One of the men who could be Winthrop University’s next president was told in high school that he simply “wasn’t college material.”
Jeff Elwell told more than 200 Winthrop faculty and staff in a packed auditorium Tuesday that he was an average student who “only took the SAT because a neighbor was taking it.”
His high school grade point average was around 2.7 – quite a bit lower than the 3.8 GPA of the average Winthrop freshman today. Elwell was a first-generation college student in his family, from southern California, who really wanted to be a gold medalist in the Olympic decathlon – not pursue higher education.
But he started studying at a community college anyway. The name of that school isn’t even on his resume.
If it were there, it would be buried underneath mention of Elwell’s doctoral degree in speech communication and theater and his nearly three decades of experience as a professor and university administrator.
It would probably be somewhere near the bottom of his 10-page resume, which lists accomplishments at the nine schools where he has worked, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he has been a dean since 2008.
But it was at that community college where Elwell says he learned that “no SAT or formula can measure determination.” Soon, he was earning a 3.5 GPA – nearly a straight-A record – and tutoring fellow students.
That kind of turn-around was made possible in large part by “Mr. Waterman” – a physical geology professor and Elwell’s mentor in community college.
Waterman took the time to encourage students, Elwell said, and showed that he genuinely cared about their success. He particularly wanted to help people – like Elwell – who were under-prepared for college.
“From what I’ve seen,” he said, “Winthrop has many Mr. Waterman’s.”
The people at Winthrop – employees and students – are the reason Elwell wants to be the school’s 11th president, he said – the reason he was “thrilled” when his 18-year-old son, Preston, enrolled at Winthrop last fall.
And the people are the reason Winthrop is already great, he said. But, as president, Elwell says he’d aim to take the school from “great to prominent.”
Finalists schedules packed
Elwell’s presentation on Tuesday to more than 230 people – mostly Winthrop faculty and staff and a handful of students – came after a busy two days of meetings on campus. His wife, Edwina Gower, accompanied him.
Gower’s professional background includes experiences in human resources and banking. She said she enjoys attending campus programs and university athletic events with her husband.
Elwell was interviewed by five small groups on Monday and Tuesday – a move that Winthrop trustees say will help give them an in-depth assessment of each finalist.
The groups include 13 students and more than 40 faculty or staff members who will give trustees feedback. An online survey will collect more comments from the campus. The Board of Trustees interviewed Elwell on Monday morning.
Two other presidential finalists – Dan Mahony of Kent State University and Alan Shao of the College of Charleston – will follow the same schedules over three-day visits.
Sessions of the kind used this week were not a part of the vetting process two years ago when trustees looked for a president. At the end of that search, the board hired Jamie Comstock Williamson to succeed retired President Anthony DiGiorgio. Williamson was fired after less than a year in office.
Board members pledged to use more inclusive tactics and to solicit wider opinions in the current presidential search.
Because he would be following an ousted president accused by trustees of mistreating employees, among other issues, Elwell said, the next president needs to prioritize building trust on campus.
His early plan, he said, would be to “listen a lot ... get the real lay of the land ... and value people and their input.”
‘24/7’ kind of president
Elwell said he’s ready to tackle Winthrop’s desired enrollment growth by focusing on “recruitment, retention and relationships” with students. The school needs to pursue new applicants with the same zest as college coaches who try to recruit the best athletes, he said.
He proposes wooing more out-of-state students, boosting the university’s online course offerings, and finding new ways to package the “Winthrop story” to attract students who have never heard of the school.
Several other goals topped Elwell’s message to the Winthrop community:
• Finding money to build a new library that has been years in the planning stage.
• Ensuring pay equity for faculty and staff members who haven’t seen significant raises in many years.
• Hiring diverse employees who better represent the makeup of the Winthrop student body, which is about 40 percent minority students.
He gave specifics of how he addressed similar issues at schools where he’s worked as a department chair, dean and provost. For example, over a five year period at the University of Nebraska, Elwell helped the theater department go from having no minority faculty members to having about one-third of its professors come from minority backgrounds.
Winthrop, like any school, has its share of challenges and issues, Elwell said, but nothing he has learned so far about the university gave him any reservation about applying to be president.
“I can’t say that about many other places,” he said.
Elwell is happy with his current position at UT-Chattanooga, he said, and isn’t involved with presidential searches at other colleges because he wasn’t actively looking for a new job. He was persuaded to apply, he’s said, because of the welcoming experiences he had at Winthrop while helping his son consider athletic scholarship opportunities at various colleges. Preston Elwell, a track team member at Winthrop, encouraged his dad to put his name in the hat.
The interest in being Winthrop’s next president is sincere, he said, joking Tuesday that he isn’t a new kind of “uber helicopter parent” just following his only son to college.
Elwell doubts he’ll again see the chance to be president at a school with as much going for it as Winthrop.
“I want to be 24/7, 365 (as president) and live it.”