Walk with the BSC presidents

Photo: Dr. Ed Mobley

Dr. Ed Mobley

Photo: Dr. Tom Wilkerson

Photo: Dr. Richard Carvajal
Dr. Richard Carvajal

Reasons the four Bainbridge State College presidents decided to take the helm are varied, but what each found was a unique bond between the college and its community and some surprises thrown in –- surprises that perhaps will define their legacies.

Dr. Edward Mobley, of course, was its founding president, leading the college through 25 years of growth and helping bring the community with it.

Dr. Clifford Brock is credited with a growth spurt.

Dr. Tom Wilkerson may be best remembered as the builder – for not only the Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center and the Student Wellness Center, but also the builder of relationships that had been tattered and for his work to build the Bainbridge College Foundation assets to provide student scholarships.

Dr. Richard Carvajal is still writing his chapter. However, his first 2½ years could easily be summed up in one word – change. He led Bainbridge State through its most fundamental change last February when it was granted a new status and is poised to offer a bachelor’s degree. He’s also beginning the process of planning for what some experts say could be the most fundamental change in higher education since the GI Bill that swung open the doors to higher education for returning World War II veterans.

Whatever their legacy, Drs. Mobley, Wilkerson and Carvajal all agree on the same motivation – they loved the noble calling of shaping the future, one student at a time.

“What could be more noble, more worthy than framing young minds and young ideas, and preparing students for productive lives and citizenship?” Dr. Wilkerson said. “What could be better than that?”

This “opportunity business” is what Dr. Carvajal calls his profession. “I say all the time that we have this tremendous job because we get to come to work every day knowing that we get to change someone else’s life.”

Why Bainbridge State College

As the academic dean of Dalton State College, Dr. Mobley said it was a natural progression to go from a dean to president. He was appointed president in 1972.

A graduate of Florida State University, Dr. Mobley said he wanted to be near Tallahassee, Fla., but he had never been to Bainbridge until he was tapped to lead the college by then Chancellor George L. Simpson.

“I think of it as an accomplishment to even be considered,” Dr. Mobley said. “The usual term of a president is seven years, so I feel it’s somewhat of an accomplishment that I lasted 25 years, and they were 25 good years.”

Dr. Wilkerson also felt he broke the mold when the Board of Regents hired him in 2005 when he was 63 years old. He was vice president for academic affairs and professor of speech at Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, S.C., when he was hired.

“The short story is that I was a reluctant candidate, not because of the institution, not because of the Regents, but because the typical appointment age of a president in the system had been between 40 and 50 years old. Very few presidents have been appointed in their 60s. At that time, they weren’t doing that,” Dr. Wilkerson said. He was finally convinced after the third phone call to submit a resume for the vacancy created by Dr. Brock’s resignation.

Dr. Wilkerson brought to Bainbridge State 30 years of University System of Georgia experience in the areas that the College needed help in the most, and that tipped the balance in his favor. However, despite discussions of the issues Dr. Wilkerson was questioned about during his interviews, one was never touched – the incomplete Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center.

Dr. Carvajal, who was vice president for student success services at Cascadia Community College, and his wife, Dr. Cheryl Carvajal, had been in Washington State for family reasons and were looking to move back to the South.

“We wanted to be in a rural community. We wanted the college to be small in that rural community and to have a very strong connection with the community it served,” Dr. Carvajal said. They were meticulous in choosing which colleges he would apply to, and they went down their checklist for compatibility. The top selling point for Bainbridge was the people and the connection the Carvajals felt between the College and the community.

During the screening interviews held in Tallahassee in June 2010, Dr. Carvajal just happened to be the first candidate to be interviewed, and to say it went well would be an understatement.

“I left the interview when it was over and went out to the car, picked up my cellphone and called Cheryl and I said: ‘I don’t know what they thought of me, but I want to be here,’” Dr. Carvajal said. The members of the search committee must have also sensed that there was a great fit, as at least one member suggested that they cancel the rest of the interviews and proclaimed, “We just found our president.”

Dr. Carvajal was 39 years old when he was appointed to succeed Dr. Wilkerson, who retired at the end of 2010.

Oh, by the way – the surprises

For Dr. Mobley, the slate was clean for him – a new college for which to build. The surprise was not on him, but us – the community. The Bainbridge Little Theatre, the Bainbridge British Brass Band and its tradition of the sing-along on Christmas Eve, and the renewed sense of pride in Willis Park have the Mobleys’ handprints on them.

When the college came, Dr. Mobley said what it brought with it was a renewed sense of pride.

“I think it’s improved the community. I have noticed that the community has taken a little more pride in itself,” Dr. Mobley said. “Willis Park was a little rough and not taken care of. The Gazebo was not there. At the time, there just did not seem to be a sense of pride in the community. The college helped established that.”

Under Dr. Brock, Bainbridge State experienced tremendous growth. In 2004, the College’s enrollment reached record levels. Also in 2004, the Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center was scheduled to open. It did not.

Enter Dr. Wilkerson.

He said he noticed the incomplete building during his campus interview, the construction trailer with no activity around it, and there was no discussion of it.

“The Regents never mentioned it. The chancellor never mentioned it. Nobody ever mentioned it other than that, and I had to ask the question,” Dr. Wilkerson said. “So that was a major issue, but I did not know about it.”

The Kirbo Center was sold to the community and its generous donors as one thing, and then changed into a different and smaller facility without the community’s or donors’ input. That is a very simplistic interpretation of a very messy and complicated saga. Nevertheless, suffice it to say Dr. Wilkerson had a big problem that needed to be fixed.

Another big problem was relationships, which were in tatters.

Dr. Wilkerson’s mission was then to fix not only the building, but fix the broken relationships left in its wake.

“The secret to fixing the community relations was finishing the Kirbo Center without going back to this community and asking for a dime,” Dr. Wilkerson said.

In October 2008, the Charles H. Kirbo Center opened as it was originally drafted.

Another signature building at the campus is the Student Wellness Center, which was started and completed under Dr. Wilkerson’s tenure. Unlike the Kirbo Center, the two-story building was completed within its budget and timeframe, and without a single change order.

Bainbridge State’s Early County Center was another big surprise. Dr. Wilkerson said he did not know Bainbridge State was slated to take over the site from Albany Technical College until he received a curt call from someone asking him where he was and why he had not taken over the site yet.

When that transition was completed in 2006, Dr. Wilkerson said the Early County Center turned out to be an “absolutely wonderful thing.”

“When we took it, there were 211 students that first semester. When I left office (in 2010), enrollment had grown by more than 300 percent. It was just a win-win,” Dr. Wilkerson said.

With the opening of the Kirbo Center, the Student Wellness Center and the Early County Center, Dr. Wilkerson said the door also opened for the foundation to go from $60,000 to almost $700,000 by the time he left office in 2010.

Despite his stamp on the College’s two signature buildings, Dr. Wilkerson said all of it – the buildings, the repaired relationships and the expansion of the College – comes down to one thing – the students – the accomplishment for which he wants to be remembered.

He remembers scholarship recipients who were single parents, or taking care of ailing parents and perhaps working several jobs. Because of scholarships, those students were able to finish school and get good jobs.

“It’s all about being a change agent and the evidence of that change is in those stories and in those faces,” Dr. Wilkerson said. “We can do a montage of the buildings, but at the end of the day, it is always about the students, their needs and their futures.”

Not just a name change

The first indication that Dr. Carvajal’s tenure would also bring significant change came just weeks into his presidency.  That took place when he learned that most two-year access institutions in the University System of Georgia planned to pursue four-year status.

“No one during the interview process ever told me that such change was even being considered in the state,” said Dr. Carvajal, “but I quickly realized that we would need to decide whether to follow along.”

What followed were months of collecting input on campus and in the community, completing a Baccalaureate Program Needs Assessment, and ultimately, filing an application with the University System Board of Regents.  Last February, the Board of Regents approved the College to begin offering four-year degrees and officially changed the institution’s name to Bainbridge State College.  The first bachelor’s degree program, a Bachelor’s of Business Administration in Marketing, will launch in Fall 2014.

“The day we celebrated, in essence, becoming a new institution, on the foundation of an amazing institution that has been here for 40 years, was a pretty good day. It was not a day I envisioned when I took the job, but it was a fun day,” Dr.  Carvajal said.

As significant as that change was, however, Dr. Carvajal suggests that the next five years may bring about even more impactful change.

“The experts who study higher education say that what we do will change dramatically by the end of the decade due to technology and the desire to bring costs down.  Five years may not seem like a long time, but in the next five years, experts believe that we will see as much technological advancement as the world has seen in the last 20 years,” said Dr. Carvajal.  “If they’re right, then the next five years may be the biggest period of change in higher education since the passage of the GI. Bill, and our faculty and staff are working hard now to make sure that our academic programs and support services remain current.”

However, despite what could be a historic period of transformation, Dr. Carvajal believes that one thing at Bainbridge State will never change.

“What will not change, and, in fact, will become even more critical, is that colleges that succeed in the future will be those that clearly demonstrate that they care for those students with whom they work.  So our classrooms may indeed look a lot different in the future, but what will not change is what made us great for our first 40 years, and that is the emphasis on caring that exists at this college.”

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