6.21.2017
By Roanoke College News

Presiding over a decade of growth

From Roanoke Magazine

By David Treadwell

When Michael C. Maxey became president of Roanoke College in 2007, he brought with him 22 years of administrative experience at the College and a vision to raise its sights and stature. How would the College, under his leadership, respond to the complex challenges that lay ahead? Would a man who bled maroon have the objectivity to make the tough decisions to get things done?

Ten years ago, I interviewed Mike Maxey, a few months after the presidential medallion was draped around his neck, officially establishing the 11th president of the then-165-year-old College. I had the pleasure of interviewing him again earlier this year, asking that he reflect on the past decade. The results, I learned, have been extraordinary.

Roanoke Rising: The Campaign for Roanoke College

In 2013, Roanoke College launched a $200 million campaign designed to propel the College into the top ranks of America's leading liberal arts colleges and preeminent institutions of higher learning. The five-pronged approach set a goal of enhancing the College to an unparalleled degree: two new campus facilities-the Cregger Center and the Science Complex; enhancements to academic programming and faculty support; greater financial support for students; growth in annual giving; and an ability to embrace new ideas.

"At first we planned to raise $125 million," Maxey says. "Then we raised the goal to $175 million. Then, after asking, 'How can we really go big for our students?' we raised it to $200 million." That decision proved sound. To date, over $184 million has been raised. "We will get there," Maxey says with quiet confidence.

The "game changer"

The first visible symbol of  the fruits of Roanoke Rising was the completion in August 2016 of the 155,000-square-foot, five-floor Morris M. Cregger Center, named for Morris Cregger '64, chair of Roanoke's Board of Trustees and member of the a Roanoke Athletic Hall of Fame. "All things considered, we had a greater need for a new science building," Maxey says, "but someone stepped forward with a lead gift. We decided to move forward and the result has exceeded all expectations."

Maxey describes the Cregger as "both beautiful and functional. Presidents of other colleges have commented on the magnetic quality of the facility, and they're right. [The facility] will help attract more students of all kinds, including more scientists."

On the fund-raising side, "we got a terrific response," Maxey says, noting that more than 600 people contributed $33 million to build the facility and fund the landscaping. "We created a third quad for the campus."

The Core Curriculum: Putting a premium on passion

The core curriculum at Roanoke is based on a simple premise: Students learn best when they're exploring something that truly interests them. Unlike many colleges that require a series of introductory courses in various disciplines, all of Roanoke's core courses are topic-based. For example, instead of taking a generic Introduction to Chemistry course, students might choose "Chemistry and Crime," where they use forensic chemistry to solve crimes. Or, instead of Statistics 101, students might choose "Statistics and the Weather" and discover how statistical analysis is used in weather forecasting.

"We worked hard on the INQ curriculum, and I believe we got it right," says Maxey. "The faculty did the heavy lifting, and I was just an enabler. I marvel at the work taking place in INQ classes, many of which I have observed firsthand."

Environmental consciousness: Lucas Hall

The much-needed renovation of Lucas Hall set a higher bar for all of Roanoke's academic facilities. The project retained the classic character of the 1940's-era building, while expanding it from 13,449 square feet to over 26,000 square feet; increasing the number of classrooms from seven to 13; expanding meeting spaces throughout; and incorporating mobile furniture for greater flexibility.

Lucas, which houses the languages, is the College's first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified building, underscoring the College's commitment to sustainability. "When you walk into Lucas, you sense right away that it's a great place for teaching and learning," Maxey says. In a similar vein, the 2012 construction of New Hall-the College's second LEED-certified structure-set a higher standard for the residence halls on campus.

Proof is in the performance

Experts in the higher education world confirm the excellence of Roanoke's faculty and the overall learning environment.

Over the past 10 years, faculty have been recognized with state and national awards that include the H. Hiter Harris III Rising Star Award, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges; the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia; Virginia Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education; and election to the International Society for Science and Religion at Cambridge University.

Building bridges to the community...

"The strategic plan called for Roanoke College to become more involved in the Roanoke Valley," Maxey explains. The College has made great progress on that front. Over 1,000 students a year take service-learning courses, which give them the opportunity to apply the lessons learned in the classroom to addressing problems in real-world settings. 

At the same time, Maxey has increased his own visibility in the community. He joined the Board of Directors of United Way of Roanoke Valley, and joined the Roanoke Times Writers Group, a group of community leaders who write occasional commentaries on issues of local, state and national importance.

"Our efforts to increase our engagement with the community and the region have impacted hundreds of students and thousands of local citizens," says Maxey, pleased with the steady progress of this deliberate initiative.

...and the world

Before he became president, Maxey led efforts to bring Palestinian students to campus. "Domestic students gain so much from the presence of Palestinians," he says, "and the Palestinian students gain much life experience and perspective from being here."

Two enterprising Roanoke seniors-one Palestinian and one Jewish-took the bridge-building commitment to a higher level. While taking a course on the Holocaust, they decided to create an Israel-Palestine Peace Month on campus. The event, launched in 2015, features speakers from around the world, performances by bands composed of Palestinian and Jewish musicians, and informal discussions in classes and around campus.

"The event has attracted people from the larger community who are drawn here out of curiosity," Maxey says. "It says something about the atmosphere around here that the events have been totally peaceful."  .

Seizing teachable moments

When an event of great import occurs on the national stage, Maxey is excited about "teach-ins," opportunities for the College community to assemble and discuss the implications. The signing of the first immigration order by U.S. President Donald Trump sparked such an assembly, prompted by the concerns of students. Maxey joined several faculty members in the atrium of the Colket Student Center in February to address the issue and answer questions.

Maxey took a minor role, choosing to briefly speak only twice.

"I told them about the Roanoke alumnus Sam Rasoul '02, who became the first Muslim elected to the Virginia General Assembly. I also told them that hatred and bigotry are never right. I was taking a human position, not a political position."

Maxey believes that engaging in civil discourse is a powerful way for students to process the events of the day in a meaningful way.

Standing through the Recession

Mike Maxey assumed the presidency at Roanoke College right before the 2008 recession, the nation's worst economic setback since the Great Depression. Undaunted, he and the Board of Trustees made a bold decision: Continue to give raises and lay off no one. Few, if any, colleges in the nation took such a stance.

"Roanoke has operated in a fiscally conservative way for a long time," Maxey explains of the decision, "so we came into the recession in a strong position. We care deeply about these people; many of whom are good friends. It makes good sense to maintain the morale of the people who do so much for our students."

Strong support

"I've received tremendous support from my predecessors, [eighth president, the late] Norm Fintel and [ninth president] David Gring," says Maxey. "They've walked the walk; they know the job. They might call to say that something doesn't look right or to comment on a bit of good news.

Maxey's wife, Terri, "has done her part," he adds. "In addition to attending receptions and being a presence on campus, she travels to Florida with the women's lacrosse team on spring break. The students love her, even calling her, 'Mama Maxey.'"

Going to the source

As to the rewards of the job, Maxey points to the great support he has received from the Board of Trustees, the administrative team, alumni and friends. "People have responded to every call. I could have done nothing alone."

That said, connecting with students gives him the most satisfaction. "Whenever I'm having a bad day, I go down to the Commons and talk with students. I always come away feeling better."

What lies ahead...

When asked about future plans, Maxey cites two major needs: endowment and the Science Center.

The Science Center comprises the second piece of the "next-generation campus" component of the Roanoke Rising campaign. With the Cregger Center completed, focus now shifts to the creation of a state-of-the-art complex that will link the Life Sciences, Massengill Auditorium and Trexler Hall buildings into a modern complex. Here, small groups of complementary disciplines will work alongside one another, as they do in the real world.

"We'll focus on building a new science center, which will cost nearly $50 million," Maxey explains, "and we plan to increase our endowment to provide more funding for scholarships, which is a critical need."

Roanoke College also is placing greater emphasis on helping students discover what they care deeply about, what they do well and how they relate to the world. This "whole student" initiative helps students chart their path through college to acquire the knowledge, experiences and skills they'll need to pursue what they love and make a meaningful contribution to the world.

"We want Roanoke to be known for helping students find their own unique life path that they're passionate about and helping them develop a plan to build the skills, knowledge and confidence to make a real difference," Maxey says.

A job well done

Every person associated with Roanoke College can take pride in the achievements of the last 10 years. As President Maxey reflects on the decade, it becomes clear that momentum at the College is strong; the future looks bright and the world has taken notice. The giving rate to the Annual Fund has increased from 15 to 23 percent over the period. Moreover, the College received a record number of applications this year: over 5,100 applications.

Take a bow, President Maxey, for leading the way.