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College Issue: Girl power at AASU
President Linda Bleicken's first 90 days at the helm
Biology major Mendi Kallum talks with AASU Pres. Linda Bleicken

In mid-August, thousands of new students at Armstrong Atlantic State University began their first classes ever at the southside Savannah state university, as did at least one professor. One night a week, Dr. Linda Bleicken is teaching a graduate level course in the Masters of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies Program.

For the rest of each week, Bleicken's job is to lead AASU as it approaches its 75th anniversary, faces serious budget challenges affecting the state, and expands its base to reach out to more students who are not Savannah natives while enhancing services to its longtime core population-commuter students.

In July, Bleicken was appointed as the seventh president of AASU-the first woman president of the 7,000 student state university located on Savannah's southside. Originally from Iowa, Bleicken holds a bachelor's degree in marketing, and a masters and Ph. D. in management, all from Georgia State University. She served in administration at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro from 1990 until her appointment to lead AASU this year, most recently serving as provost. Bleicken (whose name rhymes with "liken") and her husband are longtime residents of Savannah's downtown historic district. They are the parents of five adult children.

In a nearly hour-long interview with Connect Savannah last week, Bleicken was enthusiastic about AASU (which she referred to as "Armstrong,") and seemed up to speed on many facets of her new university home-its changing role, the many components of the community of Armstrong, its place in the larger Savannah community, and the school's strengths and challenges--despite having less than 90 days on the job.

It's been almost a month now since Fall Semester began. What are your first impressions? What is your favorite part of being at AASU, and how's it going, generally?

Linda Bleicken: I think the favorite part of being here is having the opportunity every day to meet more of the citizens of Armstrong. The first month I was here, we were naturally mostly in summer, so there weren't as many people. Since we've come back [for Fall Semester] I've met a broader assortment of students and faculty, and to learn of the dedication that the faculty have to the students but also the appreciation that the students have of the faculty.

One of the things I hear when I am on campus from the students, but also when I go out into the community, is what a good education students get when they come here. This is a theme that I hear over and over again. And how important it is to those students that somebody knows who they are. To be in a relatively small classroom, and to be with faculty members who know them, and who are very good, in many cases world class, in the kinds of things they are doing.

On move-in day, I went over to welcome all the new nursing students. These students were so proud to be here, in part because of the profession they've chosen but also because they were among a select group who were able to be admitted to the nursing program. Because of the high expectations [of the nursing program] not everyone who applies is admitted. If you look across the colleges the thing that's exciting to me is to have met the students who have come into those programs watch the faculty and how they play that vital role in making sure these students succeed in whatever field is their choosing.

You are the seventh president of AASU and we're coming up on the 75th anniversary of the college, so the math tells me that's about a ten year tenure on average. Do you have a vision for AASU going forward given a possible ten year window for your presidency? What are some of your "Linda Bleicken" goals?

Linda Bleicken: One of the things we know is that students who live on campus tend to do better. There are statistics that show us that the student who lives on campus and is involved in campus life is going to be more successful, it's likely, than the student who does not. So we have housing facilities that currently house about 800 students, but by next year at this time we'll be able to house 1400. We're building a new residence hall that will come online then.

But enhancing student success is not just about housing them, it's also providing them with opportunities not only to go to class and have great instruction, but to have some of the activities that students look for.

In Spring 2010, a $20 million addition to our student center is going to open. This will be a great opportunity for students to be able to stay on campus, to not just come to class.

It would be inappropriate to say "Here's my vision," without saying to you that we are going to build this vision collectively. Right now we are meeting with students and hearing what are their visions for the future, meeting with faculty what are their visions, and staff what are they thinking about those are meetings that are ongoing, and also talking to alums.

I think we also need to amplify in the community some of our go-to areas. One of the things that occurs to me is that just about anywhere I go, just about inevitably I run into an Armstrong graduate, whether they are cleaning my teeth or taking my blood pressure, whatever it is that is going on, they not only gain their education here, they become part of the fabric of the community. I'm not sure how well we do in telling that story. What supportive piece the health professions area is to the community.

There is an ongoing initiative among the alumni association to read to students at East Broad Elementary. The teachers there want us to increase our presence, something like threefold, because last year the reading scores in those classrooms where the alums were reading went up. It's one of those feel good stories, yes but it's also one of those stories where you say, these alumni are people who are in the community and they take the spirit of Armstrong into the community on a regular basis. They don't do it so that somebody pats them on the back, they do it because they really believe that they have a role.

In the past Armstrong has been a place for Savannahians to attend college. It seems that Armstrong is growing more into a school that people come to from other parts of the state. How does that new identity fit into the plan of what Armstrong can offer to the community?

Linda Bleicken: Yes, that is very true. We are going beyond the Savannah area to recruit. Part of that is to help Armstrong become a more diverse and to some degree a more four year kind of institution, as well as one that I think has been known for its good graduate programs in health and education areas.

What could be nicer than coming to Savannah, Georgia and going to school? During move in day I talked with a lot of parents and students and asked them "So why did you chose Armstrong?" Some of them chose it because it is in Savannah. Some of them for the size, some for specific programs, but there was not a person that didn't remark on the fact that when they came here they were impressed by the people, the way that the people were very warm and personable, and treated them as if they were individuals rather than just part of the freshman class.

Last week the City of Savannah sponsored a bus tour of neighborhoods that are experiencing traffic challenges. One of the neighborhoods was Windsor Forest, which is Armstrong's neighbor. Specifically the neighbors feel like there is traffic coming out of the back side of the campus along Windsor Road to avoid Abercorn, coming through the neighborhood. A few years ago Armstrong chose to close Science Drive because people were using it as a cut through to bypass Abercorn Street, and the neighbors were up in arms. Do you have any thoughts on the relationship with Armstrong's neighbors as you continue to grow and change?

Linda Bleicken: Just as we are concerned about what do our students think, what do our parents think, what do the local businesses think, clearly people who are in our backyard, it's important for us to have good relationships with them.

I have experienced some of this, having been in Statesboro over the years that Georgia Southern was growing. Believe me, one of the things that is always a tension is between the growth in students and personnel and what the community sees as, "This is my territory." It's not a perfect trade off, but what helps is to make sure that we remind the people of Savannah and also the people of the neighborhood is yes, we know we take up some space, but we also contribute over $200 million to the local economy. The point being that if we left, it would be quieter, but there might not be some opportunities for jobs and economic development that exist because we are here. That's not to say we have the right to be the 200-pound gorilla, because I don't believe that either, but it points up the fact that citizens of the campus and the community need to be figuring out and talking about ways that we can live collaboratively and well together.

I see from time to time how some of our neighbors, the citizens from the surrounding areas take advantage of the institutions' offerings. When I see a group of local citizens coming over here in the middle of the day for a recital or coming in the evening for a play, I think, "Wow, this is really good." It gets people on our campus and gets them to see the good things that happen.

We've hired a marvelous chief of police, Wayne Wilcox, he wasn't on a college campus, he came out of a community in Ohio. He doesn't see the campus as separate from the local community, he can be a nice bridge too as we make sure those lines of communication stay open.

Let's talk about money. Here we are in this economy--the national economy, the local economy, and the State of Georgia's budget. How are you going to adjust to this new reality?

Linda Bleicken: The economy certainly concerns me, but do I see this as a forever thing? No, I don't. This is a downturn that we have. The fortunate thing for Armstrong, even though we have some difficulties having enough money to hire all the teachers we would like, for example, the good news is that we have increased enrollment. It really does help us to have a 6% increase in enrollment this fall, for the following reason: it provides us some enhanced tuition revenue. While that does not allow us to go out and hire full time faculty, it does give us a little bit of cushion to hire some part time faculty to do what we need to do.

Does this put some crimp in our style? Yes, but it also causes us to be able to be more creative in how we think, not only about cutting dollars but also about some alternative sources of revenue. Let me give you a couple of ways that we've started doing business a little smarter.

We have people who come and buy things, whether it's tuition or theater tickets using a credit card, up until this year we paid the credit card fees. Now, how dumb is that? Just shifting the credit card fees to the purchaser has infused a couple hundred thousand dollars back into the budget. You might say, ‘so what?' Well, that's at least three jobs that we are able to save.

We also periodically have people who buy things from us, whether that's tuition or whatever, and don't pay their bills. We used to pay our own debt collecting fees. We decided, why should we do that? We shifted that over, it's about $50,000.

We're looking very closely at our energy, at some of the ways that we save energy costs. Some of that is better negotiation of the rates, and some of it is being smart about what are the temperature settings. I came in here to my office for example, one day and was freezing to death. I went over to the thermostat and tried to turn it up and I realized there was a hidden person somewhere that was not allowing me to do that. I called our central folks in the physical plant. Much to my happiness I found out that we have a lot of remotely controlled systems that we could crank right up. One of the things we have done is to crank up all the systems. That is a lot of dollar savings that get fed right back into the bottom line.

What do you attribute the 6% enrollment increase to?

Linda Bleicken: Two things. One is, in downturns in the economy we always see people who go back to school to enhance their credibility and their ability to gain jobs. The other thing, though, is the outreach we have made to other communities. We are no longer just the Savannah school. We are outreaching to external markets, we have quite a few students coming from external areas.

So for example a student who might have thought about going to UGA or Georgia Tech might choose to come to Armstrong because the tuition is more reasonable?

Linda Bleicken: The tuition is more reasonable but I think that the experience is different. I believe that both Tech and Georgia are fine institutions, but both of them have different orientations. If you talk to students who go to those places, they really do not have the hands on, high touch environment that you have here at Armstrong. Chances are at Georgia, if you go there as a freshman, your professor may not a professor, he may be a grad student, and you may be in a class with 200, 300, 400 students. It's very likely that the grad student not only won't know your name, but also probably won't remember you if you see him next year. Students coming out of high schools where they have been known, they choose to come to a more high touch experience.

The romanticized idea of "the college experience" might include dormitory living, active campus life, on-campus classroom instruction, Greek life, getting away from home for the first time, increased academic challenges, a certain amount of partying, attendance at sporting activities, and making different kind of friendships than in high school-perhaps to include meeting lifelong partners. Talk about how these sorts of expectations might or might not be met at a 21st century university, and in particular at AASU. What is the new paradigm?

Linda Bleicken: We are actually expanding our capability to offer that idealized version of the college experience. And I think that idealized version for the average undergraduate is very important. College is a transformative process, I have seen it so many times over the years. Freshmen come in really frightened. They might act tough but they're not, they come in unsure of themselves, and it's through not only the courses that they take but the experiences they have outside of the classroom-getting to know friends, getting to engage in leadership roles--that transform these students into something that perhaps they didn't have any idea they could be when they started out.

All those things--residence hall life, Greek opportunities, engaging in activities, whether they be sporting activities or whether its clubs that students are involved in. That piece lines up to be something that is expanding here at Armstrong.

That does not preclude the very good education for students who are here in our community who do not have the time, whether because of work or family obligations, to engage in that experience. We offer that at the times of the day that are accessible. We have a lot of evening classes-- in fact I am teaching one myself on Monday nights at the graduate level.

Our working professionals and people with families don't have the opportunity to spend every day on campus. So serving them through night offerings and serving them online opportunities will continue to be an expanding part of what we do.

What is your favorite part of your day or week?

Linda Bleicken: This is going to sound corny, but I don't think you're ever going to get a different answer from people in higher ed. The favorite part of my week is getting to interact with students. When I don't get to do that, I feel like I have missed out on what I am here to do. That's one of the reasons I teach a class. It is a great opportunity to get linked back to the students.

I love our student government association, they are so dynamic. They have great ideas, they want to green up the campus, so being around them is terrifically energizing. It is like plugging into the energy source.

I'm teaching a graduate course in organizational behavior, in my degree area. It's fantastic. I have not taught this class in a few years, for me it's a re-education in the new research that's come out. As teachers do, I'm learning along with the students in many ways. It's part of the MALPS program. A good graduate program that provides a lot of opportunities for people with diverse interests.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

Linda Bleicken: My favorite spot on campus is just about anywhere in that quad. The arboretum is continuously changing, the plants out there, many of them native to South Georgia, to me really produce a lot of joy.

Philip Schretter the director of the arboretum, does a fabulous job of creating and maintaining this environment.

When I can't get to the students, that is where I go when I'm really feeling kind of out of sorts. I get the added benefit of not only walking in the sunshine and seeing the quad but I get the benefit of talking with the students because they are always out there.

When walking on campus its not just the beauty it's the whole aura, you're walking around the whole campus and the whole college life envelops you.