This summer I transitioned from my nine-year presidency of Frostburg State University in Maryland to the same post at Wells College, a private institution on the shore of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.
After dedicating more than 14 years of my career to serving students who have chosen public higher education institutions as the president of two public universities, many of my friends and colleagues have asked why I was willing to move to a tuition-dependent, private institution like Wells. The answer is simple--I was ready to lead an institution that has the luxury of creating meaningful and authentic relationships with each and every student and providing them with personalized experiences.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that students attending my previous institutions were not the priority for our efforts. To a person, I worked with tremendously talented faculty, staff and administrators who dedicated their personal and professional lives to our students. And our student success stories were tremendously powerful. But with thousands of students attending, it was mathematically impossible to connect with every student--and I know, because I tried and was as present as possible across campus.
I learned when I stepped onto the Wells campus in Aurora, New York that some institutions can reach each student. I was taken by the way in which the Wells community rallies to ensure each student has a relationship-based educational experience. I noticed, and others have commented to me, that when faculty and staff at Wells are asked what they do on campus, most lead their response by saying they connect with students. After explaining what that means, they then transition to a more perfunctory description of the responsibilities associated with their job. That response was refreshing and inspiring for me.
Many institutions talk about treating students as more than just a number, including faculty noticing if a student isn't in class and following up with them. Our faculty and staff share those stories, too, but they are just as likely to talk about encouraging a student to study abroad even if they have never been out of the country or dreamed of worldwide learning, encouraging them to engage in faculty-led research and even to present their findings when students have not yet recognized their aptitude for the subject matter, or encouraging first-generation students to continue their studies in graduate school when they have never considered the possibility of further learning.
Research tells us that graduates prioritize these connections as they weigh the value of their degree. The recently released Gallup-Purdue Index found that "only half of all alumni (50 percent) 'strongly agree' their university education was worth the cost," but "[r]ecent graduates who strongly agree with any of three items measuring supportive relationships with professors or mentors were almost twice as likely to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost."
Further, "[i]f recent graduates strongly agree that they had any of three experiential learning opportunities -- an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities or a project that took a semester or more to complete -- their likelihood to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost increases 1.5 times." These types of projects are hallmark experiences for Wells students, with each encouraged to conduct research with faculty members, hold internships, and study across the United States and abroad.
The reality of higher education is that personal transformations are occurring every minute on college and university campuses across the country and faculty and staff play a vital role in those moments. On many large campuses, most of those mentoring opportunities occur with faculty or through self-discovery. For me, being able to participate in those moments is critically important, especially when holding the position of president. I've dedicated my life to connecting with students and providing them with opportunities to grow and am honored to serve in a role that allows me to do so with all Wells students.