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WVU Institute of Technology campus CEO believes in niche education

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Photos courtesy of WVU Tech Photos courtesy of WVU Tech

Carolyn Long knows she's not cut out to be a chemistry professor.

The campus executive officer of the West Virginia University Institute of Technology said it's simply not the path for her and that's OK. She sees higher education through a similar lens.

"I have a vision of centers of excellence," Long explained. "Look at the things we do, and what is the very best?

"It doesn't mean the surrounding things aren't good."

Long has been at the helm of Tech since January 2012. She started her work in the classroom as an elementary teacher in 1970, and then moved up to the rank of principal. She is a former superintendent of Braxton County schools and former chairwoman of the WVU Board of Governors.

When she came aboard Tech, it may have seemed like she agreed to captain a sinking ship, with headlines proclaiming the school's declining enrollment and a crumbling financial footing, but Long said her first job when she got to campus was to listen and to introduce herself.

"Many things on this campus were happening way before I got here as a result of people working hard on plans and executing those plans and working through the adversity," she said.

Working with a niche

Long has a motto for the school now, too. She wants to recruit, retain and re-build. But through all the reports and the revitalization, Long said the school kept hearing the same thing.

"Tech has to find a niche; Tech has to find a niche," she said. "After we all were here working about this, we figured out we've already got a niche."

Tech is a small public accredited engineering school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Long said that niche fills a major need not only in West Virginia but throughout the country. She cited an economic projection that expects West Virginia to have 25,000 STEM-related jobs that need filled, so being a small STEM school these days is nothing to sneeze at.

"I don't think Tech needs to find a niche," Long said. "We need to shout it from the rooftops."

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Paul Hill said the importance of STEM education "can't be overstated."

"That WVU Tech has found a niche as an institution that excels in science and technology is an undeniable positive for its students and their futures as well as for our state economy and community of higher education," Hill said. "I applaud Carolyn and everyone at WVU Tech for honing in on that vision and working hard to bring it to life."

But that doesn't mean those STEM classes stand alone. Long said combining programs is important too, for the engineer who wants to go out and build a business, by way of example.

"Even the programs that complement, like our business and psychology classes, have a different take here," Adrienne King, director of WVU Tech public relations and communications, said. "Our science lab has hands-on research … so there is a strong STEM focus you wouldn't have at a liberal arts school."

Centers of excellence

Long said the Tech community knows the school's limits. It's not going to be the biggest engineering school, for example. But there are lots of other things the school does very well.

"Look at higher education, and ask what is your core excellence?" she said. "There are campuses in this state with a magnificent emphasis on the arts, there are places that do an excellent job of teaching, and some do it better with higher ed or elementary ed or special ed. …

"We're a small state that doesn't have a lot of funds to go around."

Long said by taking a look around and thoughtfully, efficiently pinpointing where the areas of excellence lie, no colleges would be eliminated and the state could be mobilized.

"I would like to see that, to have these centers of excellence for certain programs," Long explained. "It wouldn't diminish the number of students going to school here. It might even increase. 

"We still have the same number of students, but we would use our resources more efficiently and more effectively."

And like most ideas, Long said plenty of people agree with her, and lots of people disagree.

She said the search for centers of excellence would "need a lot of buy-in," and while some places would struggle with the idea, she said it's never a bad idea to challenge people to assess their strengths, and it would help to focus student recruitment efforts.

Staying flexible

At the University of Charleston, the small, private school is growing with new branches, partnerships and programs.

UC Communications Director Scott Castleman said taking advantage of the changing education market and finding a niche is "critical to the sustainability of many schools for the next generation."

"As the higher education landscape continues to evolve, all colleges and universities must be innovative and nimble to address the needs of today's college student," Castleman said. "For instance, serving adult students through online degree programs and multiple locations was something not imaginable even a decade ago for a small, private institution like the University of Charleston."

For Tech, its revitalization study pointed out some evolutions the campus needed to make, and they're coming. Of Long's three Rs, she said rebuilding is the most expensive.

Campus-wide wireless Internet access will welcome incoming students. A space that was simply storage has been renovated into the "Student Success Center" that features computers, small meeting rooms and after-hours access.

Long said Tech's relationship with WVU has "improved," and the two schools serve very different constituencies, so Tech complements WVU rather than competes.

And the financial help, both in the form of cash and in-kind help, has gone a long way. Even the student software would be hard for Tech to afford, and Long added that engineering schools are not cheap to operate.

"We approach this campus as a family, and you can do that when you're a small campus," Long explained. "We don't have a lot of things some campuses have, but we have a lot of the things all campuses have."

And King enjoys telling people about how the food service workers have been known to prepare a meal from a student's mother's hand-written recipe.

"We're all part of the retention plan," King said. "We don't have a multi-million-dollar fitness center, but we have stories like that that would not happen on a larger campus."

Watching the numbers

Long said the retention part of her three Rs is the most difficult, and recruiting is hard because many schools go after the same students.

She's eagerly anticipating students' arrival on campus later this month. Not only because she enjoys the chatter and the energy they bring, but also because she has a feeling the next round of enrollment numbers will finally put a concrete figure on Tech's success.

Long said Tech will continue to find ways to rebuild the campus and will continue studying reports that aim to improve things, such as recruitment efforts.

She said the studies have come up with several solutions to some of the problems the school has, but she also wants to see a little more attention given to the good things.

Jonathan Eske, a senior pre-med student from Australia, said his favorite thing about Tech is its small size and sense of community.

"The community feel is getting even better," Eske said. 

"You used to see people walking around like they wished they had gone to a bigger school or like they had to be here."

Eske said he's seen campus pride grow and improve since he enrolled.

"I'm so proud of this campus," Long said. "They have worked so hard, even before I got here and since I got here, to focus on students. That's what we're here for and what we stay for."

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