Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Dr. Fred Whitt, President of Lenoir-Rhyne University

Blowing Rock ONE on ONE With…Dr. Fred Whitt, President of Lenoir-Rhyne University
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By David Rogers. February 17, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC – After leading one of the most successful college startups for the past seven years, Blowing Rock’s Dr. Fred Whitt stepped down at the beginning of February as the founding Dean of the Appalachian State University (ASU) Beaver College of Health Sciences to become the new president of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory.

COVER IMAGE: Dr. Fred Whitt, transitioning to his new role as President of Lenoir-Rhyne University, gets a first hand look at “The Charge,” a statue of a bear created by noted sculptor John Phelps as a project of the Piedmont Educational Foundation/Bears Club. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.

Dr. Fred Whitt, new president of Lenoir-Rhyne University, leaves behind some fond memories of Blowing Rock, the High Country and Appalachian State University where he was the founding dean of the Beaver College of Health Sciences.

Back in the day, so to speak,Whitt was a second baseman for Appalachian State’s varsity baseball team. He smiles in telling Blowing Rock News that he has been asked to throw out a first pitch at a Hickory Crawdads baseball game to help celebrate his new position, “…and I’m speaking to some group just about every day! Every day I am here, I marvel at what is this university, as well as the direction it is going, what Lenoir-Rhyne can be.”

Whitt is adept at leading the turn of resources and vision into reality. During his tenure at Appalachian State, the College of Health Sciences doubled enrollment to almost 3,400, grew the number of healthcare related academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, established a key partnership with Wake Forest University School of Medicine, planned and launched the construction of an $82 million, 203,000-square foot health sciences building, and raised funding for two endowed professorships.

On his last day at Appalachian State, Blowing Rock News sat down with Dr. Whitt to talk about his life, his time at ASU, and his vision for the future of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Blowing Rock News (BRN): You came in as the founding dean of the College of Health Sciences, when Dr. Ken Peacock was Chancellor. What was the original vision for the College of Health Sciences when it was first founded?

Fred Whitt (FW): The vision for the College of Health Sciences was to become the preeminent, most comprehensive health professions college in western North Carolina. I feel confident it is now poised to continue moving in that direction.

BRN: Can you put that into perspective of how other colleges within the University were founded?

FW: Having attended Appalachian as a student, I remember the College of Business was founded around 1970. The College of Health Sciences was formed in 2010, which made it the first new degree granting college at ASU in 40 years. The launch was a significant milestone for the University.

Dr. Fred Whitt and wife Donna on the recent first day on the job as President of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory. Photographic image courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne University

The vision of Chancellor Peacock and Stan Aeschleman, who was the Provost at the time, was to relocate health-related programs across the campus into a single college under the University umbrella. The idea was to maximize and leverage existing resources and infrastructure to expand current and develop new programs over the course of several years.

The launch of the College of Health Sciences was a significant milestone for Appalachian State, which hadn’t started a new degree-granting college in 40 years.

BRN: What were your expectations for the growth of the new college at that time?

FW: I believe we exceeded all expectations. The newest program was nursing, and it began in 2006 with an off campus RN to BSN program for existing RNs.  We anticipated growth with the addition of the four-year RN to BSN program but, surprisingly experienced growth in all other programs in the health sciences as well.  The College grew 65% in numbers and in student credit hours during a time when many programs were experiencing a decline in enrollment.

BRN: What do you think accounted for that unexpected growth?

FW: New programs in the health sciences have grown nationally.  I believe the visibility and identity of programs being linked to health sciences and health professions was a contributing factor.  Some programs were difficult to locate within the former campus structure.  As an example, Nutrition was in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences within the College of Fine and Applied Arts.  By moving them to the new College of Health Sciences, programs had greater visibility and were easier to locate.  I also believe our faculty and staff were outstanding and students are attracted to good teachers and mentors.

Whitt presides over a private university with student enrollment approaching 2,500. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Appalachian has become a more selective University. They now receive close to 15,000 applications annually for approximately 3,000 freshman openings.

BRN: What is the result of the institution being more selective?

FW: ASU is able to attract incredibly bright students who have the option to attend many outstanding universities. Enrollment has become more competitive, making a degree from ASU more valuable.

The delay in funding was actually a silver lining.

BRN: Let’s talk about the new health sciences building.

FW: Funding for construction of the new building was in the proposed 2008 General Assembly budget, but it was tabled due to the economic downturn. Originally, the building proposal was about $50 million and less than 150,000 square feet.

When the new college began in 2010, it was considered the worst possible time because of the economic issues in North Carolina.  But there was a silver lining in the setback. The delay in funding provided the opportunity to review needs and priorities, and plan for a building that would be more comprehensive and better reflect the initial commitment.

Dr. Whitt grew up Presbyterian and was a member of Blowing Rock’s Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church. In taking the helm at Lenoir-Rhyne, he has converted to the Lutheran denomination and will attend services regularly at Grace Chapel in the background. Photographic image courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

A great deal of effort was put into getting the planning money restored. Susan McCracken was instrumental in this success. Her efforts on behalf of ASU resulted in $5 million of planning money proposed and then approved in the 2013 and 2014 NC budget, which allowed for advanced planning with the architects.  I believe the health sciences building at ASU was the only capital project to receive funding for planning during those years. Though the project was supported, the General Assembly could not give what they did not have.

BRN: Is this part of the Connect NC bond referendum, or did that come later?

FW: That came later. We received $2 million in 2013 and $3 million in 2014 for a total of $5 million for the planning of a 203,000 square foot building.

In 2015, the Bond Package was approved by the General Assembly and the ASU project was high on the list. The Bond was then approved by the voters in 2016 and contractors broke ground on July 2, 2016. Occupancy is anticipated for summer 2018. ASU was able to get ahead of the other projects funded by the Connect NC bond due to the planning dollars that were previously allocated.

There is a lot of debate about whether we are educating students for just a job or a trade. I believe our mission should be to educate students for life.

BRN: Is student demand resulting from promotion about needs in the health science industry? Jobs?

FW: I think so, at least in part. Students are interested in the value of their degree. There is a lot of debate and discussion about whether we are educating students for just a job or a trade.

Close interaction with students, faculty and staff is a Whitt hallmark. Photographic image courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Personally, I believe our mission is to educate students for life, which is the basis of a liberal arts education. It is very important, especially in the health sciences. Talk with leaders in health care or business, and you will get the same responses. They are looking for graduates who can think critically, solve problems, understand working with different cultures, and work together effectively in teams.

Students are interested because of the employment opportunities, but the healthcare industry attracts students who want to help people. Whether they are interested in nursing or social work, they are drawn to the opportunity to enhance the quality of life of the people they serve. It’s more than a job, it is a passion.

BRN: You are at an interesting juncture in your career. Do you feel like you have accomplished all that you had in mind as founding dean?

FW: I was excited to accept the position at ASU because I was coming back to my alma mater and returning to my home state. I am not sure I will ever feel I have fully completed a job. I am wired to continue to improve and accomplish more.

The Appalachian team enjoyed unprecedented success over the last six or seven years. To name the college, build a new building, double enrollment, add four new graduate programs, receive one of the largest gifts in the history of the University, add two endowed professorships, and develop the Wake Forest School of Medicine partnership is truly phenomenal.

But life has a way of presenting opportunities when you least expect them. Becoming the 12th president of an outstanding university such as Lenoir-Rhyne is an extraordinary opportunity.

The healthcare industry attracts students who want to help people…It’s more than a job, it is a passion.

BRN: How did the opportunity at Lenoir-Rhyne come about?

FW:  A search firm approached me and after some informal discussions, I became very interested in Lenoir-Rhyne. The more I learned, the more excited I became. I am fortunate to have been selected for this position. I have always had great respect for Lenoir-Rhyne.

BRN: What is it about the opportunity at Lenoir-Rhyne that most excites you?

FW: I have some personal history with Lenoir Rhyne and have been impressed by their success over the past several years. For me, it was never about becoming a college or company president, but about being the president at Lenoir-Rhyne.

As President of Lenoir-Rhyne University, Dr. Fred Whitt hopes to bring his unique skillset for getting things done in benefit of the institution, its students, and all of the community stakeholders. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.

I think every college-level professional has a university or two on their radar they follow over the years.  For me, that place has always been Lenoir-Rhyne. I grew up about 40 miles south of Hickory. When I was 6-7 years old, my father took me to football games at LR when Clarence Stasavich was the coach (1946-1961). My high school team played some playoff games at LR and I considered attending Lenoir-Rhyne to play basketball.

While my personal connection peaked my interest in Lenoir-Rhyne, the factors that drove my decision had more to do with the values, traditions, history, and vision to become a national liberal arts university of choice.

Lenoir-Rhyne has experienced impressive achievements over the past several years. They evolved to University status. They have the largest enrollment in LR history with over 2,500 students. Enrollment has continued to increase over the past eight years. The endowment has reached $100 million, the fifth highest among NC private colleges. They continue to add academic programs and are expanding significantly in the professional areas of health sciences. In addition, they have 22 sports at the NCAA Division II level.

Life has a way of presenting opportunities when you least expect them.

But what most attracted me to LR were the bedrock principles and unwavering commitment to the traditions and history of the University. The dedication to the liberal arts and liberal learning, a strong emphasis on teaching and the development of the whole person, the partnership with the community, and the ties to the Evangelical Lutheran Church In American (ELCA) were all factors that I refer to as the LR Advantage. LR also has an attractive geographical advantage with the main campus in Hickory and additional campuses in Asheville and in Columbia, South Carolina. The Hickory area has a strong medical community and their nursing program is a pillar of excellence at Lenoir-Rhyne.

Lenoir-Rhyne is in terrific shape financially and continues to grow with six new campus renovation projects in the past 12 months including a $17 million addition to the Minges Science Building, expanded student dining hall, and renovated student housing. Grace Chapel was constructed in the heart of campus in 2014 and is absolutely spectacular.

BRN: Explain more about liberal learning.

FW: It focuses on developing critical thinking skills, problem solving, working in teams, and understanding other cultures.  To me, it is all about educating students for life, not just training them for a particular job.

BRN: At the Economic Forecast Breakfast recently hosted by the Boone and Blowing Rock chambers of commerce, Dr. Harry Davis talked about tuition and fees increasing at a much higher rate than other things. He asserted that it was unsustainable, and that colleges and universities are pricing themselves out of being competitive in delivering education. He suggested that alternative paths to education are gaining traction. What are some of the trends that you are seeing from your vantage point?

FW:  I believe that higher education is sometimes slower to adjust and react to changing times. As an industry, we tend to be more traditional and if you are not receptive to change, you fall behind.  Some of the smaller liberal arts colleges are doing very well as they have been more entrepreneurial in their thinking and strategic planning.

Lenoir-Rhyne promotes the traditional on-campus experience, but they have branched out with additional campuses, and online and distance learning.

Liberal learning focuses on critical thinking skills, problem solving, working in teams, and understanding other cultures…It is all about educating students for life, not just training them for a job.

Emerging learning is also an alternative approach to education. Several universities offer accelerated programs. For instance, with a biology degree, a student can enter an accelerated program and in 16 months achieve a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as an alternative to a two or four year program.

BRN: What was it like to grow up in Mt. Holly?

FW: Attending Mt. Holly High School was a good experience. It was a K-12 school. Those of us who were there from kindergarten had the same classmates for 12 years. That creates a unique bond. Today we are a much more mobile society and kids today don’t always have the opportunity to develop those types of bonds.

BRN: You played basketball and baseball?

FW: Yes. In high school, I played second base and point guard, and at ASU, I played second. I was recently elected to the Mt. Holly Sports Hall of Fame, and that was pretty special.

BRN: What was your major at ASU?

FW:  I majored in Health and Physical Education and also was certified to teach K-12.  I completed my student teaching at Hardin Park Elementary School when it first opened. I was able to reconnect with several of my former Hardin Park students when I returned to ASU, some of whom are now faculty and staff at the College.

BRN: Will you be relocating to Hickory?

FW: Absolutely. While the president’s house on campus undergoes renovation, my wife, Donna, and I will be staying in a rental home. Donna will maintain her position at ASU as Director of Compliance and Academic Support for the Department of Nursing and we will keep our home in the High Country.

BRN: Where did the two of you meet?

FW: Back in 1977 I was a patient at Mercy Hospital in Charlotte and Donna was working as a nurse. It was a unique way to meet, and 38 years later we are still happily married. She is my partner and I am fortunate to have her love and support.

BRN:  Any final thoughts?

Someone once said, “There is no heavier burden than a great opportunity.”  While I loved my time at ASU and it is difficult to leave my alma mater, I am incredibly excited at the special opportunity for me as president at Lenoir-Rhyne.

I strongly support the vision and mission, and embrace the principles that make Lenoir-Rhyne the successful University it is today. I believe Lenoir-Rhyne’s best days are in the future, and I am very excited about the opportunity to be part of its growth and transition.

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