Staying Centre'd - Centre President John Roush keeps rankings in perspective
November 10, 2011
By Tom Martin, Business Lexington (Click here for the Business Lexington website)
participated in a community conversation last week about
Dr. John Roush is the 20th president of Centre College, a role he has held since the summer of 1998. During his stewardship, Centre, a private liberal arts institution located in Danville, Ky., has twice been ranked No. 1 — in 2009 and again in 2010 — among all colleges and universities in the South by Forbes Magazine. That means that, for two years in a row, Centre College bested the likes of Rice, Duke, Vandy, University of Virginia and William and Mary. Centre also ranks in U.S. News and World Report's top 50 liberal arts colleges in the country. And in making the Princeton Review's best 373 colleges this year, Centre is praised as "the school where the idea that education should be personal is at the core."
TM (Tom Martin): What is Centre's secret recipe? What does it take to achieve such rankings?
JR (John Roush): I should say first, some of the rankings are perhaps not as scientific as we might wish they were, but they've been immensely kind to Centre College, and I do think they tell the truth together that this is a place that changes lives for the better and for good. And it is really the kind of place that deserves the sort of rankings that it receives. We don't take them too seriously, but we appreciate the kind attention.
What's the magic? It really is built around commitment to undergraduate education; our undergraduate students are our first and primary audience. There is a deep commitment to teaching. Our professors, while they are involved in research and scholarship, their first job is to be great teachers. And that leads to a transformational experience. We do things, of course, on a smaller scale, (with) 1,300 students. Faculty-student ratio is about 11 to 1, with an average class size of 18. So it's really built around a "whole person" concept in undergraduate education.
TM: Centre's rankings are consistently good across all of the various measures. How does that serve you as an administrator of a college?
JR: Well, I'm always quick to add that I'd rather be where we are than where we might be. So I don't in any way diminish the impact or the authority they have in the minds of parents, in the minds of grandparents, and even the young men and women who are looking around.
If you think about it, there are somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 different opportunities for college and university work in America. Where is a family to start? They pick up U.S. News and World Report, and they know their daughter would probably do best in a smaller environment, so they look at liberal arts colleges. Well, we've been historically ranked in the top tier since before I got there, and then, of course, since I have been there. Forbes is one of the very few magazines that is taken seriously overseas. The fact that we are the No. 1 institution of all types in the South matters.
Most of the people who put these magazines and ratings out, I know on a personal basis. That makes no difference, I should add. They're trying to do a good job and be helpful to American families and young people as they are trying to sort out what environment might be best for them.
There are lots of good places to go to college and to university in America. Centre College is one of those places. It's the best undergraduate college in Kentucky, by far. It's one of the very best in the region. And even nationally, we just rank very high, as we should. But we're not the only place that does a good job in helping transform the lives of young people. And so we kind of keep this in balance.
TM: "Education should be personal at its core." What does that mean?
JR: A great many colleges and universities across this country have allowed themselves to begin to pay attention to students second, or even third. The whole educational program gets hijacked by research and scholarships. They get hijacked by athletics. Those are good things. It's not our primary commitment.
Forty-two percent of our men and women are involved in athletic teams. It's all Division 3 — no athletic grant needs. They play because they love the games. That's the purest kind of collegiate sport. That, too, costs money, but on a comparative basis, it's simply one of the many things that we do.
Personal attention has to be intentional. It is, in fact, built around smaller class sizes. Now is 18 the magic number? Maybe not. But it doesn't need to be 180 or 500. If I'm going to have a personal education, the professor needs to know my name. The professor needs to be accessible to me if, in fact, I have questions or even problems with the subject matter. And we do that at Centre. That's simply the way it's accomplished at a premier undergraduate college in America, and that's what Centre College is and has long been.
TM: This economic situation that we're in right now, it's been more persistent, I think, than most of us thought it would be.
JR: Oh, yes.
TM: It's become, over time, even far more pervasive throughout the economy of the United States and the world, for that matter. Is Centre experiencing its own form of pain as a result of this?
JR: Well, I want to be careful how I answer this, because I don't in any way want to appear unsympathetic, but we've been a real outlier in all of this. During a time when a lot of American institutions have had to cut back, give no raises, furlough members of their faculty and staff or even take away their positions, we haven't done any of that, and we're thankful for that. And I take no delight in knowing that a great many colleges and universities have had to do things that we have not done.
We've actually added to our staff during the last three to five years, added to our faculty, put $100 million into our physical plant, much of which was needed in order for us to be a competitive national institution. And we're still headed in that direction.
We are in a different place, a decidedly stronger and better place, even in these economic times. Much of that has come because of the generosity of our trustees and others who support Centre College. We finished a campaign in January 2008 at $170 million, $50 million over our goal. We're in the process now of identifying a new campaign that we know will be successful, and it will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 to $400 million.
TM: Does that success story, in these times, rely on endowments?
JR: We are a college with about a $210 million endowment, and we're proud of that and we're thankful for that. But we behave like a college twice that size. I've explained this disconnect to our trustees, to our faculty, our staff and even our students. It's a good thing that we can do that. And we'll continue to be careful and judicious about how we make financial decisions. But this next campaign needs to be devoted almost entirely to endowment. And our trustees understand that, and that's the direction in which we are moving, because as a national institution as strong as we are, as highly regarded as we are, we have an endowment that is significantly below most of our competition. At a certain point, you've got to fix that. And that's what we're in the process of planning to do.
TM: Again referring to this difficult economy that we're experiencing, for a time it seemed a trend that we would overcome. That hasn't occurred, doesn't appear to be on the horizon, and it seems to have persisted long enough that it is now beginning to shape the norm in terms of what our young people can expect from the future for themselves.
TM: I wonder what your take is on that and if these sorts of macro-economic trends influence the shaping of curriculum?
JR: My own sense is that we will get through this. I'm a college president who has been saying for several years that even at an undergraduate, highly personal liberal arts college, we need to imagine ways in which we embrace technology in order to do our work better and more efficiently. We're going to have to deal as a nation with fundamental change, and I've been preaching that at a college where everything seems to be going great. And I'm saying to our faculty and our staff and even our students, there may be reasons why we have to imagine doing things differently in ways that we never have.
And when I say fundamental change, I mean a whole new way of imagining even the undergraduate experience, which for some students may mean three years, not four. It certainly doesn't need to be five or six. And I'm thinking for students who have already made plans that, in order for them to have a full undergraduate experience, they need to study abroad. They need to be understanding what it is to live in a different culture, to be uncomfortable with getting up every morning. What does that mean? Because much of the world is that way every day, and I think our American citizens need to get more comfortable with fundamental change. The notion of retiring at 62 — I just turned 61 — we need to completely rethink that. Health permitting, I think most Americans will need and will want to work in their 70s. There is nothing wrong with that. Our young people might be expected to live to 100. They won't want to retire when they are 62.
So we need to rethink how we conduct our business as a nation, and I really believe that colleges and universities need to not be hanging back on that but actually be out in front, helping their communities, their states and even their nation to think about how that might be done. Fundamental change is upon us. I think that's going to be how we have to conduct our lives for the foreseeable future.
TM: The mayors of Lexington and Louisville recently announced an initiative to form a regional economic development plan that revolves around the growth and development of advanced manufacturing. One of the implications is the need for an array of sophisticated talent to support and sustain that kind of industry. Where does Centre figure into that?
JR: I think Centre College's role has been and will continue to be to provide those men and women who really are equipped to go out and become the leaders in those organizations.