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University of Charleston President Ed Welch reflects on time at school

Release Date:  Thursday, September 05, 2013

by Shay Maunz
Daily Mail staff

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In Ed Welch's office at the University of Charleston, there are two framed photos — aerial shots of the school's main campus. 

One shows the school as it was in the 1970s and '80s; the other shows it today. 

"It's interesting to think I was here when all of this happened," Welch said, gesturing to the second, more recent, photo. 

There was a noticeable difference between the two versions of campus: the recent photo carries evidence of an ambitious building plan that's unfolded at UC over the last two decades — eight new buildings in 16 years. 

And Welch has overseen all of that. This year marks his 25th at UC — he came to the school in 1989 — an eternity for a university president (the average tenure among sitting presidents is eight and a half years). 

Sitting in the president's office at UC recently, the spot on campus that he has occupied for a quarter-century now, Welch chuckled at the thought that he'd spent all this time at UC.

"You don't realize it," he said. "You think about a project that you're doing over a year or a couple of years and then you transition and begin another one. There are some moments when you look back and think there's no way it can have been 25 years, and other moments you get perspective and can't believe it's only been that long." 

"You can put on different glasses and get different reflections," he said, and paused. "Probably I could use a better metaphor there, but you understand."

Welch uses a lot of metaphors in conversation. He's well spoken and engaging, with a quick wit and a subtle sense of humor. 

By now his impressive resume — a decade in administrative positions at a handful of private colleges and another decade working in the White House part time as an intern while earning a theology degree — is well known in the UC and Charleston communities. 

Now, after more than two decades in Charleston, it's his time at UC that Welch most likes to reflect on. 

The university's position now is drastically different from where it was when Welch started, and he's guided it through more than one growth spurt. 

"He's got a brilliant mind and he thinks ahead of the curve," said Holmes Morrison, a friend of Welch's who was on UC's board of governors when Welch came on. "It's in that capacity that I think he's been most beneficial for the university."

When Welch started at UC the university was in financial straits, and the community was fractured. In the 25 years before Welch came to the school, there had been six university presidents, and two interim presidents. 

"My understanding of vision is it's the intersection between the relatively unchanging mission of the institution and the very changing environment," Welch said. 

"It's like a hockey player. You've got to skate to where the puck is going to be."

On the hearth of the president's office at UC, near where Welch rests his feet when he sits at his desk, is a piece of rock that is meant to illustrate that very point. It's inscribed with one word: "Nothing." 

UC President Ed Welch keeps an inscribed piece of limestone in his office to remind himself that 'nothing' is written in stone. 

UC President Ed Welch keeps an inscribed piece of limestone in his office to remind himself that "nothing" is written in stone. Photo by Craig Cunningham. 

"Because nothing is written in stone," Welch said. 

Welch had the piece made from some rock left over from one of UC's recent building projects, and said it serves as a constant reminder for him and his staff that things — and institutions — have to grow and change with time. 

"That's something I've learned here," Welch said. 

When he came on as president 25 years ago, UC was a small private school with one campus, no football team and a no plan for major capital improvements. 

At first, Welch was on board with all of that, but as the times changed, so did his mind. When he wanted to bring more males to campus he brought on the football team. To increase enrollment he built dorms. 

And when UC had an opportunity to take over operations for Mountain State University last year, Welch saw an opportunity to beef up the school's offerings online and for nontraditional students. 

Now, UC doesn't just exist across the Kanawha River from the state Capitol. There's also a campus in Beckley and a significant online presence. 

That's changed the school in some important ways, but Welch said it's in keeping with the school's core goals, and doesn't significantly change the college experience for most students at UC. 

"A student coming to UC Charleston has the same experience that they would have had five years ago, and that's great," he said. "But now in addition to that, we have an online program and some students in Beckley and a large group of students who are commuting . . . and that's an added plus for us. It gives us a chance to reach audiences that we would not have reached." 

Adam Debriae, a junior at UC, is one of the students experiencing UC in the most traditional sense. He moved here from northern Virginia for school, and has lived in UC's residence halls for three years. 

He chose UC because it was small, and because he wanted to have personal relationships with his professors — he didn't expect to get that with the president of the university. 

"I have friends who go to different universities and they probably don't know their president's names," he said. "So to have Dr. Welch be so supportive and visible, it's really great . . . he'll be at basketball games and come through the cafeteria and say hello to everyone. It's really part of the experience."

When Morrison talks about the outlook for UC over the next years, one of the biggest challenges he sees is the eventual, inevitable replacement of Welch at the helm of the institution. 

That's going to be tough, Morrison said, because he's the institutional memory of the place, and to become such a respected leader takes years of relationship building. 

"It's going to be hard to replicate what he's done," he said. "If he says he's going to do something he does it and people trust him. People trust him to be a leader in the community. That takes time."

Not that Welch is looking for the door. He says he thinks he can continue to serve UC well beyond the quarter of a decade he's already been there. 

"I think as long as it's a good fit, as long as you don't get into a rut, the institution is served by having someone there who doesn't have to start from scratch with every new project."


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