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Wynegar's path as problem-solver leads him to COA

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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.

He’d ar­rived.

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.

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