Q&A with Sims Kline

Photo courtesy Stetson University

Photo courtesy Stetson University

Sims Kline is a research librarian at Stetson’s DeLand campus. He began working at Stetson in 1976 and has now reported to three Stetson University Presidents and six Provosts.

What do you think of the newest strategic map draft?

Well I recall the previous strategic planning process that Doug Lee administered, and I thought he administered it pretty well. Some people criticized it because often there were not financial resources to carry out the strategic planning that he did, but that’s a different issue in my opinion. He used a management by objectives method which generated very detailed plans. Now this strategic planning effort is quite different. It has I think drawn on more wider input from different parts of the university, the stakeholders, alumni, current students, faculty, staff, administrators. The president [has]really done, I think, a pretty thorough job of getting people to contribute to the plan. As a result, the strategic map that was produced two or three years ago was an excellent summary and you could see the major points on one page. We hadn’t been able to do that quite so efficiently before.

So I liked the map that we had. Frankly I was a little surprised we were doing a new map. But apparently what has happened is this map has been significantly revised and I guess it’s because it’s because some of the objectives that were in the previous map may have been reached. But I think this strategic map clearly is for the next five years, and so it has some new elements. I haven’t studied it thoroughly so I couldn’t really talk in depth about it. So I think the strategic map as it’s being developed now is going to be as useful as the previous one, that is as a way efficiently to keep a focus on what our objectives are.

Do you think this map addresses the areas where Stetson needs improvement?

I think that if you were to cite a problem that you thought was a problem at Stetson, I’ll bet you that there’s a block on here that addresses it. It might not address it in the sort of advocacy way that you might want to frame the issue. But what they’ve tried to do is to find a place where those problems that can certainly be identified and need to be worked on, where it belongs.

During your time at Stetson, you’ve worked under three university presidents and multiple provosts. What are some notable characteristics about our current administration in comparison with previous administrations? 

When [President Libby] was hired. the Board of Trustees–I believe from what she said and what others said–were very clear to her that we needed to survive and not only to survive, but to thrive. We needed to increase our enrollment. Now, there were debates about “What is the ideal size for Stetson?” Well, 2,100 students undergraduate was not the ideal size because some of those classes at the 300 and 400 levels in the Arts & Sciences [College] had eight, nine or ten students. And we had the capacity to have more students, maybe not in the dormitories, but that’s another issue. But the point is that all the economic indicators, all the economic analyses ever done on the university from 1960 on said the same thing: “You need to increase enrollment.” So this president had that charge and she has run with it. And in doing so, it’s a calculated risk because you’re out in the marketplace that’s hyper-competitive, schools like Stetson, some of them are struggling just to maintain their enrollments. It’s not just PR, the fact is Stetson is against the grain with enrollment growth. We’re doing extraordinary things with enrollment growth. Now there’s a challenge, because there’s the concern about student quality, the student to faculty ratio, the technical issue of the housing of students.

Getting back to Dr. Libby, I attended a number of meetings where she talked about herself after she was hired and even while she was being interviewed, and same thing for the Provost because we had a number of Provost candidates. I observed these academic leaders, and with the perspective that at one time I used to go to meetings with the administrators, the vice presidents, the deans, the president. I did that for 20 years as library director, so I knew something about how to assess these people and how they operate, their style. And right away, I felt there were three things about [President Libby and Provost Paul]: They understood higher education very well; they were quick studies; and they were very decisive. And so those were attributes that served them well and they came here because they had a lot to learn and to catch up on and figure out what to do next.

They were not hired to come in and just keep things going like they were. That’s not why they were hired. Everybody said to all of these presidential candidates that we interviewed, “We need a Provost here, please. We need to reestablish the office of the chief academic officer for planning for getting the university together on common ground academically, to have a vision for academic development and growth and faculty support and curricular reform.” All of these things are very very important, and you can’t really do it unless you have a full-time academic officer.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen since Dr. Libby and this new administration arrived?

Facilities enhancement and facilities management, athletic enhancement and enrollment growth. Those three, super-big, super-expensive and super-important. And here’s why: Dr. Libby said, “This campus, when I came here, it’s a beautiful campus,” but she said, “It’s a little shabby around the edges.” And she was right because we didn’t have enough money. The streets and grounds people were struggling to keep up with things, there was no funding to do what they wanted to do. Dr. Libby changed that dramatically. At first there was some push back. “You’re taking down some of the trees in the quad. What’s going on, man?” You know? But they didn’t understand how serious this was and how committed they were to this. Today this campus looks better than it ever has looked. There’s no question about it. Alums say this repeatedly. Staff members may quibble with the choice of a plant here or a shrub there, but that to me is shortsighted. When you ask people from New York and Connecticut or anywhere, to come to a university and spend so much money every year for their kids when they can spend far less, they want to know why and what’s the difference here. We, you can talk about faculty quality, but that’s intangible. But they can damn sure see the facilities and they can see that the university cares about itself.

In my opinion, nothing will have more of an impact on Stetson than the enrollment growth because what it does is it changes all the financial equations. It also creates some real challenges for educating these students and helping them get through which is why we have a major division in this university called Student Success. I mean we’ve always had tutoring, but this is quite radically different. But the enrollment still has its challenges, and some faculty are still dubious about whether the academic quality suffers because of it.

The athletics [expansion]was a totally calculated risk. The decision to go with this Pioneer League football was a calculated risk on the part of the president and the Board of Trustees. It’s a multi-million dollar commitment and some people are concerned that we weren’t able to raise as much money on the front end as we had hoped. What I would say about that it’s always going to be debatable whether or not we should have a football team, but what I’ve observed is it provides to many students a major boost in school spirit that we have not had. I think it’s part of the equation for enrollment growth and retention.

How do you feel about Stetson’s future?

I’m optimistic about it. The reason is I see that although certain risks have been taken, I think the university has gotten to take initiatives that will ensure its financial future, ensure it’s academic quality and ensure ultimately the intellectual life of the place. If we can do those things, we will succeed. And I do see signs that Stetson’s distinctiveness, it’s uniqueness among places that students can go in Florida and in the southeast, that is becoming better known by people outside of our Volusia County area. I think we’re becoming better known for reasons that are good. We do things here a little differently in a more intense way. And so I’m optimistic because of those issues. I don’t think I’m being naive about that.

What will be Stetson’s biggest challenge to overcome in the future?

I’m mindful of the fact that the cost of a Stetson education is becoming increasingly burdensome because I hear and see it from students. I know so many students who are on work study and also working outside the campus just to have enough money to put gasoline in their cars. People ride by the university and think, “Oh, that’s a pretty wealthy place.” But that’s not true. There are exceptions of some people who are well-funded and we’re happy for them. But most students are struggling with more than one job. And so that concerns me.

What will be Stetson’s biggest asset while navigating the future?

That’s an easy question. It’s so obvious to me. It might be too obvious. When I think about Stetson, I think of two things particularly: Quality of the faculty and the quality of the students. These have to go hand-in-hand. They are related one to another. My respect for the Stetson faculty is very high, it always has been. But what I see today is in the last two years this university has been recruiting more faculty than we ever have except for one other period many years ago during Doug Lee’s administration. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’m thinking that this is greater.

Some of the faculty will tell you, “Well Sims, most of those faculty hires and positions that have been open and not funded for two or three years.” Well that’s true, some of them are visiting professors, they’re not all tenure track. But still the numbers are very big. If you were to take a look at the names of the faculty members who started fall 2011, 2012 and 2013, it would be a remarkable list as to the scope and background and specialties and capabilities of these new faculty members. It’s extraordinary. But they’re joining a group of already pretty extraordinary faculty members. So I think of faculty as a top asset, but also I think it’s students. If we don’t have good students at all, the faculty are pretty much irrelevant. What are they going to do? You have to have somebody to teach–that’s obvious. But they key thing for faculty is the quality of the student body. Are they really interested in learning, or are they just here to go through and get a degree and go find a job? Do they have any intrinsic interest in the subjects they’re studying? One hopes that you find a discipline that you’re really intrinsically interested in, that you really get excited about. It’s not being a nerd, it’s just having maturity of interests of intellectual challenges. So what I have seen over the years are very extraordinary students.