Home » Lane One-on-One: Centre College Outgoing President John Roush

Lane One-on-One: Centre College Outgoing President John Roush

Colleges Must Impact Student Lives to Prove They Are Worth Today’s Cost

By Mark Green

John Roush
Centre College President John Roush

Mark Green: What tools or metrics have you used to assess how well Centre College is doing, and thus how you’re doing in your job?

John Roush: The rankings and ratings that come out every year would be clear evidence that Centre College is a place held in high regard. I’m quick to add that these rating systems are deeply flawed, but they’re what we have to work with, and they signal that Centre is one of the premiere, truly outstanding undergraduate colleges in America. That’s really good for us here in Danville, at Centre and for the Commonwealth of Kentucky to have an institution that enjoys that kind of prestige and notoriety.

In terms of how we measure ourselves, we like to be a little more academic. Our core vision is to be a place of both high achievement and high opportunity. That mantra goes back a long time at Centre. We have worked to increase being a place of both high achievement and a place of high opportunity. That first piece is self-explanatory; 65% of our students are in the top 10% of their class. They have an average ACT of about 30. These are the outstanding students in their high schools.

Just as importantly, during the time I’ve been here we have upped our game in terms of being a place of opportunity for students who might not normally make their way to an institution of this quality in Kentucky. How do you measure that? When I got here 22 years ago, we were about 8% students of color. We’re now, counting our foreign students of color, at about 27%.

Part of our mission is to have serious socioeconomic diversity. When I got here, we had some students who would have been Pell grant (federal aid for those with exceptional financial need) eligible; we now are 20% Pell-eligible and 65% qualify for need-based aid. When I got here, we had about 10 students from other countries and we now have 120. When I got here we had 1,001 students and now we have 1,400.

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By the way I measure what we’ve accomplished, I take confidence in knowing we have made this institution to be more like the nation and world of which we’re a part. And we’ve improved the quality. So when somebody says, “John, how do you measure whatever success you’ve had?” I would call up those kinds of numbers.

MG: The quality of faculty at Centre is one key to its success. What role do you, as president, play in hiring? How much of the current faculty have been put in place during your 22 years?

JR: When I got here we had 80 faculty; we now have about 140. I’ve had a hand in helping hire about 60% of that faculty, and I’m proud of that. The more important thing is that I am involved in the process; I sign their appointment letter. But at a really good college or university, my role in faculty appointment is to help recruit them; I’m part of the sales pitch, not so much the selection process. The quality of the faculty was strong when I got here without question. It is stronger now, and that is a compliment to the current members of our faculty who found these people and then recruited them. I played a role in that recruitment, but it would be an overstep to suggest I “sign off” on these people. I do participate in a meaningful way, more around the level of recruitment than selection. That’s what has long gone on at really good places.

MG: At a 201-year-old school with a strong sense of its history and high performance, how do you decide to add or change facilities? When an institution is “not broken,” how do you decide to fix it?

JR: This institution’s really strong history is something to be admired, which is one of the reasons I came. I wanted to go to a place where I thought I could make a contribution to the greater good, and Centre was already a strong, vibrant, important place in Kentucky. What we’ve done—through growth that’s occurred while maintaining our small class sizes, a 10:1 student-faculty ratio, as well as adding a lot of depth and breadth to the academic program with new hires—we’ve done at a remarkable level over these 22 years. That is a high compliment not to John Roush but to the people who have worked alongside me. They should get all the credit because they’re the ones who have been making this all work over time. 

In terms of the growth of the physical institution, we invested about $130 million, all thanks to the generosity of donors who believe what we look like and how we function day-to-day matters and came up with the support. We’ve added three major scholarship programs that fund about 120 students per year with full tuition or full tuition plus scholarships, and that’s helped to improve the profile of Centre.

It’s been a step-by-step process. I’m a big believer in strategic planning. We’ve gone through three plans during my 22 years, and it’s time for another. As Milton Moreland comes through the door, I’ve already whispered in his ear, “It’s time for another strategic plan.” What will we now do going forward to make Centre College and the impact it has on students’ lives to be better, stronger and faster?

MG: There was a major facilities upgrade about eight or 10 years ago to Crounse Hall, Centre’s main building. Can you tell us about that?

JR: Crounse is our chief academic building. It is home to Doherty Library. It’s where about 60% of our faculty are housed. It’s filled with classroom spaces and has this glorious statue of Abraham Lincoln out front. It’s a spectacular building day or night. When I go work out late at night, one of my great joys is riding my bike past Lincoln and giving him a high five on the way by.

Virtually every building here has either been built or renovated in the last 22 years. A couple are now coming up for their second renovation; it’s time to upgrade some residence halls again and brush up some of our academic buildings. We’re opening a new Learning Center in Doherty Library next fall, because education’s changing. It’s never about staying the same. It’s always about finding ways to improve your game, to make your program more effective and more impactful in the lives of the young people who come your way—while maintaining our core commitment to being an undergraduate college in the liberal arts and sciences that is highly residential and is about the business of preparing tomorrow’s citizen leaders.

MG: A significant trend, accelerated by the pandemic shutdown, is the shift to more online instruction, which would seem to contrast with Centre’s reputation for enthusiastic in-class instruction. What has been Centre’s approach to online instruction?

JR: We went online, went remote, over a period of four or five days. As a compliment to Centre’s faculty and its leadership, let me say people on my senior team met for hours to execute that pivot in such a way that we did minimal damage to the academic experience of the students who were halfway through their term. I believe we did it better than the rest. I don’t want to make it sound like it was just the same as what they had delivered in-person, in a classroom of 18 with a chance to be fully influenced by an outstanding teacher-scholar—which is our model—but we were able to make a good pivot to finish the term in a way that the academic program value was maximized to the extent it could be.

We had the advantage that our classes were still small. Our faculty worked hard to be inventive, creative and flexible in terms of how they administered that online experience. We have outstanding teacher-scholars, and they’re best when they’re in a classroom with you sitting there taking notes, exchanging questions and so forth. But that high quality plays off even to an offline, remote experience. A lot of them did it very well.

That takes me into the question of if there’ll be more of that going forward. The pandemic forced us into something we have been naturally moving toward even as a highly residential, high-quality undergraduate college. Our students of the future will collect some greater amount of their educational experience remotely. They’re going to approach a professor and say, “I’d really like to pick up this course. It’s offered at another reputable institution. What do you think?” And we’re going to figure out a way to say yes.

I’ve been making this case for four or five years. If this student has a chance to study with one of the most noted historians at Oxford as an undergraduate, beam in and be a part of that class remotely, we’re going to tell him or her you can’t do that? I don’t think so. Those opportunities exist now. They’re going to become more numerous, become more affordable, and we’re going to have smart young people say, “I’d like to do that.” The smart move is to figure out a way to say yes. That will not become our core experience, it’ll always be on the perimeter, but we need to figure out a way to blend that into what we do.

MG: Do agreements between schools to share instructors and/or students exist now?

JR: We already have such a program with Rhodes College and Sewanee: The University of the South, made possible by the Mellon Foundation. It is a collaboration to share resources, to share faculty members, to share students, all built around the notion that education is headed toward collaboration and the sharing of resources. American higher education is late on the draw. This should have been happening 20 years ago; some of us started talking about it 20 years ago.

MG: A 22-year run as a college or university president is especially long. To what do you accredit your longevity and success?

JR: I was blessed with good health, a high level of energy since I was a little boy. And a natural curiosity. Not everybody keeps that; for whatever reason I have. I was curious, afraid of nothing growing up, and that’s blended into my adult experience. But my greatest asset through all of this has been the people I’ve been surrounded by, beginning with my wife Susie, who is a remarkable partner and friend and adviser to me. Alongside that are mentors almost too numerous to mention, men and women who have taken a special interest in me and my work and my life, beginning with my mom and dad, but a number of teachers and professors and coaches and colleagues who’ve invested time and energy in me. And the third piece of that, once I began to find myself in leadership positions, is absolute luck of the draw. I didn’t hire all these people; most of them were there when I got there. I had the occasion to be surrounded by remarkable, outstanding people who share a common interest in doing good, in making a difference, in having an impact in the lives of the young people. My magic, if I have any as a leader, is to get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

That is an element of good and effective leadership. I always put those words in combination: It’s not just being effective; is effective good? That carries with it a little bit of a moral value. It’s not just about getting something accomplished, it’s getting something that matters for good accomplished. That’s been a primary result of the people that I’ve had the chance to work with.

MG: Centre’s website states 98% of students live on campus. That sounds like a very high number. Is it rare?

JR: I’ve said any number of times, even when I’m at national meetings with other premier undergraduate colleges: There’s “residential” and then there’s us. Most colleges that are 60% residential, 65%, will talk about being undergraduate residential colleges. At Centre College, virtually everybody lives on campus—2% of 1,400 students is about 28 people (nonresidential). We’re having a lot of conversations just now, because our plan is to reopen in-person and on campus, because that’s what our students want.

Even though they can be positively affected over time with remote, distance-learning opportunities, the bread and butter here is on-campus, residential, involved in-student activities and athletics, music and theater, and fraternity life and sorority life. For that to be at its absolute best, you need to be residential. So we are that, plus.

MG: So becoming part of a family and a community in which 98% of them are on campus helps students be more focused on the educational experience?

JR: Well put. You can put quotes around that and give that to me.

MG: Technology has changed dramatically over the past 22 years. Do today’s “digital native” students learn differently? Is the core educational process different or essentially the same?

JR: Yes, there’s a speed that simply didn’t exist when you and I went to do research. There was a rigor associated with it that probably was good for us. It slowed things down a little bit. We were not able to access virtually any piece of information on every subject matter across the world in a matter of seconds. We had to work harder at it. That had a value that these current students are not exposed to. That said, I’d trade with them in a New York minute! 

But I do think we have to help them. We have to do a better job helping current students understand context, understand the historical framework for the things they’re discovering as new and true information. I don’t think we’ve quite figured that out. A number of faculty reject that idea: “That’s not my business to help them understand context or historical reference. They’ve got to figure that out.” At a good college or university, we’re going to have to help them find their way. But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Access to retrievable information in a microsecond is with us to stay, so we’ve got to figure out how to help students be more careful in the manner in which they do their research and come to conclusions.

This is not some kind of impossible task; you just have to be intentional about it. Our students are open to this, it just hasn’t been shared with them. They haven’t been told in a responsible way that there’s more to learning than “as long as you get the answer right it doesn’t matter that you understand how you got here, what it means, or where it came from.”

MG: You have a professional expertise in leadership. Is it harder to lead the Ph.D. faculty members at an exceptional college, a group who by definition are really, really smart?

JR: I’m a student of leadership, not an expert. The course I teach every Centre term, which has been a great joy for me, is called “Rainmaking,” because if you go back and look at some of the phrases associated with leadership, one of them is “leaders make rain.” That has application in commerce and business as well as almost every field.

Every year I learn as much from my students as I hope they learn from me. I ask them to profile a leader of their choosing, someone historical—there’s got to be some distance between the leader and his or her work so you know how it ended. And it has been such a joy. It’s absolutely a revelation to hear them present their papers on the leader of their choice. I am of the opinion that every person I’ve ever known, myself included, is a work in progress. God’s not finished with me just yet. I’m not finished with becoming the person that I might over time, and I want them to think of themselves that way. The other thing I tell them is that I do take what I do very seriously; I don’t take myself very seriously. That gives me a flexibility to be a little more playful, it allows me to be a little more adventurous, take some greater risk. Because at the end of the day, whatever we accomplish is not about me, it’s about the organization that I serve, whatever that organization might be, and the people it serves. That’s what really counts to me, and I know that sounds a little Boy Scout-y, but that’s the way I was brought up. That’s the experience I’ve had as a worker, that’s the kind of people I’ve been around in my lifetime of work in service, and it’s worked out pretty good.

MG: What are the top challenges for higher education today, both in general and in Kentucky?

JR: Making our way back onto our feet on the heels of this pandemic has been a major challenge but not the first challenge I have experienced. The market crash of 2008-2009 was a financial crisis of similar proportions to what we’re doing now, maybe even greater, though it’s too early to tell. And when 9/11 happened I was president of Centre College. That was a pretty anxious day followed by a number of other anxious days. In my leadership experience, those three are all outstanding challenges.

But back to your question: Three things come to my mind. One is the whole issue of finance. The American college or university has had an accelerated increase in price the last 25 years. At Centre College, we have moderated that; we have not gone up more than what would be the rate of inflation over the last 10 or 15 years. But we still cost $50,000 for room and board, tuition. That’s a lot of money.

Over 90% of our students receive some kind of aid. So we’re committed to making it possible for a bright, serious young person to attend Centre College. The financial wherewithal required for that is remarkable, and it’s getting more complicated.

Second, the American public is asking the question, is college worth it? That question is asked around more dinner tables, with greater seriousness, by parents and by young people. “Does it really matter that I go to college? Does it matter that I go to a really good college? Or might I be able to just pick up some skills and some degree work and get on with the life that I might lead as a worker, as a doer?” That has been haunting American higher education for the last decade. And I’m not talking about folks who are less educated and haven’t had higher education; I’m talking about families where Mom and Dad both went to college and got an undergraduate degree. Mom’s now out of work, Dad’s worried about his job. Mom and Dad are not sure they’ve yet had a job where their college education was crucial. They have not lived the American dream experience financially, and they’re saying, “Do you really need to do that?”

And third, America’s (education) institutions have to get back to high quality. Not every institution is measuring its value on whether they are having an impact in student’s lives, helping them to become more effective citizen leaders. Places are throwing together academic experiences because they’re what people want, they sound good, the optics are good. But they’re not focused on high quality and shame on us for letting that happen. I’m not being critical of every institution. If we can’t get back on that, then I think the American public has every right to say, “Why would I send my daughter, why would I send my son to spend four years at your place if they’re not going to have a high-quality experience?” There’s a greater sense of suspicion. Some of that suspicion is earned.

MG: What about Centre has enabled it for so long to maintain its level of educational attainment and subsequent success for its students and alumni?

JR: Centre’s great strength has been its ability to change lives for good and forever by way of its undergraduate experience in the arts and sciences over time. That’s what we do here; we change lives for good and forever, and that’s why our percentage of alumni giving is what you witness. It’s why the loyalty is so strong. Centre College has been doing this for 200 years, changing people’s lives for good and forever. That is why it matters so much. We have been a primary entry in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” (by former New York Times education editor Loren Pope, published 1996, 2000, 2006 and 2013) and it’s a well-earned honor for us. It’s a small cadre of schools across America, and it’s not an overstatement in our case. That’s what we’ve been doing here for a long, long time. 

MG: How much of this success is a result of the admissions process and screening students and how much is having that Centre experience and instruction and culture?

JR: The answer is yes to all those. Have we worked really hard in admissions? Do we go out there and beat the bushes each and every year to identify and then recruit young people who will benefit from this educational experience? Yes. Does it cost a lot of money to do that? Yes. When they show up, do they expect to have outstanding teacher-scholars at the front of the room, in buildings equipped to deliver a modern, highly effective undergraduate experience? Yes. Do their parents expect them to get good jobs and placement into outstanding graduate schools at the end of four years? Yes. Do they expect their son or daughter to graduate in four years? In the commonwealth there’s nobody within 20 percentage points of our graduation rate for four years, and most are 50 percentage points lower. We’re somewhere between 83% and 87% over four years. We have one of the top graduation rates in America, and we should. The investment we make in these young people, the kind of teacher-scholars we put in front of them, the kind of staff, the kind of opportunities we provide for them in music and theater and athletics and student government—we ought to get them out of here in four years and then they ought to go out prepared to do something with their life.

MG: Centre has one of the country’s highest rates of alumni financial support. What are the best practices for that?

JR: A lot of people think that happens because it just happens. No. We have had a first-rate development team in place here at Centre for a long time. We’re really intentional about that; it doesn’t just happen because we wish and hope.

Imagine you’re working for the Centre development office and you’re going to make a call on a person who has enjoyed real success in his or her life. You will spend your time, almost for certain, talking about how they got their start and that what really made a difference in their life was their choice to come to Centre College. Period, end of story, nothing else to talk about. Their education experience as an undergraduate is what motivates them to make their gift, whatever that size might be.

Sometimes, people start as a $100 giver and life goes well and all of a sudden—I can call these people off by name—they become billionaires, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And their first obligation, alongside other obligations, is to give back to their undergraduate alma mater. Because this is where their life got changed for good and forever.

MG: Do you have any advice for your successor, Milton Moreland?

JR: Milton Moreland I’ve known for 15, 20 years. I had no hand in his appointment, nor should I have had, but I’m delighted with the pick. He is a good human being. He’s smart, he’s hard-working, he’s got great experience, he’s got good instincts, and he’s just a good man. He’ll do a terrific job. So what advice would I give him? I’ve always been encouraged, from the time I was a little boy, to aim high, to stay focused on that north star, and I would encourage him to do that.

I would encourage him to love this place. That’s different than having a job here. A really good leader finds out that he or she needs to love the place and its people. That would be my advice.

And third, I would counsel him to remember that you’re only as strong as the people you’re surrounded by. Be sure you share the credit with the trustees, the faculty, the staff, and particularly the senior team members around him—even more often than you think you should. And he will, this is an easy one for him.

Centre College

• Four-year liberal arts college founded in 1819.

• Offers more than 50 majors, minors, preprofessional and dual-degree programs, and graduate partnerships.

• Has 87 campus organizations and more than 2,000 campus events annually.

• Has 1,450 students, 98% of whom live on campus.

90% of students receive some kind of financial aid.

• Has a student/faculty ratio of 10:1.

• The average class size is 18.

85% of Centre students study abroad.

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].