Change of Command: Q&A with FSC’s Outgoing Provost and His Successor

On May 2, Florida Southern College announced that its provost, or chief academic officer, Dr. Kyle Fedler, would step down from that post to return to a teaching position in the college. Effective Saturday, he will be succeeded as provost and vice president of academic affairs by Dr. Brad Hollingshead, FSC’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences since 2013.

Fedler, 53, has been FSC’s provost since June 2011 and has overseen rapid growth in the college’s academic program and student body. He earned a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Virginia, specializing in ethics, and before coming to FSC, he was a member of the faculty of Ashland University in his native Ohio, then served as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. After stepping down as provost, he will take up the post of professor of religion at FSC.

Hollingshead, 51, also a native of Ohio, earned a Ph.D. in English from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He taught at Carlow University in Pittsburgh and Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y., where he held an administrative post, before coming to FSC. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he oversaw the largest academic college at FSC, including almost three-fourths of the faculty, and saw its students receive eight Fulbright Awards and two Goldwater Scholarships. He additionally holds an endowed professorship in English at FSC.

In a wide-ranging 45-minute interview with LkldNow, Fedler and Hollingshead discussed the rising status of Florida Southern as a private college, its relationship to the surrounding city and the state of higher education.

Editor’s note: Reporter Cary McMullen was publication editor at FSC from 2011 to 2018.

Q: Dr. Fedler, during the eight years you were provost, Florida Southern added 10 new undergraduate degree programs and six new graduate programs, including the first doctoral programs. The number of faculty increased from 108 to 149. What was it like to manage that kind of expansion?

Fedler: We were trying to expand at the same time we were trying to improve quality and (freshman) retention. It was juggling those different metrics that was difficult. Not only did we expand the number of faculty, we had a remarkable turnover in faculty. Managing all that and keeping the same culture was difficult.

Q: What culture is that?

Fedler: Being student-centered and the engaged learning methodology that we’re known for. It’s all about the students, and I think we’re seeing that in terms of the outcomes with our students, the Goldwater and Fulbright awards. So, the faculty are expected not just to lead in the classroom but to mentor students, find undergraduate research for them to do, take them to conferences, give them opportunities for travel.

Q: Can you say a little more about the changes in faculty?

Fedler: While I’ve been here, there were 10 or 15 faculty who retired who had been here 30 or 40 years. I hired almost two-thirds of the current faculty. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a lot of new energy, and I think film studies is a great example. We have two young guys who came out of the industry. Increasingly, we’re getting faculty from other institutions. We have five faculty in business who were tenured elsewhere, which is a real indication of the quality of the institution now.

Q: In an interview in Florida Southern’s alumni magazine in 2012, you said the college could become the best private school in the state. Do you still think that?

Fedler: I repeat that all the time. I think we’ve come close to achieving it. If you look at the quality of the incoming students; freshman retention – this year we’re going to hit 83 percent, which is the same as Rollins College, and they’re the only one who has been better than us; graduation rate, we’ll surpass Stetson (University). If we haven’t gotten there yet, we’re right around the corner.

Q: Dr. Hollingshead, how do you continue that trajectory? What are your goals?

Hollingshead: Many of the goals remain the same, to be the best in the state and to be recognized nationally. The same balancing act, managing growth, both quantitatively and qualitatively, remains a major goal. Also, finding areas where we can develop programs, especially graduate programs. There’s going to be some room for growth there. Helping to grow student research opportunities – that’s a major goal over the next three to five years.

Q: What are some areas you think need attention?

Hollingshead: We still want to keep working on freshman retention, getting to that 85 percent goal, but also, retention from the sophomore to junior year is a challenge we have to take up. What do we have to do to keep students motivated and engaged in their studies?

Q: What expectations do you have for faculty about scholarship versus teaching?

Hollingshead: Teaching remains the primary driver here. Scholarship should enrich teaching and the learning experience, and it does that by helping faculty remain current in their field. I think we see teaching and scholarship as integrated with one another rather than separate tasks. The college has provided great support for professional development – publishing and attending conferences.

Q: Are faculty salary levels a challenge?

Hollingshead: They’re always a challenge, but it’s a great situation I’m moving into. Kyle made it a priority and now has faculty salaries squarely within a competitive range.

Fedler: Our assistant professors are now coming in above Rollins and Stetson. We were near the bottom of colleges in Florida, and we’re now in the top quartile at (assistant, associate and professor) ranks.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today?

Fedler: One is certainly the value proposition. Increasingly, families rightly want to know, “What am I going to get for this expenditure of money, especially at a private institution?” Plus the fact we have seen a declining high school population in places where we recruit, like the Northeast and the Midwest, that is putting major pressure on institutions our size to discount their tuition at almost unsustainable rates. What happens is that parents get award letters and come to us and say, “Can you match this?” And we say no, we’re priced competitively and here’s what you’re going to get for your tuition. So that’s what worries me. We’re getting better classes every year, but it’s not a given. Lots of our peers are seeing declines in their enrollment.

Q: So there is a decline in the number of high school graduates?

Fedler: There are fewer graduating from high school but also fewer who are likely college attenders. That has taken a precipitous dive. That’s why you’re seeing some (college) closures in the Northeast and probably will see more. There’s just an oversupply of schools.

Hollingshead: It’s coming home to roost now. It’s been talked about for 15 years.

Q: What is Florida Southern’s approach to that problem?

Hollingshead: A big problem is that the public has never been as skeptical of higher education as it is now. The irony is that all the data over the past 50 years tells us that a college education more than pays for itself over the long haul. The way we address this is that we’ve got a good story to tell in terms of student outcomes, in terms of the kind of learning environment we create. We can say to parents and students that the education here will be transformative and that students will have every opportunity to develop a path that helps them reach their goals.

Q: The question of high levels of student debt has been talked about a lot. How does Florida Southern deal with that issue?

Fedler: Our acceptance process is “need blind.” We don’t know what their family situation is like. When we find out what it would take for them to come here, sometimes we encourage them to go to community college for a couple of years. Our average student debt for graduating students is, I think, $26,000. That’s a decent-sized Corolla. Where the debt issue gets problematic is when students have debt and have no degree. We’re getting our students in and getting them graduated. Our average time to graduation is right at four years.

Q: What about “town and gown” questions? How has Florida Southern engaged the city of Lakeland?

Hollingshead: I think our Festival of Fine Arts is an opportunity to bring town and gown together. We’ve got free or very low-cost, sometimes world-class entertainment, especially through our theater program. The Child of the Sun Distinguished Speaker Series, our explicit goal with that was to bring the local community in to help us learn better. We know that when we’re engaging with a diverse audience, it’s going to enrich the learning of our students as well.

Fedler: Some other things are less obvious. Our Enactus club, which engages in social entrepreneurship, developed a project where low-income folks were given tokens to use at the farmers’ market. Our doctor of physical therapy program is partnering with VISTE and LVIM to provide pro bono work. The recent exhibitions at the Polk Museum of Art are opportunities the public would not have had if we hadn’t entered into the collaborative agreement with it. There’s the Roberts Academy, the school for children with dyslexia. Our students do thousands of community service hours in the community every year. Our MBA students have done some no-cost projects. They did one for the SPCA, an economic-impact study, that has become a kind of model. We’re going to start a Center for Nonprofit Excellence that is going to serve nonprofits by doing training for them on leadership and management issues.

Q: There have been some tensions with the surrounding neighborhood about the college’s expansion.

Fedler: We’re growing. We’ve tried to be careful with that growth and respectful of the community around us, but we’re growing. People are probably wondering if we’re growing too fast. But putting the doctor of physical therapy program in Dixieland was very intentional. We thought the young professionals that program will bring would be a great addition to that growing, thriving, kind of artsy area. We could have easily stuck it – and probably cheaper – down by Lakeside Village, but we thought it would be a great addition to the community.

Q: The two of you are both from Ohio, both educated in the humanities, both have spent your careers at small colleges – and you’re both middle-aged white males.

Fedler (laughing): The same demographic except for our hair.

Hollingshead (laughing): We’re from the land where sunscreen isn’t needed.

Q: Is there a diversity problem?

Fedler: It was a national search. We had over 200 applications for the position. In addition to Brad, we brought three other folks from around the nation to campus and Skyped a dozen others. Is it a concern to have more diversity? At least at the dean’s level, four of our five deans will be women. Finding folks of color, everybody wants them. Small private schools that are not in big cities historically face more difficulties. Something I wish I had done better is attract more diverse faculty. We have some pockets, such as chemistry, physical therapy and nursing, that have been successful. Business – no, and we’ve done a lot of hiring over there.

Hollingshead: Creating a diverse environment can be a challenge, but we’re moving from one chief academic officer to another that’s committed to meeting that challenge.

Q: Dr. Fedler, what made you want to step back from administration into teaching? Have you considered pursuing a higher-level position, like a college presidency?

Fedler: There was an attraction back to the classroom. I’ve missed teaching. And there were family reasons, my daughter is almost 11. Why wouldn’t I want to be a president? There’s a consensus that the position has changed. It is so focused on fundraising and on risk management. They play an outsized role in any presidency, and at this point in my career, I didn’t feel like that was where my heart was. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be in five years, ten years, but it is an all-consuming job.

Q: Dr. Hollingshead, why did you pursue the provost’s position?

Hollingshead: It seemed like a natural next step. I was not looking for a provost position. I wasn’t throwing my hat in the ring at other places. On a personal level, I enjoy the strategic thinking that goes into this kind of position – thinking about what we would need to do five years out to reach what goals we have. I couldn’t ask for a better situation to move into. If I had applied for a provost’s position somewhere else, it probably would have been a school that was struggling. The chances are I would have faced significant challenges that would have required more management than vision. This gives me an opportunity to work from a foundation where we’re looking to increase quality, looking to grow the college, not having conversations about cutting positions or cutting programs. This is a really good opportunity to have a hand in moving this college ever closer to those goals we started with, to be a premier mid-sized institution in the country. I’m in a unique and lucky situation because of that.

Fedler: As was I. I went from a situation I liked to a situation I loved.

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