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Is GSU moving in right direction?
Professor says no; president confident in future vision
W 072012 GSU 01
Georgia Southern University transfer students stand in line to apply for financial aid at the Russell Union Friday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The following are the percentages of students who graduated from the university within six years of enrolling as freshmen.

School                                      2004    2007    2010
Georgia Southern University    38%    45%    45%
Appalachian State University    60%    63%    66%
East Carolina University    53%    54%    56%
University of North Carolina Wilmington    61%    65%    66%

The following is the number of students per faculty member at the university.

School                                         2008    2009    2010
Georgia Southern University    21:1    22:1    23:1
Appalachian State University    19:1    17:1    16:1
East Carolina University    18:1    18:1    17:1
University of North Carolina Wilmington    19:1    17:1    17:1

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education 

Editor's Note: A chart accompanying this article has been revised to reflect the following correction, which appears in Sunday's print edition: Because of a reporter's error, Georgia Southern University's six-year graduation rates were incorrect in a chart accompanying a front-page article in Saturday's edition. The correct graduation rates are 45 percent in 2007 and 45 percent in 2010. A revised chart reflecting the correct information appears with the second article in the two-part series in today's edition. The Statesboro Herald regrets the error.

  First of a two-part series.

    Georgia Southern University is at a “crossroads” or a “tipping point,” depending on who is speaking.
    One point is without doubt: University President Brooks Keel has a vision he strongly believes is “bigger and better” for Georgia Southern, which is the largest employer in Bulloch County and a major economic driver in the area.
    But the views on Keel’s vision differ, and the most visible fault line is one that really is not unique to Georgia Southern: the divide about the proper direction of the university between long-tenured instructional faculty and administrative faculty, who for the most part have been at the university for a much shorter time.
    Georgia Southern has gotten more than its share of national attention in recent months in relation to its growth. Keel caused a stir with his declaration in April that “there is no question” the Football Bowl Subdivision — the highest division of college football — “is where we want to go” and “where we need to be.”
    Two months later, the national college spotlight again was trained on Statesboro. This time, it came from an “open letter” that a senior faculty member, David Dudley, wrote to other GSU faculty members and which quickly spread on the Internet. It even attracted the attention of Inside Higher Ed, a national online publication focused on college and university issues.
    The reason, according to professors from across the country who responded to and shared Dudley’s letter on social media and through other means, was that the chairman of Georgia Southern’s Department of Literature and Philosophy had put into words what many believe:
    Too many universities’ administrations — especially at regional universities that have aspirations of joining the ranks held by flagship universities such as the University of Georgia or even highly regarded private institutions such as Duke University or Emory University — want growth at the expense of teaching quality and attention to students.
    Dudley expressed his fear that this is exactly what is happening at Georgia Southern.
    “Georgia Southern is at a crossroads,” he wrote. “The current administration is trying to lead us in new directions. More doctoral research programs. More publications. A higher national profile. Bigger football (bigger might just not be better, in my opinion). We are about to undertake a huge capital campaign. We have two choices before us: work together, openly discussing everything, listening to one another, and striving for consensus, knowing that we won’t always agree on everything. Or the administration and faculty can circle their wagons, retire to hostile positions, and let the battles begin.”
    And where does attention to students rank in this hierarchy? Very low, Dudley said.
    “The current debacle over GSU’s failure to adequately assess student learning is a failure of higher administration,” he wrote. “Previous administrators paid assessment some lip service immediately after our last (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) accreditation, then went on to other things. Assessment was left to fend for itself. Then new people were hired, new plans trotted out and then abandoned.”
    Keel, who met with Dudley the day after his letter was published, acknowledged in an interview with the Statesboro Herald that faculty at Georgia Southern — indeed, at many universities nationwide — are frustrated with their situations. He said faculty and staff have not received a pay raise in five years while their health insurance costs have gone up significantly, though he pointed out that is a decision made at the legislative level, not even solely by the University System of Georgia.
    But Keel does not agree that he and the rest of the leadership at Georgia Southern have abandoned the university’s core mission and one of its biggest draws for students who choose to go there: the close attention faculty members give to students.
    “We are very student-centered, have always been and always will be,” he said. “I think people have a tendency to think that if you’re gonna do a lot of research, you can’t be student-centered. And there are examples out there that one can choose that they really do have that sort of attitude. I don’t see us becoming that sort of university. I think we can be both. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, I don’t see how you can be an excellent educator and not be an excellent scholar.”
    He pointed to two Georgia Southern professors who recently received national recognition as an example of the link between teaching and scholarship. Larry Stalcup, an associate professor of hotel and restaurant management, was named a Fulbright Scholar and is visiting Payap University in Thailand to teach hospitality students.
    And Mark Edwards, the chairman of GSU’s Physics Department, was named a recipient of the Fuller E. Callaway Professorial Chair, which recognizes professional accomplishment in classroom education. The honor will allow Edwards to initiate new interdisciplinary research projects and expand his research projects. He also plans to involve graduate and undergraduate students more in his research, and he hopes to use the results of this research to improve his physics instruction in the classroom.

‘Large scale, small feel’
    In emphasizing the importance of teaching, Keel used a term, “customer service,” that makes some in academia cringe.
    “We’re very customer service-oriented if you will. I hate to use that term. People don’t like to hear that term when you talk about students, but that’s really what it is,” he said. “The faculty care deeply about these young people — their entire education, not just their book learning but their overall social maturity, how they become people, productive citizens and everything that means. They care deeply about that. And when you’re in smaller classrooms, you can really have an opportunity to influence the entire growth of the individual. As classrooms get bigger and bigger, it’s harder and harder to form a personal relationship with individuals, and that’s where you run into trouble of losing that small feel.”
    Dudley, who has been at Georgia Southern for almost 23 years, said he has noticed a shift in recent years toward what he describes as a more “corporate” culture with an emphasis on growth imposed by the administration — to the detriment of the university’s student-first, teaching-first tradition. The problem, Dudley said, is that Georgia Southern doesn’t have the resources available to grow as quickly as some in leadership might like.
    “The main reason Georgia Southern is the first choice of students is that it is a large university with a small feel,” Dudley said. “I believe in working to fulfill our mission to be regional, but I also believe it’s OK to say, ‘No, we don’t have to do that.’ It’s OK for Georgia Southern not to have as many research programs, to stay where it is in the football program.”
    Georgia Southern, like many universities, lists “peer institutions” — universities it is like — and “aspirational peers,” or institutions it would like to be like. Among the 10 peers are three in North Carolina: Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
    Compared to those three, Georgia Southern has a higher student-faculty ratio and lower graduation rate. Keel said he wants to get the ratio down to fewer than 20 students for each faculty member within the next five years; it currently is 22-to-1. The last year for which comparable data are available, 2010-11, GSU’s ratio was 23-to-1, compared with 16-to-1 at Appalachian State and 17-to-1 at East Carolina and UNC Wilmington.
    “It’s a great concern,” Keel said.
    Georgia Southern has 35 new faculty positions budgeted in fiscal 2013, but Keel said the university needs to add about 120 instructors to bring the student-faculty ratio down. He added that there are about 700 instructional faculty members and about 1,400 staffers at the university.
    “Over the course of the next year, we’re going to be looking at ways to strategically place funds to hire faculty in areas that we need them most — not only to increase our teaching component, of course, but to give us some research strengths where we might need it,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re really going to address this issue. We have to focus on this large scale, small feel. That small feel is what brings students here.”
    The six-year graduation rate at Georgia Southern stood at 45 percent in 2010-11, compared to 56 percent at East Carolina and 66 percent at Appalachian State and UNC Wilmington.
    Keel said the graduation rate does not account for students who transfer during their academic careers. He said the current graduation rate is about 48 percent and would be 58 percent if students who start at GSU and finish at another Georgia institution were counted.
    “If we get a kid that comes here, spends two years and goes to Georgia Tech and gets his or her engineering degree in areas that we don’t offer, I consider that a huge success for everybody — same to University of Georgia,” he said.
    Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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