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VOL. 129 | NO. 107 | Tuesday, June 3, 2014

College Presidents Promote Community Connections

By Bill Dries

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The president of Christian Brothers University says the time to discuss with college students whether they should see the world or build a life here is when they are still in college, not as they are graduating.


“Take a study abroad or take a two- to three-week experience in the summer or during the January term,” said CBU President John Smarrelli. “Then come back and what you’ll find is that Memphis is a lot better place when you’ve seen what is out there in the rest of the world.”

Smarrelli commented on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines,” which also featured LeMoyne-Owen College President Johnnie Watson and Rhodes College President William Troutt.

The program can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Smarrelli referred to the LaSallian network of Catholic private colleges, which includes 80 countries with exchange programs. Christian Brothers University recruits about 75 percent of its students from the Memphis area, with 80 percent of CBU graduates remaining in Memphis.

“Those that are from Memphis at times don’t believe that Memphis is a very wonderful place to live and work and to enjoy,” Smarrelli said. “If they really want to see the world, let’s send them out but hope they will come back.”

The majority of Watson’s students come into the city’s only historically black college from Memphis, although Watson notes LeMoyne-Owen in the last year has opened a new residence hall for 300 students.

Meanwhile, Watson said his institution faces unique challenges as it pursues a common goal in higher education of not only retaining students from one semester to the next, but also graduating them in four to six years.

“We’ve taken the position if we are going to let you enter into LeMoyne-Owen College where some other colleges possibly wouldn’t with your grade point average or SAT scores or ACT scores, we also have an obligation to see can’t we get you out within a reasonable length of time,” he said.

At Rhodes, Troutt saw some growth in the just-completed academic year to a bit more than 2,000 students. He estimates 90 percent of the students at Rhodes come to Memphis from somewhere else and 42 percent stay in Memphis post-graduation.

“It comes from a variety of sources from students being involved in service,” he added, pointing to internship programs and undergraduate research opportunities that include work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Smarrelli noted Christian Brothers University continues to expand its reputation as an engineering school with the graduation last month of the school’s first class in physician-assisted studies, a master’s level program that is the first of its kind in Memphis to train assistants to work with primary care physicians.

All three presidents said they are making a college education affordable for their students with a minimum of student debt after graduation.

Watson expressed concern about the impact of stricter lending guidelines in the Parent PLUS loan program for student aid. The changes have had an impact on LeMoyne-Owen, while larger historically black colleges and universities “have really been impacted,” he said.

The loans come without a limit on borrowing authority and have the highest interest rate among federal school loan programs – topping 6 percent last year.

Christian Brothers will be mentoring and working with the faculty at the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, which debuts in August at the former Fairview Middle School and features a curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

“Our goal ultimately is to start early so there is no fear of science – there is no fear that these students can succeed in science,” Smarrelli said of the effort at the school, which is across Central Avenue from Christian Brothers.

Meanwhile, Troutt noted Rhodes’ national championship in Division 3 women’s golf. The school has 500 student-athletes – approximately a quarter of its student body – but does not offer athletic scholarships.

Watson said the LeMoyne-Owen board has a feasibility study on the prospect of returning a football program to the college, whose last Magicians football team left the gridiron in 1951.

“That will be a board-related decision. I don’t plan at this time to make a recommendation to my board to return football,” Watson said. “I look at other historically black colleges that have brought football back, and football really has been their demise.”

For higher education in Memphis, Watson said his and other colleges and universities do better financially with basketball than they do with football.

“Most of the large institutions even … basketball probably supports all of the athletic programs there,” he added. “It’s a little frightening. And if I don’t have to deal with it for the remainder of my tenure at LeMoyne-Owen, I’m not going to deal with it.”

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