In the December/January issue, No. 176, we invited Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology students past and present to share their experiences with and opinions about the 89-year-old distance-learning school specializing in boat design—this after the sale of the school by the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) to David Smyth, in 2015. Problem was, in recent decades at least, it lost money and required subsidy, first by NMMA (National Marine Manufacturers Association) and then by ABYC, which eventually lost patience with the school’s inability to be self-sustaining. Since the transfer, some noticeable changes to the school caught our notice, to wit: an end to RINA accreditation, disappearance of The Masthead newsletter, and apparent lack of visible activity on the part of the administration and the sole remaining instructor. We asked Smyth what was going on and reported the challenges he cited, specifically the high cost of upgrading “learning systems,” low graduation rates, and never having received financial records from ABYC. Next, we asked the students. Here’s a summary of what they told us:
- A student in Europe was three-quarters through the program but had to give up his dream of becoming a boat designer because tuition was raised too high. Westlawn claims to have educated more boat designers than any other institution in the world (which could very well be true), and many are from outside the U.S. With personal income in some of these countries much lower than here, the tuition increase makes it especially difficult to continue. Smyth points to the old installment payment plans as contributing to low graduation rates.
- Course materials and the student guide need updating. So does the school’s web presence, which is, in the words of a current student, “laughable.” It is true that many of the materials have changed little over the years, and while past director Dave Gerr rewrote and added to the printed coursework, the task is formidable. Who, if anyone now, is capable of taking on this job?
- “Little useful guidance” especially in terms of software and hardware, wrote one student. Dave Gerr is “sorely missed by the remaining student body,” wrote another current student. The Forum has suffered as a result of his absence. While lone instructor Mark Bowditch received generally high marks, it seems clear that students want more designer chat time.
- A recipient of a certificate for completing Elements of Yacht Design says he “couldn’t be happier.” David Smyth, he wrote, is “a great guy” who has helped him expand his “cognitive database.”
- “David Smyth cannot do this alone,” wrote another Westlawn graduate. “NMMA and ABYC should still support the school. How can an industry survive without qualified naval architects?”
- A number of respondents, including Tom MacNaughton, who runs the Yacht Design School in Eastport, Maine, offered to assist Smyth and Westlawn.
- “Mark Bowditch is an awesome instructor,” wrote a student, adding, “He knows how the industry does things now vs. when some of the textbooks were written.”
- The lack of CAD and computer modeling instruction is seen as a major shortcoming of the school. A Southampton graduate who saw our call for comments suggested offering DELFTship software, which he said is free for its basic modules, adding that Rhino modeling software is available significantly discounted for students. All well and good, but again, who is going to teach how to use them?
- “We are not having any problems continuing to operate,” wrote David Smyth. “Our enrollment is 250% of what it was when we took over. We get new enrollments steadily, and the rate of progress of our students is substantially higher than it once was. I am only frustrated by the rate we can improve the school. Our plan for raising money is purely for capital investment into the school. There is no need for fund raising or capital for any operations. There is absolutely zero chance of Westlawn going away.”
Distance learning focused on design
The uniqueness of Westlawn has always been twofold: distance learning, so that anyone in the world could enroll; and narrow focus on only boat design. Other brick-and-mortar institutions offer degrees in naval architecture, and a few worldwide have loosened their emphasis on ship study, notably Southampton’s three-year program in the U.K. The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, offers a two-semester program in yacht design, but residency is required, and if one finds Westlawn’s tuition prohibitive, he or she will find little relief at either of these well-regarded schools.
The bottom line appears to be this: Westlawn is apparently here for the long term, and its traditional offering is of good quality; that’s the good news. But to stay abreast of developments in a rapidly changing world, and to meet consumer expectations in an increasingly digital world where service is measured almost instantly after every purchase, Westlawn has work to do.