The place ‘aint Harvard – and that’s a good thing

By Kevin Shannahan

Northwestern State University is not in the Ivy League or anywhere close to it. While one may never know the future, it is a safe bet that Harvard’s record of eight presidents will be safe from the Demons for the foreseeable future. Nor will anyone write any how-to books on admissions secrets of the University of Louisiana system. Such is not the nature of the regional university.

When Dr. James Henderson assumed the presidency of NSU, he spoke of making NSU the premier regional university in the south. It was at that moment that I became a believer in Dr. Henderson and his vision for Northwestern, a vision I hope continues after he leaves to assume the presidency of the ULS system. He did not say he wanted NSU to become a research university, move up in the rankings on U.S. News and World Report or chase any of the dubious metrics that constitute “branding” in the Darwinian world of college recruiting. The educational landscape is littered with overly ambitious and shallow “leaders” who are not comfortable in their institution’s role and chase a chimera of false prestige.

Just what is a regional university anyway? What kind of places are they? A good regional university is a first step, a bridge between worlds. It is a place of hope, ambition and opportunity – a start on a changed life. It is a place that welcomed the daughter of a small town storekeeper whose grandfather came to America as a stowaway. She graduated and was followed by her younger sister, my wife. Twenty -five years prior and a thousand miles to the north, Harpur College took in my father, the son of an electrician with an 8th grade education. A regional university’s mission is simple. Meet the students where they are, show them what is possible and help them get there.

The late Dr. Hugh Bailey was president of Valdosta State College when I graduated in 1985. I was sitting in my new dress uniform with my fellow lieutenants who had just been sworn in. It was hot in that gym, the uniforms were not designed to be comfortable, and my mind was definitely elsewhere. I do, however, remember one thing Dr. Bailey said that’s stuck with me for 31 years. I don’t remember his exact words, but he thanked our parents and families and told us to do the same. He reminded us that many of us had been kept in school by mothers and grandmothers scrubbing floors, fathers and grandfathers working in the fields; that our being there was the result of a lot of hope and a lot of hard work.

That is the kind of place Northwestern State University is, and should always be. Many of its students are from small towns and modest backgrounds. Many are the first in their family to attend college. The regional universities of this nation bear a heavy responsibility. They are entrusted with the hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents that tomorrow will be better than yesterday; that their children will have opportunities that may have been denied them. There are men and women at NSU who are working and scrimping to build a better future for their families.

Oh, as for Harvard’s presidential record of eight presidents? Sometime in the future a graduate of Scholars’ College will throw the fork during his or her inaugural speech. One down, seven to go….

3 thoughts on “The place ‘aint Harvard – and that’s a good thing

  1. Mr. Shannahan describes well the importance of the mission of a regional state university like NSU. However, in 2017 and beyond, one additional element must be added to keep NSU and the other regional state colleges affordable. The Legislature must establish a permanent fund that will help hard working parents of modest means to pay the high cost of education for their college students.

    As I have witnessed in my own children’s generation, massive student loan debt has become the major barrier to college completion and middle class attainment. While TOPS has helped, its costs have become prohibitive. TOPS can only remain fully funded with fiscal adjustments, including a fund that can reduce the amount of funding needed from tax revenue. If our state is to continue to produce badly needed 21st century professionals, affordable regional universities such as NSU must be a part of its future.

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