offered to students as colleges tried to attract students. But those discounts — sometimes up to 80% off sticker price — meant the colleges were giving up tens of millions of dollars in potential annual revenue, which created massive financial problems.
The Rize founders thought they had the solution.
Despite creating more slots for student athletes, Docking and other Adrian officials found themselves at a disadvantage when recruiting students — they didn’t have nearly as many majors for students to pick from as some of their competitors, especially public universities that offered hundreds of them.
Docking knew he couldn’t afford to hire a bunch of faculty to start new courses. He also knew that a program being run with Google to offer computer science classes at Adrian and other colleges that were taught elsewhere was working well regarding what was being taught to students but running into snags with the administration of the program. He envisioned a program that would be the in-between to make sure classes were fitting into colleges’ established course catalogues while reducing the work needed to be done by existing registrar offices.
The concept became Rize, which works this way:
Rize partners with schools to get classes taught by expert professors on one campus and then offers those classes to its member colleges, which charge students their normal per-credit-hour tuition fee. The schools then pay a flat fee, which is less than the total tuition coming in from students, to Rize, which passes the majority of the fee on to the college teaching the class. Rize keeps a portion of the fee to cover its costs.
This allows colleges to add courses — and even entire majors — to their offerings faster than the normal yearslong development of new programs. The college doesn’t have to hire new professors to staff the new program and develop all the curriculum. Rize focuses in on classes and majors with lots of demand from the business world, helping students graduate with degrees that can easily lead to jobs.
So Adrian can take some business classes it currently offers, add in a few new virtual classes from Rize and have a new supply chain major much quicker, and also much cheaper.
By offering the new major, Adrian can attract new students. Although it has to pay out some of its tuition money to Rize, Adrian doesn’t send all of it away. And because Adrian, like most small private colleges, is a heavily residential school, it also gets all the revenue from dormitory and food service fees students pay.
“You can imagine what it would cost this college to start this many majors (17 new majors over the past 18 to 25 months),” Docking said. “You can’t say I’m going to start supply chain management, oh, kids arrive next week, go. You got to write the curriculum, you’ve got to get the classes going and then you’ve got to get the word out there,” Docking said. “So it’s expensive, it’s time-intensive. And then the worst thing these days is you don’t know if it’s going to work. It may not draw flies. So now you’ve got all this money into it with tenured professors.”
Rize developed software to help manage the logistics of a student on one college’s campus attending a class taught by another college, making sure the student gets the proper credit for the class and that tuition dollars flowed to the college teaching the class.
It also pushes the ability to develop courses faster. Docking said the traditional development of a major can take three years and cost up to $1 million before any students enroll. With Rize, the startup cost is a few hundred dollars split between Rize and the college actually teaching the class and it can take just months to get started.
In Rize marketing materials obtained by the Free Press, Rize said if a college were to start five new majors, each with four Rize classes, and attracted five new students a year to each major, the college would pay Rize $10,000 per major out of the $500,000 in tuition dollars and fees those five students would bring to campus. The college would then see nearly $2.5 million in profit off those five new majors combined over the course of those students’ college careers.
Rize classes are held online. Fifty-five of the 588 classes listed as being planned for this coming spring are noted as being online, according to documents obtained by the Free Press. That’s just under 10%.
While the plan offers the chance for Adrian’s coffers to swell or even just stabilize to stave off hard financial times, there’s one group on Adrian’s campus that is skeptical of the plan, particularly of the motives of Docking.
“The faculty are very concerned about whether classes are quality and rigorous,” said Beechler. “If you have garbage classes and garbage programs, that reflects on the college. They (the administration) want the faculty to rubber-stamp every step of the way. They tell us you have to just trust us on the quality.”
This is a warm, comfortable place. There’s a table near the front door, often occupied by a group of regular visitors. There’s all the yarn and knitting supplies needed to keep someone busy for years. And there’s a friendly owner, happy to chat. In other words, a stereotypical small-town craft store. But Tink & The Frog is a bit different — at least the path the owner took to running a knitting shop in downtown Adrian.
Until the fall 2021 semester, Beechler was a psychology professor at Adrian College. She started working at the school in August 2011. She was, by her own admission, growing unhappy as she saw it changing.
Then, in the fall of 2020, Beechler and other faculty returned to campus in the midst of a pandemic. Pregnant at the time with another small child at home, Beechler asked whether she could cut back to half time and teach online in the coming semester. If the answer was no, then Beechler planned to take maternity leave under FMLA, but that would cover just 12 weeks of the 15-week semester, leaving her with three weeks back in the classroom. Beechler sent a number of emails while she was pregnant, but the college didn’t respond promptly. Finally, it replied saying it wanted her to teach only in person.
As this was going on, Rize was being introduced to campus. Beechler found it hypocritical that administrators wouldn’t let her teach online while at the same time pushing for Rize’s online classes to be added to the curriculum. She was also upset by what she saw as an increasingly heavy-handed approach to running the school from Docking, including an avoidance of normal academic shared governance with faculty.
“I was tired of the way things were going,” she said. So she left. But other faculty still there share her concerns that Rize is more worried about making money than helping students learn.
Among the reasons faculty cite for that is a Rize job ad, posted as of Nov. 10, for a student success lead position that cites the strong team at Rize, including a college president (Docking). It says the job will “ensure the successful operation of our courses, monitor student progress and provide student support.” It doesn’t require any higher education experience, but does say “recent college graduates, individuals with limited professional experience, or individuals attempting to pivot into a new space are strongly encouraged to apply.”
Besides Harrington and McCarthy, Adrian also supported other Rize employees as it got off the ground. Vikram Rangraj, now the chief academic officer at Rize, was developing Rize and working as a curriculum adviser to Docking when Rangraj briefed the faculty on Rize at a Jan. 27, 2020, faculty meeting, according to minutes of the meeting.
Adrian, like other colleges, has a process for approving new majors and classes. The proposed addition has to go through several layers of faculty review, starting with those who teach in the area of study at hand. Then it moves up the chain, until faculty vote on it. That’s the normal process at many schools across America.
As the first Rize classes were up for approval in 2020, faculty members asked for more time to review the plan, reviews of meeting minutes obtained by the Free Press show.
On Feb. 17, 2020, faculty gathered to consider approving adding Rize courses to the curriculum. Docking started the meeting by sharing his belief that this was the best way for Adrian to grow, hold down costs and succeed, according to the meeting minutes.
When faculty got to debating the classes, an accounting professor said the business department was willing to be the guinea pig to see how the courses worked. However, numerous faculty members raised concerns about how Rize would fit into the college and its system of accountability.
“I think the faculty still feel very uncomfortable and even after going to several meetings they still are uncertain and confused,” one faculty member said, according to the meeting minutes. The group then voted 25-15 to table the changes.
Four days later, the administration sent out notices to faculty that more than 20 professors would not have contracts renewed for the coming year. In early March, faculty leaders met with Docking and other top administrators about the cuts and Rize came up.
“President Docking spoke of his need in May 2020 of addressing the Board of Trustees with a plan on dealing with the financial pressures the school is facing,” an email recap of the meeting sent to faculty and obtained by the Free Press said. “His plan is to grow enrollment. RIZE is the way to do that. … After the Faculty Meeting, he (Docking) said he felt that he wasn’t going to receive that support he needed for RIZE, so he got the Board of Trustees together and they unanimously decided that the only way they were going to meet our budget shortfall was through faculty cuts.
“President Docking continued to stress that RIZE is one way to leverage academics like he did athletics 15 years ago to grow enrollment. He hopes that RIZE is a way to monetize academics.”
At a March 16, 2020, meeting, faculty finally approved the Rize courses, but the layoff list was not rescinded at that time. The action came Sept. 1, 2020, following a new contract between faculty and the college.
But that didn’t stop a Sept. 9, 2020, vote of no confidence in Docking and Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Andrea Milner. A vote of no confidence is a symbolic vote demonstrating a lack of trust in leadership and is not binding.
The no-confidence resolution said morale among faculty was at a historic low. Among the reasons was a lack of transparency about Rize, including it being “unclear how or why employees of Rize use Adrian College office space, and whether or not they are paid employees of Adrian College.”
Two days before the vote, Patrick Farver, the chairman of the college’s board, wrote to faculty, arguing against the no-confidence vote. “Under President Docking’s leadership, Adrian College has reached higher levels of excellence in nearly every important benchmark category,” Farver wrote. “The faculty have often been the beneficiaries of these improvements and should be grateful for the opportunities the College provides to everyone who is privileged to work here.”
The no-confidence vote prompted another letter from Farver to faculty on Oct. 24, 2020, that reaffirmed the board’s “100%” support for Docking.
“I have to say I was very surprised and disappointed that during this critical time as we are fighting this terrible pandemic and traveling in uncharted waters to keep the college going, the faculty would inflict this wound on the college and damage all the great work that so many have done,” the letter said.
Tensions over Rize courses continued that school year, with the administration pushing for quick approvals and faculty continuing to raise concerns about quality and asking whether the ultimate plan was to get rid of faculty.
On a warm day early this fall, students streamed through campus, some in groups and some walking by themselves. They ducked into buildings, heading to class, some crossed the street from the main part of campus to get to the athletic fields for practice.
That student foot traffic and the connections made by living on campus with nearly 2,000 peers are what Docking is trying to protect, he says. He doesn’t want to replace the residential model.
“Our colleges offer students what they can’t get through any other outlet: the opportunity to move to a campus, to make lifelong connections with friends, to immerse themselves in an educated community, and to experience every wonderful and exciting thing (inside and outside the classroom) that modern higher education offers,” he wrote in his book about Rize. “When COVID-19 broke out, students grudgingly accepted online classes, but they had a much harder time being off campus. … College is an experience that extends far beyond the classroom; preserving this experience should be the highest priority of current administrators, including change agents.”
And he’s not getting rid of faculty, he said.
“It’s really to preserve faculty on campuses, because the way things are going right now, faculty are losing their jobs, you know, left and right,” he told the Free Press. “And that’s because of the broken business model. And so we need to work together to figure out a way to preserve the faculty positions.”
But faculty aren’t mollified by those words. They are worried about the direction of the college, driven by Rize.
Docking “has transformed the college from what it was — a small liberal arts college — into a career college and an athletic college,” Detwiler, the retired religion and philosophy professor, said. “It is clear that it is a marketing movement to increase, on paper, what the college has to offer. The college is marketing toward job training rather than an education.”
David Jesse was a 2020-21 Spencer Education Reporting Fellow at Columbia University and the 2018 Education Writer Association’s best education beat reporter. Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.
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