PIKE CREEK – Colleen Keith pauses for a second when asked if it’s fair to characterize her as an “accelerant.”
Goldey-Beacom College’s new president – the first woman to hold that position in the school’s 133-year history – has a word cloud framed in her office that that she starts to refer to, but then veers down a totally unexpected path.
“Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer before I finished my first year as a college president,” she says. “I started cancer treatment and lost my hair a week before the inauguration, so I had to have a wig and pin my tam into my wig and all that. I was asked in an interview about taking it easy at the start. I told the reporter, ‘No, I’m a person of action so I need to get this done, this done, this done, and this done because you can take too much time and then you’re just further behind if you don’t take action.’ So yes, I think “accelerant” is a fair word.
Dr. Keith arrived at Goldey-Beacom this past June, coming to the school from North Carolina, where she had served as president of Pfeiffer University since 2015. She previously served as president of Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina from 2009 to 2015. During her time at Pfeiffer, she significantly increased enrollment; created a digital transformation and technology office; launched two graduate health-sciences programs; recast and refinanced debt; and moved the institution from Division II to Division III athletics.
Over the course of the conversation, she talked a lot about what’s next. Perhaps the most intriguing idea had little to do with Goldey-Beacom itself.
“As an adult, I read a lot of the books that are on the freshman reading lists,” she says, conceding that Goldey-Beacom doesn’t have one. “I’d love to help create a Wilmington book club for all of the colleges and high schools together. Have UD, Wilmington University, Goldey-Beacom, DSU – everybody, even the high schools, the book clubs that women often do – choose a book every year and bring together the entire community to discuss it. Maybe bring that author in and have the students interact with each other.”
Keith sat down for an interview shortly after her first board of trustees’ meeting, where she had handed out Goldey-Beacom pins to attendees and talked about her plans for the school, which has about 1,500 students and 38 graduate and undergraduate degrees.
You’ve been here about four months. What’s been your biggest surprise?
That people don’t really know about Goldey-Beacom in the greater community. I’ve had lots of people say, “Oh, I drive by there. You’re the one with the signs,” or “Yeah, I see your buildings out there,” but they don’t know us. I was very surprised by that, for being 133 years old, I thought more people would know us.
How have you approached your first few months here?
I’ve tried to get to know the faculty, the staff, the trustees, as well as people in the community. And I’ve really tried to make relationships happen, build relationships, and be able to have a group who I can call when I have a question with something and that’s worked pretty well thus far. And then try to also get a good feel for who Goldey-Beacom is and where are we falling short? Because we’re pretty strong. The goal is to build on the strength and get us a vision and move us ahead.
Tell me about the new pins.
This is all about pride. Anybody who makes a gift to the annual fund of any amount gets a Goldey-Beacom lapel pin. When we gave them to the trustees this morning, you should have seen their faces. Some took off their other pins and put these on. And they said, “We need to claim our story and tell our story.” And I mean I’m sitting there biting the inside of my cheek because I didn’t want to cry. I thought, “This is what we need to be doing.” There was pride and love for the institution that I hadn’t totally picked up on during the interview process.
What’s the next big item on your to do list?
Planning, which will involve the entire institution. We will generate the six or seven themes that we want to take out to the community. Everyone – faculty, staff, trustees, alums and students – will have a voice in setting our future direction. We’re sound, we’re solid, we make things happen. But there’s no vision for 10 years from now. We need that vision. And then we just need to move out and claim it because we’ve got all the components in place to do it. So that’s going to take probably a year. My guess is next year at this time I’ll be bringing a completed plan to the board.
In the movie “City Slickers” there’s a part toward the end where Jack Palance is talking to Billy Crystal about the secret to life. And he says, “It’s one thing.” Billy says, “What’s the one thing?” He said, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Colleen, what’s your one thing?
That’s a very good question (pauses). I think the one thing is name your mission and stick close to it. After almost 35 years in higher education, anything that I’ve seen that’s been very successful … They claim their mission, they revisit it as they go along and maybe they tweak it a little bit but they keep pushing ahead. And I really do think that’s the silver bullet. You have to stay focused on that. And then you have to do all of the things to make that happen, you have to have resources.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the university?
Staying relevant. Because of enrollment, every college is enrollment-driven. Our undergrad [enrollment] has started to come up, our graduate enrollment has been going down. We need to stay relevant with the right programs so that we can gain our market share of enrollment.
Does tuition here feel a bit high to you when you look at the schools with whom you compete for students?
It’s $24,000 – well, next fall it will be $25,500 — and we have what we call an Academic Affordability Award. Once a student gets accepted, they automatically get $13,800 off that price. Next year we will also, for the very first time, have a meal plan. So $25,500 for tuition, $12,500 for room and board. But everyone automatically gets $13,800, regardless of whether you live on campus or commute.
And we’re looking at a tuition rollback in our future.
But if you immediately give everybody $13,800 regardless of the family income, why wouldn’t you just say your tuition is $11,000?
We end up saying that but we don’t put that out because the thinking has been, up until now, that people like a deal. The higher price tag connotes higher quality and they also think “I’m getting a scholarship so I’m getting a really good deal so they must really want me.”
So, it’s all about marketing?
It is. What we could do is roll that back and then just advertise what the price is. At college fairs, I always say, “Okay, right off the bat, here’s what you’re going to be paying — $17,700 if you live on campus. And then after that you, depending on your SAT, ACT, and GPA, you can get up to another $6,000 automatically and then there’s other scholarship aid they may be able to get.
But I always remind them we’re still less expensive than UD.
Do you worry about your brand, how students respond when a parent says, “What about Goldey-Beacom?”
I do. We really go back to that career placement rate to help raise brand awareness. Within three months of graduation, over 90% of our students are employed full time and/or in graduate school. And with the kinds of majors we graduate, over half of them are business majors, that career placement rate makes sense. We are graduating people with skills that are needed.
Is there a particular challenge or responsibility that comes with being Goldey-Beacom’s first woman president?
I’ve been the first woman president at the last two colleges too. I don’t see the gendered part of it. I know that I have to do what I do so that other women have a role model and can say, “Yes, I can do this too.” I have to do more to make sure that other women see that there’s the opportunity.
What attracted you here?
This really was the combination of the personal and the professional. I’m 57, so I was at that point where my son is 30, he lives in D.C. with his girlfriend, and I’m hoping that there’s a wedding and a family. I’d love to have grandchildren at some point. I hadn’t been able to see him much in the last 10 years so this was really nice to be able to only be a couple hours from him. And my mom and dad – my dad just turned 87 yesterday – are up north of Syracuse. Since I moved here this summer, I have been up to see them twice. That is two more times than I was able to get up to see them in the previous three years.
But there’s also the professional side. Goldey-Beacom is financially strong and has majors that students are interested in and they can get jobs from. All of a sudden, the conversation about, “Is college worth it?” is an easy one to have here. Because yes, we make it affordable and yes, you can get a job, so invest in yourself and come here. It was the combination of both of those things. Because even though a lot of people have never heard about Goldey-Beacom, once you start digging into it, it’s like, “I want to be there. It’s got everything going for it.”
How much have you gotten done since you got here?
More than I anticipated. The campus is so ready to get moving. My predecessors did a great job getting us strong, getting some things going. We’ve got the new residence hall under way. We’ve got the renovations going on in this building (the Joseph West Jones Center). I had not planned to start a planning process until next year. All of a sudden, it just became apparent that if I didn’t do it now, we were one more year behind, and we needed to not be behind.
What do you think is the biggest point of differentiation between you and those schools that you’re competing with for students?
It’s that focus on the future. I’ve been very struck by the fact that our students are, for the most part, pretty focused. Even if they come here to play basketball, they still are focused because they know that their sport’s going to end at some point. You don’t have 57-year-old basketball players, so they know they’re here to get an education. We’re small and somebody’s going to intervene and say, “What are you doing? You’re not passing classes,” or, “Have you thought about what you’re going to do with this major?”
Tell me a little bit about this campus expansion that seems to be everywhere.
What I said at our beam raising this morning was, this is all about how do you journey better with students? How do you engage better with students? And how do you serve students better? How do you provide the right kind of atmosphere? And that’s what this is focused on.
How do you balance revenue growth and cost cutting?
It gets back to mission and making student-centered decisions. As we’re figuring out how we’re going to spend our money, we will ask how it’s going to help enrollment, retention, and the student experience. A staff member who does a lot of videography stuff needed some lights and equipment, and he was reticent to ask for the funds, and I thought “Oh no, this helps. This is a student-centered decision, because we can use that to be able to do the videos that we need to promote ourselves.”
What did you do at either Pfeiffer or Spartanburg that you see as low-hanging fruit here?
Goldey–Beacom has not done a lot in fundraising. In addition, we haven’t been telling our story – and that’s incredibly low-hanging fruit.
What was the most important skill you brought to the table when you chose to come here?
Oh gosh. I don’t know if it’s skill as much as it is knowledge of the field of higher education, of the broader spectrum of what’s happening in higher ed across the country. Goldey-Beacom didn’t spend a lot of time looking outside of its campus footprint, and that’s not a good thing. As the enrollment started to go down a little bit, they didn’t spend a lot of time looking out. So, it was the knowledge of having been at different places and lived in different areas of the country and experienced different higher-ed things.
One of the first things we did when I got here was move away from our approach to recruiting. We live in an iPhone generation, but we weren’t texting any student. We’re sending them letters. Who’s going to open a letter? They’re going to read a text. Our social media game needs to be increased. So, we made a move right away to how we communicate with prospective students so that we’re communicating in a way that they communicate now.