Man Around Campus: An Interview with Dr. Ed Welch

August 25, 2014


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Man Around Campus: An Interview with Dr. Ed Welch


By Jennifer Jett

Dr. Ed Welch, the president of University of Charleston (UC), is many things to many people. To faculty and staff at UC, he is the energy and vision that keeps the university moving forward. To students, he is a friend who joins them in the cafeteria for lunch to catch up on campus life. Former Mountain State University students see him as part of the solution to addressing a dark and uncertain time in their higher education experience, and to West Virginia, he is one of the longest-tenured college presidents in the state’s higher education history. If you ask Welch what he’s about, though, the humble Maryland native will likely tell you he only wants to leave UC’s student body, Charleston’s community and higher education better than it was when he arrived in 1989.

Welch is a well-loved resident of the Charleston area. He has received many accolades for his service to higher education and his community. He is a recipient of the YMCA’s Spirit of the Valley award, which recognizes individuals for their exemplary community service, and he was the first recipient of the Charles L. Foreman Award for Innovation in Private Higher Education by the Foundation for Independent Higher Education. He is so well loved by his community, in fact, that he also has a towboat named after him, which can be seen making its way along the Kanawha River from time to time.

For the summer’s education issue, West Virginia Executive met up with the man who led UC from the poor financial position that had the school on the verge of closing to last year’s expansion into Beckley and Martinsburg locations and online education offerings. With a lengthy resumé as a former White House employee, an ordained minister, a college professor, provost and president, Welch’s life experience, along with his passion for helping others, has made him a leader that both the UC family and the Charleston community look to for guidance in building a better tomorrow.

WVE: What do you remember most about your own higher education experience, and how did that prepare you for how you lead UC today?

EW: Sadly, almost everything I experienced as a student in college and graduate school is obsolete. I had some fantastic faculty members, but to a person, their classroom behavior was stand and deliver. They did not understand student engagement and learning by doing. I am so proud that UC’s faculty has moved wholeheartedly into more effective teaching strategies. I have a piece of limestone in my office with the word “nothing” inscribed on it. That stone reminds me that nothing is written in stone. We must continue to change our processes and our activities.

WVE: You came to UC in 1989 to serve as president. What vision did you have for the university upon your arrival, and how has that vision evolved over the years?

EW: Vision is seeing the future intersections between the long-standing mission of an institution and the ever-changing environment. Effective presidents don’t impose a vision on a university. They help the faculty and staff forecast future challenges and opportunities and create the best strategies for maintaining a strong institution that can fulfill its mission. Then presidents need to describe the vision and the strategies in persuasive terms. Our first tasks after my arrival were to strengthen UC’s financial health and to replace four mission statements with one. Over time, our shared vision has included constructing much-needed facilities, particularly residence halls; dramatically transforming the curriculum; bringing back football; adding graduate programs and expanding to new locations and online education.

WVE: When you arrived at UC, the school was in such financial peril that it almost closed. How were you able to reinvent the university and bring it back from that precipice to the success it sees today?

EW: When I came to Charleston, the university was dealing with 15 years of financial deficits and confusion about its mission. Those two shortcomings were related. UC could not and cannot be everything to everyone. We had to learn that we are a private university whose mission is “to educate each student for a life of productive work, enlightened living and community involvement.” We realized we were undervaluing our learning experiences. We increased our tuition to levels necessary to support the quality we delivered, and we reduced or eliminated budget expenditures for activities that were less important in fulfilling our mission. These steps were a significant cultural change for the university.

WVE: What do you identify as the major challenges of higher education in West Virginia, and how is UC addressing those challenges?

EW: The major challenges are keeping college affordable, helping students and families understand the need for more than a high school education and assuring that students actually learn while they are in college. This coming year, UC will give $12.5 million in financial aid to students—in addition to more than $20 million from federal and state sources—while also identifying ways to hold down the cost of providing the learning and living resources that students want. UC is able to hold students accountable because we have identified specifically what students must know and be able to do before they can earn the credits necessary for graduation.

WVE: What do you think colleges will be like in the next 10-20 years?

EW: No one knows. Twenty years ago, few people would have forecast the increased governmental regulation of higher education, the increasing skepticism about the value of education and the way for-profit companies have used federal financial aid to expand their education businesses. My forecast is that public research institutions and brand-name private institutions will continue as they are. Other institutions may find that books, buildings and tenure are less important and financial aid, cost cutting, proof of success and government regulation are more important.

WVE: You accepted a position at the White House to pay your way through school and worked with three different administrations. Tell us about your time at the White House and what you remember most about the experience.

EW: My father was a minister in D.C., and a member of our church secured for me a position in the White House, which I kept for 11 years, during the administrations of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It allowed me to pay my way through school. My duties included teaching Lyndon Johnson’s secretaries shorthand and typing, working on messages to Congress and presidential speeches, answering the president’s mail and working with various presidential aides. What I learned as a young man is that our national leaders are no different than the rest of us. They have the same variety of motivations, prejudices and family issues. It is just that their decisions and actions impact more people.

WVE: How do you determine the best moves for UC, and how do you make those ideas become reality?

EW: We study trends and listen to input to decide which ideas for change best fit our mission, the desires of our students, the needs of the world around us and what other colleges and universities are doing. When a core group of people share the same vision, we can move forward together to implement the desired changes.

WVE: Tell us about the closing of Mountain State University (MSU) and why UC chose to offer assistance to MSU’s students. 

EW: Many people have the misconception that UC bought out Mountain State. Because of Mountain State’s legal issues, UC did not want to have any relationship with Mountain State that would result in our being a successor institution. UC agreed to do several things: help MSU students transfer to UC so they could complete their studies; lease MSU’s facilities and equipment for 25 years; build up a UC presence in Beckley and Southern West Virginia, as well as in Martinsburg and online, and offer UC’s programs and former MSU programs in those new locations.

UC had great sympathy for the MSU students who were not going to be able to complete their degrees, and we wanted to maintain a traditional private college enterprise in Beckley. In addition, in the spring of 2012, UC completed a strategic planning process that determined it should expand its enrollment toward 2,500 students, add new academic programs, move into online education, gain economic efficiencies through the better use of technology, reduce per-student operational costs and focus on the recruitment of West Virginia students. Our regional expansion into Beckley, Martinsburg and online education helped us move more quickly toward achieving each of these goals.

WVE: What has been the result of UC’s actions in light of Mountain State’s closing, and what has been your biggest challenge?

EW: More than 400 former MSU students have completed their studies through UC. We have added eight new academic programs, expanded our enrollment by some 550 students and benefited from the talent and dedication of many former MSU faculty and staff members. The biggest challenge has been merging two different business and educational cultures.

WVE: You are known for engaging with everyone on campus, sometimes joining faculty, staff and students for lunch. Why do you feel this is an important investment of your time?

EW: The life and work of the university is not what goes on in my office. It is what goes on in the interactions students have with faculty members, staff and administrators. I need to know what they are thinking: their concerns, their problems, their accomplishments and their dreams. It helps me remember why I do what I do behind the scenes of the real action. In addition, I just enjoy the friendships.

WVE: What do you like to do in your spare time?

EW: My wife, Janet, and I enjoy getting away—whether that is dinner out on Friday night or one of our international trips. I like to play tennis, and I have friends who are working on my golf game. The challenge is that my interest in golf exceeds my talent.

WVE: Tell me about your wife and the supportive role she plays in your career at UC.

EW: Dr. Janet Welch has dramatically improved the university. She has devoted her time and talent to improving the appearance of the campus. She has worked on color schemes, wall adornments and physical layouts in many parts of the campus. She has put art and photographs in hallways, offices and the library, and she has transformed the President’s Home. She has served as first lady and campus hostess, attending athletic contests, recruitment events and donor cultivation dinners. She single-handedly created the Erma Byrd Gallery for West Virginia Women Artists. It is the only gallery of its kind in the United States and has received great acclaim from the artistic community. I am so fortunate that she, as a former college faculty member, understands what I am doing and has made her own contribution to making UC a better place.

WVE: Tell me about the leadership boards you sit on and why you feel it’s important to be active not only in the university but in its community.

EW: UC’s mission aspiration is to prepare every graduate to make his or her community a better place. I take that responsibility seriously. For many years, I have served on the board of the Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC), and I proudly chair their Quality Committee. I was on the board of One Valley Bank, and now I am privileged to be on the corporate board for BB&T. I am able, in a small way, to support and encourage the wonderful service that CAMC provides to Southern West Virginia and that BB&T provides to the southeastern United States and far beyond. In return for what little I can do, CAMC has helped me learn so much about how to identify, monitor and improve institutional quality. Through BB&T, I have learned about leading complex institutions, and I keep apprised of changes in business climate and regulatory oversight. All of these insights add to what I can bring to my role at UC.

WVE: Why have you chosen to stay in Charleston and at UC for so long?

EW: I love Charleston—the town and the people. Because everything around us is constantly changing, my job is never boring. Neither is the work finished because there is always something more to be done. It is rewarding to see the mutual benefits from the city-university relationship. I am involved in both worlds and hope I’m making a positive contribution.

WVE: Why is Charleston such an ideal place for a university? 

EW: Charleston is fantastic. It offers the benefits of an urban area and the ambiance of a small town. Students can shadow a member of the state legislature or work in a governmental office. They can have internships at a wide variety of businesses and nonprofit organizations. They can attend symphony concerts for free and attend cultural events at the Clay Center and the Civic Center. Athletes can play golf on three different courses or benefit from the city-university partnership to play at Power Park, UC Stadium and the UC-city softball field. There is easy access to department stores, restaurants, entertainment venues and night spots. International students can find their favorite foods, and health science students can have clinical experiences in three different hospitals. Or, they can sit on their own riverbank and enjoy the beauty of the river and the state capitol.

Charleston is also a fantastic place because people want UC to thrive. Foundations, businesses and countless individuals support UC and have created the great things that have happened at the university.

WVE: Looking forward, what plans do you have for further growth of UC?

EW: First, UC must complete its $13 million fundraising effort to provide a new sports gymnasium for all students. Second, UC must establish a brand identity that differentiates it from other colleges and universities in our region. Third, we must continue to evolve our shared mission regarding which programs and activities best address the needs of our region and the interests of students and which do not. Changing, adding and deleting programs and activities will continue to be a natural part of our work.

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