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Critical Thinking Command

Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, president of Birmingham-Southern College, says his school is best of the breed when it comes to value and the teaching of critical thinking.

Gen. Charles Krulak stepped into a financial battle when he took over as president of Birmingham-Southern in 2011.

Gen. Charles Krulak stepped into a financial battle when he took over as president of Birmingham-Southern in 2011.

Gen. Charles Krulak took the job of president of Birmingham-Southern College in March 2011, following a career in the Marine Corps and a post-military stint in international banking. Son of a lieutenant general who served in the Marine Corps in three wars, Krulak, a native of Quantico, Va., was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999.

After retirement from military service, in 2001 Krulak was named chairman and CEO of MBNA Europe Bank in Chester, England. In 2004, he joined MBNA America Bank N.A. in Wilmington, Del., as vice chairman and chief administrative officer. He currently serves on the boards of Union Pacific Corp. and Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

We asked him first to tell us about the challenges he found when he arrived at Birmingham-Southern two years ago.

I found a college deeply in debt, a college that had its endowment cut by more than half, a college that, due to a lot of negative publicity, had lost favor within its own home town, a college with a real lack of leadership, due to the release of many of its former leaders who had helped get the college into the problems it had. And the college found itself on sanction by its accrediting organization.

The accrediting issue was a financial problem. All of the problems that the college faced were financial in nature and not academic. The beauty of what I found was that the school itself remained extremely solid. We were named the outstanding academic institution in Alabama by Forbes. We were in “40 Colleges that Change Lives.” We had a remarkable faculty of extremely talented professors.

The previous administration believed in the philosophy: “If you build it, they will come.” They did a lot of construction on the campus — built LEED-certified dormitories and a sports complex and a lake — a lot of construction that was all well and good but that, unfortunately, they were not able to pay for it as they built it. They were in the same situation that a nation or a family faces when they believe they can live on credit cards. Along with the recession coming in 2008, it was a perfect storm.

We still have $67 million in debt, but, thanks to the remarkable work of Regions Bank, who holds most of the debt, we were able to restructure that debt to a level that has allowed us the breathing room to increase enrollment and move fundraising into high gear, in order to pay down that debt and to start to bolster scholarships and the endowment, as well as continuing to put what we need into the operating budget.

In the past year, our new student enrollment was up 20 percent year-to-year. Very few colleges in the nation can say that. More important, the quality is the highest we’ve seen in 10 years. This year’s class is expected to see another 15- to 20-percent increase. On the fundraising side, the alumni participation has gone from 25 percent to around 40 percent this year. Moody’s Investors Services raised our bond rating almost two weeks ago and moved our outlook to stable. These are all critical indicators of a healthy college and one that I’m very proud of.

I have put in a moratorium this year on tuition increases. Our college recognizes the stresses on the pocket book of the parents and students. There are very few colleges that did not raise their tuition this year. If you look at the university system in the state of Alabama, you’re seeing very significant tuition increases every year. It’s getting to the point where the tuition cost for a four-year degree at Birmingham-Southern is not that different from what it is for five years at a state school. That’s how long it often takes at a state school. We have a guarantee that if you follow what an advisor charts for you, you will graduate in four years. That’s in our catalogue: four-year graduation guaranteed. We’re very attuned to the economic situation that our students and families are faced with.

A college must be a value proposition. There’s no question that a college degree remains something very important in today’s economy. I’m a firm believer that a liberal arts degree plays a central role in moving our nation forward. Employers are looking for critical thinkers, men and women who can take large problems and break them into bite-sized issues and think through to solutions and be able to articulate those solutions in writing or verbally.

Anybody can be trained to do something. Training prepares you for the expected. Education is for the unexpected. And we live in a world of the unexpected. That’s why there is such an important role for a liberal arts education. Success depends on critical thinking and writing and verbalizing concepts. If you look at the leaders of Fortune 500 companies and the second and tertiary leadership of those companies, you’d be shocked at the number who got their initial degrees at liberal arts institutions. Yes, there are corporations looking for engineers and computer scientists, but when you get up above mid-level management, it’s not the engineer but the people who can manage the company, the people who can come to the right conclusions. 

There is a big myth that what America is looking for is brainiacs who can sit and build new widgets. Yes, you need those people and you have great schools teaching that, but, at the end of the day, you are going to need to have people who can do more than be trained to do something.

We changed the entire curriculum the summer of 2011. Our Explorations curriculum was derived directly from studies we did with industry and corporations across America. It’s interdisciplinary studies. Students don’t just come in and get a bunch of blocks checked off — language, math, English. Although they still choose a major, such as pre-med, at the same time they are getting courses in literature, writing, speech and business.

We have a 13-to-1 student-faculty ratio. Our classrooms range from 15 to 17 students in a class. Almost 98 percent of our faculty has their terminal degrees. Teaching assistants don’t teach in our classrooms. We don’t have 200- to 300-person seminars. Each student has a faculty advisor who is deeply involved in the student’s education. Each sports team has a faculty advisor. Each professor spends a great deal of time in collaboration with students on projects.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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