It’s been a busy 12 months for Ivelaw Griffith, who marks on Tuesday his first year at the helm of Fort Valley State University.
He said he’s been trying to forge more community connections for the university while also advocating for a greater profile.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Telegraph, Griffith said he’s trying to get parts of the university working better with each other and aiming for higher student achievement. Those efforts should improve the university and raise its low graduation and student retention rates, he said.
An honors program will launch in the coming weeks with an inaugural class of more than 60 students, said Griffith, wearing a bow tie in Fort Valley State’s colors. The honors program should help with recruiting and retaining students, he said.
“We took many students who did not qualify to be here, and their insufficient preparation meant they could not sustain what was being offered,” he said. “They were dropping out. We’re not doing that anymore. We have a mission, but we also have a mission to take, to prepare and to graduate.”
The latest statistics suggest full-time students starting at Fort Valley State are only about half as likely as public college students in the rest of the country to graduate within six years, figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show. Just 30 percent of Fort Valley State University students who started in 2007 graduated. The national rate is 57 percent.
At FVSU, that national graduation rate is nearly identical to the rate -- 58 percent -- of students who simply returned for a second year at the school.
Another effort will try to get more students into an expanding undergraduate research program. Three Fort Valley State students went to Dubai on their spring break for a research project, and Griffith said the university needs to send more people into the greater world -- and also bring in more students.
“The changing dynamics of the globe suggest we’re going to be doing ourselves in if we don’t make ourselves competitive with the rest of the world,” he said. “So in a sense, what I’m doing at Fort Valley is playing catch up.”
Other Georgia universities have made those international connections, and Fort Valley needs to ensure its students understand, and can compete with, people in Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, he said.
A look inward as well
Griffith said FVSU staff members don’t always know what’s been going on. An animated man whose hands emphasize his speech, Griffith speaks with obvious pride about things he wishes more people knew about the college.
Experts in the paulownia, the world’s fastest-growing trees? Fort Valley has them. Research on a plant with anti-cancer properties? Fort Valley, as well.
“Did you know, for example, that we produce four different flavors of goat milk ice cream? Did you know, for example, that we have one of the world’s leading small ruminant research centers? Did you know, for example, that we produce goat milk soap? Who knew?” he said.
Sometimes, it’s other faculty members who don’t know. Griffith said he began holding faculty meetings in different locations across the campus. That builds more connections and often comes with tours, so professors who teach teachers may learn more about the small ruminant research facility.
He said professors should make sure students get their grades in a timely manner, and employees should smile when they answer the phone. People looking for help on campus should be escorted to their destination, not just get sent somewhere on campus, he said.
Griffith said more togetherness could come through another planned initiative. Students of chemistry, biology, marketing, media and education would work together in a center for homeland and global food security.
“Food security’s not just about agriculture. Part of it is about educating citizens about appropriate choices. And we’ve got to figure out what is the role of education in this. ... It will be a way for us to bring all components of our university under that platform, because food security is not just about farming,” he said.
More partnerships in Middle Georgia
Fort Valley State is also looking to improve ties across the region. Last week, for example, Griffith spoke to the Georgia Department of Corrections, which is now based in Forsyth. On Wednesday he planned to meet with Milledgeville’s leadership.
The historically black college also is looking to expand recruitment of white, Hispanic, international and other students.
The university is studying the creation of an aviation program and supply chain management classes, which would help Robins Air Force Base. But students in those classes could go on to work in Savannah’s growing port, and offering the courses online would open them up to a much bigger audience and the ability to serve more students.
FVSU also is talking to Central Georgia Tech and Albany Tech about partnerships, has agreements with Georgia Military College and the Warner Robins Police Department, and is looking to build more partnerships with its Warner Robins campus, online degree programs and continuing education classes.
“Partnerships are necessary, and the partnerships are also necessary on the global level,” Griffith said.
Such partnerships can also increase the awareness of Fort Valley State’s resources, while giving students more opportunities.
“We need to discover ourselves,” Griffith said. “But my intent is to have the Valley and beyond know about us.”
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.