Richard Helton, fresh out of retirement after 11 years as president of Vincennes University, began his 12-18 month term as Wittenberg’s interim president on Jan. 11.
After a conversation with a friend and Wittenberg alum, Helton was contacted by the Wittenberg Board Chair to fill the vacancy in the president’s position.
The process had been under way since before Thanksgiving, as Helton requested a tour of campus and met with senior leadership.
It culminated just before winter break, when Helton spent the day in a series of more formal interviews, after which he was unanimously elected to interim president.
“I elected to come out of retirement. I’ll be here 18 months on a three-day week basis. So I’m going to do my very best to help Witt,” he said.
His plan is to take Witt’s most pressing issues and implement strategic and long-term solutions.
“We have a financial issue with which we must deal,” he said, also noting his plans to increase focus on enrollment as well as an emphasis on endowments and contributions.
Though this is a significant number of initiatives to tackle in 18 months, Helton is optimistic.
“My glass is always half-full, not half-empty. I think you work with people — I think you need to be engaging and sensitive,” he said. “I don’t even think they’re challenges. I think they’re opportunities.”
And these opportunities are for the long-haul.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you all that all of those will be accomplished in 18 months — that would be near impossible. I would be less than honest. I likely won’t be here when the debt is gone or the enrollment increased,” he said.
However, his vision extends to all the Wittenberg community, and he is insistent on rallying everyone to address the issues.
“The strategic planning process is not Richard Helton’s. It belongs to all of us,” and “enrollment on a college campus is everybody’s business — even students,” he said.
According to Helton, there will be opportunities to shares ideas, give feedback and receive clarification on the actual process of the initiatives through the committee process.
“I understand a small liberal arts college and the culture and the environment. It’s pretty special. While we were certainly program oriented at VU, I’ve always valued the liberal arts. I do believe that we need to continue to talk with business and industry and companies because I believe those companies are crying for any assistance that we can give them from higher education. I think there is always value in those partnerships on lots of fronts,” he said.
Helton said these partnerships would be opportunities to spread the Wittenberg brand “and convince people that Wittenberg is a wonderful institution, which can only be done when people hire our grads, and they find that they’re wonderful people; they’re well prepared to meet the challenges of life and the world.”
Although it will be affected by his three-day schedule, one of Helton’s favorite parts of the position is engaging with these soon-to-be grads.
“I’ve always been fond over the years of going to lots of student events — volleyball or choral presentations. It was pretty common for me to be out almost every night. I won’t be able to do that because of my limited schedule here,” he said. “It’s a beautiful campus; it’s an inviting campus. I have found people to be very engaging. I‘m hopeful I’ll be able to say I had a wonderful 18 months and I’m a better person for having come to Wittenberg.”