Raised in a small town in rural Michigan by parents who didn’t finish high school but highly valued education, Donald Green was taught that the way to gain opportunities was through earning a high-quality degree.
He went on to earn three degrees, including his Ph.D., and now he wants to help the next generation succeed through graduation and beyond as the new president of Point Park University.
Green previously led Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Ga., for seven years. In that role, he gained experience leading enrollment growth and retention, while working to improve the college’s financial condition and graduation rates for students of color, according to Point Park’s announcement.
Green, 57, hopes to bring that same passion to Pittsburgh to help students stay focused on graduation, despite the many challenges he anticipates his university will face.
“I am a huge believer in access to higher education. It is an absolute necessity because access provides opportunity,” Green said. “Opportunity provides transformation. We change not only lives but we change family trees.”
Before Green was announced as the new president in April, the university dealt with uproar from faculty and staff following an initial attempt to lay off 17 faculty members — some of whom were from marginalized backgrounds. The previous administration cited financial struggles due to the pandemic, a challenge facing many universities across the country, but the decision left many in a precarious position as they wondered about the future.
With new leadership, some faculty were hopeful for change.
In an interview with PublicSource, Green talked about his vision as president, financial obstacles, educating through the pandemic and his intentions behind diversifying the university. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What can students expect this fall, especially considering the chaos from the past year or so due to the pandemic?
They can expect an open, excited campus because students are excited to be back, but faculty are [also] excited to be back. They want to see students face to face. Now, are we masking up? Definitely. Are we watching what’s going on with delta? Definitely. Every week, I’m hearing from the health department in the county, and I want to know where we are at with case counts? Where are we at with hospitalizations and what’s going on with delta? We want to make sure that we are doing all the right things. We’re trying to find every form of mitigation, but we want students to be able to have that in-class experience and that on-campus experience.
At this point, what are you doing to ensure students are not only safe but that their learning is not interrupted by the still-present COVID-19 pandemic?
First of all, we’ve got an amazing faculty who truly care and love for our students, and they have employed technology over the last 18 months to be able to serve our students via distance education and have done a great job with retaining students and helping them to learn. But we realized that there was so much more we needed to do. We have a Center for Student Success, so the whole idea is that we have advisors who build relationships with students one on one, and are really seeking to provide every opportunity for students to be successful, whether it’s tutoring, whether it’s career planning.
Another development that we have at the institution is a career readiness center. We know from research that students who have a clear objective about what it is that they wish to achieve and where they’re going with their career are far more likely to stick it out and to complete. So that’s super important.
And then the last piece that I’m sure that you would ask about is, what about affordability? There’s a couple of things. We are working to enhance our scholarship programs and to develop more of those. We’re working with our faculty, and in fact we just had a very large brainstorming session amongst deans and chairs this last week, in part on transferability of credits so that students coming in are getting the biggest bang for the buck they possibly can.
Last spring, 17 professors were initially informed their contracts would not be renewed due to financial challenges brought on by the stress of COVID-19. From your perspective, what will be addressed to assist with the financial struggles the university is now facing?
We are still being very, very careful in our fiscal responsibilities, and certainly enrollment and retention will pay off for the bottom line. What we want to do is make sure that we are making smart fiscal decisions. But if I can go a little deeper on that, I have a three-part answer concerning, not just the non-renewal for the 17, but just in general, around culture and the pandemic.
There are really three parts. The first one is history. The second part is love. And the third one is culture. If people are willing to go back and look at this historically and they look at the beginning of the pandemic — nobody had any answers. Nobody knew that there could be some federal assistance. Nobody knew whether students were going to be home for two weeks. And many universities were impaired, but I’m pleased that Point Park was able to come through it. Are we in a great position financially? No, but are we better off than the vast majority of organizations out there? I believe so.
The second piece to this is love. Love is a primary ingredient for a successful university. Faculty and staff have to appreciate each other, and they need to show a total commitment to students. And I’ve seen that here at Point Park, but we need to continue to grow that love that translates to amazing lives and careers for our students. How do we do that? We need to rebuild our culture. We’re building and rebuilding a culture of love and respect — respect for our faculty, respect for our staff and especially a respect and a love for our students.
We’re working hard to make sure that we’re balancing the budgets and that we’re saving money wherever we possibly can and there’s a variety of strategies that we’ll need to pursue. But it also has to be balanced with love and an engaging culture.
How do you plan on restoring the trust that may have been lost? What will you do to rebuild a transparent culture on campus?
Openness, honesty, transparency and conversations, one on one. Just a glimpse about me: so I don’t go by Dr. Green. I don’t go by President Green. I go by Don. I want to have a very honest and open relationship. I was really pleased that our faculty assembly asked Michael Soto, who is our new provost, that Michael and I might be able to join them for just an early conversation and a way of getting to know each other, and we had a lot of faculty who showed up for that.
How do you hope to maintain student retention and keep up enrollment?
In fact, in most of the [colleges] in the United States, there are going to be challenges around enrollment. Fortunately at Point Park, we provide such amazing programs like performing arts, like our amazing business programs that that’s certainly going to help. It’s a huge part of recruitment. You’ve got to be able to reach out into communities to be able to do that recruiting and gain access for students.
But there’s a second side to recruitment, to enrollment as well — and that’s retention. And now, don’t get me wrong, Point Park has really great retention. But when you look across America as a whole, like 50% of the people who say they’re going to college don’t ever complete. So one of the things that’s extremely crucial to me at Point Park, and it’s always a priority for me as a president, is to graduate — it is an absolute necessity.
How do you view diversity at the university and the importance of representation?
We’re working at Point Park University to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion so we have a task force, it is a diverse task force. I’m sitting on it. We’re working on how we are going to change these institutions, processes, procedures and culture so that we can be a more equitable institution and inclusive institution. … Diversity is the product, and how equitable we are and how inclusive we are creates diversity. Some of the ways that we’re doing that is our outreach to Pittsburgh Public Schools. We’ve got some amazing programs that we are developing. So, what you will see in the future … is going to be a more diverse institution with greater and stronger equity, with more inclusive behaviors that ultimately serve the students but also serve our faculty and staff.
We need to have greater diversity in our faculty. We have it in our staff. I’m very pleased to say that if you look at the last year, we have definitely improved in our diversity amongst our administrators and staff. That’s just the beginning. And we will do more.
What promise do you have for students of color?
That you will be treated with respect, with equity and with love. Your success will be a priority for every member of our faculty and staff across this institution.
In your opinion, what are the top three things students care about/talked to you about so far as the new president?
Part of it is a relationship with me. They want a great education. And they want it at a reasonable price, with a great return on investment, and we’re seeking to provide that very opportunity for them. And I’ll be able to give you more definitive responses as more students show up on campus, but right now, what does every student want? They want a vibrant, robust relationship with their faculty, their president, their provost and their deans. They want a great relationship with their fellow students.
Naomi Harris covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.