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Interview with University of West Georgia President, Dr. Kyle Marrero


Q: What is the day to day like for you as UWG President?

A: It’s interesting to be a president of a university in today’s environment and it’s not what someone might think it is. It certainly encompasses many facets with the belief that transforming lives via educational obtainment being at the center. I think the most successful presidents are the ones that always remind their administrators, faculty and staff that any strategic planning or implementation of any actions or initiates need to be reviewed through a filter and lens of student success. What will this mean to focus and to allow our students to be the most successful - not only here as they enter our gates - but also beyond our gates. Our job is to prepare the students to be ready for an ever-complex world. The reality of the job is interesting, because it’s a 16- hour-a-day job, which I love and feel incredibly blessed to be a part of. And, there are multiple constituencies to serve and to help align, which can be challenging, particularly in a world where there’s intersections of cultures, beliefs, activism, tenants, academic freedom and shared governance. It is an environment where social injustices and/or the activism of those has been the staging ground for protest. So, you have this incredible amalgamation of forces… the development and growth of students, faculty, staff and community and the harnessing of intellectual capacity in one place. As a president, the job is to engage that and enhance it, while keeping it focused to the ultimate outcome, which is the student experience and student success.

Q: What prepared you to lead the University of West Georgia at such a young age?

A: What’s interesting is I don’t have the regular pedigree for a university president. There is no way I would have even thought of being a university president in my 20s and 30s or even my early 40s, because it just wasn’t an aspirational goal that I sought out. Sometimes when you arrive at a certain place, you think ‘how did I get here?’ You start to connect the dots and the zig zag of your personal experiences and it starts to make sense. A much smarter person than me related it to sailing, sometimes you have the wind at your sails and you go directly towards your final destination and other times you have to tack back and forth to get to your destination, because it’s going against the wind and you couldn’t even fathom what that destination may be. So, it’s been a journey for me, but I’ve always wanted to impact young people’s lives by helping them achieve more than they ever thought was possible. My background and degrees are in music - all the way back to my doctorate at the University of Michigan.

Q: Tell me about the transition from music to administrator.

A: I was blessed to have a fairly active career in my 20s and early 30s as a professional singer traveling all over the world as an artistic ambassador for the United States Embassy Artistic Ambassador Program. I toured with the San Francisco opera and had an opportunity to see different cultures throughout the world and really see how people live, what they believed and how they thought. That’s when my passion for wanting to have an impact on people’s lives was aligned with that impact from an individual and collective basis with students. However, there was always that problem-solving aspect of it when you wanted more for the students whether it was equipment or facility. Early in my career, I would visit my department chair or dean when I needed new pianos or practice rooms. I would inevitably be told that we don’t have the funding. So, I asked if it would be okay if I went out and raised that money and they said ‘good luck.’ Believe it or not, I was able to just go out and secure the funds from donors. And, in the world of academia when you do that a few times, they think you should be an administrator. So, I transitioned both my academic life and performing life from being an assistant professor at LSU for 11 years in vocal performance at the college of music into being an administrator. I did this mostly because of my desire to problem solve and get things done.

Q: How did your musical career prepare you for this role?

A: It takes a collective of people and intellect together to obtain a goal that is even better than what could be achieved by yourself. As a musician, I’ve always known that I couldn’t do everything by myself and I knew I needed to inspire and collectively bring the wisdom of everyone else around me to accomplish a goal that would then be critiqued by others. I tell people that in the business model for an active professional performer with an agent in the operatic world of singing, you are lucky if you get one winning audition out of ten. So 10-percent acknowledgment; 90-percent rejection. And so when I think about being prepared through all that I have done running opera companies, being an administrator, a vice president in another university, all those aspects, there isn’t a day that goes by that the experiences of what all I have done is not deterred by failure or rejection, because that’s just another way to figure out how to improve and do better. I have always been in a cycle of criticism and continue improvement and taking that constructively. And knowing you can’t do it by yourself, you have to have everyone with you and working together bringing their very best work to accomplish the whole of what in this case an institution is trying to achieve. So, I suppose the success I have had as an administrator opened doors for me - going back to the sail boat theme, there was wind in the sails and everyone seemed to think that this is what I should do. I’ve landed here and I’ve used my knowledge and those gifts for continuous improvement on the way to be the best president I can be for the University of West Georgia.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: When the students have completed their program of study and graduated. We recently had the largest fall commencement in the history of the institution. There were 789 degrees conferred and had 645 students walk. At our institution, everyone walks across the stage after their name is called. I stand 10-feet from where they get their name called and they round the corner onto the stage as they come to shake my hand and take a picture and have their degree put in their hand. From the moment their name is called to when they round that corner, I am staring into their eyes and smiling. I just want to share with them that joyous moment of celebration of accomplishment, as well as their belief that the University of West Georgia - through education - can transform their lives. What I love about it is that not all of them are smiling as they round that corner, but if by the time they shake my hand, I can get a grin out of them, it just makes my day. I want them to understand what they have accomplished and what they have done. After doing that for two hours, I walk away from the rest of that day charged - because that’s why we are here. And to be relevant from the bigger point of view, it’s really what are you doing as a catalysis for economic development within the region, what are we doing to be relevant in terms of tax payers dollars that help subsidize our operations. What are we doing to partner with K-12 to ensure that students are prepared and ready and understand all the multiple options they have at 18-years old. I use the word “relevance” a lot because I think for us particularly as a comprehensive university, we have to be relevant to our region. We don’t exist just because we are entitled to exist, we don’t exist just because we are funded by the state, we have to be accountable and deliver on our promise to educate the future workforce and ensure that they are ready and prepared to enter the marketplace occupationally. What I love about Carrollton and the region… it’s the people… the people like the Randall Redding’s, like the Daniel Jackson’s, our two Superintendants of the school system, President of West Georgia Technical College Steve Daniel - we are lock step together with a K-16 approach working together to ensure that our community will be successful. The excitement and impact that can create, beyond our initial mission of our institution, is just exhilarating because of the impact it has on generations and the legacy it creates.

Q: What is your long term vision?

A: I encourage everyone to visit our website, www.westga.edu/engagewest. That contains our vision - which is to be the best comprehensive university in the America, sought after as the best place to work, learn, and succeed. At the heart of this vision is an initiative entitled “Engage West,” which is a cultural transformative initiative where every employee knows what to do, why they’re doing it and how it helps their department/division achieve their stated goals. We want them to be actively engaged in the solution making process. From a corporate environment, those that are readers of Studer, Kotter and Collins, will see this as creating an evidence based leadership culture of high performance, with the same ideology you have seen in the health care industry or other corporate world. It’s never been culturally brought into the university environment. So our aspiration of what we hope to achieve is not only growth, not simply growth for growth sake, but that we became an active choice for students and their parents. We become relevant and part of the economic fabric of West Georgia and the region for economic development. That our relevance far exceeds the impact of Carroll County, but the entirety of West Georgia and the State of Georgia to also include the south region of the United States. To the point that we are held up in the comprehensive sector of universities as one of the best. The reason why in our vision it says “work, learn and succeed” is because my belief that if must create an environment with your employees where everyone is engaged and focused on student success. We want to invest into developing them and hold them accountable and that we all have continuous improvement, so we will be successful towards the goals that we have aligned with our key performance indicators. I introduced score cards. I have a balanced score card as a president, all my vice presidents do as well, we post them, we go to public town halls to show we hold our senior leadership accountable. We were institution of the year last year, we won an American Association of State Colleges and Universities national award for our leadership initiative Engage West. So, we are being recognized nationally for the way in which we are doing business through Engage West. The benchmark data indicators of success make it so that it’s more accountability-driven - particularly from a legislative perspective. Our budget is 27% provided by the State of Georgia, so we should be accountable for every nickel we spend and how we are using it - and to be able to tell every legislator and every citizen exactly the impact of those dollars towards our student’s success. So, if you ask what it is I am trying to achieve, it’s to create the model, show it, evidence it and live it, so by 2020, it’ll be the desirable model for all comprehensive universities to solve the puzzle of keeping the ideology of academic freedom and shared governance, yet the accountability that speaks legislatively and politically to those that fund us.

Q: What is your most proud accomplishment during your tenure so far?

A: Surviving (laughter). I say that jokingly, but what I have asked this institution to do and what I
have asked our faculty and staff to accept and try and work hard to accomplish, is so contrary to
the default of culture. A lot of people thought I wasn’t going to make it, because they just
weren’t going to go there. You have to understand the embedded culture in higher ed, it’s not
always focused on why we are here - which is student success - that to come in and ask and
cajole and inspire and lead to where they could be is a continual challenge. I think the greatest
accomplishment is Engage West, the cultural transformative movement we’re undertaking.
What’s funny, is I explained to the chancellor what I was doing, he said that’s great Kyle and
wonderful, just as long as your indicators and retention progression and graduation rates increase
you can get there however you want. We have record four-year graduation rate. We have the
highest incoming GPA of our freshman class in the history of the institution. We are onepercentage
point away from our highest 6-year graduation rate. With record enrollment, there’s a
14% growth in the last three and half years that I have been here. There’s a $100 million increase
in record economic impact. We’ve experienced record fundraising, as we have raised $28 million
in gifts and pledges in the past three and a half years. There have been record number of degrees
confirmed. These are the indicators or results of the alignment focus of our goal setting. And,
everyone on campus is assuming a piece and part of responsibility in achieving these goals. So if
there is a heart of it, it’s Engage West, which isn’t perfect yet. It’s still messy and we’re still
working through it. However, it’s the engine, the core, the heart and the soul that’s driving the
outcomes of these records. It’s not just me. It’s that everyone is putting an oar in the water and
rowing. I have incredible leadership, faculty and staff at UWG!

Q: If you could share with us what you have already touched on, what are some of your outside interests such as music and running so that people can get to know you a little better.

A: I don’t like running, but I do it. It’s not always fun and it can sometimes be painful, but I do it because I eat like a 12-year old. To make sure I kept running when I got this job was a brilliant idea to invite everyone to run with me at 6:30am. I called it Run with the President. I figured I could get my run in and have time to socialize with people. I started that and then two months later I realized I wasn’t enjoying it, not because I don’t like people, but that was the only time I totally had to myself. Other than in the morning when I read scripture, running was when I could talk through things as I don’t listen to music and I could think about the next thing to do and/or just have some time to myself. I am still doing music. I still dabble in the opera world, as I oversee the productions at Pensacola Opera. I’ve been with them for more than 17 years now and really come in as more of a consulting role and help them define what seasons are going to have market alignment and what revenue distribution will look like, the costs and even the cast. But I have done that my whole life, so I take vacation to continue doing it. And it’s still a bit connectivity for me, since my wife Jane had a very successful singing career. She was well known nationally and internationally as a singer. We have a 6-year old little girl, Lily. We are older parents, having been married for 22 years. But Jane was traveling 200 days out of the year for the first 14 years of our marriage. Any free time I have, I want to spend it with family, that’s critically important for me as we just moved closer to my office so that I can pop back in and out of home. It’s a priority for me and keeps me balanced. I cannot take credit for anything that has happened in my life as it’s the Lord’s plan. I’m so thankful for the community and people that support this institution, our family, and me. We couldn’t feel more blessed to be a part of Carrollton and the region.



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