The Aug. 17 opening address to faculty and staff members by Winthrop University’s new president, Dan Mahony, marks the ceremonial start of the new academic year. As such, it was more pep talk than specific blueprint for how Mahony hopes to address the challenges faced by Winthrop, both long- and short-term.
Nonetheless, the broad themes he touched on in the speech offer signs that he both understands the necessary priorities and has a plan for meeting them. And much of what he said should come as good news to staff and faculty in the audience.
Winthrop’s top goals are no secret:
▪ The university needs to increase enrollment. While many other colleges in the state have achieved enrollment growth in recent years, Winthrop has lagged. The school has about 300 fewer students than it did in 2004, and more students are needed to ensure steady revenues from tuition and fees.
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▪ Winthrop needs to strengthen its base of donor support, especially among alumni. While that effort increased significantly under former President Anthony DiGiorgio, it needs to be expanded.
▪ Mahony has listed sustaining morale among his top priorities. He reasonably believes that fixing pay inequities for campus employees will be a significant part of that effort.
That, no doubt, was a welcome message to the faculty and staff in attendance. Mahony stressed that a improving campus life necessarily entails meeting the needs of those employees who represent the front line in fulfilling Winthrop’s mission. He said he would present a plan to address salary and compensation issues to the Board of Trustees in the near future.
Mahony also must address the university’s overall financial health. The board has been criticized in recent months for misusing non-recurring money from the state and the university’s reserve funds.
Trustees have countered that the money has been used only for special one-time projects, not to cover budget shortfalls. Nonetheless, Winthrop’s current reserve of $10.8 million is about half as much as it was in 2008, the pinnacle of the recent recession. Nearly every other South Carolina public university’s reserve fund has grown since that year.
Mahony insisted in his speech that “Winthrop University is fiscally strong.” But he will have to overcome remaining skepticism that the university is on sound financial footing.
To that end, he pledged in his speech to be accessible, collaborative and transparent in the months ahead, which is reassuring. A transparent approach is the best antidote to concerns about the university’s financial stability.
Mahony’s efforts so far to make himself accessible, to get to know members of the Winthrop community and to listen to the concerns of different groups on campus are further evidence that the board chose well in naming him president. The sometimes intangible qualities of personal dynamism and the ability to relate well to others can be significant assets for the leader of a university and the institution he represents.
We hope Mahony will fulfill that promise in the weeks and months ahead. For now, though, he appears to be off to a good start.