After a month on the job as the president of the University of South Alabama, Dr. Tony G. Waldrop is still learning the ins and outs, but he’s got a good idea where he and the university’s senior leadership want to go.
Waldrop is the third president in USA’s 51-year history, and the only one who wasn’t directly involved with university’s founding in 1963.
“I am coming from a different university, but I haven’t been made to feel like I’m an outsider,” Waldrop said. “From people that I’ve hired previously, I’ve seen that having a fresh pair of eyes to look at program, university or a community sometimes allows you to see things you might not see if you’ve always been there. It keeps you from getting into the mindset of, ‘we’ve always done it this way.’”
A North Carolina native, Waldrop received a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in physical education and a Ph.D. in physiology, all from the University of North Carolina.
Waldrop was a multisport athlete, but excelled at track and field.
A six-time All-American, he owned the NCAA record for the indoor collegiate mile until 2012, though he openly admits that’s because men’s track and field didn’t run the event for a few decades.
In his professional life, Waldrop held numerous teaching and administrative leadership positions at the University of Texas Health Center at Dallas, the University of Illinois and his alma mater. Most recently, he served as the provost and executive vice president at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
When asked about leaving UCF to come to Mobile, Waldrop said it was something he was very hesitant to do at first.
“I was quite happy in North Carolina, and I was very happy in Orlando, but my wife said, “you’re getting to be an old man, if you want to be a president you’ve got to decide now,’” he said. “I put my name in at a couple of universities and four of them, including USA, pulled my name out. I ultimately decided I wasn’t ready to make a move.”
The administration at USA was very persistent in pursuing Waldrop and eventually convinced him to at least come and visit the campus. Waldrop and his wife, Julee Briscoe Waldrop, came to Mobile in February and were eventually sold on the idea of USA and the city of Mobile.
“It was the people we met,” he said. “You could see how much they cared about the university and how much they wanted to make it even greater than it already is.”
Improving graduation rates
Almost immediately, Waldrop asked USA’s senior administrators to submit a list of what they felt the university’s top-three priorities should be. One of the things that kept coming up was an initiative to improve graduation and retention rates.
USA currently has a 68 percent freshman retention rate, which is the percentage of fulltime freshman who return after their first year enrolled in college. Dr. Nicole Carr, director of student academic success and retention, said the first year tends to be the hardest on new college students, which is why universities focus on the number of students they retain.
The six-year graduation rate for the Class of 2013 was 33 percent, which is down from 37 percent in 2012 and 38 percent the year before that. Those rates are calculated based on the number of students in a freshman class who graduate within a six-year period.
USA’s numbers are significantly lower than those of Auburn University and the University of Alabama, which have 66 and 65 percent graduation rates, respectively.
“Our rates are low when compared to top-rate universities, and we’re low compared to ones just below that,” Waldrop said. “Due to the cost of a degree now, the more we can do to make sure people finish, and finish in a timely fashion, the better.”
Waldrop has already met with Carr about improving the rates at USA.
The university is currently on the cusp of launching a multifaceted plan that includes mapping out specific courses of study and tracking individual student progress. Waldrop said it’s nearly impossible for a student to finish in six years if they get behind or get off track.
“Big Data and analytics are something universities are moving into, which accumulate data from a large volume of students and predict how they’ll do in a certain sequence of courses,” Waldrop said. “Sometimes taking this course rather than that course will predict success much more often than the other way around, even if both courses might be required.”
Such programs gather information over time and assist advisers in guiding a student through the courses required for a certain degree. USA is currently in discussions with Student Success Collaborative, part of the Education Advisory Board, in hopes of establishing a program based on the past decade of student data.
Pricing structures for these types of programs vary, but similar companies, like Civitas, have charged more than $1 million for five-year contracts at other schools. The University of Central Florida uses a similar system, and currently has a 65 percent graduation rate.
“We probably had 100 people tracking student progress in Orlando,” Waldrop said. “I started a major initiative there that focused on getting students through the university on time.”
Waldrop said smaller things like making advisers more available also improves a student’s chances of staying on track and graduating on time. Carr said she’s actually been looking at the UCF program for a few years because of its improved graduation rate and was excited to see how supportive Waldrop was once he arrived at USA.
Partnering with Mobile
Waldrop said he believes learning isn’t restricted to the classroom, which is why he’s pushing to expand the number of student activities available in the Mobile community.
“Our students and faculty are already interacting with local companies and non-profits,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, but I’d like for every student to have an experience out in the community that allows them to see the real world.”
Those experiences can include student organizations, internships and partnerships with non-profit groups like the Alabama Coastal Foundation, which has partnered recently with students in USA’s advertising program.
“We know from studies over many years that a student engaged outside of the classroom, as long as they don’t overdo it, performs better and tends to graduate sooner,” he said. “It has to be a real partnership and be advantageous both for the community and the university, sharing whatever activity we engage in.”
Waldrop said he’s already spoken to Mayor Sandy Stimpson about working with the city of Mobile and plans to continue that communication moving forward.
The city’s downtown area and offerings for younger people is something that Waldrop said could help bring students to USA.
“Every student has things that bring them in, and I’m sure that is a factor for some,” Waldrop said. “I’m hoping the primary reason is to come get a quality education, but I’m not going to deceive myself into thinking everyone is making that decision. Hopefully, the majority are.”
Funding, tuition and competition
The university is not immune to the funding cuts that have affected higher education in Alabama. Those cuts prevented officials from moving forward on certain issues they would otherwise like to pursue, which includes the construction of an on-campus football stadium.
Currently, the USA Jaguars play at the city-owned Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and Waldrop said he was fielding questions about a campus facility before he had even accepted his current position.
“We would love to have a football stadium on campus. I think it adds to the quality of life for students and facility members, but can we afford to do that now? — Absolutely not,” Waldrop said. “We hope someday to find a way fund a facility through our funds or some sort of partnership, but right now there’s no timeline, no project and no planning for a football stadium other than the desire to have one.”
Another, more practical, issue affected by funding is pay increases for faculty and staff members. The general faculty and administration received a 4 percent raise based on merit last year, and general staff members received a 3 percent raise at the same time.
A salary increase for the university’s medical staff hasn’t been proposed since September 2011.
“I’m not going to comment on the past, but I believe all of our employees deserve pay raises,” Waldrop said. “However, these are very difficult times for higher education. Could we give a raise to our employees? —Yes, but it would have to be on the backs of our students by raising tuition.”
Waldrop said USA is always looking for ways to increase employee compensation, but significant raises across the board wouldn’t be an option until the university can identify additional funding streams.
One additional source of revenue comes from the USA Foundation, which isn’t a part of the university, but donates money to fund its projects and programs. The chair of the USA Board of Trustees, the president and one active faculty member are appointed to the foundation’s board of directors. Waldrop said he’s already started working with USAF’s Managing Director Maxey J. Roberts.
“I’m anxious to talk more with her about the things they would like to support as well as providing activities to them we think would be important to support,” he said. “The important thing is that they help fund the university.”
In 2013, the USA Foundation donated $2,140,277 to the university and has donated more than $135 million since it was established in 1990.
“I personally don’t favor a huge tuition increase for students, but there’s no doubt for us, and many others, there will be smaller tuition increases,” Waldrop said. “I’ve dealt with that issue at two different universities.”
According to the university’s website, tuition at USA is roughly $265 to $381 per credit hour for undergraduate courses, which means a fulltime student not living or eating on campus can expect to pay around $7,950 each year they’re enrolled in school. Waldrop said he wants to give students more for the money they’re already paying. Part of that includes competing with larger, more expensive schools like Auburn and Alabama.
“There are a lot of ways to do that and I think some are already happening,” he said. “It’s always good to offer more niche programs you might not be able to get at other universities, at least not all at one location.”
He said the USA’s nursing program has brought in a large number of students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. USA has also offered a doctoral degree for its nursing students for more than a decade, which spurred a number of schools to establish similar programs.
Another important area of recruitment is campus life and offering a welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s a lovely and walk-able campus, and I think that helps,” he said. “I have always asked students why they choose the university they’re at, and I have heard several say, ‘I got in somewhere else, but I was made to feel welcome here. It felt like I had a home.’”
It’s only been a little more than a week since a student was sexually assaulted on campus. That incident has made security at USA an issue on everyone’s mind.
“I do think we have a secure campus,” Waldrop said. “I don’t want to diminish what happened a couple of days ago at all, but you hear of these things happening at a number places.”
He said the university has nearly 15,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff members — numbers that make it difficult to ensure that everyone on campus is supposed to be there.
“Overall, we are safe. Could we be safer? — Absolutely,” Waldrop said. “Virtually any place can be and we want to continue to look for ways to improve campus safety. That’s being done on a regular basis.”
Waldrop had a meeting scheduled with university police officers to discuss campus security, but rescheduled in light of their investigation of the assault. Campus authorities eventually arrested JaWuan Maurice Dawson, a former student, after an investigation in concert with the Mobile Police Department.
He said it’s not unusual for campus police to work with officers and investigators from the city if incidents occur on campus.
“We could have a really secure campus immediately if we locked up every building and blocked off all but one or two roads, but that’s not a college campus,” Waldrop said. Even then, if someone really wanted to, they could get in.”
Jeb Schrenk, USA associate director of public relations, said the department focuses its patrols, especially those after-hours, on the residential areas of campus, near and around dorms and Greek housing. The department’s patrol area includes the perimeter of campus along University Boulevard and Old Shell Road.
There are additional plans to increase the level of bike patrols in the fall.
USA was also the first university in Alabama to implement the MyForce Campus System, which allows students and faculty members to alert police using a smartphone app.
When a member sends a MyForce alert from their phone, campus police immediately assess the situation by listening to audio and viewing the user’s profile, allowing officers to provide on-location assistance both on and off campus.
Finally, the university plans to launch a texting program in the fall that will give students another way to report crime and alert police to a developing situation.
The USA Medical System
The medical system stemming from the USA’s College of Medicine includes a physicians group of 150 academic doctors, the USA Medical Center, the Children’s and Women’s Hospital and The Mitchell Cancer Institute.
Waldrop, who earned his doctorate in physiology, has worked with medical schools for several years — an experience that no doubt lent itself to his selection as president.
“I’m very pleased with the leadership we have in place already,” Waldrop said. “We’ve got a good system and two wonderful (specialty) facilities.”
Waldrop said he doesn’t have any plans to come in and transform the way the medical system runs but does think his experience could be useful as the system moves forward.
“Ultimately, the president is going to have to make decisions,” he said. “As things come up related to the healthcare system and medical school, I would like to think someone who’s worked in that area would find it much easier to talk and work through those details.”
Waldrop said every aspect of the university is important, but the healthcare system allows USA to serve and be visible in the community.
Programs likes MCI and trauma center also bring in patients from outside of the community as well. Waldrop said that type of exposure absolutely helps the university’s image.