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APSU thriving under “Leading Through Excellence” Strategic Plan

On a warm afternoon in March, several members of Nashville’s business elite mingled inside the Music City Center, discussing a state school 40 miles north in Clarksville. These men and women, dressed in professional attire, had just enjoyed a meal during the Nashville Business Journal’s 2017 Best in Business Awards Luncheon, and as waiters refilled coffee mugs and water glasses, a few of these attendees brushed crumbs from their phones and googled, “Austin Peay State University.”

Throughout the luncheon, they’d heard plenty about the school—from its growing enrollment to its efforts in downtown Clarksville’s revitalization—and they wanted to learn more about the University that had just been named the region’s best non-profit.

“This award demonstrates that leaders across our state are beginning to take notice of what we’re accomplishing at Austin Peay,” APSU President Alisa White said.

The University’s recent success is the result of its adherence, over the last few years, to an ambitious strategic plan that calls for guiding APSU’s evolution through the year 2025. The “Leading Through Excellence” Strategic Plan was unveiled in early 2016 with the five goals of growing enrollment, enhancing student success, sustaining University growth, expanding diversity and broadening communication, and after only a year into the process, Austin Peay has made significant progress toward fulfilling those goals.           

Goal 1: Enrollment

The strategic plan’s first goal calls for increasing enrollment to 13,000 students in the first five years of the plan, and then increasing enrollment to 15,000 students by 2025. Last fall, Austin Peay welcomed the largest freshman class in its 90-year history by enrolling 26 percent more first-year students than the previous fall. This August, 2,100 freshman students arrived for the fall semester, setting a new record.

“We’re admitting more students with a 29 ACT score or higher, and we’re also up on students who have no conditions for admission,” Dr. Rex Gandy, APSU provost and vice president of academic affairs, said. “That means we’re brining in not only a larger class, but also a more prepared class.”           

Luke Cecil, of Bardstown, Kentucky, was one of those students. Cecil applied to several Ivy League schools, but when he met with APSU’s Admissions Team, they offered him a Presidential Scholarship. Cecil accepted the scholarship, but he later said he decided to become a Gov after meeting the admission’s staff.

“I showed up, and they knew me by name, even though they’d never met me before,” Cecil said. “I decided, ‘This is where I belong. This is where I need to be.’”

Goal 2: Student Success

Last year, in an effort to improve student success, the University joined a national higher education project known as “Foundations of Excellence.” The project, sponsored by the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, is helping APSU faculty and staff redefine the first-year college experience at Austin Peay.

“One of the main priorities of this University is to make sure we help students earn a great education that culminates in a college degree,” White said. “Helping these students succeed is our focus as soon as they enroll, and certainly students who enter as freshmen must learn to do college-level work and to transition to college life. Our involvement with this nationally recognized initiative will help us ensure that they have the resources and support they need to graduate.” 

Research has long indicated that new students who are successfully integrated into college are much more likely to succeed. Many colleges, therefore, work especially hard to create a first-rate experience for new students. Last year, Austin Peay’s faculty, staff and students engaged in an examination of the first-year student experience at the University. This year, the campus community will begin implementing first-year experience recommendations from various stakeholders across campus.

In October, the University also opened the Wayne and Marianne Ard Building to serve as the new home for the University’s Health and Counseling Services. The APSU Division of Student Affairs contributed more than $1 million for this project. The Office of Career Services also expanded, taking up a larger physical space in the Morgan University Center and adding new personnel. These projects are part of the University’s efforts to make sure APSU students have all the services they need to succeed.

Goal 3: Sustainability

In the fall of 2016, the Tennessee Board of Regents approved a new compensation plan for the University, which included more than $3.3 million in salary adjustments and benefits. That was the single largest pool of dollars committed to base salary increases in the history of Austin Peay.

“One of my main priorities was to develop a compensation plan to bring faculty and staff salaries up to appropriate market levels, and even though this is an ongoing process, last year’s increases placed salaries closer to peers at institutions such as East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee at Martin,” White said.

Austin Peay’s 2016 acquisition of almost 11 acres along College Street is allowing the University to move closer to this goal’s objective of creating “a vibrant downtown for a traditional college town experience.” In January, the University Advancement Office moved to the Jenkins Building on that site, and Austin Peay is now working with Barnes and Noble to relocate the campus bookstore to a renovated, 13,000-square-foot building on that property.

The company, which operates 770 campus bookstores across the country, will provide students with textbooks at the new location, but the Barnes and Noble store will also be open to the public, selling children’s books, trade books, best sellers, office supplies and Austin Peay-branded merchandise. The venue will be similar to the Vanderbilt University Barnes and Noble, on West End Avenue in Nashville, with a Barnes and Noble Café that is also open to the public.

The company plans to be in the new location by the Fall 2018 semester, but that date could change.

“This aligns perfectly with our strategic plan’s mission of supporting Austin Peay students while also being a partner in the growth of the city of Clarksville,” Derek van der Merwe, APSU vice president for advancement, communication and strategic initiatives, said.

Goal 4: Diversity

Increasing diversity continues to be a priority for the campus community, and last year, minority-student enrollment grew to more than 34 percent of the total student population.

Last fall, Gandy developed a Diversity Task Force to identify and explore successful methods for the recruitment and retention of minority faculty members, and the University has created two important, new positions—an Equal Opportunity Compliance Officer and a Chief Diversity Officer. In addition, the University’s Diversity Committee presented the campus community with a variety of programming and professional development opportunities to ensure that Austin Peay remains a diverse, safe and inclusive environment.

Goal 5: Communication, Branding, Strategic Planning

This summer, the Austin Peay brand received a major boost when the University unveiled its new website. The new website will assist in the University’s efforts to recruit more students, providing them with more campus visuals and key information they’ll need when determining where they want to attend college.

The University also increased its number of donors this year, with more than 4,000 gifts, totaling more than $3.6 million, to Austin Peay last spring, and alumni giving was up $300,000 over that time period last year. 

In April, as part of Austin Peay’s 90th anniversary, the APSU Office of Advancement launched a 90-hour giving event, Govs Give, with the goal of raising $90,000 for the different colleges’ Funds of Excellence, athletics and student affairs. By the end of the campaign, the University had raised more than $148,000.