Friday marked the last of three presidential candidate forums for students, faculty and staff. During Martha Saunders’ forum for students in the Stern Ballroom, the sight of cameras and reporters familiar to the previous forums were missing and the atmosphere seemed lighter.
Saunders, the only candidate remaining to have previously led an institution of higher learning, is also the only woman in the race. If she gets the position, she would be the first woman president in the history of the College of Charleston.
Having previously served as president of the University of Southern Mississippi and the current Provost at the University of West Florida, Saunders’ session centered around her roots in higher education and her passion for interacting with students on a personal level.
Saunders began her session addressing the student body by answering “why CofC” and “why now.” She acknowledged the rich history that surrounds the College after 250 years and that legacy is an important factor here, both on a resume and as alumni of the school. She also relayed her experience, stating that she has served as the president of two separate universities and also has held every possible role available in higher education administration, from chancellor to dean to provost. She went on to say that although schools are different across the country, they often face similar issues and dilemmas, and that her experience would be a key attribute while leading the College of Charleston.
Saunders seemed successful in her efforts to relate personally to the student body present. She mentioned her family and told everyone about her seven children. She emphasized how excited she is to talk to students and hear their comments, help them with their problems and work on their behalf.
Saunders realized she would speak to a majority student audience at this session, so she used her time at the microphone to relay three pieces of advice that she gives to all college students whom she meets. They were plan to graduate (education does not count unless you graduate), ride all the rides (take advantage of all your campus has to offer) and develop a sense of gratitude (give back in your own way). This was a way to connect with the students and many seemed to really enjoy the personal connection Saunders made with them.
The floor then opened for questions and diversity came up first. A student highlighted Saunders’ success achieving greater diversity numbers at the University of West Florida and pressed Saunders on what she would do at CofC to bring about more diversity. She recognized that diversity is a big issue and a lot goes into achieving greater diversity. She hit all the points about where to start gauging campus climate and encouraged students to help by recruiting other students and being a part of creating a more positive climate.
As many would have guessed, the issue of the College Reads! funding and subject matter came up right away. Saunders explained that as an educator, her job is to explain things, and she would explain to the South Carolina delegation that academic freedom can be misunderstood. She was in favor or challenging students and developing a culture of trust.
The merger, another hot button issue, was brought up by student questions. Saunders confessed that she does not understand enough about the proposal brought to the South Carolina House of Representatives and would like an answer to the question: what problem does this solve? She recognizes that improving research productivity is a good thing, but this can definitely be done without a merger. She said, “to jeopardize this brand would be really ill-advised.” On the whole, she seemed open to learning more about the merger while also taking into consideration the opinions and thoughts of students, faculty and staff.
Saunders, when asked about the future of the graduate school, announced that it is “time for a campus dialogue on graduate programs and research.” She said that at this point in time, she does not know what would happen to the liberal arts masters degrees that currently exist if the merger with MUSC were to go through. She did, however, encourage partnering with other institutions for graduate programs, something we currently do with The Citadel.
A high point was when Saunders discussed the voice of the students. She is an advocate for student representatives on every committee and at every meeting. She meets regularly with the Student Government Association and other student groups around campus. In addition, she would continue to eat lunch in student cafeterias to listen to the students and get their input on the ground about everything from food services to residence life.
With all the buzz and controversy about McConnell over with the day before, Saunders took her opportunity to really connect with the students and highlight her experience as an educator and administrator. Many of the students in the audience seemed to enjoy Saunders’ presentation and agreed that she would be a good choice as the next President of the College of Charleston.