The Flyer interviewed Salisbury University's ninth president, Charles Wight, on Feb. 14. Wight will retire from his position as president on June 30, according to SU's website.
While the search remains ongoing, SU's tenth president will be appointed July 1.
This interview/article has been edited for relevance and brevity. Watch the interview here:
Q: I wanted to talk to you about your experience as a chemistry professor. Where did that passion come from?
A: When I was in high school, I had a really great chemistry teacher. And, when I got to college, at first, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but I knew that chemistry was going to be a good major and I liked it … Later on, I changed my mind and decided to get a Ph. D. in chemistry instead of an M.D. degree. Later on, still, I decided to teach. So, I really started at the university of Utah, and then when I became president at Weber State University, I continued to teach chemistry part-time, and I’ve been doing it here as well. That’s really one of the most fun parts of my job: working directly with students as a professor.
Q: I understand you also specialized in explosive chemistry...
A: Yes, for a long time, I led a research group at the University of Utah which looked at the chemistry of explosives and large fires, and we got to do small-scale experiments with milligram and microgram quantities of real explosives. But occasionally, we got to go out at instrumented facilities and do some experiments with kilogram quantities of explosives. That was always fun.
Q: Your parents were educators themselves; did that have any influence on you growing up?
A: Sure, my father was a math teacher for a long time and my mother taught what… now is special education. She had a school in Florida … she was running. Education has been in my roots and was very influential in becoming a teacher.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: Wow. There’s hardly anything that’s typical about this job. I have a regular meeting with my senior staff on Wednesday mornings … I have all sorts of different meetings with people on campus, people in the community. Part of the challenge is my calendar is different every single week, and it’s always interesting.
Q: What does it look like balancing the role of president and professor?
A: I am very fortunate to have a very talented and committed senior staff here [at SU]. I’m not the kind of executive who micromanages people. As long as I take responsibility for setting a vision for where I want to take the institution… and communicate that vision to my vice presidents and executive staff, then my main job is to empower them to do their jobs and get out of the way. Of course, I am always keeping an eye on things and occasionally it requires some intervention on my part, so I do that. But that gives me the kind of flexibility that I need to be able to devote a significant amount of time to other projects, like teaching...It’s one course per year, so it’s a pretty light load, but it’s something I enjoy a lot.
Q: You sit with students at Commons? A: That's true. First of all, the food here is really, really good. Salisbury University food has been award-winning. So yes, I do like to go down to the Commons and I grab something to eat, I go into the dining room and I look for an interesting group of students to ambush. And, I always ask if it's okay if I sit down, and they always invite me and we have some pretty interesting conversations.
Q: Why is it important to have that connection with students?
A: Well, students are the whole reason we're here. I have known presidents, in the past, who stayed in their offices and got terribly isolated from their campus communities. And I promised myself a long time ago, I would never be that president. So, it's important for me to go out and walk across campus, talk with students ... every place I can go. Just to keep a finger on the pulse of what's going on across campus.
Q: What's your favorite part about SU?
A: I think my favorite part of SU is teaching because that's when I get to know students on the most personal level. I think having lunch at the Commons would be a close second; probably going to athletic events would be third.
Q: How does a president respond to issues like the pandemic and racist graffiti?
A: It's not easy ... Sometimes it felt like we were back on our heels a little bit when things happened unexpectedly. But I have a great team here. They help me go through various decisions we have to make; they help me with communication. Because it's one thing to make decisions but communicating those decisions in a way that people understand, not only the decision that's being made, but why it's being made is sometimes challenging. I am just incredibly grateful for the people who work with me... and they're very talented at what they do. And together, we figure it out.
Q: Have your staff and your family helped support you during your time here?
A: Yes, very much, my wife Victoria and I almost nightly kind of have a downloaded, decompress after work. She asks me how my day was, and I ask how her day was. She's teaching about one course per semester here in the department of communication. So, we talk about students, attitudes [and] things that are going on on-campus. So yeah, it helps to unload, and compare notes and not keep it all inside. Sometimes you just have to have that confidential discussion with your spouse or a loved one to help keep yourself sane. So, that's what we do.
Q: You were appointed July 1 of 2018, what was the biggest adjustment or challenge for you coming in?
A: I think the biggest challenge for me coming in was recognizing that Salisbury University is a predominately white institution, and there is a long history of higher education being at least somewhat segregated on the Eastern Shore. That's not where I want it to be, so it's really important for me to initiate a transformation of this institution to make it more diverse and more equitable and more inclusive so that everyone here at SU has a genuine sense of belonging. Not just being welcome here but belonging here. So, that was probably the biggest challenge for me coming in. Of course, we had the racist graffiti incidents not long after I arrived and that made that job even more challenging.
Q: How did you approach remedying that [concerns and incidents regarding graffiti]?
A: The first thing was to try to get people to understand the actual level of danger, personal/physical risk was pretty small. There have been many, many studies by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies at universities of incidents like this, and the likelihood that something bad is really going to happen as a result of a threat like this ... historically, we know that that likelihood is very, very small. People asked me if I personally felt threatened, and I said, 'no, of course not'. And I think it's important for people to have a lot of confidence they were physically safe, very safe, on our campus, but that's a very difficult message to communicate and still, a lot of people felt a great deal of fear, which I completely understand. And a high, high priority for us was to catch the perpetrator, which we ultimately did, but it took several months to do it.
Q: SU's next president will be appointed in July. What advice would you give to whoever takes over your position? A: I think a new person is going to come in with his or her own agenda. I mean, I had ideas of what I wanted to accomplish at SU as president. Another person is going to come in with their own vision of what they want to accomplish. I think it's important for that person to articulate that vision very clearly, so they can understand where they want to go and how they want to get there. If the new president comes to me for advice, I will give it willingly. But, other than that, I'll probably just stay out of the way.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of SU?
A: In terms of where the university goes, I think it's important to me that SU continues to have a great reputation as a high-quality institution. Our students are amazing. They win all kinds of nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships... Our students are doing tremendous, tremendous things... We need to keep that up... I personally would like to see SU recruit more students from the Eastern Shore, and that's because if we recruit students from the eastern shore, when those students graduate, they're more likely to stay on the Eastern Shore. But, other than that, I think maintaining the high quality of the place is the most important thing.
Filming, editing and photography courtesy of Benjamin Lausch.
Captions by Olivia Ballmann.