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‘Sunday Sit-Down’: Richard Beyer, President, Wheeling Jesuit University

February 5, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

- You've been in your current post for a little more than a year now. What areas have you identified as strengths at Wheeling Jesuit University, and what areas need improved upon?

Beyer: Without a doubt the strengths at Wheeling Jesuit are one, we are a research university and two, the learning outcomes specifically related to a number of very key academic programs. Wheeling Jesuit is a national leader in undergraduate research participation. We're in the top 10 percent of research universities in the country. At the 90th percentile, about 37 percent of undergraduates get to participate in research. At Wheeling Jesuit, about 42 percent of our students are involved with research with the faculty. So that is absolutely a strength. That research has also allowed both students and faculty to produce some incredible learning outcomes. Five out of the last six years, for example, 100 percent of our students applying to medical school were accepted. Last year, 100 percent of our students applying for law school were accepted. In the areas of health sciences - nursing, respiratory therapy, nuclear medicine, athletic training and physical therapy - full classes pass all of their exams. And just last semester, seniors in our psychology department took their national exam, the entire class was in the top 1-2 percent in the entire country. And that also leads to the faculty, some very dedicated faculty here. So without a doubt, the strength of the university is its academic programs.

Now on the weakness. We suffer ... on the financial side, very similar with a couple of hundred small and medium sized colleges around the country. We have a lot of facilities here and we simply don't have enough enrollment to fully cover all the expenses that we really need to cover from our core tuition, room and board and auxiliary revenues. ... The way we balance our budget today is through alumni giving, stock market gains through the endowment, some contributions off of our sponsored research. So when I look at that financial model, I see that ... as a weakness. But I also see that as a weakness among all small and medium sized colleges around the country.

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- I understand you've recently completed your strategic plan for Wheeling Jesuit University and had it approved by your board. Exactly what does that plan entail and how will it help Wheeling Jesuit grow?

Beyer: Starting out in the macro level in regards to the strategic plan, we were looking to search for the next natural level of success for the university. We were looking at areas of how to transform the university in all areas: additional program quality, additional growth for the university, and also sustaining and enhancing our mission. As we started out with this process we also looked deep into our core competencies and we also looked at some of our limitations. But most importantly we had a tremendous amount of collaboration with the strategic plan. ... We took about nine months to complete the strategic plan.

But we included faculty, our staff, administrators, students, our board, members of the community, our alumni council, the Jesuit community, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and what we wanted to be able to do was to reach out and get people's input regarding our strengths, regarding opportunities, and then with a couple of months of work at that ... we started to come up with some strategic initiatives.

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... The strategic plan (is) focused on four pillars: first is a vibrant student experience here at Wheeling Jesuit University; the second is to operate four successful colleges - the College of Art and Science, Business, Education and Health Science; the third strategic initiative is having a global campus and really expanding global awareness for Wheeling Jesuit; and the fourth is basically people and operational excellence, how we actually perform within the university. And then within those pillars we have a number of strategic objectives, from enhanced research and taking our undergraduate research and moving it even higher up the national ladder, focusing it on jobs, not just career development but jobs. Also, strengthening our relationship with the community of Wheeling. We know to have a really vibrant Wheeling Jesuit we (need) a much stronger Wheeling community. So we think that's also part of the overall student experience.

The second area with regards to operating the four schools includes taking our enrollment from about 1,430 students today to about 2,600 students in the next five years. We've outlined a number of areas to grow. We also want to become a national leader in learning outcomes. Throughout the country there are a lot of questions about what is the value of higher education? And what are students being taught? Here at Wheeling Jesuit we have a really great track record of performing measurements. That's one of the reasons how we found out how good we were in terms of undergraduate research participation. So what we are also going to be doing is measuring a lot of the outcomes. Also within those four schools is expanding what we have internally as our Appalachian Institute.

Global awareness. ... Today we have students from 21 different countries at Wheeling Jesuit, what we would like to do is expand that to 50 countries and also to allow every Jesuit high school in the world to know about Wheeling Jesuit. We also believe that what we want to be able to do is make a global campus but also to give our U.S. students the opportunities to experience different cultures because when they leave Wheeling Jesuit with their degree, they're going to have to learn to work with people of different backgrounds and different cultures. And finally, back into the operational excellence, is basically focusing on our processes and procedures and also ... developing our people and really valuing our employees. In a nutshell, that is our entire strategic plan and we have certain measurements that we want to put in place. Very aspirational, the faculty unanimously supported it and the board, at our December board meeting, unanimously accepted and approved our strategic plan.

- You are, first and foremost, a businessman. How do you believe your background and real-world experience will help Wheeling Jesuit grow in the future?

Beyer: I think in one regard, coming out of the telecommunications industry where I spent the last 24 years as a senior executive, some of those experiences and and organizational activities are definitely valuable in the areas of financial modeling, in the areas of strategy, but also I volunteered for more than 16 years in higher education serving on boards of colleges, also doing pro bono consulting work at small to medium sized colleges on strategic planning and financial modeling. The ... volunteer work helped me to understand the culture so that I was able to blend some of the business background with really understanding the culture of higher education also was a benefit for me. The fact that I'm the first lay president for Wheeling Jesuit actually added ... a tremendous sense of responsibility for me. It wasn't necessarily just knowing what to do, as much as how to do it the right way consistent with our Jesuit Catholic mission. I've said this before in many speeches that we need to do things the right way ... not only to enhance our Jesuit Catholic mission, but so that the Jesuit community, Bishop Bransfield will look at us and say you know, they're doing things the right way, not only are they being successful but they're doing it consistent with the mission. I really have a keen responsibility for making sure the mission is also enhanced here.

- You've proposed doubling enrollment over the next five years. How do you plan to achieve that?

Beyer: First thing, in order to double enrollment, we have to take a look at what we've been doing in the past. If we're going to be doing the same things as in the past, we really shouldn't expect very different results. So we needed to look at first bringing in new leadership. Larry Vallar, our new vice president of Enrollment Management, started with me Jan. 1, 2011. We also doubled the size of our enrollment department so we put more admissions representatives seeking and visiting high schools. In a typical year we might visit 350-400 schools, in the first semester, from August to December, the Enrollment Department visited more than 900 high schools. ... We also needed to expand our reach in enrollment, not only beyond the Ohio Valley ... but to reach out into the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore-Philadelphia area, into Cleveland and Columbus, as well as continue to reach outside of the United States, we have three international counselors today. One of the things we did is we knew we had to expand the number of people calling on schools, and then we also had to put together additional processes. One of the things the Admissions Department has been doing is focusing in on that and then also ... we've launched a special community connections scholarship for 65 schools in the Ohio Valley area, to be able to attend Wheeling Jesuit at a reduced rate. And then, a very specific program for the seven Catholic high schools in West Virginia, to put together a special scholarship. It's no surprise that our applications are up with that.

It's not necessarily one thing that we're doing as much as many things that we're doing in concert to grow that enrollment.

- The culture of higher education - have you had to work over the past year to change the culture you found at Wheeling Jesuit University?

Beyer: The culture here has really been tremendous. I go right back to the employees. I think one of the things over the past five to seven years the school has basically been relatively stagnant. The reality is that you're either moving forward or backwards. It's actually very difficult to just be stagnant. I think one of the important things the employees were looking for was a sense of direction, a sense of hope and exactly what we were going to try to accomplish.

In 2011, I had 65 different meeting with various members of the faculty. To be able to talk with them about their aspirations, to be able to learn that there is a tremendous amount of imagination here, that there is a tremendous amount of intellect with regards to what we could do beyond where we were at. ... I think one of the things with culture is creating the environment for people to succeed. I think once the faculty and the balance of the employees really understood that we were moving forward ... and that we really were looking to take the university to its next natural step, then all of a sudden the culture starts to actually blossom here at Wheeling Jesuit. One of the things we also talk about is building a culture of performance, respect and cooperation. I think within organizations in general, the environment has to be created for the culture to really blossom and have a good working environment, I think that's the same in business and in higher education.

- Downtown Wheeling. It appears city leaders are placing much importance on the university doing something downtown - particularly in the 1100 block of Main and Market streets. What plans, if any, do you have for downtown?

Beyer: I can tell you that we've settled on no area. When we think about downtown, one of the things we are particularly thinking about is off-campus housing. We have graduate and professional programs, those programs are growing. We have needs today from our students. Even if we built a new dorm on campus, those graduate students or professional students are not going to live there - they're more non-traditional students. The housing requirements and needs of those students are much more apartment-style settings. That causes us to think about off-campus housing. I think in trying to be good partners with the community, good partners with the city, downtown is a very natural place to be able to have off-campus housing. We've looked at East Wheeling, we've looked at a lot of different areas, and I can definitely tell you that we haven't settled on one. We probably have three or even four possible areas. One of the things that will sort itself out here over the next six months is as we go through feasibility and exploratory options for off-campus housing, something might be able to develop. But I think it starts with students, and it starts with off-campus housing and things will blossom from there. ... We're already downtown today, we work with 45 different agencies, we have the Mother Jones House, we play hockey downtown, we also have plans to bring crew back and will be rowing on the river. We do see that today we're already downtown, and it's just a matter as things start to develop over the next couple of years opportunities will arise. ...

- The Mount de Chantal property. There has been talk within the local medical community that the university may be looking to do something medical related there - possibly a medical school, expanded therapy offerings. What plans do you have for that property?

Beyer: First of all, we do not have any plans because we do not own the property. What we have to do is wait and see what the hospital plans to do - we have a very good relationship with Wheeling Hospital. ... There's some very natural opportunities with the (hospital and the) growth of health sciences here at Wheeling Jesuit. ... We just have to wait and let that develop. ... It's very, very early in the process. ...

- Let's talk about the campus here. Wheeling Jesuit has two buildings - the National Technology Transfer Center and the Center for Educational Technologies - that house programs funded through federal appropriations. Given the current state of the nation's economy, do you have a plan to keep those programs operational?

Beyer: I think one of the interesting aspects of sponsored research here at Wheeling Jesuit is we have about 18 different revenue sources. ... The university has actually over the years diversified the revenue base, so that is very important. There's not any one program that will take a vast majority of our overall revenue. It puts a little better outlook on the vulnerability of a program. But actually we are looking to grow ... research. We do know that through our Innovation and Entrepreneurial Center, through our natural extension of growing research through the faculty here, our proposals and grant writing are as high as ever. Now we won't win everything, but we'll win our fair share. ... We're not particularly worried about any one program, that one has to develop. As one perhaps ends, we might have two that develop. We, because we're a research university and because it's part of the strategic plan, we're going to be taking research even higher. I actually do expect we'll have more and more research, not only in CET and NTTC but throughout campus as well.

- As you've noted, Wheeling Jesuit is placing more emphasis on research. First, what does that mean to students, and then, if you look at the research-based growth in Morgantown from West Virginia University, what can that mean for the Wheeling community?

Beyer: The success rate of students getting into graduate school here. particularly medical school, law school, dental school, students have the ability here to get into research in their freshman year. So to be able to have four years of research when you apply to medical school or law school is pretty significant. So that helps ... in preparing students. I also think from the community perspective, as we grow it will mean jobs. ... We also think that from the community aspect that as we continue to diversify our revenue base, and we also look at doing certain commercial aspects of research - taking a particular component of research and trying to move it into the commercial world - overall what we want to be able to do is to grow that program as well as grow our enrollment. We do see ... over the next five years that employment, particularly employment at Wheeling Jesuit, will actually increase. We think that will be beneficial to the community, for the economy, for housing and the like in the Wheeling community.

- This is part of Wheeling Jesuit's mission statement: "By integrating learning, research, and economic development with classical knowledge and Christian revelation, the University seeks to foster competence, creativity and innovation throughout and beyond the campus community. Graduates of the University enter the world of work with socially responsible goals, a lifelong appetite for learning and the desire to make our universe a better place. ... Wheeling Jesuit University firmly believes its graduates will enter the professional world prepared to use their God-given talents not solely for personal fulfillment but as men and women in service to others." Given all that's going on in today's world, how important is it to train young people to not only be competent in their field, but to be compassionate in life?

Beyer: I think the issue of character competency, it's just not about being successful at a job in as much as it is trying to be successful within your life. I think that's one of the things the Jesuit education here tries to really instill, and have the students think about a deeper responsibility beyond going out and being successful in a particular profession, but also being able to make a difference in the world, to understand compassion, to understand what it means perhaps to be on the other side of people who may not have worldly goods. ... When students go out and you have a more compassionate person, that person can become much more effective in the organization, if it's building teams, or if it's solving problems, and it's again learning how to approach not only problems but learning how to approach life from all different perspectives. I think in terms of when we talk about educating women and men for life, leadership and service to others, it's really lived here. And I think our alumni - we have some tremendously successful alumni - but when I say successful, I mean from a whole list of perspective. That's what we're trying to produce in terms of not only learning outcomes, but also compassionate people overall.

- Last question: When you have that mission as a university, how hard is it to keep those ideals and continue to move forward at the same time?

Beyer: I think it's a daily consciousness of understanding what our mission is. ... We've been very public about wanting to do things the right way, and very deeply committed to not only achieving the necessary metrics that we might need to achieve, but also do it in a way that would make our Jesuit community (and) Bishop Bransfield very proud that we're not only doing things the right way consistent with our mission, but also doing the right things to make the university prosper for the next couple of generations.

 
 

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