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A conversation with GSW’s interim president, Charles Patterson

AMERICUS — Charles Patterson started his job as interim president of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) Jan. 1. He’s certainly no stranger to GSW or Americus.

The Times-Recorder sat down recently for a brief interview with Patterson.

As a vice president at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Patterson said he travels frequently to other campuses in the University System of Georgia, and has visited GSW many times. When he received the call about serving as interim, after former President Kendall Blanchard retired Dec. 31, 2014, Patterson said he was very pleased.

“We work closely with the Board of Regents,” he said. “The Regents and the Chancellor are looking for leaders to step in as interim presidents which is a common practice for the University System of Georgia … I was very pleased to receive the Chancellor’s call, as was my boss, President (Brooks A.) Keel of Georgia Southern. He’s very supportive of this as well.”

While a search for a new president of the institution could take many months, Patterson has a clear vision for the university during his time here serving as interim.

“My vision is to keep moving forward,” he said. “We, as an institution, must do so. Any transition between leaders, presidents of institutions, is a time on campus where there’s uncertainty, and I don’t want anyone to feel uncertain about their future. We’re talking with the President’s Cabinet; we’re talking with the deans. And we’ll be talking with the faculty and the students as we move forward with the future of Georgia Southwestern and plan for the future just as we would if a president were already in place.”

Patterson was asked about the possibility of GSW merging with another university in the system, a topic of discussion on many campuses around the state.

“The Chancellor had pretty much stated that … during the Board of Regents meeting,” Patterson said. “That is, that Georgia State and Perimeter consolidation is going to take a large amount of time and resources of staff and so, right now, there’s apparently no plan for consolidations in South Georgia. That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. On the short term it won’t happen quickly, but regardless of the planning, we’re going to continue to move Georgia Southwestern forward. It’s not in our best interest to sit idly by and wait for something to happen.”

While current enrollment at GSW is approximately 2,700, which is down, Patterson said GSW is up in new freshmen and the numbers for the fall are looking good.

“That’s going to be one of our main focuses,” Patterson said. “At Georgia Southwestern and at most institutions across the state of Georgia as well as the country, and that is a very aggressive enrollment strategy. The changing dynamics of higher education require that. That allows us to look introspectively at ourselves and say ‘how are we supporting the students once they get here?’ because we want to retain them and to graduate them so what are the services we provide to students once they come and the levels of engagement we have with our students so that Georgia Southwestern and the community of Americus is home to them so that they stay and continue to matriculate at Georgia Southwestern. I think that’s a good exercise for any institution but it will be one of our main focuses here as we look at enrollment management … I’ve had some discussions with the community and I think they’re very supportive of a greater town and gown relationship between Americus and Georgia Southwestern.”

The interim president was also asked to talk about the strengths of GSW and the challenges the institution faces.

“The strengths are its assets,” he said. “We’ve got great academic programs at Georgia Southwestern. They are tailored to the market they serve: rural communities. We have a very philanthropic community in Americus and Sumter County. Having met many of our leaders in business … They’re very excited about what Georgia Southwestern has been and can be in the future. I made it very clear in speaking with many of them that it’s a symbiotic relationship. The community must come together to support the institution and the institution will respond through more students being enrolled at Georgia Southwestern which again, helps contribute to the economic development of the region. It’s very important for an institution of higher education the serve that purpose because once you get that lifeblood of that institution really running, that’s where corporations and industries start reinvesting in communities. When they can get that workforce readily available to them by the students who are graduating from our institutions, technical schools as well as four-year universities, that’s where they start making investments in communities.”

Georgia Southwestern, as all other institutions of higher learning, faces challenges.

“ … The higher education environment in general is a challenge,” he said. “We have more and more students seeking opportunities in technical schools which is appropriate in some cases. … The higher education environment, as far as enrollment, is definitely a challenge. There are more universities out there. They’re more competitive. Its really important to find your niche in your community. I think that Georgia Southwestern has done a good job of that but we haven’t been as visible in promoting Georgia Southwestern. We haven’t been as intentional in promoting a brand of Georgia Southwestern which is really an asset that hasn’t been fully utilized. That asset really is the intimate relationship between students, faculty and the community. It’s there, but it’s not … as visible as it should be. I think the students who come away from Georgia Southwestern and have been successful here and have fully embraced that relationship, they know it and that’s the niche. But not everyone knows about it.”

Patterson believes in the importance of students who come from GSW and go home on weekends or during breaks and have positive things to say about GSW.

“Word of mouth is your biggest selling point,” he said. “ … especially today in social media circles. If the student has a good experience or a bad experience, more and more people are going to know about it. We want to make sure their experience is a positive one.”

Patterson has spent his first weeks at GSW meeting with his leadership, coaches and faculty. He will become a visible presence on campus and in the community, which he says has been very embracing.

His wife Colleen and son Aidan, 12, will remain in Statesboro during the week but will visit Americus on weekends and during spring break.

“We want to live in the heart of the community,” he said. He’s renting an apartment in downtown Americus.

“I really enjoy the environment of downtown,” he said, “the retail shops and the restaurants. It’s a great, thriving downtown. It’s a real asset to a community like ours where we want it to be a college town. We look forward to working with the leadership in the community to really enhance that and feed off of one another as we build a larger, more attractive university and community.”

At Georgia Southern, Patterson served as vice president for research and economic development and dean of the Jack N. Averitt College of Graduate Studies. He also served as chair of the Georgia Southern University Research and Service Foundation.

Patterson served as vice president of research and economic development since 2011. He was appointed dean of graduate studies in 2009 and chair of the research foundation in 2011. Prior to these appointments, he served as associate vice president for research from 2008-2010, and executive director of the Georgia Southern University Research and Service Foundation from 2008-2011.

Prior to joining Georgia Southern, Patterson served in many capacities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His roles included instructor in the Honors College, assistant director of the office of sponsored programs and research project manager in the office of the vice provost for research.

Patterson received a bachelor of science in biochemistry from Mississippi State University in Starkville and a doctorate in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Involved in state and community affairs, Patterson’s engagement includes: founding member and president-elect of the Georgia Council of Graduate Schools; vice chair of the Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce; founding investor in the World Trade Center, Savannah; and executive committee member of the Downtown Statesboro Revitalization Committee.