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Dayton, Ohio, Is ‘a Place That Knows What It Is’

Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio
Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio Courtesy of Sinclair Community College

Let’s take another look at Dayton, Ohio. For context, here is a report on how the city has dealt with the loss of major industries over the decades, and with the mass shootings in its nightlife-and-cultural Oregon District this past summer. And here is a report on how the University of Dayton—a private, Catholic, research university located a few miles from downtown—is reconceiving its mission to emphasize revival of the community as a whole.

Today’s subject is another major part of the local higher-ed equation, Sinclair Community College. Sinclair is very large as community colleges go, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students per year in college-credit courses, and another 12,000 in other programs.

It also has a very long history. It was founded in the late 1880s, growing from vocational-training programs that a young Scottish immigrant named David Sinclair had established at the local YMCA. The main clientele was factory workers, many of them immigrants, who were pouring into this part of Ohio (as with other midwestern cities) during its industrial-age boom. The original Sinclair’s ambition was to provide specific technical training and general “Americanization” courses in civics and language.

“Many community colleges around the country are celebrating their 50th or 60th anniversaries now, because they were part of the big post-World War II educational expansion,” Steven L. Johnson, who has been president of Sinclair since 2003, told me in Dayton last month. “We’re into our 133rd year.” He said that while some institutions might have predated what David Sinclair and his contemporaries set up in Dayton, today’s Sinclair Community College appears to have the longest history of continuous operation among all U.S. community colleges.

David Sinclair (center, in black suit), namesake of Sinclair Community College, in the late 1880s. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

In dispatches from around the country, Deb Fallows and I have argued that community colleges are the indispensable part of this era’s U.S. educational establishment. We’ve seen and described this in Mississippi, and in rural post-tobacco Virginia, and across Michigan, and many places beyond. I still believe what I argued about community colleges earlier in this journey — namely, that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

  1. They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
  2. They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
  3. Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising region-wide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.

Sinclair students in a machine-tool workshop. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

What makes Sinclair unusual and worth notice, apart from its long history? I was struck by three aspects.

  • First is the sheer scale of its impact on the community. According to Sinclair officials, at least half of all Dayton-area residents have taken classes there at some point.
  • Second is the way it is trying to broaden access to its programs—for groups ranging from high school students to people in correctional institutions.
  • Third is its integration and cooperation with other parts of the region’s educational and economic structure. You don’t always see research universities and community colleges working together; in Dayton they appear to be doing so.

First, the scale. When I met Steven Johnson and Adam Murka, his chief of staff, on Sinclair’s campus, I asked about their claim that half of Dayton-area residents had taken classes there. How could this possibly be true?

“Let’s do the numbers,” Johnson said, all of which highlighted the fact that Sinclair is a large institution in a medium-sized town.

The city of Dayton itself has just under 150,000 people. Depending on how you count, the surrounding metro area totals somewhere between 700,000 and one million. Beyond the tens of thousands of students Sinclair enrolls each year, it employs about 3,000 people. Spurred in part by an Ohio program that encourages high-school students to take local college courses, nearly 8,000 Dayton-area high-school students take classes for credit at Sinclair before they graduate from high school. When the local economy goes down, as it did dramatically after the 2008 financial collapse, Sinclair’s enrollment goes up further still, and people who have lost jobs re-train in hopes of finding new ones.

Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College since 2003 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

“We know that if you add it up, every decade we’re educating about 125,000 different people in the area,” Johnson said. “Over time, it means that we’ve directly touched the lives of about half the people within an hour’s drive of here.”  

I asked Johnson and Murka if they knew of any other community college with proportionately as large a regional impact. “We wouldn’t know about all of them, but I’m not aware of any,” Murka said. Johnson, who has been an administrator at colleges in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, said that in his experience, “this footprint is unique.”

We met in the college’s Building 12, its main administration building, which includes large meeting spaces. “It’s not a joke; everyone in the community has been here at some point,” Johnson said. “Every gala, every civic event, every big gathering has happened here. We are just part of this place.”

Like many other community colleges, Sinclair offers programs in health care, and law enforcement. “Whenever you hear a siren in the Miami Valley, there’s an 80 percent probability that someone in that emergency vehicle—fire, police, paramedic—is Sinclair trained,” Johnson said.

The scale of the Sinclair commencement ceremony, held at the University of Dayton Arena (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Second, the ambition to broaden and include. For residents of Montgomery County, of which Dayton is the county seat, Sinclair tuition is now $3,500 per year, which the college says is the lowest in Ohio. Over the past dozen years, the number of students completing a degree or certificate has gone up more than five-fold—low completion rates being one of the long-standing failures of America’s community colleges. In 2005, about 1,500 Sinclair students completed their degrees or certificates. Last year, more than 8,000 did. The number of degrees and certificates completed by minority students has also risen sharply. (From just over 500 in 2012, to nearly 2,000 last year.)

The broadening strategy that most got my attention was Sinclair’s “Prison Education Program,” to offer people still in correctional institutions courses that lead to certificates or associate degrees. “We have all this human talent—latent talent—now incarcerated,” Johnson said. “What they need is not random ‘enrichment’ courses, but a pathway, to something specific.” The courses lead to certificates and degrees in food-services, addiction counseling, social work, agriculture and forestry, supply-chain management, and other fields. About 2,000 incarcerated students are now enrolled, at 15 institutions across the state.

“This program is also unusual in its scale,” Adam Murka said. “Lots of states are involved in prison education, but I’m not aware of anybody doing as much as we are, toward credentials where people can actually get jobs.” He pointed out that people with felony records are barred from future employment in some fields, notably including teaching and medical care. “We’re concentrating on fields where they can find work.” According to Sinclair, recidivism rates have fallen dramatically among people who have completed these courses.

Third, collaboration between this community college and the area’s main research institution, the University of Dayton. Sinclair and UD are not the only important higher-ed organizations in the region—another important one is Wright State University—but they have a long history of collaboration, as opposed to the arm’s-length, disdainful, or competitive attitude with which some four-year universities  view their community-college counterparts. For instance, since 2016 the two institutions have offered a program called the “UD Sinclair Academy.” Under this system students start at Sinclair, earn an associate degree there, and then transfer their courses for full class credit at the (much more expensive) University of Dayton.

There are many more aspects of the Sinclair story that I won’t go into here. The one that tempts me most: their advanced work in “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or drones, including a very high-ceilinged “Indoor Flying Pavilion” (video here) where the little devices can fly and be tested and calibrated in all weather.

Opening of the Indoor Flying Pavilion, in 2015 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Instead I’ll return to the question I earlier asked the leaders of the University of Dayton: how the rest of the country should think about the situation of Dayton, with all it has lost and all it is trying to regain.

Steven Johnson grew up as part of a large farming family in rural Wisconsin. Adam Murka is from the Dayton area and graduated from the University of Dayton — before working as an aide for the area’s Republican congressman (and former Dayton mayor), Michael Turner.

How does each of them think about Dayton now—and think it should be understood, by the rest of the country?

“Dayton is proud,” Steven Johnson said. “I like to say, having lived in Austin [where he went to graduate school, at the University of Texas], that Dayton was the Austin of the Industrial Age in America. It was the place in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It was a booming place. People really didn’t see themselves in any way, shape, or form as ‘second class,’ compared to the very biggest cities. That consciousness remains.

“This is an extraordinarily competent place,” he said. “People here understand how to do things. And it’s a big enough place to have all the components of a city’s life—and small enough that it’s not siloed.”

Both he and Murka said that everyone in Dayton was aware of the larger “declining Rust Belt” perception mage applied to the region as a whole, and the particular way Dayton’s opioid and factory-closing problems have dominated national-media attention to the town. “There’s this image, ‘Dayton was once great and booming, and now it’s just horrible,’” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating because I think, Would you look more closely at this region? There is a lot happening here. On average, the quality of life is very high. Of course I immediately have to stress on average, because of our obvious problems. But if you take me to Austin, in five minutes I can show you all its problems and contrasts too.”

About Dayton’s woebegone image, Adam Murka said, “Among Daytonians, and maybe everywhere in the Midwest, there is a very strong allergy to self-promotion.” Murka said that he had spent an earlier part of his career in Washington D.C., “where that allergy does not exist. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam,” he said, “But—of course you promote yourselves! Or in Texas they might say, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ Here that’s just not done.”

With appropriate allowances for broad-brush regional caricatures, Murka said there was an upside of this taciturn midwestern approach: “It means it’s a great place to do business. If somebody makes you a promise, they’ve very likely to keep it. The downside is that people don’t know about all the promise you have.” He said that if he told a loyal New Yorker, “Man, your city must be a terrible place to live,” then “in the best case, they say ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And in the worst case it degenerates quickly.” But tell a Daytonian about the city’s woes, and the reply is likely to be, “Yeah, we’ve had some hard times here ...”

“I have seen more optimism in the last five years than in the past 15,” Steven Johnson said, about the developments in downtown Dayton and varied business and cultural startups. Adam Murka made a similar point in a different way.

“One of the nice things about having gone through catastrophic change, is that you have gone through it,” Adam Murka said. “You know you can do it.”

“We are a place that knows what it is. The smartest thinkers in the world say that the rate of change is going to increase exponentially. We know we will be able to adapt to those kinds of changes, because we’ve already done it, several times.”

Archway Entrance for the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "The city is in our name," says the university's president. "It's our future." Courtesy of the University of Dayton

It’s time for another report on Dayton, Ohio, subject of this introduction last month.

A century ago, Dayton was known mainly for the things it created, from the Wright Brothers’ airplanes to the cash registers used around the country and produced by Dayton’s home-grown National Cash Register corporation, later NCR.

Over the past generation Dayton has often been the dateline for stories about things older Rust Belt communities have lost. In Dayton’s case, these include a major GM assembly plant, whose closing two days before Christmas in 2008 was chronicled in the HBO documentary film The Last Truck, by local filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. A few months after GM’s departure, the city lost NCR itself, which in 2009 delivered the shocking news that it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta and abandoning the riverside office park in Dayton that it had built for itself back in the 1970s, during the heyday of the sprawling “office-campus” trend.

At the time of the move to Atlanta, some 1,250 NCR employees were working in Dayton, most within earshot of the imposing Deeds Carillon, built by one of the company’s early leaders and an all-around civic titan, Col. Edward Deeds. As the New York Times’ Dan Barry pointed out in an artfully acidic piece the year after the move, the Carillon remains even as other traces of NCR have vanished. Barry noted that the NCR executive who presided over the change, a controversial figure named Bill Nuti, had himself declined ever to shift his residence from New York to Dayton—and was prominently featured in the Atlanta press saying that the relocation out of Dayton was “great for NCR.” Perhaps so, but for Dayton it represented the loss of its last remaining Fortune 500-company headquarters and a large number of high-end jobs.   

Work room at the bustling National Cash Register company in Dayton, in 1904. A few months earlier, Dayton’s own Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first-ever flight of a powered aircraft. (Geo. R. Lawrence Co. via Library of Congress)

But, as noted in this previous post, things move on. The closings weren’t the end—for the physical structures that GM and NCR has abandoned, or for the town. After The Last Truck, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar made a celebrated followup Netflix documentary, American Factory, about the Chinese glass-making firm Fuyao that has set up operations in GMs old plant. NCR’s expansive former suite of office buildings and factory structures near the Carillon are now occupied by research centers for GE and the electronics company Emerson, Cox Media’s broadcast and print operations, a variety of others firms, and many operations of the University of Dayton, located nearby. “The footprint NCR left in Dayton is large,” Ty Greenlees, of the Dayton Daily News, wrote last year, in an updated look at the site NCR had left behind. “But many in the community saw opportunity.”

Today’s subject is how one of the city’s major institutions, the University of Dayton, has decided to throw itself all-in, to the effort to find new opportunities in and for the town. (Another of these institutions, Sinclair Community College, is similarly all-in on the Dayton-renewal effort. More about what Sinclair is doing in an upcoming report.)

GE Aviation’s new research center, on the site of former NCR factory buildings (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

“The city’s name is in our name,” Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse University to become president of the University of Dayton three years ago, told me when I visited the town last month. “The health and vibrancy of the city, especially of the urban core, are central to our ability to exist—to attract the best faculty and staff, to convince parents that this is where they want to send their kids. So bringing vitality to this city and region really is an existential question for us.”

This past spring, I reported from Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University—a large, public institution—has taken responsibility for the city’s troubled K-12 public schools. To the best of my knowledge—and that of the Ball State authorities—this is the first time a U.S. public university has directly run a community’s schools. The Ball State move is a particularly clear-cut example of a trend that Deb Fallows and I have seen around the country: The commitment by four-year and research universities, which might traditionally have tried to wall themselves off from urban problems through a widening town-and-gown separation, instead to view their future as linked to the community’s.

The University of Dayton is a private, Catholic, relatively prosperous research institution, founded by the Marianist (Society of Mary) order of the church. Geographically, its lovely main campus is set apart from downtown Dayton and its struggles—across the boundary of an interstate, miles from the main manufacturing centers, in the sylvan riverside area next to where NCR also chose to build its campus.

One strategy for universities like this, in towns like this, would be to say: Hey, that’s them, too bad for their problems, but come see how nice life can be within our sheltered enclave. Another approach, of which we’ve seen more and more examples, is for university leaders to say: This is us, we rise or fall together, let us prepare our students for their broad global possibilities by teaching them responsibility for where we are now.

What are illustrations of the University of Dayton’s investment in the city? I mentioned last month Eric Spina’s speech at a Dayton-renewal conference where he said that the university, as an “anchor institution” of the community, was there to stay. “We’re not moving to Mexico City,” he said. “We’re not moving to Atlanta,” an NCR reference that everyone in the audience understood.

In practical terms this means several physical commitments:

One is the university’s investment in the $90-million-plus renovation of the Dayton Arcade—a century ago the focus of downtown commerce, but for the past generation another derelict structure. (I’ll have more to say about this project, and the downtown as a whole, in another report.)

Under-construction view of the downtown Dayton Arcade, future site of University of Dayton centers and other businesses and offices (Courtesy of University of Dayton)
Drawing of how the Arcade is supposed to look, within a year or two (Courtesy of University of Dayton)

Another is its financial and reputational commitment to the “onMain” project, in partnership with the large regional health system Premier Health, toward creating “Dayton’s Imagination Zone.” The project will involve re-use of a long, 38-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land formerly occupied by the Montgomery County Fair. It conveniently runs the distance from downtown Dayton to the university district—and from the university to the river.

“This is not a 5-year project, or 10, or 20, or 30,” Spina told me. “This is a 150-year investment. How often do you get 38 uncontaminated acres in the middle of a city? Not very frequently, and we are all determined to do this right.”

Doing it right, in his view, would involve a sustained investment in mixed-income housing, locally focused retail, parks and amenities, and other aspects of the modern urban ideal. When completed, it is meant to foster a connection rather than a separation between town and gown—and explicitly a closer connection between Dayton’s black and white communities, for which the Miami River has been a historic dividing line.

Plans for the future development of the former fair grounds, on land connecting the University of Dayton (to the left in this image) with downtown (further to the right) (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

Why bother? I asked Spina why development of Dayton-the-city should be part of his franchise as leader of Dayton-the-private-university. He told me his views on that topic—and also about what people misunderstand about a “declining” midwestern city like this.

On the university, he said that its Marianist heritage predisposed its students and faculty toward community involvement. But beyond that, he said, “I see two primary reasons for deeper engagement.”

One was “our fiduciary responsibility to students—making sure that they have the best possible education.” Rigor in the classrooms is supposed to be taken for granted. But, he said, “I believe that education is optimized if we get students out of their bubble.” Through engagement in the community’s struggles, “they may come to understand that they aren’t going to solve any of these problems. They are there to contribute—their knowledge, their skill, themselves—to a team that can address big issues. That is learning to be a leader, in the Marianist way of life.”

The other motivating force, he said, was the school’s like-it-or-not connection to the city’s progress and reputation. “We are here,” he said. “We employ more than 3,000 people. We have, with grad students and undergrads, more than 11,000 students.”

“We own homes here. We spend money here. We recreate here. We have an extraordinary research institute, which has grown from 400 employees to about 600. We want this region to be successful, and we believe we can contribute to that. In this day and age, when fewer institutions seem to have both a longer vision and a sense of connectivity to the local and and a commitment to the public good, I think we have to remember that universities should be committed to the public good.”

Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton since 2016 (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

The other topic I asked Eric Spina about was the outlook and self-image of Dayton. When national media go there, it’s usually for a “Rust Belt city in crisis” story, or for a followup to the Oregon District shootings in downtown Dayton this past summer. What was it like to lead a major institution there, day in and day out?

“We can argue about whether downtown Dayton is at the [positive] tipping point or not,” he said, referring to the blocks around the arcade project. “I do think a few more things need to happen. But all of a sudden, there are successful developers from outside the area who have begun projects here. All of a sudden, many people are living downtown, and even in the suburbs you have this awareness that there are free concerts, restaurants, arts, other interesting things going on downtown.”

A building in the Fire Blocks District of downtown Dayton, which holds a growing number of apartments and condos (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

I asked him what he said to prospective faculty members or students, about deciding to commit to this town. “First I say, forget what you’ve heard about the ‘rust and decline.’ Think about the people. The people here are highly collaborative. They work together and they get things done.” He gave the example of bigger-city arts organizations, where the ballet and the symphony and the opera would talk about joint efforts—but feud, compete, and don’t move past talk. “Here we have the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance,” with combined calendars and ticket sales for a range of arts organizations. “That’s one illustration that speaks to the heart and soul of the community, where the dominant culture is practical-minded, toward getting things done. It’s a place where there are collaborators, and the quality of life is high.”

Five years ago I wrote about the unofficial and mostly joking civic motto for the fast-growing city of Greenville, South Carolina: “Greenville, are you kidding?” When a company transferred a family to Greenville from a more “glamorous” location, the first reaction was typically, “Are you kidding?” But as the city’s mayor, Knox White, told us, “They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.” (The rapid in-migration to Greenville makes this more than just a boosterish claim.)

The Dayton version of this joke-motto is that the city is a “two-cry” place, a term particularly widespread among the military families transferred into and away from the adjoining, huge Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Many people I met told me about this concept, including Eric Spina: When he was in his final interview with the university’s presidential-selection committee, his wife, Karen, went to lunch with some Dayton residents. “They told her that Dayton was a ‘two-cry’ town,” Spina said. “She asked, What do you mean? And they said: You cry when you hear that you have to move to Dayton. Then you cry when you hear you have to leave.”

Is this the view of someone with an interest in putting the community in the best light? Of course. Does it fully represent all the outlooks, heartbreaks, and divisions in a still-troubled region? Of course not. But this perspective is different enough from the standard media view of places like Dayton, and also representative enough of the institutional innovation we’ve seen from central Oregon to southern Georgia, to be worth attention.

Next up: another important and nationally significant part of Dayton’s educational mix.

In the background, Curran Place, once site of the NCR World Headquarters, now home of the University of Dayton Research Institute. In the foreground, “solar prairie.” (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)