As Columbus State University prepared for Monday’s start of the fall semester, CSU president Chris Markwood sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer to discuss the institution’s new five-year strategic plan.
The draft was released this past week. After a period for review and feedback, the committee will make final revisions and launch the new plan in January. It comprises six strategic initiatives: academic excellence, a student-centered campus, innovation and creativity, partnerships, leadership and sustainability.
“The last strategic plan really set the course for Columbus State University to become a first-choice institution, and I think that has clearly happened,” Markwood said. “When you take a look at our enrollment (8,440 in fall 2015), the last look we had, out of the 159 counties (in Georgia), we had students from 150 of them. The year before that, we had students from 159 out of the 159 counties. So, clearly, Columbus State University is a statewide draw.
“We have students from a significant number of states and countries from around this world, and I think that is, when you look at where we want to go in the future, that is something that Columbus and Columbus State University can be very, very proud of. This institution now isn’t just a local draw. We are very significantly drawing from Columbus and this region, but people are wanting to come here from around the state of Georgia, from around this country and from around this world.”
Here are other excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity:
One of the six initiatives in CSU’s new strategic plan is academic excellence. How would you assess CSU in academic excellence now and what is the goal for that initiative?
One of the ways to judge academic excellence is the programs that we offer and how those benefit the students and the community, and we have made a real effort and will continue to make a real effort to be responsive to the workforce needs of Georgia, of Columbus and of this country. I think you can see that through the initiatives of cybersecurity, the responsiveness to the Georgia Film Academy’s needs and the new programming that people have been approaching the university to begin.
… A second (way) is how successful our students are. One of the ways in which we measure student success is their retention – are they coming back? – and we have seen over the last five years a steady increase in the retention rate (most recent data: 63.3 percent in 2008-09, 71.2 percent in 2014-15). We want to continue that and translate that into the graduation rate increases as well (most recent data: 32.6 percent in 2003-09, 30.3 percent in 2009-15).
… Then the third (way) is our faculty research and creative endeavors. We have seen a tremendous increase in the productivity of our faculty in our research and the notoriety of where they are getting published, the awards they are winning. Our economics department was just recently recognized as one of the most productive academic departments for their research.
The second initiative in CSU’s new strategic plan is student-centered campus. What does that mean? How does CSU rate in that area now and what is the goal?
In my opinion, that’s why we’re here. We are here to help students, to take them where they are and help get them where they need to be, to see them for who they are and to help them become who they were meant to be or who they aspire to be. We have to look at everything we do as a campus from the student’s perspective. That doesn’t mean that there’s a paved way to graduation. We’re going to challenge them. We’re going to provide them a rigorous academic program. We’re going to test them and nudge them and put them outside of their comfort zone — because that’s where growth happens.
We want our students to come out of here ready to make an impact, to be high-impact leaders and to make a difference in this world. So we’re challenging our faculty to look at all of our rules and our procedures and our processes. If there’s a line of students forming, I want to know why. What’s the holdup? What’s the bottleneck? If there are 14 signature lines on a piece of paper and they’re having to go all over campus, I want to know why we can’t do that electronically. All of those things I think will help make us a student-centered campus.
The third initiative in CSU’s new strategic plan is innovation and creativity. So where is CSU with that and where is it going?
One of the things that I think will be a distinctive feature for Columbus State isn’t just that we have academic programs and a variety of disciplines, but it’s our approach to the content within those disciplines and the skill sets we want to develop in our students. It’s one thing to offer a traditional program; it’s another thing to teach our students to be creative, to be innovative, to embrace a change-driven society. That’s what I’m hearing from employers and hiring managers. They need our students to be able to adapt. They need our students to identify a problem, design some solutions, deliver a solution and then assess whether or not that actually works. That’s a lot different than just filling in a bubble on a multiple choice test.
Partnerships is the fourth initiative in CSU’s new strategic plan. What’s going on with that and what’s yet to come?
The partners in this community came together and willed Columbus College into existence (in 1958), now Columbus State, and we value those partners and those partnerships because they help make us stronger, not just for the financial benefit that funds scholarships and endows professorships or buildings but because of the interaction with our faculty and with our programs to make those programs meaningful, to keep then up to date, to keep us on track. We have regular meetings with our partners, major corporations such as Aflac, TSYS, Synovus, W.C. Bradley. We have advisory committees for virtually all of our programs, which have community leaders and industry leaders taking part, advising our faculty, giving them feedback and helping to keep us on the cutting edge of where we need to be.
So growing those partnerships, those mutually beneficial partnerships, is going to be one of the key distinguishers for us. One of the things that I heard when I was interviewing here, both from folks in the (University of Georgia) system and in the community is that the relationship that Columbus State University has with this community is unlike no other. It is special. It’s remarkable. And we want to continue to grow that relationship.
You’ve worked at lots of other institutions, so what are Columbus and CSU doing that other places don’t do to make that partnership remarkable?
It’s partly a result of how this institution got started, but I think it’s also been very strategic, in the forefront of every president who’s been at this institution, and it’s how Columbus works. … I was fortunate my very first day (as CSU president) to have lunch with Mr. (Bill) Turner (the Columbus philanthropist who died July 31), and toward the end of the conversation, I said, ‘Mr. Turner, you’ve known all the presidents of Columbus State University. What advice would you give No. 5?’ And he said, ‘Mr. President, a lot of people come to Columbus and don’t realize how we work, and so they have small dreams. Don’t you be afraid to dream big. Don’t be afraid to have big ideas and to bring them to the community. You make your case, and this community will line up behind it and support big ideas.’
And you can see that in the history of this city, in the decisions that have been made about redevelopment of downtown, and the decisions that have been made with regard to the river and countless others, where folks have said, ‘Let’s put our individual agendas aside and come together as a city.’ That is unique. It’s a spirit, a spirit of cooperation, a culture of collaboration, and that is very special and something to be nurtured and treasured.
So what’s a big idea you brought to CSU in your two years here or that you are working on now?
One that we announced in the state-of-the-university (address), and that is the budding partnership between the Muscogee County School District and CSU, a partnership that can really help, I think, transform education from pre-K through doctoral education. We really need to view education in this community as an ecosystem. When you think about it, the significant percentage, if not majority, of our students come from the Muscogee County School District. The majority of their teachers come from CSU. Many of their principals are credentialed by CSU. We need to be working together, and we’re fortunate that our education programs and Muscogee County have been very, very close and have a very close working relationship.
Dr. (David) Lewis (the MCSD superintendent) and I believe that it’s time to take that relationship to the next level. And that means fully aligning our curriculum so that we are producing the kinds of teachers he wants, that are going to actively engage their students. It means jointly developing our faculty and the faculty in the schools. Let’s face it: We need them to work to together. So why not help develop them together? We want to really focus on the soft skills, the essential skills or new century skills —whatever you want to call them — things such as critical thinking, communication skills, working together, tolerance for ambiguity, creativity and innovation. Those have to be nurtured and developed. They just don’t happen by reading a book or listening to a lecture. You have to engage in that learning.
We want to work together on a lab school, an urban high school, where we can help train future teachers in an environment where they can go out and make a difference in other urban high school environments. We want to continue to grow Move On When Ready (Georgia’s dual enrollment program for high school students to earn college credit) and really help develop in school systems discovery centers, bring libraries and media centers into a sort of 21st century discovery and innovation center type of model.
And you shifted your administration to back that up, right? You moved Tom Hackett from provost and vice president for academic affairs to a new position, executive director of P-12/University Partnerships.
That is correct. He is the lead on that for us, along with the dean of the College of Education. I hated to see Tom step out of the role as provost – I really did, because we were working together – but I’ve never seen him smile so much since he’s taken on that project.
What’s the update on the search for the new provost? I know it’s been frustrating.
Yes, but we are looking for just the right person. We don’t want to just fill it. I’ve had the privilege of serving as a provost twice (at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and University of Wisconsin-Superior). It’s not an easy job. It can be very fun and engaging, because you’re getting your hands dirty working with the faculty and the deans and the students, but that search is continuing. In fact, I’m meeting with the search committee on Friday to map out our next steps and begin reviewing some of the candidates that have applied.
So you’ve essentially restarted the search?
It is continuing.
You had finalists but didn’t hire anybody. What happened?
We assessed each one and believed that the right fit was still out there. Nothing individually wrong with any of the candidates. Many have landed in positions that are good fits for them. But we were looking for that person for us that meets our expectations, has the skills sets, the experience. We are transitioning the provost job from what was just a vice president to a true No. 2, somebody who will really be my partner in sort of serving as the chief operating officer and work to be the lead on institution-wide initiatives and multi-divisional collaboration.
It will be an elevated position but still include the VP for academic affairs?
Back to CSU’s new strategic initiatives. The fifth one is leadership. Where is CSU now with leadership and where is it going?
One of the unique aspects of Columbus State University is its focus on leadership. When I got here, I was so excited that we had an undergraduate program in servant leadership, we had a graduate program in leadership, and we had a center. But as I began looking deeper into what we offer here, I saw some opportunities to really expand that, and we have over the last year and a half expanded the portfolio of the leadership center to include not just external consulting in the community but also helping us grow as leaders on campus. So we’ve started what we call Lead CSU, which is a program, on an annual basis, where we recruit faculty and staff to go through a yearlong leadership development process, and that’s led by the leadership center.
We are starting this year a program for students called iLead. It’s aligned with our six core values (excellence, engagement, creativity, servant leadership, inclusion, sustainability), and students will do both curricular and extracurricular work. They will have a reflective piece to see that they actually understood the outcome, and, at the end, if they complete all the six components, they’ll get a medallion they can wear at graduation.
And we just last week finished our first Camp PROWL (pride, relationships, opportunities, wisdom, leadership). It’s an extended orientation, where we took almost 70 (first-year) students, plus staff, away for an intensive four-day, three-night leadership development (optional pilot program). Many campuses have orientation camps, where you learn the traditions and songs. We did some of that, but the main point was to develop our students, to help them develop a certain sense of self-awareness of who they are, as a leader, as a student, and how they can grow and utilize those skills sets on campus. So we taught them the traditions. In fact, they created some new traditions for us – it’s going to be great – and our eventual goal is to scale that up so that most, if not all, first-year students will have that experience.
CSU’s sixth and final strategic initiative in the new plan is sustainability. What does that mean in this context?
That’s been a value and a goal for some time, and it’s of particular interest to a large number of our students. So we’ve done some particular initiatives on campus, from plant ops (operations) to recycling to waste reduction. But I think what’s most interesting is the student initiatives. We have a sustainability committee that comes up with ideas, that engages every year a sustainability fair out by the clock tower, and we want to expand on those ideas, everything from re-looking at the chemicals and substances we use to clean these facilities to what we use to fuel our vehicles. We can do better to reduce our footprint, so to speak, and we want to continue to work hard to be good stewards of our place.