David White: ‘We felt that the future was on the river’

David White is vice chancellor of Troy University’s Phenix City Campus.
David White is vice chancellor of Troy University’s Phenix City Campus. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

David White spent 26 years in the U.S. Army as an Infantry officer, rising to the rank of colonel before retiring in 1996.

He has worked for Troy University for 20 years, the past six as vice chancellor of the Phenix City campus. He has a unique view of the tri-community — Columbus, Phenix City and Fort Benning.

Recently, he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams to talk about that view. Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Troy University has undergone a great deal of change over here in Phenix City in the last four or five years. You’ve played a role in that, right?

A: Well, I think a lot of people played a role. I was appointed to this position about six years ago, and at that point we had plans to build a riverfront building but we didn’t have the money. Part of my appointment instructions were to raise money for the building. The original concept was a building just big enough to meet the requirements of the city that had gifted us this piece of land, this precious three acres.

The chancellor required us to get all the money —100 percent of the money — to build the building, which was about $6 million. Once we got that amount, the chancellor and I discussed what the future plans were for the campus, and I suggested to him that we, instead of building just a small three-story building that would house our business programs, that we go all in and that we make plans to move the entire campus to this location, which means the money we’d collected thus far would buy us a phase one building. In fact, it wouldn’t even buy that. The phase one building we’re in now cost about $10 million. He believed in us and bankrolled us, basically, out of university reserves.

Q: Right now you’re getting closer to starting the second phase, right?

A: I think we’re three to five years away. I’ve got to raise some additional money to pay off this phase of the building, and then I’ve got to raise money for phase two. Now, the good news is, most of the cost of this building is in phase one. Things like elevators and bathrooms and stairwells, the high expense items we put into phase one — the safe space.

Q: Why was it important to you to put this campus downtown and not leave it out at Chattahoochee Valley where it was?

A: Well, it was clear to us that the river and the redevelopment of the river, revitalization of the river and the establishment of the whitewater park was going to change everything for Columbus and Phenix City. We felt that the future was on the river. Although we had more space where we were, this was really where the activity of a vibrant community would be centered and where growth would occur early on. We felt that we were a critical component of the redevelopment of Phenix City riverfront.

Q: Now that you’re here and looking at it, do you feel strongly that that was the right decision?

A: Yes, I think the university made the right call. Within about a month and a half after the chancellor announced that we were going to build here, the RAM Hotel Group announced they were going to build the Marriott next door to us. Within about two months after that, W.C. Bradley announced it was going to purchase the Phenix City Plaza shopping center. We could see the dominoes begin to fall once the university committed to building on this property.

Q: Were you surprised that W.C. Bradley said a month ago that they’re going to delay what happens over here for a while?

A: Well, I wasn’t particularly surprised. I stay in contact with Mat Swift, and I’m always asking him the same question that everyone’s asking him.

Q: You knew what he was thinking?

A: Well, yes. What I knew was that he was considering how it all fits together — how that last six acres on the Columbus side of the river fits with what’s going to happen on this side of the river, that you can’t separate those two things. ... He’s looking at almost the same sort of domino effect.

Q: The delay, the deliberate move makes sense then?

A: It does. In fact, I think there’s an advantage in it because I think it gives Phenix City a chance to be a part of that planning in a larger way. When Mat Swift spoke to the community last week at a community forum here in the building about W.C. Bradley’s plans for the future, particularly on the riverfront, he emphasized that when you’re doing this kind of planning, you have to make sure it fits into the larger plan. I think you could see the light bulbs going on in the room.

For Phenix City, it’s not just about what happens to Phenix Plaza — it’s about how Phenix Plaza fits into all the other things we hope to do on the riverfront, how it fits into the Riverview Apartment revitalization, how it fits into how we might enhance the Phenix City Riverwalk, how we might expand the Phenix City Riverwalk, what we might do with the properties on the other side of Dillingham Street all the way to Brickyard Road.

Q: Mat has said that you’ve got one chance to get this right. Do you agree with that?

A: Yes. I agree you’ve got your first, best chance to get it right.

Q: What were you doing before that at Troy?

A: I was with Troy’s global campus, and I was in charge of about 23 sites in six Southern states outside Alabama.

Q: Were you based out of Troy then?

A: I was based out of Columbus.

Q: OK. That was all of the campuses that were essentially on military installations, right?

A: Yeah, not all of them were on military installations. About half of them were.

Q: Being a retired Army officer and having worked 20 years for Troy, how did Troy become this institution that not only has its campus in Alabama but also caters to military personnel across the country and around the world?

A: Well, the university made the commitment to this expansion model, this distributed campus model, in the ’70s under the former president Dr. Ralph Adams. He made some key strategic decisions. One of those was to expand beyond the state of Alabama; the other was to develop some satellite campuses in the state of Alabama. When Dr. (Jack) Hawkins took over in 1989, he just ran with that concept and made the key strategic decision in the late ’90s to engage the university fully in online learning as an additional component to what we can offer to adult and military students.

Q: What percentage of Troy’s student body is military?

A: Probably about 25 percent.

Q: That’s out of how many students?

A: Probably out of 18,000 students.

Q: That’s a big number.

A: It is, yeah.

Q: How did you end up at Troy?

A: It was purely serendipitous. I had always planned on going into higher ed as my second career. The Army was good to me — I got my master’s and my Ph.D. while I was in the Army. When the family came back from Europe in 1992 to my assignment at Fort Benning, I had about 22 years in the Army. We loved the Army. The Army was great to us, it was great to the family, but it was an exciting time to be in Columbus because Columbus was beginning to gear up for the Olympics, which I think was a major turning point for the city. I think the city really overcame all of its previous thoughts about being sort of a small little Southern town and remaining the same and really decided to be something new and different and better.

I came back in ’92. I did four years, I was getting ready for reassignment, probably to the Pentagon. I knew that those last four years would be my last — that would take me to 30 and I would get out then. It was time for me to go to the Pentagon. I never served in the Pentagon before, but I didn’t want to end my career there, trying to get back South to get into higher ed.

One day I was invited to lunch by a representative of Troy, just out of the blue. They made a job offer that day, and I remember going back to talk ... I was surprised. Had no plans on getting out of the Army at that point and went back that evening and talked to Susan. I said, “I just got a job offer today and it’s for this Alabama school, Troy University. I would stay here. In fact, I’d be a faculty member on the Fort Benning campus, but it would mean that we’d stay here.”

We’re both from Florida, and I always had the notion that we wanted to go back there. Susan was working full time. She’s a medical technologist and was working at St. Francis at the time, and she said, “I love Columbus. I think we ought to stay here.” I never knew. ... Why didn’t I know that? I mean, I should have known that. I kept thinking she wanted to get back to Florida. I said, “OK.”

I talked to them a little bit more, and within a week I put in my retirement papers. I’ve never looked back. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Q: You’ve served under Dr. Hawkins your whole time.

A: Yes.

Q: What kind of leader is Jack Hawkins?

A: Well, he’s a visionary leader. He thinks big and he thinks long-term. I think that’s one of the reasons why Troy has continued to be such a big school, almost like the Little Engine That Could. He thinks long-range and he thinks strategically. When you’ve got a leader that does that, you can get a lot of great projects behind that. The other thing is that he’s a leader we’ve had for a long time, so when you have continuity of leadership. ... He’s been our chancellor since ’89.

Q: You’re talking about nearly 30 years as chancellor.

A: The previous chancellor, Dr. Adams, was there about 25. Think about that — in the last half century we’ve had two leaders. You have some continuity with that kind of leadership.

Q: When you look at aiming education for working adults, most cases, those are post-graduate degrees, right?

A: Well, it’s a combination. There’s a lot of adults who started college, or took a crack at college, and then either because they didn’t do well or because they ran out of money, or because a personal situation got in the way, stopped. It’s hard after a few years to get back into that. I would say probably in the area outside the Troy campus, maybe two-thirds of our adult students are undergraduate.

Q: What are the obstacles for those students?

A: Well, they’ve already got full-time jobs. In many cases they’ve already got families. They’ve been out of school for several years, and Mom and Dad aren’t paying for college. They’ve got to come up with the money themselves, they’ve got to find the time outside work, and they’ve got to balance family and any other activities that they’re doing, and they’ve got to overcome some of the psychological issues of going back to school after some number of years and perhaps feeling that they’re not up to it.

Q: What do you do to help get through some of those hurdles?

A: Well, it’s really important on the front end to talk to adult students about their goals — what are they trying to accomplish, what degree program is best for them, and determining with them how they’re going to cut out the time to go to class. Our classes are night, weekend and internet. What nights of the week are you actually going to be able to come to class? You can’t afford to miss class. When are you going to do your homework? When are you going to write your papers? How are you going to balance the requirement to take your kids to Little League or to soccer or to school activities? How are you going to balance that with what you’re doing? Can you take one class a term or is two classes a term too much? That sort of balancing. In doing that, it’s getting a commitment on their part that they can do this, or you advise them it’s not the right time.

Q: As folks are making that decision to re-enter college, do you see a more focused student at that point?

A: Oh, yeah. Adult students are great. They’ve lived in the adult world for a while. They’ve already balanced. They’re already in the process of balancing work and family activities and social activities — already doing that. They generally understand how to prioritize, they understand how to set a deadline and how to make that deadline. They make great students. Once they commit to coming back, they’re generally all in and they’re very, very focused on getting it done.

Q: How much of that is motivated by career advancement?

A: I think most of it’s motivated — not all, but most of it’s motivated. I think for most adults, it’s an economic-based decision. They’re putting their hard-earned money and time into a program that they feel will benefit them and their family economically in the long term.

Q: What did your dad do in the Air Force?

A: He was a radar guy. I think they called it Air Control and Warning, but basically radar. I had two younger brothers, and my mom is a war bride from Germany. My dad met her after World War II. I’m sort of a typical Air Force family member, and I loved it. I loved being in a military family, so I didn’t think twice about going in the military myself, although I didn’t plan to stay in.

Q: As a dependent and as an Army officer, you’ve lived all over the world.

A: Yeah, I guess I have. ... Germany, Italy, Japan, North Africa, Morocco, Hungary, Korea.

Q: What were your stateside assignments?

A: Fort Benning four different times. If you’re in the infantry, you come back to Fort Benning either for education or for permanent assignment. Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Knox ...

Q: As somebody who knows Benning, knows Columbus, are you concerned about the potential impacts that Benning, with sequestration and the budget issues — are you concerned that it could have a negative impact on Benning?

A: Well, yes. ... I’m concerned about it, but what I know is that over time it all balances out. The military gets larger and it gets smaller. I think that the last BRAC insured that Benning would be an installation that would be here for the long run. I think the decision to move the Armor School here is what makes Benning a permanent part of this community forever.

Q: You don’t think there’s a chance Benning evaporates?

A: No, none at all. I think that Benning gets larger and smaller over the years just like it’s gotten larger and smaller over the years since I’ve been in the Army, since I joined the Army in 1970. It goes through growth spurts and it contracts, just like the Army goes through growth spurts and contracts.

Q: Benning is a microcosm of the Army?

A: It is. Yes, it’s a microcosm of the Army, and because it’s here for the long run, the city just needs to adjust to the ups and downs. It needs to know how to take advantage of the ups and how to accommodate the downs.

Q: How important is Fort Benning to Columbus?

A: Well, it’s very much. ... It is the biggest element of economic impact on the community, period.

Q: Both sides of the river?

A: Absolutely. I would say even more so on the Alabama side of the river since post-BRAC, because what Phenix City and Russell County have done is position themselves to be an economic option for housing.

Q: Could you imagine Columbus/Phenix City without Fort Benning?

A: No, that’s hard to imagine. We would be something very different. I can’t imagine what we would be, because it just sort of ... I think we would be something very different. I can’t imagine it without Columbus.

Q: In the post-textile economy that Columbus and Phenix City are now in — we’re 10, 12, 13 years into this post-textile economy — do you see more or less reliance on Benning?

A: I think we’ve always relied on Fort Benning, and I think we always will. I think one of the advantages of Fort Benning in the modern era is that they have so many folks coming through that are so smart. I mean, the Army has gone ... all the services have gone to a force that is educated, technically savvy, and so I think the quality of folks that come out of the Army and choose to stay in the Columbus/Phenix City area are just a high-quality individual.

Q: Do you think that’s one of the beauties of Fort Benning, is what’s deposited in this community in terms of human capital once they retire?

A: Certainly once they retire, but even while they’re here. I think there’s just a great contribution that comes from that human capital while it interacts with our city for the three or four years that someone’s here, and some of those folks come back later on. If you take me as an example, I was assigned here four different times. The accumulation of those four experiences caused me to choose to stay here.

Q: Where do you see Columbus/Phenix City going over the next five, 10, 15 years?

A: Well, let me answer it this way: I think the profound changes that have occurred in Columbus and Phenix City, and Fort Benning, over the last 20 years have to do with, one, the shift from mill economy to a financial, insurance, white-collar technical economy. That’s the first thing. The second thing that’s much more recent, and I think just as profound, is the conversion of a dirty old working river to a pristine, restored whitewater ...

Q: Eco-tourism?

A: Yes, and all the opportunities that now affords both communities that weren’t there before. There was no economic advantage to the Chattahoochee River before John Turner and his collaborative group had the vision to convert it to ... I say convert, that’s not the right word. It’s actually a project that brought the river back.

Q: River restoration.

A: Yeah, right. It’s a restoration. Most folks don’t appreciate that, that it’s a river restoration project. The restoration project produced, as part of it, rapids, whitewater force, whereas the majority of the tourism associated with Columbus was primarily associated with Fort Benning — reunions, graduations. That still is a powerful part of our tourism. Now we have something unique not only in the region, not only in the country, but really in the world — the longest urban whitewater course in the world.

Q: If somebody had told you in 1970 that 46 years later you’d be talking about Columbus/Phenix City as a resort destination ...

A: If someone had mentioned that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have got it. Even though the whitewater project was being discussed, I don’t think I would have got it back then. I’m glad that some folks did get it.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams

David White

Age: 68

Residence: Columbus

Job: Vice chancellor of the Phenix City campus of Troy University for past six years; retired U.S. Army colonel.

Military experience: Was in the Army for 26 years, infantry. He retired in 1996. His assignments were a mixture of staff and unit assignments, serving overseas in Korea, Germany, Italy and Hungary. Spent four different assignments at Fort Benning.

Education: North Syracuse (N.Y.) Central High School, 1966; Florida State University, business degree, 1970; Georgia State University in education administration, 1974; University of Utah, Ph.D., education administration, 1983.

Family: Married to Susan for 45 years; two grown sons, Christopher and Scott; seven grandchildren.