FERRUM — Serving as president of a college is more like being mayor of a small town than a corporate CEO, says newly minted Ferrum College President David Johns.
“Think about what a mayor needs to be concerned about: infrastructure, transportation, food, security issues, entertainment,” Johns said. “Anything that you can think about that is true in terms of running a community, a town, is true about being in charge of a college.”
With appearances at local community events like the Ferrum Area Plan meeting, an active Twitter presence where he documents his journey #DiscoveringFerrum and town hall meetings to dig deeper into the responses from a recent survey about the student experience, it seems an ample comparison.
Johns took the helm at Ferrum in January, becoming the college’s 12th president. He previously served as the vice president for academic affairs at Union College in Kentucky, a similarly small, private liberal arts institution with ties to the United Methodist Church.
This is Johns’ first presidency. Though he’s no stranger to academia — Johns has served as a professor, campus chaplain and academic librarian in addition to vice president of academic affairs — a presidency is different.
“When I walk out the door in the morning, I am palpably aware that there are students here whose hopes for their own future hinge on us getting things right here. There are employees whose quality of life really hinges on how they thrive here at the college,” Johns said. “So as a president, those are some of the things that I’m aware of now in ways that I wasn’t aware of six months ago, not being in this role.”
His wife, Susan, said Johns is settling into his new role with ease.
“His eyes twinkle every day, every day,” she said. “Not that there aren’t issues — there are always issues with any job, with anything — but he’s just excited to go every day and talks about it every evening.”
As an avid cyclist and lover of the outdoors, Johns quickly fell in love with the college’s rural setting. He wants to embrace that, not apologize for it as some schools do.
“We’re not going to do that because this is one of the best places on the planet,” Johns said. “What Ferrum has to offer students is really tied up in where we’re located.”
Johns said he thinks of the college’s campus as a 700-acre “playground and laboratory” for its students, giving them experiences they couldn’t have at another institution. He noted flags across the grounds put in place by landscape design students, a controlled burn by an environmental science class and, of course, the college’s farm.
He is also cognizant of the role the college plays in the greater Franklin County community, with the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, the Blue Ridge Institute and Tri-Area Community Health Center. At a recent community meeting organized by county officials to discuss the Ferrum Area Plan, Johns noted, the college was mentioned often.
Ferrum is the only college in Franklin County, and Johns said that’s something he takes seriously. He wants to be at the table in economic development conversations, and show businesses and people that choosing a community with a college would contribute to their quality of life.
“I think that we’re not an ivory tower set aside some place, but we’re principal and key members of the community,” Johns said.
Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tim Tatum said he believes Johns will be a good addition to the college and the community. Johns didn’t just attend the Ferrum Area Plan meeting, Tatum noted, but he participated in the discussion.
“To me, that was impressive, coming out and wanting to be a valuable part to the community, not just as a college president but as a resident of that community,” he said.
Tatum said he’s been excited by Johns’ interest in expanding Ferrum’s offerings, from a nursing program, to graduate programs to online courses.
“He wants Ferrum to grow and move forward, and I’m very pleased with that,” Tatum said. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re not moving forward, you’re backing up.”
Though Johns is happy to tout Ferrum’s successes and assets, he knows that, like all small liberal arts institutions, it faces challenges. Student retention is one of the biggest issues in higher education, Johns said, and Ferrum is no exception.
“There’s been a lot of attention given to access to higher education. Access is great, and we’re all about that,” he said. “However, the economic and social difference that college will make for a student is if they finish. Not if they go, if they finish. We need to get more students to finish.”
Data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia show that Ferrum had a first-year to second-year retention of 48 percent in 2016-17.
The college has put together a president’s task force on retention, looking at who stays and goes and how the college can ensure it’s doing everything possible to help students leave Ferrum with a degree in hand.
There’s an added layer of complexity to the issue for Ferrum, which serves many first-generation college students, who often face additional barriers to completion.
Earning a degree is life-changing for anyone, Johns acknowledges, but when a college helps a first-generation student to do so, “you change generations.”
Johns points to his own family as an example; he was a first-generation college student. Now one of his sons is going for this third degree.
“There is a generational impact that was made because some professor invested his life and energy in me,” Johns said. “That’s what I see our faculty doing here.”
At a small college like Ferrum, the president can have a relationship with students. That’s something important to Johns, who plans to bring various student groups, clubs and sports teams into the president’s house on campus and this semester is hosting town halls to learn more about the student experience.
“My hunch is the solution to almost every problem we have, students already know,” he said. “If we want to know why students stay and why students go, don’t ask the high-priced consultant, ask a student.”
Going forward, Johns said the college needs to take a close look at what programs students are gravitating toward and what skills employers in the region are demanding. If the college’s students want to stay in Southwest Virginia, Johns said, they should be able to.
“I don’t want to just be an exporter of talent,” he said. “I want to find ways that our students can build meaningful lives in this area and that they can do that in a way that helps to build the economy in our area.”
Since its founding more than 100 years ago, Ferrum has evolved in response to changing educational needs of the region, Johns said, evolving from a training school, to a junior college and finally a four-year baccalaureate-granting institution. He believes it’s time for the college to change again and offer master’s degrees.
Though some things at Ferrum are bound to change, one thing will not: the college’s motto of “not self, but others.” It will be Johns’ guiding light into the future. The president said he’s amazed by how many of the people he’s met, both in and outside of the college, who know its motto.
“It’s part of our DNA,” he said.