This article reprinted with the permission of reporter Rudi Keller and the Columbia Tribune
Fletcher Lamkin began his second run as president of Westminster College this month with ambitious goals to boost enrollment, balance the budget and repair relationships damaged with the departure of his predecessor, Benjamin Ola Akande, in July.
Akande resigned after just two years on the job and six members of the college’s board of trustees resigned at the same time. Lamkin, president of Westminster from 2000 to 2007, was president of West Virginia University-Parkersburg when the call came from board president John Panettiere to return.
Lamkin is a retired brigadier general who graduated from West Point in 1964 and ended his military career as dean of the Academic Board at the military academy. He led an artillery battery in Vietnam, where he won a Bronze Star and received numerous other awards including the Distinguished Service Medal.
During his first term as president, Lamkin increased enrollment, completed an $80 million fundraising campaign to improve facilities and boosted the endowment to $54 million, supporting new professorships and other activities.
The Tribune sat down with Lamkin on Thursday to discuss his plans and the future of Westminster.
Q. What were the factors that made you decide that returning to Westminster was a good decision?
A. It is my love and respect for the institution. I had a very successful job in West Virginia and my wife and I were really enjoying the presidency I had there, but I got a call from the chairman of the board who said: “we would love you to come back as president and we need you.” My heart has always been with this place and I thought that as I end my career as an educator, this would be the place.
Q. Benjamin Ola Akande resigned after just two years on the job and six members of the board of trustees departed at the same time. What is the aftermath of that turnover in terms of alumni support and the atmosphere on campus?
A. First of all, my appointment and his departure are two separate events. I had nothing to do with anything that took place until after he departed and that is when I got the call.
What was the atmosphere like? I think there was some division that took place. Some people left the board who were upset about his departure, and so there were people who disagreed out there. I don’t know what the percentages are but there is a need to do some repair of our relationships, so we can establish trust and confidence in the institution and the board of trustees and the administration.
Q. In October 2011 Westminster adopted a strategic plan called Westminster 2020 that evaluated the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for the college. It mentioned inconsistency of engagement with alumni as a weakness, and the news release announcing your return emphasized alumni giving during your tenure. Have those relationships been rebuilt?
A. I have been here two weeks now, on the ground. I would say that the situation that occurred this summer did create the need for me to re-engage the alums.
There has been a message sent from the younger alums, in particular, that they don’t feel they are being listened to. So, one of my goals, my specific goal, is to reach out to our alumni and let them know that I hear them. When I was here from 2000 to 2007, that is when we increased our alumni giving to, I think it is, 37 percent, which is world-class. We had strong alumni support.
When you leave a place in the Army, you don’t pay attention to what goes on there. It is somebody else’s ballgame at that point. So when I left in 2007, we had a good relationship with our alums. They were connected to us and they were giving at a very high rate and the events that I was going to, which were frequent, were very positive events. I just went to an event in Kansas City, an alumni event, and it was fantastic. People there are fully supportive of the college and fully supportive of my return to the presidency.
But I know there is a faction out there that’s disappointed with the institution and I am going to reach out to them as well as those who have already indicated their strong support of my presidency. Because I feel what we should have at a college like ours is a very strong, we call it the Blue Jay Nation, who are unified in their support of the college.
If you like or dislike a personality at the college, be it the president or someone else in the administration, that should be overridden by your love of the college. My goal is to reconnect people with this extraordinary institution.
Q. The strategic plan also found that financial challenges were a weakness. What is the financial condition of Westminster now and if there is a weakness, what is the plan for correcting it?
A. As I said before, I think we are in better shape in many ways than we were in 2000 when I got here. After 2001, our endowment dropped to around $27 million. When I left it was $54 million. I think right now it is close to $50 million, so the endowment is stronger.
Something we were missing back then were endowed positions and we’ve also increased the number of scholarships that are available. So we have strength in that kind of long-term support of the college. But our budget, in recent years, has not been balanced. So we’ve been taking funds from the endowment rather than do things at the college that should balance the budget.
What I am doing with my first step is identifying those things that we do here at the college that can balance the budget. Because we need to be able to sustain whatever it is that we are doing.
Q. When faced with the challenges of operating a small college, Columbia College expanded into online and satellite programs and now has thousands of students throughout the country in addition to about 1,000 traditional students at its home campus. What, if any, steps do you intend to expand course offerings and is that the kind of path Westminster should go onto?
A. There’s a couple of things that are internal to our current programs that need to be addressed first and foremost. We need to continue to enhance a really tremendous resident student experience that we have here and that is my first focus.
What I am looking at is a situation where during the 10 years I have been gone our retention rate has gone down. Now, it is down about 13 percent, year to year retention rate. If you run the numbers on that, that is costing us over $2.5 million in revenue. And if you look at our enrollments this past year, two years ago we had over 300 students [enroll]. This year we had 209 students come to the college. That’s another $2 million in revenue that the college doesn’t have. So you are looking at $4 million or $5 million in revenue that can be recaptured by improvements in retention and new enrollments. And actually, as you improve your retention, your new enrollments will increase, too, because of your word of mouth. Your students are happier, and word of mouth. So that’s my first focus.
The second focus, and we’re already taking steps to do this, is establish some online programs and some graduate programs. That will not in any way detract from the identity of the college. I think there’s room for some graduate programs in some fields like business and education that could be of service to the community and would give us an opportunity to reach out.
And another theme that we have here is leadership. Now, there are not many people that are going to take a singular degree in leadership, but certificate programs and a secondary major in leadership are very popular and very much needed by our community. We are going to enter that market as well.
The online part of this — and I will tell you that this is stuff I was looking at in 2007. I’m not sure why nothing happened, or not much, between 2007 and 2017, but I am definitely going to re-energize those initiatives and see where the market is.
One thing you can’t do as a small college president is lose money on a venture, because it drains other activities that you have and you just don’t have the flexibility to make mistakes like that. So I want to do a very strong and valid business plan for any one of those ventures we go into beforehand, before we take the steps to do it.
Q. Westminster’s history as a destination for world leaders is well known and the most recent Green lecture was delivered by Sen. Bernie Sanders. What are the keys to maintaining that reputation and to continue to attract internationally recognized leaders to Fulton?
A. I think part of it is that we continue to have a strong curriculum. And liberal arts is really the foundation of the curriculum.
Back in the ’60s, you attended a liberal arts institution and the institutions made no bones that education was being delivered for the sake of education. Nowadays, you must be much more career-oriented in your approach to education.
While maintaining that liberal arts and international component of our curriculum, we need to put that into context so that people understand that this helps you have a successful career as well. Employers are looking for people who are good thinkers and good team members at their institution and have a potential for growth. Those are the people that employers invest in and honor.
The skills you develop in a liberal arts environment help you do that. For our students, in terms of marketing, we need to make it clear that this is leading to a career for our students. They’re not going to go home and live in mother’s basement. They are going to be productive members of society from the day they hit the ground. Right now, 96 percent of our students get jobs within a few months of graduation. We are proud of that but it is probably not as well understood by the folks who are considering us as a possible place for our students. We need to maintain that.
Our international reputation isn’t just talk, it is what we do. We have a strong component of international students and we bring topics through the Hancock Symposium and the Green Lecture, and the presence of the Churchill Museum. All of these things do more than just talk the talk, they walk the walk of being a truly international, global experience, here at this college in the middle of Missouri.
And I think that is the kind of education that is beneficial to our students and to our society as well.
Q. What are your personal goals for the second time through? It sounded like at the beginning of the conversation that this will cap your career.
A. I am not looking for a job after this. How long will I stay here? You will probably have to pull me out of this place. As long as I feel that I am contributing, and not hurting the college by my age, I will continue to be here.
My personal goals for the college are, of course, in the broad brush, to maintain and enhance this incredible student experience while creating a sustainable financial picture for the college. That picture also includes the facilities, so our deferred maintenance is down, our facilities are modern and we have the resources to continue to support us and sustain us.