Friday, February 25, 2011

West Virginia’s Private Colleges Lead Very Public Lives

(The State Journal, February 25, 2011; The President's Letter, March 2011 - by Scott D. Miller)
At a time when investment in higher education has never seemed more urgent, when the nation’s colleges and universities have assumed ever greater responsibility for “winning the future,” in President Obama’s words, West Virginia’s eight private colleges lead very public lives of service and distinction.
Although you won’t find small private colleges playing in fancy football stadiums, building huge facilities with corporate sponsorships, or shuttling students between sprawling branch campuses, the results of our work are highly visible—as evidenced by the successful careers and lives of some of America’s most prominent leaders, many of whom were the first in their families to graduate from college.
Collectively, our state’s independent colleges are 892 years old, yet as new as the latest learning technologies that bring the world to our typically small, scenic campuses.  Bearing substantial responsibility for educating our citizens beyond high school, these institutions—Bethany College, West Virginia Wesleyan College, University of Charleston, Wheeling Jesuit University, Alderson-Broaddus College, Davis & Elkins College, Ohio Valley University, and Appalachian Bible College—have the capacity to serve and grow without capital investment from the state, and to move quickly to respond to expectations of students and their potential employers in the global marketplace. 
Our role is not to compete with West Virginia’s public colleges and universities, whose contributions to the state are important in their own right. Rather, in the words of our consortium, West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities, Inc. (WVICU), our vision is to be “an accessible, indispensable and highly visible component of the State’s educational, economic and cultural life.” With a focus on preparing our 7,500 students for careers and lives that will change dramatically within years of their graduation, West Virginia’s private colleges are student-centered, administratively lean, and academically innovative. Most retain  historic affiliations with religious denominations, and offer students personalized opportunities for intensive, residential study in liberal arts and pre-professional programs.
We work hard for our students, many of whom—as in the public higher education community—are the first in their families to attend college.  At Bethany, these first-generation students make up some 30 percent of our enrollment. When I look out at the assembled high school juniors and seniors, and their families, during our campus open houses, I can detect in many faces the eagerness to make a four-year college education a milestone event in their family experience.
Many in West Virginia’s business community, along with foundations and  other funders, share our commitment to student access and success through the Circle of Vision Scholarship Program of WVICU, providing essential funds each year to keep the cost of enrollment affordable to as many as possible.  Since 1997, this program has funded approximately $3.5 million in scholarships to over 2,900 West Virginia students.
Our partnership with the federal government is also critically important.   Pell Grants, serving over 7 million needy students nationwide, represent one of the most responsible and financially feasible investments in America’s students. We hope they will continue to be funded (at a maximum of $5,550 per student through next year) at a critical time when the percentage of American students graduating from college continues to lag behind that of some other industrialized nations.

Although small private colleges remain a well-kept secret in West Virginia, our graduates tell a truly international story.  In March, Bethany will welcome back to campus as our Founder’s Day speaker Holocaust survivor and 1957 Bethany alumnus Thomas Buergenthal, formerly the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague and now a professor of law at The George Washington University.

Bethany’s graduates include Greg Jordan, Global Managing Partner of Reed Smith, one of the 15 largest law firms in the world; Robert McCann, Chief Executive Officer of Wealth Management Americas and member of the Group Executive Board of UBS; Marie DeParis, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for SNY, the official television home of the New York Mets and Jets, and the Big East Conference; Dr. Arthur Keys, Jr., founder and President of International Relief and Development, Inc., and many other distinguished alumni throughout the world.

Having attended recent meetings of various higher education organizations and consortia, including WVICU, I am struck by what a compelling case we can make for continued support of private colleges, here and throughout our nation.

According to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), our institutions nationwide enroll nearly 20 percent of all students, award approximately 30 percent of all degrees, and serve a significant percentage of non-traditional (aged 25 or older) students. We have substantial economic impact on our home communities in West Virginia—think of the small towns of Bethany, Philippi, Buckhannon, Elkins, and Mount Hope that are home to five of the state’s eight private colleges. And we’re efficient. Independent college students tend to complete their degrees on average in 4.5 years, compared with a national average of nearly 6 years for graduates at state schools.

We are lesser known than many of our bigger public counterparts, and you may have to drive along some gorgeous stretches of country road to find us, but West Virginia’s private colleges are academically vibrant and economically important. We partner with business and industry, we do research, and most of all, we teach well, focusing on the needs of the individual student in today’s complex society.

Although we are private, we do a lot of public good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

January is Out, Spring Term is In

(The President's Letter, February 2011)

As I write this letter, another round of snowfall is covering our scenic campus.  We see students in the evening “traying” on the hills in front of Christman Manor at Pendleton Heights and Campbell Village.  A few daring students are using inner tubes on some of the bigger hills.  It’s hard to believe that it has been one year since the great ice storm that closed the campus and surrounding area for more than a week. 

Our spring term is underway.  A week ago we completed January Term, with approximately 450 students taking classes. This concentrated format permits them to explore subjects of interest that might not be possible in a semester-long course; some of the intriguing titles included “Appalachian Mythbusters,” “The Lowdown on Getting High,” and “Ninja Turtles: Math, Science and Art.”

The final week of January Term was also a time for seniors who have completed major requirements to take their comps.  I enjoyed visiting with a number of celebrants as family and friends gathered following this sometimes excruciating, but always meaningful, experience that links Bethanians through the generations.  The sense of accomplishment and pride by family and friends is a special and memorable Bethany tradition.  We are, reportedly, one of just three dozen colleges and universities nationally that still require a senior project as well as written and verbal comps.

Also last month, the Bethany College Day of Service honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday in his memory, with 53 volunteers gathering to share in a variety of service projects and a celebratory dinner featuring remarks by Shaunda Miles, director of programming and cultivation of the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture.  The commemoration served as a reminder of Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community” and his challenge: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Bethany was selected by West Virginia Campus Compact as an MLK Day of Service 2011 Host Campus and received a mini-grant to help fund the day’s efforts in which faculty, staff and students logged 212 hours of work with local organizations.  It was my privilege to spend the day with a group of students working at the Wheeling area homeless shelter.   Fostering community service is one of the most rewarding actions I can take as a college president.  One person can always make a difference; when a group of people pools its resources, anything is possible.

Bethany’s faculty and alumni continue to earn accolades.  The Faculty Merit Foundation of West Virginia announced that Bethany College Professor of Biology Albert “Jay” R. Buckelew has been selected as one of five finalists for its 2010 Professor of the Year. This is the second time in three years that a Bethany professor has been chosen for the honor. John Burns, also a professor of biology, was a contender for the 2008 award.