Well before a pandemic hit America’s shores earlier this year, the job of a college president was listed as one of the most difficult in American education. Faced with rising costs and a lower applicant pool, these leaders were scrambling to recalibrate the role of a traditional liberal arts education for the 21st Century.
All of those long term strategic plans however were abruptly put on hold as the coronavirus quickly emptied college campuses. Millions of students were sent home while tenured professors had to pivot to online learning as the only viable, if not particularly satisfying, solution to keep students on track in earning their degrees.
While at the beginning of the COVID crisis, there was optimism that on-campus learning could resume in the Fall, the reality is that most schools have had to cancel those plans in the face of growing infection rates.
That was the painful decision Washington College made in August when the 239-year-old institution was in the midst of a presidential transition. The then-president Kurt Landgraf and the College’s board had agreed not to renew his contract in late spring. And, as with most institutions of WC’s caliber, it would typically require over a year to properly conduct a search for a new president. The question for the college leadership was whom they could bring on board during the interim when some of the most important decisions related to Washington College’s future would be made as it found its way back from the pandemic’s devastating impact on the school, its budget, and mission.
A few weeks ago, to the relief of many, they found that special person, Dr. Wayne Powell.
Recently retired after fourteen years as president of Lenoir Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, the former math professor, and academic dean has been given substantial credit in transforming a small Lutheran college into a Western Carolina university powerhouse. That included a 120% rise in its endowment value and an increase in its student body by 80%.
In the Spy’s Zoom interview with Dr. Powell a few days ago, he was the first to admit that no one can predict at this time the full impact of the pandemic on schools like Washington College. Nonetheless, like many crises, he also sees the opportunities that coincide with a challenge of this magnitude. President Powell also talks about the real value of the liberal arts education, how the field of mathematics has helped him in his management approach, and how he rejects his new job as a caretaker role.
This video is approximately eight minutes in length. For more information about Washington College please go here. Photo courtesy of the Hickory Record.