Dr. Cheryl Green’s first year as president of Governors State University has been plagued by stressful COVID-related decisions. The Phoenix staff had the chance to interview her about her experiences as president during a global pandemic.
During the interview, Dr. Green said her first goal as president was to do a “listening tour.” Her purpose on this tour was to have been “to meet with as many different constituents, on and off campus, as possible.” However, the outbreak stopped her efforts in their tracks. Without minimizing the struggles of GSU students during the pandemic, she pointed out that her experience was unique in comparison.
“[The students’] transition because of COVID meant that [they] could not reconnect. But for me, being new to the campus, it meant that I couldn’t establish the connection,” she stated. “So, it was a very different challenge for me. My challenge was not to sustain a relationship. My challenge was to create the connections that facilitated a relationship.”
As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that Dr. Green’s original intentions of establishing herself as a presence on campus would have to be put on hold. Instead, her days became consumed with planning. “We had to create a plan for classrooms, for programs, for services, for orientations, for activities, for meetings, for conferences,” she said. ”It was nonstop, and it just dominated the focus of many people, including myself.”
Despite the disruption of her original plans, Dr. Green remains dedicated to three goals she set for herself when she accepted the position. Her first goal might be referred to as the “jewel” goal.
Dr. Green expressed a deep distaste for GSU’s nickname as the “hidden gem of the Southland.”
“Who wants to be hidden?” she asked. “Nothing about me wants to be hidden, [and] I did not want GSU to be hidden. I want it to, in my words, take its prominent place as the ‘Jewel of the Southland.’”
“We need to be more prominently visible,” she said proudly. And so, with that, Dr. Green’s first goal is to put Governors State on the map.
Dr. Green’s second goal relates to academic excellence. One of the ways she suggested achieving a higher level of academic excellence is to establish high impact practices, practices and activities that “promote student engagement and student achievement.” These activities might include research with faculty members, tutoring, mentoring, and participating in “globalized experiences.”
In line with this goal, Dr. Green has begun to expand academic programs. In fact, GSU very recently “received approval from the Higher Learning Commission to offer a Ph.D. in Counselor Ed and Supervision.”
Further, she is dedicated to expanding global opportunities for students. She has begun to identify possible “sister universities,” which are colleges in other countries that will “easily accept our students, our curriculum, and our faculty” and vice versa. Unfortunately, this goal is another that has been put on hold by COVID-19; in order to work with these universities, Dr. Green must be able to travel, which is not currently possible because of the pandemic.
However, she notes that her search for sister universities will begin with colleges that GSU already has study abroad connections with and those that will send “[GSU] the highest number of graduate international students.”
Dr. Green’s third goal is to improve the Governors State student experience. However, GSU’s campus community is unique, posing unique challenges to achieving this goal. Dr. Green estimates that the average GSU student is 29 years old. Non-traditional students have typically taken on more responsibilities than younger students, particularly in terms of full-time work or child-rearing responsibilities.
Dr. Green recommends developing more creative and adaptable solutions to increase student engagement across campus, particularly by providing opportunities for non-traditional students to participate.
Student experience has been a growing push on campus since 2014, when GSU opened its doors to freshmen and sophomores, many of whom live on campus. Although Dr. Green nodded to a small group of people who request that GSU return to its roots as an upper division university, Dr. Green believes in the power of an expanded university.
“I believe in tradition,” she says, “but the tradition has to keep us competitive, must keep us innovative, has to keep us with the value-added proposition to the marketplace, [and] has to attract a revenue base that keeps us having an environment where we can reward employees.”
Improved student experience has the potential to increase enrollment, which is so vital to keeping the university competitive, innovative, and with a steady revenue, as noted by Dr. Green.
“Enrollment is where we have to grow,” she said. “We have to diversify who we serve.” One of her suggestions for diversifying the student base that GSU serves includes establishing a three-year bachelor’s degree program. This program would target students who excel academically. Dr. Green also suggested increasing on-campus employment opportunities for students.
Establishing prominence, building up academic excellence, and creating more opportunities for student engagement remain at the forefront of Dr. Green’s vision for the university. However, problems related to the ongoing global pandemic have forced themselves on to the front burner.
Students, for example, are eager to learn about the mode of class delivery in the fall. When asked if she believes classes will be held in person in the fall, she replied, “That is what I am working towards.”
She did, however, state that many COVID-19 regulations are beyond her control and are instead determined by the guidance of the Illinois Department of Public Health, the governor’s office, and the CDC.
She noted, for example, the rapid day-to-day changes that make it difficult to predict what reality will be in August. For example, the governor added “higher ed professionals” into the state’s vaccination plan just a few weeks ago.
Despite these rapid changes, Dr. Green noted the university’s continued accommodation in regard to COVID-19 regulations; she said that the University Provost and other academic leaders have already begun looking into each individual class at GSU — accounting for class size and the purpose of the course as it relates to delivery, for example — to determine whether that specific course complies with COVID-19 regulations.
Dr. Green said, “People keep asking me, ‘Dr. Green, what do you want to do?’” And my answer is always, it’s not about what I want. It’s about what we can accomplish.”
Either way, Dr. Green hopes to release an announcement by the end of April.
In five years, Dr. Green envisions Governors State University “in its rightful place as the jewel of the Southland, with a regional and an international presence.” She celebrated the value and promise she sees in the programs at GSU, as well as the tradition of excellence at the university. Dr. Green declared that “This region needs us,” and she is prepared to make the changes necessary to accommodate for it.
Dr. Green says that she could talk all day about the value of GSU’s programs and its presence in the community, but she notes that these are not the most important aspects to a functioning and flourishing university. Instead, she says, it is the students.
“I meet people who talk about themselves, talk about their programs, talk about their degrees, talk about their interests there. And my question is, well, what about the student? That should be at the heart of everything we do at a university.”
Dr. Green expressed her admiration for the GSU community and its students in her final message to students. “I hope you understand that my heart is here, that I’m committed, and that I’m dedicated to…making the university the best place it can be for all of you, as well as for me. This is my home.”