BEREA, KENTUCKY—President Lyle Roelofs likes to buy running shoes for his students at Berea College—as long as they get some exercise with him twice weekly before class. Starting at 7 a.m., students—along with faculty, staff and community members—can run four miles with him or walk two with his wife.
Roelofs, a physicist, started such a club informally when he was dean of faculty and interim president at Colgate University in New York. He also saw a pressing need for it when he arrived on campus in Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills in 2012.
Berea, though private, enrolls only young people whose families make less than $29,000 per year.
Running represents more to Roelofs than a way to connect with the campus community. He has finished several half-marathons and completed the legendary course from Marathon to Athens, Greece, which gave the event its name. When he runs alone, he has the time to consider new solutions to the issues confronting the university.
“The really great thing about the president’s job is you get to think about the things that really matter for the institution and that are the hardest,” he says. “They’re not so obvious that everyone else has figured it out.”
Leader at a Glance
Lyle Roelofs, who spent much of his childhood in Southern California, has been president of Berea College in Kentucky since 2012.
Undergraduate study: B.S. with honors in physics and mathematics, Calvin College (Mich.)
Graduate degrees: Ph.D. and master’s in physics, University of Maryland
On the way up: Interim president, provost and dean of faculty at Colgate University (N.Y.); associate provost at Haverford College (Pa.)
Extending a history of diversity
Roelofs, and the 1,600-student institution he leads, have a deep legacy of access and inclusion to sustain. Kentucky was still a slave state when the school was founded there in the 1860s by a zealous abolitionist named John Fee, who opened his fledgling campus to women and black students.
“This place was built for poor white and African-American students,” Roelofs says. “You can’t find many schools built in the 19th century to serve that demographic and that are still doing it.”
Two facilities—the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and Black Cultural Center—drive efforts to maintain racial harmony on a campus where 25 percent of non-international students come from minority groups.
Yet, the college is not immune to external pressures, such as passing motorists with large Confederate flags yelling racial slurs or other insults at students, Roelofs says.
“We live in an area that has some hostility to integration and the presence of cultural and ethnic minorities,” he says. “We experienced it pretty severely about two years ago—lots of drive-by racism and homophobic behavior.”
Administrators worked with local police to identify some of the drivers and Berea mounted an even more powerful response in November 2015: a “Love Over Hate” demonstration downtown, in which several hundreds members of the campus and the surrounding community rallied against bigotry.
“A couple of those drivers came by and they turned right around,” he says.
Berea’s philosophy of inclusion also extends to the undocumented immigrant students it has decided it will continue to serve after the Trump administration announced a phase-out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Roelofs calls the decision the school’s “biggest political challenge.”
“You look at them and think, ‘That person is going to be a great contributor in the U.S. if we just give them an opportunity,’” he says.
The legacy Roelofs wants to leave behind centers on social mobility. One sign of success would be if children of Berea graduates are no longer eligible to attend the school.
“If you take a student whose parents are living on $20,000 a year and they are now able to join middle or upper-middle or upper class, that’s when you’ve changed the prospects of a family,” he says. “And you’ve done something for the economy of the country, too.”
How does a president and his administration maintain financial health, top-notch faculty and modern facilities when no student is charged tuition for a four-year education estimated to be worth around $100,000 or more?
Roelofs is an avid fundraiser, but the heart of the solution dates back to the 1920s, when Berea’s board decided all unrestricted bequests would be added to the endowment. Those gifts, which total about $500 million, have grown—with help from the long-term success of the stock market (despite recessions and depressions)—to $1.2 billion.
That amount puts Berea in the Top 100 schools with the largest endowments, close to institutions like Middlebury, Tulane and University of Kentucky, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Each year, Berea spends about $55 million of the endowment, which has been invested in various asset classes that are managed actively and passively.
“We are highly dependent on America’s economic success,” Roelofs says. “The fact that the financial markets have averaged 8 or 9 percent gains over a century means you can take out 4 to 5 percent every year, and still keep up with inflation and the thing grows all by itself.”
Berea for the first time faces a potential 1.4 percent tax on its endowment due to changes enacted by GOP tax reform, according to published reports.
Fundraising presents a challenge at Berea because many students’ families have limited experience with philanthropy outside of supporting their churches; about 20 percent of graduates make a donation each year. So, to develop a giving mindset in its current students, Berea created a “payroll deduction” program.
Students, who are required to work on campus at least 10 hours per week, can dedicate a small portion—$5 or $10—of their paychecks back to the college. About 930 students participated last year, donating $25,000.
This mindset should pay bigger dividends when graduates join the workforce and can, perhaps, begin making larger donations each month. Berea’s endowment funds remain particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the stock market, and over the years, the Great Recession and other financial pressures have forced administrators to rethink the free tuition model.
But the change has never been made.
“It’s the first step to becoming just like any other institution,” Roelofs says.
Several levels of support
About 75 percent of Berea’s students come from Kentucky and the surrounding Appalachian region that extends from southern Ohio to West Virginia to Birmingham, Alabama. It’s home to some of the nation’s poorest counties.
While some students from these communities are laser-focused on higher ed, others may feel guilty about leaving families behind—particularly younger siblings—in dire situations. And students who come from deeply conservative religious cultures must learn to accept classmates who are more liberal or who follow other faiths.
“We even have a Wiccan faculty member on campus,” Roelofs adds.
To ease the multiple transitions of higher ed, Berea offers a “Bridge In” program for incoming students, “Bridge Through” for those currently matriculating, and “Bridge Out” for graduates.
Each starts with a focus on what students have in common socio-economically, continues with personalized support from faculty and other mentors, and ends with rigorous internships.
“The kind of community that is possible when you take out the class dimensions is quite remarkable,” Roelofs says. “If you’ve discovered how much you have in common with a person of a different skin color, race or ethnicity, you have a much greater ability to be a leader around race relations.”
Students can also bond around their campus jobs. As one of the nation’s eight work colleges, Berea receives federal funding to pay salaries of its students. The program allows Berea to have a smaller adult workforce, but the goal is to help students, not to save on labor costs.
One drawback, however, is high turnover as students switch jobs each year or graduate. Berea offers three kinds of jobs, and many students start in food service, facilities or janitorial work, says Roelofs—who worked as a church janitor and a carpet-layer’s apprentice when he was younger.
The next level of jobs allows students to explore various occupations that may—or may not—become their life’s passion. Berea has its own farm, forest and a variety of crafts studios that sell furniture, brooms and other products over the internet.
Finally, students work at career-oriented jobs in which they “learn what they need to set themselves apart from graduates of other schools,” Roelofs says.
All the while, Berea’s labor supervisors evaluate students’ work performance extensively so all graduates leave school with an official labor transcript. Students are graded on the basics—such as showing up on time—as well as on communication, leadership and other soft skills.
“When we ask our alums about the single most transformational experience they had at Berea,” Roelofs says, “4 out of 5 will say something about the labor program.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.