Wynegar's path as problem-solver leads him to COA
By Peter Thomson
Columnist, Chowan Herald
Saturday, December 9, 2017
It sounds like an improbable question posed by a deep-throated announcer in a 1940s radio soap opera. “Can a boy from a small town on the banks of the Clinch River in the hills of southwestern Virginia, who looked forward to life as a miner, become the leader of an outstanding academic institution?”
Well, if it’s Dr. Robert Wynegar, president of College of The Albemarle, the answer is a resounding, “Darn Tootin!,” though President Wynegar would surely phrase it differently
The journey from St. Paul, Virginia, to Elizabeth City started when a favorite teacher asked young Bob to represent St. Paul High in a scholastic competition. He did well enough to be unexpectedly offered a full academic scholarship to Tennessee Tech. There, he got a part-time job as a student teacher and found he loved it. On graduating, he taught in Tennessee, then Georgia, where he became an academic administrator, and got the call to help run Hillsborough Community College, a 43,000-student, six-campus, two-year college based in Tampa, Florida.
Then from the big city, high humidity of the Gulf Coast, Bob took the job as president of Western Nevada College. He had his doctorate by then and took charge of a main campus in the state capital of Carson City that included two branch campuses, eight instructional centers, and the folks who taught in five penitentiaries.
Now to most people, Nevada means Vegas or Reno, showgirls and slots. But that’s only a small part of a state that is mostly desert and mountains. Bob’s college served an area of about 17,000 square miles: 10 times the size of the area served by COA. It had problems of funding, of messaging, of reaching students in remote areas. Many in the state legislature wanted the college closed and merged with another to save money. There was a long list of deferred problems and deficit financing, so it took years before things were sorted out and Bob felt that, problems solved, he could move on.
In a way Elizabeth City is coming home. Bob listens to everyone, looking for ideas and data, checks sister institutions on trends, gathers information from civic leaders and works every day to make things better. The data tell him that College of The Albemarle should be serving 550 more students than are currently enrolled. That leads to all sorts of questions, such as: What should the college be offering? What training can be given that guarantees jobs? What can the college do to help the economy? Where can we put our resources to make the most difference? What can be done to raise the graduation rate? Where are the next generation of students going to come from?
Bob is not the kind of person to do things alone. Now that he has his first months behind him he chairs a group to find answers to these types of questions and look for growth in both the college’s student population and the kind of programs it offers.
Some trends have been identified: much of the growth will be in the 24-55 demographic. Some programs will have to be changed or eliminated while others will be created to suit. To a man who has just spent six years saving an institution under fire, these everyday problems are the stuff he has trained for: they’re why he is here.
Bob’s made the transition from the small mining town to leader of a college that looks forward to greatness. We’re lucky to have him here.
Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.