I’d be happy to meet with you, on the condition you not ask why I decided to leave. It’s a personal and private matter, and that’s how I prefer to keep it. I’d be pleased to discuss anything else.
This was the e-mail I received from Bridgewater College President George Cornelius after I had asked to interview him about his recent announcement to step down after being in office for two years. As I was the first person from Veritas to personally interview him when he took office at the beginning of his term, I thought it would be especially meaningful to interview him once more before his departure.
This Monday I sat down with him in his office to ask him about his future plans, the impact he has had on our campus, what he learned and what he will take with him when he steps down as president in May.
Although he has not made any decisions on what is in store for his professional and personal future, he said, “I will explore various options, but the first thing I want to do is spend some time with my wife and get some rest and relaxation and think about it.”
According to President Cornelius, he made his decision to step down before an emergency college board of trustees meeting two weeks ago. When asked weather he announced his resignation to the board at that meeting he said, “I really don’t want to get into my dealings with the board.”
Two years ago, he came to Bridgewater College with bold new plans of making the student body more diversified, the campus more visually appealing and overall helping students succeed. He wanted to prepare them for their future by making them “life long learners” and get them excited about learning.
“This place exists for the students. That’s the only reason we are here. So this institution, every person who works here and teaches here is focused on helping students succeed in life. That’s what my sole focus has been,” Cornelius said.
His goals and aspirations for Bridgewater College have generally remained the same over his time in office. “My intention was to put a lot of focus on two areas. Number one: the student experience, [which] is to ensure that the experience our students have here is an excellent educational, developmental experience,” Cornelius said. “The other is [to] make sure that the financial model that the college is operating under is a solid one that will sustain it for decades, well into the future.”
In retrospective, Cornelius believes that his administration helped set off important changes within the college.
“I think we certainly made a lot of progress in a relatively short period of time on various initiatives that at least over time will enhance that student experience,” he said.
He genuinely spoke of the value this campus has and said his impression of Bridgewater College has also remained the same over the past two years. “As I said, it’s a place where you can get a great education. It’s a place that values undergraduate education and people. It’s a place that’s very supportive. It’s a place that respects individuals as individuals, as not dependent upon ones status or wealth.”
Since my first interview with him, Cornelius said little has changed. “If anything that’s changed is that I’ve gotten to know a lot more students than I knew two years ago. From that perspective it’s more enjoyable experience because that’s the part of the job I like the most,” he said. “I love my conversations with students. I love going to the plays and concerts and sporting events. I love seeing especially freshman coming in and in a very short period of time gaining their legs and start to grow and develop into full adults.”
He also spoke about the draft of the college’s strategic plan and was optimistic about the future of the college. “I’m confident that whatever plan is adopted by the board will be implemented well. In that sense I’m very bullish on the future Bridgewater College,” he explained.
“I think the board certainly understands the challenges facing higher education institutions today and I’ve been very pleased at how invested they were in the strategic planning process. So, certainly, the trustees are well positioned to make the decisions that are necessary to secure the future of the college,” he said.
Cornelius said he had an enriching experience while at Bridgewater, but also said he would need to reflect to remember any specific learning moments. “I think I’m leaving with a very keen interest in higher education and possible solutions to identify what I think is probably the most pressing problem facing higher education, which is economics and affordability.”
As he helps Roy Ferguson transition into the role of interim president, Cornelius said he is grateful for his time at Bridgewater. “It’s been a very positive, enriching, rewarding experience. Absolutely. And I will miss it,” he said.