Winthrop University did such a good job winning over Jeff Elwell as a parent last year – when his son was recruited to throw javelin on the track team – that when the school started looking for a new president, Elwell was persuaded to apply.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking; I (wasn’t) on the market,” he told The Herald.
Elwell, a dean at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is one of three finalists competing to be Winthrop’s 11th president. He’s the first to formally visit campus this week, having arrived on Sunday. School trustees are expected to make a selection in the coming weeks.
Preston Elwell, 18, is a freshman at Winthrop, studying political science while on an athletic scholarship. When the family visited Rock Hill as Preston considered scholarship offers from multiple schools, Elwell said, he was blown away by the quality of the campus and how friendly people were at Winthrop.
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Just before Preston started his first semester, Winthrop’s Board of Trustees fired President Jamie Comstock Williamson. Elwell said his son asked then whether he had an interest in being Winthrop’s next president.
At first, the prospect of applying was on the “back burner,” Elwell said. “I’m really in a great place (at UT Chattanooga) ... I work with really great people.”
Though he often fields requests from headhunters and search committees to apply for university administrator jobs, Elwell said, he has turned down those offers in recent years. The Winthrop presidency, though, made him feel differently.
“What I started thinking about was the people there,” he said. “It’s almost like a family. I feel part of the Winthrop family.”
Elwell, 57, has worked at six colleges over the past 25 years. Starting out as a theater professor, he has moved up through the academic ranks – having previously served as a department chairman at the University of Nebraska, as a dean at East Carolina University, and as provost at Auburn University at Montgomery.
While working in higher education, Elwell also has written many plays and produced and directed performances nationwide. He previously served as executive artistic director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, and he has guided several departments at different universities through long-term planning processes and growth stages.
That broad experience – at a total of nine schools and several organizations since he started as a college instructor in Virginia in 1984 – has given him a wealth of knowledge, he said, about “what works and what doesn’t.”
Many things at Winthrop are working well, Elwell said, and he would like to see the university become more prominent over the next few years. He also has studied the dire financial situation facing most public schools nationwide.
“South Carolina has probably been one of the hardest hit by this economic tsunami,” he wrote in his application letter to Winthrop trustees, “with the percentage of state funding per student dropping 41.6 percent (down $3,761 per student) since 2008 – a trend that is likely to continue in the near future.”
As he speaks with Winthrop faculty and staff members this week, Elwell plans to tell them, “We can either surf the wave or be hit by the tsunami.”
At UT Chattanooga, Elwell is dealing with the reality of budget strains and dwindling funds for higher education. He’s overseeing a $1.2 million budget reduction as dean of the college of arts and sciences.
So far, he said, he has weathered the financial storm with no permanent staff or faculty reductions and no program eliminations. Similar budget challenges face Winthrop, he said, and he feels ready to guide the university through hard times.
Elwell is vying with two other academic deans – Dan Mahony of Kent State University and Alan Shao of the College of Charleston – to win over the Winthrop board this month.
“More and more, deans are moving into presidencies,” Elwell said, calling the top campus job “an extremely complex role.” Though versed in a range of university duties, Elwell said his philosophy as Winthrop president would be to steer clear of micromanaging his staff.
He believes in working with great people and getting “out of their way,” he said. Winthrop, Elwell said, already has a number of effective, talented leaders.
If hired as president, Winthrop would likely be his last career stop, he said.
Elwell hopes “to build something lasting at Winthrop,” including helping the school grow enrollment, elevate its national profile, and find money to build a new library – something that has been on the university’s wish list for many years.
Winthrop’s ninth president, Anthony DiGiorgio, spent 24 years guiding the school into excellence, Elwell said, and he wants to build on that success.
DiGiorgio’s successor, Williamson, spent less than a year in office before trustees suspended and then fired her last summer.
Winthrop now needs another leader with longevity, Elwell said, and he could see himself dedicated to the university for 10 years or more.
Whoever is chosen as Winthrop’s president needs to commit to a longer stint than just a few years, Elwell said, adding that longevity is “what (Winthrop) deserves.”