The Franklin Co-Executive Editor Alexa Shrake and Tabby Fitzgerald catch up with Franklin College President Kerry Prather about COVID updates on campus, Enrollment, and new weight room construction.
Read on for a lightly edited transcript from their conversation.
Alexa Shrake: If there's a certain amount of campus that's vaccinated will the mask requirement go away or become less strict?
President Prather: That's our goal. So what we wrote into the plan was, assuming we can get the total vaccination status of the students up to a level that our physician says you can manage the rest of it, then that's our goal. So through surveillance, testing, masking, we can manage the possibility of infection among the unvaccinated population. So you're about to ask, what are the numbers? Yeah, and I don't really have them yet. We'll know probably in two more days, we're just trying to get the final pieces, and I want to be completely accurate.
But it would be safe to say I'm encouraged.
So, I'm not the one that will ultimately take all that data. I mean, ultimately, our doctors will make a recommendation, but from what it looks like right now, with incomplete data, I'm encouraged by the number of students that have become vaccinated.
We'll continue that push. The fact is, that's really the only path to really having everybody safe. Everything else that we do is really designed to prevent a spread, that would cause you to do business differently. So, you know, the umbrella of keeping everybody safe. There's a minimum of what we can do to keep people safe, without getting them vaccinated. So my goal is that we keep making the pitch that and where I've landed on this, which I said again, to the new students on Wednesday was if you have mixed emotions, about the idea of a vaccine, just go see your doctor, have that conversation, and do whatever your doctor advises you do. Because there's just so much, there's so much in the air that's not really medically, sound, rumor and myth, and everything else. I think if we direct people back to their own physician, who has no agenda, other than keeping you healthy, describe to them what you're going into as far as the campus environment, and then if they say to get the vaccine, get it if they say don't, don't.
AS: Are you guys going to be updating the campus dashboard?
PP: We were trying to see exactly how different schools are doing it in different ways, but we'll have it back up and running.
AS: If we get so many cases on campus would you guys consider making the vaccine a requirement for us?
PP: I think all schools have that as an option. Most been very few small private schools in Indiana, actually put that into action. I think hoping that persuasion would work instead of mandating. So, it remains an option. And I think we're just gonna have to see kind of how we progress. The beauty of having 970 or so students is if 75 or 80% of them are vaccinated. You're tracking a very manageable number of unvaccinated students. So, by the time you put in a regular routine of surveillance testing, our size enables us to have a good handle on this, it would take a bizarre or something extreme might take for us to go to that next step of just demanding that everybody gets vaccinated.
But, you know, as I say that it has always been and remains an option for us.
AS: What are your goals for the school year?
PP: Well, my goal for the school year, as it has been for the last two years of trying to navigate this, is to get as close to what our students want, in need, in terms of the total experience as we possibly can. Including the academic delivery, I think we did really, really well, in situations where we had to be virtual in situations where we had to be hybrid. But there's nobody, professors, students, nobody who would say, that was just a perfect experience. That's what I dreamed this would be. What we do, and how we do it is so personal and it's so built on the face-to-face part of it, that, and so is everything else we do. That's the nature of the relationships between students and among students, between students and faculty, and students and staff. And so that's what I want us to get back to. Because I think that's when we're at our best, we can do other things. And we can do what we do other ways. But we're not really hitting on all cylinders until we can get back to that dynamic. So that's really, my goal is to do what we do as well as we can do it. And obviously, keeping everybody safe. But working our way towards that experience, means so much to the students, and students have been emphatic, since the start. That they want to be here, they want to be in person, and they want the experience to be as close to traditional as we can safely make it be. So I didn't think maybe we'd still be having this conversation at the start of this year. So that among my other long list of goals, that's tops on the list, how do we deliver what we do best to our students in the form that they want.
AS: With the inauguration coming up, do you have a motto that you want to follow throughout your presidency here?
PP: What we've chosen for the inauguration is celebrating legacy and vision. So on the one hand, because it's a little unique, that I've already been here a long time. So there's something to celebrate in that part of my relationship with the institution. But if that's all you did, that would be a retirement celebration, that wouldn't be a celebration. The other part is, how does that then inform our vision, I don't want to say it's mine, but our vision for moving forward. So it's the combination of those things that I think is kind of a unique dynamic, really. And it has hopefully made me think about where do we want to go and what do we want to be and how are we going to get there. There are a lot of pieces involved in that. But I think the evidence of some of that is already visible. So the work that we're doing in digital fluency and with the center for tech innovation, the growth, the fact that we've got construction, about to go on on campus is visible evidence that we're building for the future. We have an enrollment growth agenda that we're building the foundation of because we do need and want to grow, we have a diversity agenda, we've actually got some good traction in this incoming class, the largest percentage of students from underrepresented populations we've ever had in a new and entering class. I think, really fleshing out the details of the curriculum. And letting the faculty decide and helping them decide how to really wrap our arms around the engaged learning part of what we do. So that also distinguishes the product that we have compared to everybody else's. That's the balance here of how we're going to take my familiarity and relationship with the institution to help it move forward into the future.
AS: Is there anything that you would like us to know for like this upcoming year, anything we may publish, or anything else that's going on?
PP: I think small colleges during this pandemic. Many of them hunker down trying to survive it. We were busy trying to plan for the future, and plan for enrollment growth, continue to try to make the student experience as rich and rewarding as it can be. So one of the places that we focused on is our indoor athletic facilities. We need more and better. And so we've made that a priority. So the Johnson Memorial annex that was made possible with a million-dollar gift from Johnson Memorial health, we're going to break ground this fall, hopefully, next month. Right, immediately south of Spurlock in that green space, right next to what will become the center for tech innovation. But what we hoped for was that that facility would include a full weight room, so that we could effectively double the size of our strength training, both for athletes, but also for the non-athlete population of students, faculty, and staff in terms of their desire and need to work out. This morning, we announced the gift, which is going to make that possible. That building will include the practice facility, we envisioned it to be plus a brand new weight room the front part of it, that will really address a lot of needs in the campus. I think it is going to be a statement of progress and looking forward and continuing to address what our students tell us they want and need. We need more gym space, we need more room to work out. So that's what we're trying to focus our attention on. This is a big announcement. Because that was a part of this project that we needed to have funded in addition to what was able to provide. This is big. It'll be a fairly quick process. I think if we can get ground broken next month, then in another calendar year, we'll have it up and running. Probably by fall, September 2022.
If you just walked through the racquetball courts where the brand new eSports arena is and walk through those doors and look south. There's an empty green lot. And then there's that building that is currently called the annex which will eventually be the Center for tech innovation. That's a construction project too, in terms of cosmetically making it a shiny, modern techie-looking facility. Both projects have been a little bit delayed, just because of supply chain issues with every building material known is in demand, mostly steel. Hopefully, we'll get that one underway before too long. Because that whole block is going to be transformed and which is going to be really exciting.
AS: I remember in freshman year I came here, I thought it was kind of interesting that we don't have a pool. Is that something like in the future we may see at FC?
PP: I hope so. Right now we have a great relationship with the school corporation, and it works for us, but ideally, down the road, I'd love for that to happen. We're kind of doing this step by step by step. Hopefully, that'll be one of those steps. Actually believe it or not, among small colleges, it's not as unusual as you would think. Because they're the shared space and the nature of swimming activity. In our conference, for example, there are probably as many shared facilities as there are campus facilities. From the standpoint of what you would ultimately like to be able to provide for not just the athletes who swim but also the whole campus that be certainly on the list.