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VOL. 37 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 12, 2013

Austin Peay’s rapid growth mirrors Clarksville's

By Linda Bryant

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Austin Peay President Timothy Hall

The Great Recession hit about the time Timothy Hall took over as president of Austin Peay State University in 2007. Hall steered the school through the turbulent times and says APSU is now stable and thriving.

The former law professor and the associate provost and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ole Miss says he’s fallen in love with Clarksville and Middle Tennessee.

Hall also is eager to get the word out about APSU’s recent accomplishments, and he’s getting some high-profile help.

Bill Gates mentioned the school’s predictive analytics program in a speech before Congress last year, and the Chronicle of Higher Education put the school in its 2012 Top 30 best colleges to work for in America.

“We were on that list with schools like Notre Dame, Baylor and Ole Miss,” Hall says. “Many people are quite surprised when they find out about how much is going on at APSU.”

How has Clarksville’s explosive growth impacted the growth of APSU? How do the two connect?

“Not only is Clarksville growing, this university has been the fastest-growing public university in Tennessee since 2000. We’ve grown precipitously – and by more than 50 percent – since the beginning of the century.

“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Clarksville is growing, and I think the fact that Clarksville is growing hinges, in part, on Austin Peay. The presence of a university makes an area a lot more attractive.

“Clarksville is an appealing place for retirees, especially military retirees. In fact, Fort Campbell leads the country as a place where military personnel want to retire. I can tell you firsthand that many of those military retirees end up coming to us and studying.’’

How many of your students are connected to the military? How about adult students returning to college?

“About 20 percent are either active veterans or military family members. They are a crucial part of our community. We also have the highest proportion of non-traditional students among public universities in the state. Forty percent of our students are 25 years and older the moment they walk on campus.

“We now have a military student organization, which is the largest student organization on our campus. We also have a non-traditional student’s center, and we have directors for both of those centers whose job it is to serve those two populations of students.’’

The Great Recession hit higher education hard. Can you give an update on how the school is doing with budget and funding issues?

“The state’s appropriations for higher education now go through a funding formula that’s not based on enrollment; it’s based on the performance of institutions. Performance is mostly about helping students persist and helping them graduate. One-hundred percent of our success comes through that formula.

“We’ve just finished the second year of being measured by these standards. In the first year, the No. 2 institution in the state for increased performance-based funding was the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the No. 1 institution was Austin Peay. We were also No. 1 in the second year and UT Knoxville was No. 2.’’

What about cutting costs and other issues brought up by the recession?

“You may recall there was a lot of stimulus money handed out. Because we were growing, we didn’t use that money to help us make our budget. We used it predominately on energy-saving enhancements. We spent about $8 million of stimulus funds on energy upgrades which have collectively lowered our energy bills considerably.

“We have seen great success with a new computer system that creates work flows – computerized ways of handling various administrative tasks. For example, we had one employee in the registrar’s office that spent 50 percent of her time processing change-of-grade forms. We were able to write a work flow that removed her from that task. Computers are freeing our people up from paper work so they can now perform people work.’’

Can you talk about significant ways in which APSU has grown in the past few years?

“We are doing a lot of digging. I tell people if you aren’t digging you’re dying. We have a brand new, 400-bed dorm that opened up a year and a-half ago. We are constructing three new dorms that will open this fall.

“We are well along with the construction – and will complete next spring – a new Maynard Mathematics and Computer Science building. We will begin construction of a new football stadium as soon as the coming year’s football season is over. And we are in line to begin design of a new fine arts building that the state will be funding.’’

What about the growth of academics?

“Our newest is a professional degree in predictive analytics. It’s the combination of a math and a business degree. It’s all about the science of using big data to help you plan.

“It’s very appropriate for us because we’ve gotten a lot of national attention this past year for a program called “Degree Compass,” which was developed by our vice president of academic affairs. The degree is based on predictive analytics and suggests courses for students -- something like what Amazon and Netflix does in suggesting movies and books.

“The Degree Compass compares every individual student’s academic record with everybody else’s academic record and on the basis of that it can suggest to students what majors they will likely be more successful in, and it can actually suggest what specific courses they will likely be successful in. The New York Times profiled it this year, and Bill Gates mentioned it in a speech.

“Over five years in, we have several fast-growing majors. Criminal justice has increased 68 percent, and computer science and engineering tech have gone up 50 percent. Mathematics has increased 42 percent and radiology technology and medical technology have increased 50 percent. There’s a big increase in health and human performance, which has increased 130 percent, and in agriculture, which has grown 75 percent.’’

What are a couple of your biggest challenges as a university?

“We are working overtime to produce more graduates. How do we take people who are just getting credits and turn them into people who are getting degrees? It’s our No. 1 challenge and a critical state and national priority. You cannot read anything in higher education that doesn’t focus on Tennessee’s need to produce more college graduates.

“Another challenge is affordability. During the recession, Tennessee cut back to the tune of about 30 percent on the state’s investment on higher education. A lot of that cutback ends up being put on the backs of students. We have been fighting to limit what we do with tuition increase. We want to be one of the most affordable institutions in Tennessee. We’re continuing to work on ways to hold the cost of higher education down.’’

After the announcement was made in 2008 that Hemlock Semiconductor would locate in Clarksville, APSU was awarded a $6.4 million grant from the state to develop the chemical engineering technology degree program. Hemlock gave $2 million for equipment. What is the status of the CET program now that Hemlock has announced that it won’t move forward with plans, at least in the near future?

“The program was never linked emphatically with Hemlock. It is still going strong. We were aware that (only) some of our graduates would end up going to work for Hemlock, so from the beginning we were constantly exploring other avenues for our graduates.

“Hemlock battened things down and laid off its workforce, but it hasn’t stopped our program. We’re serving a lot more industries and plants than the Hemlock Semiconductor facility.

“Our graduates have known for some time that they would need to use the degree to go to work someplace other than Hemlock. We knew it because Hemlock stopped hiring a year ago.

“We look forward to the time when they open back up, but in the meantime we have a brand new building with $2 million worth of equipment in it, and we have students going out and finding other jobs.

“We’ve graduated a little more than 100 students since the program started. One-third went to Hemlock Semiconductor, another third went to other industries and a third decided to continue on and pursue a four-year degree.’’

What’s on the horizon at Austin Peay?

“I believe we will get out first doctoral program. It’s time for Austin Peay to step into that group.

“We are continuing to try to do innovative new things to help our students graduate. One of those things will happen this fall. We’re going to work with Inside Track, a company that pulls together counselors who call students every week and help them with the various things they need to do to make it in college, but eventually we believe all students will receive this counseling.

“At first, we are going to pilot the program with half of our students. We’ll be the first university in Tennessee to be partnering with Inside Track and as far as I know the only one in the state using the program.’’

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