Dr. Christopher Roellke officially became president of Stetson University in July 2020, just in time to meet all of the challenges presented by the pandemic in a state rife with positive COVID-19 cases and divided down the middle politically.
Luckily, he had a cushion of about four months to get acclimated to his new institution as he prepared to leave his post as Dean Emeritus at Vassar College in New York. During that time, he constructed a unique and humbling framework for facing those obstacles.
“It was clear that I was going to be confronting an emergency upon arrival,” says Roellke. “I wanted to have the community focus on three simple themes for how to address the pandemic: kindness, empathy and shared ownership. I spent a lot of time talking about how critical it was at a time of high anxiety, at a time of a great deal of uncertainty, that we all try to abide by principles of kindness and empathy. I said we need to make kindness as contagious as the virus.”
So Stetson allowed its faculty and students to chart their modalities of instruction and attendance. It went to single occupancy in residences, despite hits to revenue. It established a partnership with Advent Health on testing and mitigation and held weekly webinars on the state of the campus. Those ideas were not much different than other institutions, but in Florida, some required a particularly delicate balancing act.
“We put a lot of time and effort into communication strategies and have tried to walk the talk on issues of transparency,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that we’re always in agreement on everything. There are going to be some folks who think that we should be wide open with no mask mandates. The state of Florida has been very politicized during the pandemic, so we’ve tried to thread the needle and make sure everyone feels welcome.”
The President Series: Insight into issues affecting higher ed
That all-embracing approach has been key to keeping spirits high at Stetson, a highly respected, 138-year-old small private institution with just over 3,100 undergraduate students. To learn more about its approach and how Roellke, a master at fundraising at Vassar, is advancing philanthropy at Stetson, University Business sat down for a conversation with the president.
Tell us more about the strategy to be caring and make kindness a focus of your messaging during this crisis.
It’s important for leaders to be humble and to be great listeners. If you’re serious about shared ownership, you must be able to confess that you don’t know all the answers. One of the beautiful things about being on a university campus is you’re around a lot of smart, thoughtful, insightful people with different ways of thinking; different ways of interacting. When you open up the lines of communication with that broad diversity of perspectives, you’re going to end up with a better result.
What are some of the positive changes happening at Stetson even through the pandemic?
We just broke ground on the most ambitious capital project in our history, which is the Cici & Hyatt Brown Hall for Health and Innovation. It promises to prepare students for the health professions and is designed to deal with health disparities and access to health. The timing of breaking ground on an innovative facility could not be better.
While there has been in higher ed broadly a resistance to embracing digital technologies and distance, we have learned a tremendous amount by necessity because of the pandemic. We have some geographic distance between the DeLand campus and Gulfport, as much as four hours, but we are finding ourselves more deeply connected with our colleagues at the College of Law. We didn’t think we’d be able to provide mental health counseling in an effective way via Zoom, but we’ve found some great efficiencies and great effectiveness in connecting with students. Collaborations with scholars across disciplines and across the world have improved.
You have tremendous fundraising expertise and experience from your days at Vassar. What are some of the challenges facing Stetson and other institutions?
Stetson has relied very heavily on a very small number of high-capacity donors. That’s not unusual. Many institutions do. A core objective I have is developing a culture of philanthropy. I have a mantra that is ‘every alum, any amount, every year.’ Every student, regardless of whether they’re on full financial aid or paying closer to full freight, is subsidized to some extent given the private residential liberal arts education that we provide.
We only have a 7% alumni participation rate. That’s not awful, but it also needs to be improved. That can only happen through developing a culture of philanthropy. We saw great philanthropy take place during COVID. We’re seeing a lot of giving of stock and things along those lines. We need to make this form of education sustainable, not only for our current students but for the future generations of students. And with increasing income inequality in the country and around the world, we’re going to need to continue to provide financial support for our students.
What guidance would you give to others on successful fundraising?
It’s so important to maintain relationships. Fundraising cannot be a transactional situation. It has to be a relationship-based set of interactions. One of the approaches we sometimes get away from is that our best salespeople are often our students and our faculty. The success I’ve had in fundraising has been off the wonderful expertise and passion that they have, being part of the conversations with our potential donors. If it’s just the president and your chief development officer interacting with donors, part of the important story is lost. Don’t be afraid to highlight your students and your faculty, because that’s ultimately the investments we’re making.
What are your goals for the university in the next year or so?
We’re in a highly competitive market, especially with large public institutions around us. It’s going to be very important for us that we expand our geographic footprint. About 70% of our students come from the state of Florida. We’re very eager to expand in other regions of the country and the world. A top priority for us is to improve our retention from year 1 to year 2. It currently hovers around 78%. We’d like to get that into the mid-80s. We’re going to be quite intentional about the quality of the first-year experience at Stetson—the quality of the instruction, the quality of the residential living experience, and the quality of the overall community experience.