Interim President: 'Full Speed Ahead' for Gateway, Covington Campus
For the urban metro campus of Gateway Community & Technical College in downtown Covington, it's full speed ahead.
Interim president Dr. Keith Bird told The River City News in an interview last week that rumors about the college abandoning some of its downtown plans were untrue. “Things that we have started are going to continue,” Bird said.
The chancellor emeritus of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS), of which Gateway is a part, has been busy since taking over the Northern Kentucky campuses after the sudden retirement of Dr. Ed Hughes who had been at the helm since the school's creation.
“I assessed the campuses. We intend to redirect resources to increase enrollment as quickly and dramatically as we can and I want to start supporting those efforts,” Bird said. “We need to focus on some expanded recruitment.” To that end, the longtime education leader is working on assembling a “cross-functional” team made up of Gateway faculty and staff from different areas but who all have a role in recruitment and retention.
Gateway is spread out across Northern Kentucky. It has a campus in Edgewood near St. Elizabeth Hospital where most of its health care courses are taught. In Boone Co., the school's signature creation, the Center for Advanced Manufacturing, sits on a sprawling campus near I-75. In recent years, much excitement around the college has been directed at Hughes's vision for a downtown campus in Covington where Gateway acquired a dozen buildings with plans to teach courses across many city blocks, aligning with the revitalization efforts of the urban core and bringing higher education opportunities to the Northern Kentucky River Cities.
Already, Gateway operates programs at the Two Rivers building (which was previously a middle school of the same name within the Covington School District), and the renovated Technology, Innovation, and Enterprise (TIE) building on Madison Avenue, which was historically known as the location of Marx Furniture. Most recently, the school opened its Professional Services Building on Scott Boulevard (previously Abode Furniture) where students study programs like massage therapy and cosmetology, and where there is a student-run spa that is open to the public.
But with Hughes's sudden departure, amid constant friction with the leadership of the college's board of directors, rumors began to circulate that the college was abandoning some of its other plans and would possibly sell properties like the area on the 600 block of Scott where a science and health building was to be constructed, and others like the church at the corner of Fifth & Greenup Streets, and the old Senior Services building on Fifth Street near Madison.
The science and health building still needs funding, Bird said. “We need about $14 million for that building. That is a capital construction,” he said. Bird is familiarizing himself with the new Build Smart program enacted by the General Assembly that allows the use of agency bonds to fund 75 percent of a capital project, with the remaining 25 percent coming from local, private sources.
Bird temporarily takes over a school challenged by lower-than-hoped-for enrollment on its campuses, a high default rate for its students who take out federal loans, and a strained relationship with the manufacturing community that is struggling to find skilled labor in the region for its high-paying jobs.
That's why the experienced leader wants to focus on recruitment.
“We have a huge investment in workforce solutions. My first reaction when I heard about these questions, all I could think was, we're going to advance and we're going to continue. That's how I feel about the downtown campus,” Bird said. The chancellor emeritus is quite familiar with Northern Kentucky and was head of KCTCS when Gateway created out of some of the former technical schools that existed here. “It is a question, obviously, of advancing and increasing our numbers. The TIE Building is one of the most exciting, educationally stimulating concepts that I have seen. One of my areas that I have talked about over the last six years is how we need to transform our institutions and our instruction. The TIE Building is a fantastic, marvelous representation of that.
“There is more work that could be done on renovations. The more students we have, the more we;re going to need to do. We're going to look at space. How can we use it most effectively. From all conversations I have had with people, it's a question of growing into and expanding where we are now. What programs need to be down there, what entrepreneurial things can we do with employers.”
Bird said that if he were 20 years younger, he'd want to be in Northern Kentucky. Instead, he and his wife, also an experienced education leader, now reside in South Carolina. He is living in temporary housing while he guides Gateway through this transitional search for its second president. He is a scholar on issues related to the military, specifically the Navy, and even more specifically, the German Navy, he'll tell you. Whereas Hughes was a charismatic, engaging speaker whose passion for community college and Gateway's ambitions were easily recognizable, Bird is more of a traditional academic, thoughtful and experienced, and quick to share stories from those experiences. He was the first KCTCS chancellor, was president at two technical colleges, held leadership positions at two northeastern colleges, and led a partnership of automotive education programs across 12 states, making him an ideal leader, even for just the interim, for a school looking to make its mark.
Gateway is still very young, Bird will tell you.
“My goal for Gateway is always about 10,000 students,” he said.
He is pleased with the improvements in the relationship with the manufacturing community and the regional effort to create more graduates. A high-profile marketing campaign, “I Made It In NKY”, touts the possibilities of advanced manufacturing education and careers. “The manufacturers have taken a leading role in working on developing the pipeline. We are going to do everything we can to support that pipeline.”
The key is what Bird called “competency-based education”, programs where students can move as quickly as they can. “It is those types of education innovations that will allow students with family and job requirements, shift differentials — we've got to become, essentially, able to offer anything, anywhere, anytime and that means we have to transform our instructional approach.”
“I want to see everything in place. I have approached this interim from the direction that I have been given is to prepare the groundwork for the steps forward for the next level,” Bird said. “This is the kind of place I could really recommend to somebody. I'm preparing the groundwork to do that.”
“We've got a lot of growing up to do, which is all good. The groundwork has been prepared,” Bird said. “I think I can certainly tell you we have a board that wants to do everything it can. Both the foundation board and our board of advisors are extremely supportive of what we want to do.
“I will be here until the path is clear, the president search is underway, and my wife continues to let me up here.”