Connie Book, Elon University’s first female president, started her new job Thursday but she is no stranger to the private campus near Burlington.
For the last two years she was provost at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, but spent the bulk of her career as a faculty member, department chair and associate dean in Elon’s School of Communications. She rose to associate provost at Elon after a stint a decade ago as presidential faculty fellow, helping to craft Elon’s current strategic plan alongside the retiring president, Leo Lambert.
A Louisiana native with degrees from Louisiana State, Northwestern State in Louisiana and University of Georgia, Constance Ledoux Book started her career as a broadcast journalist at a TV station in Baton Rouge. She also held faculty jobs at Georgia College & State University, N.C. State University and Meredith College.
She jokes that it was so hard to leave Elon for The Citadel in 2015, she left claw marks behind.
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“Elon’s history is so much about roll up your sleeves and work hard,” she said. “It’s a powerful culture because we have a sense of ownership about our university and its impact. To me that’s just a great fit for me personally and a powerful place to provide leadership.”
She started her day Thursday by delivering biscuits to the building and grounds crew at Elon. Earlier this week, she talked about what’s ahead at Elon this year – a $44 million convocation center and basketball arena opening in the fall and the launch of a four-year engineering degree.
The university consistently earns high marks for student engagement, and requires students to take two of five paths of “experiential learning” – study abroad, internships, service learning, leadership and undergraduate research.
A major priority, Book said, will be increasing financial aid in order to foster more economic diversity among the student body. Elon has 6,000 undergraduates and 750 graduate students, with a quarter of undergraduates from North Carolina. It has gained a following among wealthy families from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, but only a small percentage from low-income backgrounds. A study commissioned by the New York Times last year said Elon was among 38 colleges in the United States with more students from the top 1 percent in income than students in the bottom 60 percent.
Here’s what Book had to say about engineering, diversity in education and what she learned as a leader in a military environment.
On quick decision-making: Book said she learned to move swiftly at The Citadel. Once, in dealing with a social media controversy, a military colleague talked her out of a reflective approach. “He said, ‘Ma’am, respectfully, a guy has a gun in front of you pointed at your face and you are worried about a target 300 yards away. You have to move. We have to move.’ It was my wakeup. I realized that in this environment with social media, our timelines have really become more condensed. He was using it metaphorically. Nobody had a gun in my face, but the truth is the college needed to respond and we had just a few minutes because of the nature of social media, we had to get in front of it, as they say, taking control of the battle space.”
On Elon’s new engineering degree program: “That’s really important to the future of Elon. ... We’ve got very powerful new centers and degrees in analytics. Our computer science major is growing. We can really feel the impact of the K-12 focus on STEM, all those young people now coming to college and what they’re looking for. Part of higher ed’s response to that needs to be listening very carefully about how to connect curriculum to the language of generation Z, this new very entrepreneurial (group) – they want to work for themselves, their employment will be a much different trajectory.”
On liberal arts and career preparation: “We realized we had to put up a flag, so that students saw, and (we) introduce it to them their very first semester, that our goal here is to have a transformative four-year experience and you must be paying attention to your professional development outside of your coursework all four years. ... You can’t wait until you’re a senior. You have to have a plan. We offer transitions courses to students, and do it by school and majors. Those courses tackle, what is the job you want? What is the profession? Many of them go on to law school, med school and graduate school. So, getting them to think early in their time here about preparing them to land well in their senior year, so they land where they desire and where they deserve.”
On affordability: “We’re paying a lot of attention to this. ... The phrase affordability and access are the two words that you hear. You have to pay attention to both of those. On affordability, we’re in the quiet phase of our current capital campaign, and we are dedicating the large majority of that capital campaign to scholarships. We know that keeping an Elon education within reach of families has to be front and center.”
On reaching low-income students: “Pell grant students that come to Elon graduate at the same or higher rate as other students. ... When we bring those students in we’re really focused on ensuring that they have a full experience while they’re here and they graduate in four years, that the promise of that grant is realized. ... Access and affordability will be a centerpiece in the next strategic plan. Our country is becoming more and more diverse, our birth rates are declining. For the future of our university, we have to keep, we want to keep this as critical work. We call it talent management – making sure that we have great talent for the future of Elon.”