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VOL. 9 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 19, 2016

Transcript: CBU to Transform Campus, Transition to Project-Based Learning

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Christian Brothers University is not only changing the look of its campus at Central Avenue and East Parkway. Leaders of the institution are embarking on the second phase of a $70 million capital campaign that includes plans to “blow up” the university’s department of education to include Crosstown High School and the neighboring Middle College High School, extend internships to all students and to create a new library that is more than “air conditioning for books.”

The Daily News Editorial Board talked with CBU President John Smarrelli, Steve Crisman, CBU vice president for advancement, and Richard Gadomski, co-chairman of the capital campaign about the ambitious goals, the university’s reputation as an engineering school and the realities of higher education in general.

This is an edited transcript. A shorter version appears in the Memphis News that hits stands Friday, Nov. 18.

Gadomski: The capital campaign is approved by the board as a $70 million campaign by the end of 2020. If we do this right, what we’ll do is we’ll finish that campaign and we move further. John and I have a philosophy that CBU should be building something every day. Something‘s got to be under construction. Something’s got to be improving and going on here every day.

Smarrelli: Part of the campaign too is just increasing the financial viability of the university. The endowment is very important.

We needed a master plan that had some pop to it. Basically we were putting buildings in this spot and put a building here. What we’ve done is created a dynamic canvas. Archimania did charrettes and interviewed students and took a step back. We had a great student life center on Central where Dollar General (store on Central Avenue) is, that area over there.

Archimania said, ‘Why are you diluting your population? You’ve only got less than 1,000 on campus at any one time.’ What they did was create a dynamic master plan and said, ‘Don’t build a new building over there. Take what you’ve got in the heart of your campus and create a dynamic student life experience and have the traffic flow on your campus so you have the opportunity for interactions all across your campus.’

It’s a really exciting, different campus. If you’ve been on our campus there is a quad. In the middle of it, there’s a mound. You think, ‘Why would a mound be in the middle of your quad? Why don’t you lower it and just have kids interacting on your quad?’ No one thought about that. It used to be a fountain at one time, they told me.

Gadomski: It was designed originally to be a fountain. But then we didn’t want the maintenance and upkeep. We built an Eiffel Tower that was done by engineering. That’s since been moved to Paris, Tennessee.

The Daily News: The Rosa G. Deal School of the Arts, built on the site of Kenrick Hall, was a highlight of the first phase of the capital campaign that raised $42 million. Has that and meeting the dollar goal ahead of a December deadline created momentum?

Smarrelli: It projected us on a course. As we thought of the capital campaign, we said we need to use this as an opportunity – one that’s more aggressive than this university has ever seen. There’s not a student life center that’s kept our students on campus. A lot of these funded capital dollars going forward are going to be toward student campus life.

The Daily News: How many of your students currently live on campus?

Smarrelli: 550 live on campus, out of a total of 1,200 students. Even though it’s not part of the capital campaign, we’re going to need more residence halls. But what we’re going to try to do is instead of trying to put capital dollars toward residence halls, work with local developers like Belz or Turley or EdR (the Memphis-based national real estate investment trust that owns, develops and manages collegiate housing).

Gadomski: The last one we did was in the 1990s. They were capstone units done off the books and paid off over 15 years. We have probably 300 or 400 night students coming in here that are like 35 years old and they are raising families. They are not on campus.

Smarrelli: We need a center on campus. Students these days like to work in groups. We need to find ways to do that – a library open 24 hours a day. We need to give them opportunities to interact – interact with our faculty in other ways. That is a crucial piece of phase two going forward. We’ve got to make them compelling to the foundations. Of the first $42 million, little of it came from foundations.

The Daily News: Where are you going to get the money?

Crisman: Donors, of course, are important to fund those projects. Our expectation is that by 2020 we will have made substantial capital investments in several different projects. Residence halls may factor into that. It was not part of the campaign.

Smarrelli: The (Christian) Brothers were very humble in terms of telling their story. They didn’t like to tell their story. When I first got here it was, ‘You are with the high school?’ ‘No, we’re with the college.’ We try to be less humble because the marketing is crucial. It’s resurrected a lot of students who have not been connected with the university not only locally, but nationally and even internationally. We’ve nationalized our board more so than ever. In the past, they were never asked to be a part of this.

The Daily News: How much of your 75 acres is developable?

Smarrelli: We purchased the Dollar General (property – on Central Avenue). We’ve got a long-term lease with them. So we can’t do too much with that, at least now. But we’ve sort of created this dynamic master plan for the 21st century that we’ve got. You’ve got to merge your commuter students with your residential students. You’ve got to find a way of creating interaction on your campus more than you’ve ever done.

The other piece that I want to mention that I think is crucial is our Crosstown (High School) initiative. We’re very excited. I’m chair of the founding board for Crosstown High. We’ve got charter approval on it. We are still in negotiations. We have been talking about a contract school with Shelby County Schools. We are still talking about it. We’re not out of that yet. We’d love to be a contract school. But we’re going to be a charter no matter what. And we’re going to open in 2018. But the key piece for us are the new teaching methods – project-based learning. We almost got that large $10 million grant (from the XQ Super School group). We didn’t, but that’s OK. At the end of the day, what we are going to do to our education program is we are going to blow it up. Scores just came out statewide and teacher training programs aren’t doing what they say they are doing. We will create a project-based learning, teacher-training program here on the CBU campus with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Our goal here is really to use Crosstown as one of our laboratories for project-based learning.

One of the reasons we took it on is it’s the right thing to do. The second reason is it gives us a laboratory whereby we can totally blow up our current teaching program and create a new one. Project-based learning is sort of the modern way of teaching these days – teaching to a student’s strength. We want to give kids more options. We know the concerns of Central High parents relative to what Crosstown will do to them. But we’re optimistic that if we create enough outstanding opportunities for public education for our students – we can enhance it in ways that it’s never been done before. We’ve got an anonymous donor willing to support us on the teacher training center. We want to use Crosstown in that opportunity. This campaign will allow us to do that.

The Daily News: In terms of more robust campus life, how does that play into this? Your campus seems to be a little different with high school students taking advanced placement courses for college credit already on your campus from Middle College High School, across Central Avenue.

Smarrelli: They sort of infiltrate lots of our various classes. From my point of view we are demystifying the college experience for these Middle College High School kids. Where are focus is going to be is both the traditional and nontraditional students. We want a welcoming center for our traditional students. What we’ve done with our nontraditional programs is we’ve created a hybrid situation. One of the classic features of our mission and our LaSallian heritage is to meet students where they are. With our nontraditional students, they are working adults. So what we’ve got to create is hybrid courses where part of it is online, part of it is on campus. What you’ll see with this new student life emphasis is we want to be welcoming to the adult students – having enough food opportunities, study opportunities, but also for the traditional students, having that opportunity for them to interact in non-structured settings.

Crisman: I think another thing that we need to adjust with our student life program is accessibility 24 hours a day, especially because of our rigorous and well-known focus on engineering and the sciences. How do you accommodate that kind of learning and that kind of effort whether you are on campus or off campus? For a commuter student, what do you do in the evening hours when you are waiting for a class or you are working – what’s open? What’s on campus?

It’s a great location here in Midtown. But it’s not like there’s a McDonald’s across the street and really we don’t want them there. It’s not a healthy choice. So what can we do? Our student life program also is going to really support our strong science engineering focus.

The Daily News: People associate Highland Row and Highland Strip with the University of Memphis. What is the link with CBU?

Gadomski: All of our students on site have a card for membership to the Salvation Army Kroc Center. They use the Kroc Center. One of the things was, we had to kind of wait and see how the Kroc Center was received by our students before we could figure out the solution to student life. But we still need facilities on site for other students.

Smarrelli: Even the library, our current library is a great building to sort of air condition books. That library is not what you need anymore. You need to find study spaces, cubbyholes, opportunities for interaction, a coffee shop. You need that kind of thing.

The Daily News: Let’s talk about inflation and tuition. Your mission is different than many other universities. But still, there is, for parents and students looking at their options, this huge issue of college inflation. A college education can be almost $60,000 now and it is going up. How do you view that?

Gadomski: We understand the need to control the cost of education, especially at a school like CBU. You’ve got to look at the net debt. You can’t look at the nameplate. Let’s say you want to be an engineer here. You’re going to get $15,000 immediately off your tuition because you go on our calculator and you plug in your ACT score and your GPA. We require a 27 in math ACT and that’s going to get you, with a 3.5 GPA, $15,000 off your tuition. That’s before any of the state stuff.

Smarelli: Don’t ever look at the sticker price. There’s an arms race going across the country in terms of discounting. Even at Rhodes now, they are giving away a lot more money now than they used to. They are giving away a ton of money over there to get students. It’s an arms race. The other issue here is that 97 percent of our students get some kind of student aid. … For $5,000 a year, a competent but not so rich student can come to CBU.

Gadomski: Our kids recognize they have to work. Our career center will guarantee every student an internship. The kids have to keep it. Most of our engineering students get internships actually with the companies that they go to work for. Probably 60 percent of them end up working for them. I don’t know the facts in the other schools, but I know engineering. I ran the largest engineering and construction business in the Memphis area when I was in business and I got my engineering students from CBU. I didn’t want to mess with them until they had two years under their belt because they had to get through the problem I had in my first two years. Bottom line is, I got some of my best employees through an internship program.

Most people who’ve been around Memphis a long time think of us as an engineering and business school. But three years ago, the largest school here was the school of liberal arts. Engineering was the smallest school. Now it’s the largest school again.

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