This article by Audrey E. Starr originally appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of Gannon Magazine.
When asked to name the best advice he’s ever received, Gannon University’s newest president, Keith Taylor, Ph.D., didn’t hesitate: “Be humble, and don’t think too much of yourself.”
Taylor credits this guidance—handed out regularly by his family—for keeping him grounded through a successful career in higher education. Appointed Gannon’s seventh president in May 2011 after a nationwide search, he had served as the University’s provost and vice president for academic affairs since 2005.
Compassionate, determined, energetic, creative, witty: these are all words Gannon colleagues mention when describing Taylor’s personality. Gannon Magazine sat down with the University’s new leader to discuss his goals as president, what the Catholic Intellectual Tradition means to him—and why Waldron Campus Center is his favorite spot on campus.
As Gannon’s newest president, what are your key priorities?
I want to focus on four main areas: student success and leadership, faculty excellence and scholarship, community development (Erie-GAINS) and globalization.
The student focus is about integrating what’s happening inside and outside the classroom. Our faculty really create an active learning environment in the classroom; how do we get students engaged and connect that learning with the rest of their lives? I want students to want to be involved in service, to want to translate what they’re doing in the classroom—to bring that knowledge, skill and ability—to serve someone else. We have hundreds of students who come out each year for GIVE Day; we have business majors working on marketing plans for local nonprofits; we have students in the health professions and students in education partnering with local schools and community centers on health education and mentoring programs, and we are setting the stage for even more to become involved.
Faculty scholarship is an important aspect of our University and of the students’ and faculty’s creative work. How do the faculty engage in the scholarly part of their work, and how do they bring that new knowledge into the classroom and include students in these activities? The more we can have the two learning partners interact, both will benefit: the faculty from having the energy, manpower and creativity of the student, and the student from learning through the sage experience. So I want to look at what we as a University can do to continue supporting these initiatives and helping provide faculty with the time and resources they need to advance their work.
I believe Erie-GAINS is going to be one of the key overarching signatures for the University in years to come. We’re a Catholic university, and as such we have a particular obligation not only to service, but to the advancement of humanity and the improvement of the human condition. There are a lot of good people in Erie working hard to move the city forward economically, educationally and in other ways, but they can’t do it all alone. We’re an urban campus embedded in the city and we have a responsibility to support our neighborhood—and we recognize that we also benefit from doing so.
Our globalization plan includes both internationalization—the things we’re doing on campus to create a diverse international culture—and globalization—reaching out to other parts of the world, educating international students and encouraging study abroad experiences for our American students. It’s also about supporting our international students once they arrive on campus: broadening our English as a Second Language program, ensuring adequate housing is available and considering things like dietary needs or how their cultural calendars match up to our academic calendar. In addition, I want to be more intentional in having our international and American students come together to embrace each other’s cultures through projects such as the One Green World Café, something that hopefully will also catch the interest of the faculty, staff and the greater Erie community.
What attracted you to the position of president?
My goal is to move organizations forward; it’s what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. Since coming to Gannon as provost, I’ve seen the momentum building and great progress being made. I had the inside knowledge as to what we are trying to accomplish, what important resources we have, what relationships we’ve built and the areas of opportunity where we can make a meaningful difference. The presidency is a new challenge for me to serve an organization that was already moving in a positive direction. I’m excited to help continue Gannon’s journey along that path.
What do you think makes Gannon unique?
I think one of the strengths of Gannon’s Mission, and one of the things that make us unique, is that we are about others. Everyone’s focus has always been, “What do I need to do so that others can move forward; What do I need to do to help the organization get better; What do I need to do to try and help us as a group develop, grow and improve?” That is special and real at Gannon.
What one thing will you miss about being provost?
I will miss being as directly involved with the faculty and guiding projects through their evolution as I have been able to these past several years. I started my career as a faculty member, and I love being in the classroom and having that level of contact, having an immediate effect on the students’ classroom experience. It’s why I take a week away from my office and my family to participate in Alternative Break Service Trips or happily serve as a guest lecturer in faculty classes; it gives me a chance to be with the students. As president, I will still be very active and present on campus, just in a different role.
Gannon’s community includes many different constituents, from faculty and students to alumni and local officials. What are some ways you’ll stay connected to these groups?
I’ve been doing Breakfast with the Provost, which are small-group gatherings of faculty and staff that allow me to hear their questions and concerns, share information and stay connected. I will continue that as president in one format or another. I’ve also regularly visited students in their gathering spaces like the Commuter Corner or Waldron Campus Center and attended events like Pizza with a Purpose and athletic competitions; I don’t see that changing. I also made the effort to recognize faculty and staff who go above and beyond with BIG (Believe in Gannon) Awards, and I will continue to take the opportunity to thank those who are healthy models for us all, living our Catholic Tradition and serving as faithful members of the Gannon community.
I’ve gotten to know many, but not nearly all, of the leaders in the local community and look forward to getting to know them at a deeper level. I’m going to spend the next six months to a year setting up regular meetings with the mayor, county executive, members of County and City Council, state and federal elected officials, along with the leaders of nonprofits and for-profit businesses. We are also planning several regional alumni events in a variety of cities so I can meet as many Gannon and Villa Maria College alumni as possible, hear their stories and gather their thoughts on the University’s progress and future.
We are also planning for the Presidential Inauguration (Nov. 3-5, 2011) to be an opportunity to bring people together on campus and give them a taste of who we are and where we’re going, with a theme of Catholic service and civic engagement. Whether it’s a national speaker, a forum with our own campus community members sharing their service experience or a discussion with local nonprofit service providers, I am excited for this dialogue to happen on our campus and see it inspire others. I want to promote an understanding that Catholic higher education, and specifically a Gannon education, is about holistic development and serving the needs of others.
What is one topic that arose during the presidential interview process that you plan to devote special attention to?
There was a very appropriate focus on the Catholic Tradition and Catholic Identity of Gannon, and how effectively we are living and embracing them. It’s a critical part of who we are as a Diocesan University. We have begun the process of exploration through the ongoing review of our Mission Statement and the development of a statement on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. These discussions started even before the presidential search process and will continue as an iterative process for years to come. We are a good Catholic university, and we have a strong Catholic Tradition, but we need to define and communicate what this means a little better so we can live it in a more faithful and intentional way.
What are some of Gannon’s recent accomplishments that you’re most proud of?
I think the Erie-GAINS initiative is something that has already started to have an impact on Gannon and the neighborhood, and I truly think it will be transformative for both. I created the name but I didn’t make it happen—we did, and we will make it something exceptional together.
It’s something that I passionately support, and I believe 10 years from now we’re going to be very proud of this program and what we have accomplished as a community.
I also think our financial stability is worth acknowledging. We are in a strong position, and not every educational institution can say that right now. It’s taken hard work by all of us to get where we are, and we have plenty of room to grow, but I think it’s a healthy place to be as we start the next chapter.
Where are your favorite spots on campus?
I like the energy in Waldron Campus Center. When it’s filled with students, it’s a pretty fun place to be. I’ve also always enjoyed watching sporting events in and the ambiance of the Hammermill Center. The history and atmosphere in that arena are remarkable. If I’m showing visitors around, I always pass through Old Main. You can’t let anybody come to campus without showing off this phenomenal building. It allows you to tell our story like no other place on campus.
What would you say is the biggest “perk” of being Gannon’s president?
The new office is pretty nice! Having Old Main be your home away from home makes coming in each day pretty easy. But I think the biggest perk is the people. We have a good team; we have people who know how to get their job done, but also know how to have a good time while they’re doing it. I’m surrounded by people who are happy doing what they’re doing and enjoy what they’re doing and are really passionate about the University and where we’re headed. Most importantly, we have faculty and staff who are committed to our students and realize they are our focus each and every day.
This article by Audrey E. Starr originally appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of Gannon Magazine.