New WBU vice president building new structure, connections with students

PLAINVIEW - In many ways, Dr. Claude Lusk's job can be compared to that of an architect. As the first person to hold the position of vice president for enrollment management, he's literally writing the blueprint for the job and sketching out the structure that was created with the new position.

But while an architect gets to hand off the blueprints to builders, Lusk himself is the one wearing the hard hat. Since taking the vice president's position in September 2002, he's spent a semester gathering information and drawing the networking lines necessary to make enrollment management a successful venture at Wayland. It's a fairly intricate process.

"We have a lot of positive things going on in admissions, student services and athletics, but there was no real structure to pull those together," Lusk said, explaining that those areas all fall under his domain now. "There's never really been a structure to examine retention, either, and I've really tried to increase awareness of the importance of this and set that structure in place."

That meant spending lots of time in conversation with the different areas under his command, learning about their tasks and hearing their needs, concerns and ideas for improvement. During those meetings, Lusk said he was able to garner support for the integrated effort and was encouraged by the willingness he said he found from faculty, administrators and staff, especially those leaders now on his team, which include Shawn Thomas, director of admissions, Emmitt Tipton, dean of students, and Dr. Greg Feris, athletic director and chairman of the division of physical education and recreation.

A new position at Wayland, enrollment management leadership positions have been cropping up during the last few years in many colleges and universities as a way to do just what Lusk described: pull together resources to study enrollment trends and make recommendations for improving those numbers. A very big part of that is the issue of retention.

"This isn't just about increasing enrollment. We want Wayland to be the size it needs to be," he said. "One of the biggest issues is to improve retention and that is very much at the heart of everything we're doing. In many ways, retention can be a measurement of the quality we're providing."

A critical component of college evaluation both by accrediting agencies and others, retention is a tricky topic because it is often treated as being tied to one specific area.

"Retention is never a single problem; it's a case of looking at the big picture and working to improve what we already have," Lusk said, adding that the nature of the issue means it is nearly impossible to make drastic improvements to retention rates from semester to semester.

As a starting effort, Lusk and his assistant, Robin Terrell, with whom he previously worked in the admissions office, set out to begin building those connections with students that have been proven to be key. They began by looking at a decade worth of retention data for the university, studying trends and building a profile of students at-risk for not returning to WBU.

They then were able to identify students in the current freshman class who might fit that profile and hook them up with various persons on campus who could make contacts and check their progress while building relationships. Students were divided among the Wayland administrators, who then sent notes of encouragement. Freshmen were also paired with current students who could provide peer support and help guide them to necessary resources. Lusk's staff also sent notes of encouragement and held focus groups with freshmen to get their feedback. During early registration sessions, the students were tracked to make sure they had completed the process.

"To try to impact this group this year was more about contact," Lusk explained. "Next fall, we'll have more intervention techniques in place."

Lusk said those notes and encouraging contacts have been shown to be essential to helping new students link into the campus more deeply than just attending classes. Building those connections, he said, makes it harder for them to walk away.

"Students can get hooked-in academically in classes or with a particular professor, with a division they really enjoy or with organizations where they can get socially intertwined and feel like they have a responsibility," he said. "It's a whole lot tougher to leave people than to leave a school."

Lusk said another component involves early identification of students who may be having academic struggles and linking them with resources already available on campus to pull them through those challenges and encourage them to continue. But all that, of course, comes with time.

Lusk is encouraged about the future at Wayland, mentioning the new campus software package, strategic planning, a new marketing campaign and revision of the mission statement as aspects that should revitalize the university community.

"It's like a confluence of several rivers," he said. "If all these things are in place, then next fall we'll be hitting on all cylinders. We'll have more tools in place to really be able to impact enrollment."

Lusk said he is already working with WBU recruiters on personal selling techniques. He hopes to involve Wayland alums in the recruiting process as well, specifically in the areas of cultivating prospects and making contacts with prospects in the towns in which they live.