As a decision nears on who will become Winthrop University’s 11th president, the interview process has elevated discussions about several pressing needs on campus.
The Board of Trustees says enrollment and morale are top priorities. They also have said that they want the next president to be a manager who can balance making tough decisions with keeping them in the loop.
The Herald interviewed the presidential finalists – Jeff Elwell, Dan Mahony and Alan Shao – and asked each how they would tackle those three key issues:
Stagnant student enrollment
Talk of increasing the number of students who attend Winthrop has been ongoing for several years, but the school’s enrollment has remained flat for almost 10 years, while many other state colleges have enjoyed gains. Officials have said Winthrop has the physical capacity to educate 1,000 more students, but that the university likely would need more places for them to live and would need to hire more faculty and staff.
Elwell: “Winthrop can and should grow its enrollment. If you look at two of our South Carolina peers (Coastal Carolina and USC Upstate), they have grown their enrollment more than 70percent and 30 percent, respectively, since 2002, while Winthrop has stayed flat. Only 9 percent of Winthrop’s student population comes from outside South Carolina. We should aggressively seek to increase the percentage of out-of-state students, especially those who present strong academic profiles.”
Mahony: “I have been involved with very successful enrollment growth initiatives at both Kent State University and the University of Louisville.” Some changes “that led to enrollment increases were as simple as changing a degree name, to more extensive efforts, including improving international recruitment, increasing distance education, and better marketing what was unique and special about our programs.” Enrollment increases also can result from both improved recruitment and increased retention. “While it is too early to say exactly what I would do as president, I believe my past experiences would be very beneficial as we work together to develop strategies that make the most sense for Winthrop.”
Shao: “When I started as dean of the School of Business at the College of Charleston in March 2009, we had 1,450 students majoring in business. Today we have more than 2,200 students.” He attributes the growth to having “excellent faculty who are effective communicators in the classroom;” working “extremely close with the business community – our students’ future employers – to educate ‘ready-to-work’ graduates;” and creating majors “that are in demand by prospective employers.” He works with an advisory board of 50 business and political leaders. “At Winthrop, I would do the same, but I would also aggressively fund-raise to establish more student scholarships, create revenue-generating programs in select foreign markets, establish self-supporting executive professional programs, and conduct a feasibility study on additional distance learning courses and programs. If we strive to continuously improve all aspects of the educational experience, the students will come.”
Low employee morale
Trustees say the morale of faculty and staff needs a boost. Employees have complained for years about stagnant pay. Morale also took a hit last year amid allegations that then-President Jamie Williamson mistreated some of her staff. Trustees accused her of being “explosive” at times. Williamson, through her attorney, said the board was unhappy dealing with a woman who was “direct in her approach.”
Elwell: “Empowering and rewarding Winthrop’s faculty and staff is crucial to building morale. They are the ones who are in the trenches daily doing the important work. The faculty and staff will be the key to Winthrop’s being more successful at recruiting and retaining excellent students. I would hope that we would work together closely to make Winthrop an even better and stronger institution.”
Mahony: “Our most important activity as a university is our work with students, and so the morale of the faculty and staff who support them on a daily basis is extremely important.” Ways to build employee morale include “having a true commitment to shared governance, involving people in decision-making, finding ways to help facilitate the success of others and their departments, and maintaining focus on the positive, which includes celebrating successes. “I have actually been doing research on this topic recently as part of my work on organizational justice ... I need to hire people in key leadership roles who understand the importance of these interactions, as well as model a positive approach when I interact with all university employees.”
Shao: “First of all, I will visit regularly with faculty and staff ... to hear their concerns and to share my vision for the future. I will let them know that I am there to support their efforts and to make improvements in the development of both faculty and staff. I will also work tirelessly to increase their salaries to be more competitive with peer comprehensive universities. I will listen closely to their other concerns and address them accordingly, without making promises that I cannot effectively uphold. I will make sure that I convey to the faculty and staff that we are all on the same side, and that is to optimally educate our students and support our community.”
Keeping trustees in the loop
Trustees are looking for a successor to a president who they maintain lied or didn’t inform them about several issues, including the hiring of her husband to a campus job and awarding large raises to several university administrators. When trustees voted unanimously in June to fire Williamson, Chairwoman Kathy Bigham said “candor and trust” had been “irretrievably broken.” Williamson, through her attorney, has said she did not lie or mislead the board.
Elwell: “My leadership style is very open and transparent. I tend to keep my office door open as much as I can and would have regular office hours available for students or staff or faculty to meet with me. I would also hope to open the President’s House for both formal and informal events for the campus. I have always regularly consulted with my direct supervisor(s) when dealing with issues that arise. I would expect to do the same with the Board of Trustees, because we are all on the same team and want to do what’s best for the university. There shouldn’t be any surprises.”
Mahony: “As a leader, my role is to hire good people and then to support them in ways that allow them to contribute to the success of the university ... It is also important for me to be open and transparent with everyone as much as is legally possible and to handle bad news and criticism well, so we can be effective at handling difficult situations and so people continue to be honest with me.” He would seek to understand the board’s communications expectations from the start and “seek (the trustees’) counsel and advice when dealing with difficult situations, keep them informed about key activities at Winthrop University, and make sure they are never surprised about something major.”
Shao: “My leadership style is simple: surround yourself with great people, and great things will happen. I will make sure that I surround myself with highly capable individuals and allow them to do their jobs without my constantly looking over their shoulders.” He would meet regularly with trustees “to make sure that my vision is consistent with their ideas.” He also proposes using an online newsletter for trustees and arranging social gatherings with trustees and local leaders, “so together we can achieve a common cause – optimally educating our students while supporting our community. I will solicit approval on major initiatives, since they have a deep understanding of and history with the institution ... I will make sure that they realize that we must operate as a team rather than opposing forces. Together, we’ll be much stronger and move Winthrop University forward.”