Merchants embrace SL

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Josh Merchant, the new president of Buena Vista University, would like everyone in Fonda to know this: He knows Rhonda with the Honda.

Anyone from Fonda knows that’s Rhonda Fulcher, who sat in a cubicle next to Merchant when they both worked at Michigan State. She married Tom Coon and they moved off to Oklahoma and he ended up in Storm Lake and, well ain’t it a small world after all.

That’s sort of how it rolled with Merchant when he came in to the office last Thursday to hand out Beaver koozies, shake every hand in the room and make it generally known that he and his family absolutely love landing in The City Beautiful.

He expressed all that during the press conference when he was introduced to the community last spring. His wife, Carrie, almost gushed with relief to be back in the Midwest. They had been living in Jacksonville, Fla., where he worked as the fundraising chief for the University of North Florida.

They have been checking out all the great restaurants and rave especially about the variety of Latin American food. His two sons are getting into school and finding friends fast — Latino seniors welcomed his freshman son during his first school lunch. (It didn’t work that way when I was a freshman at St. Mary’s and my brother was a senior.)

They have moved into the McCorkle House that was remodeled since Fred and Susan Moore decamped for Florida. Just a few finishing touches remain, but they have been able to entertain new faculty and staff, and new resident assistants. He is just getting to know everyone, and he appears to thrive on it. A good salesman, notebook always is in hand so as to never forget a name.

He urges everyone to attend the first Beaver home game with a new coach under the lights this Thursday at 6 p.m. Free admission. He wants to be the head cheerleader.

Merchant wants to put some fun back in BV. He seems like a fun guy. He probably is just the tonic for a place that could use a spritz.

Enrollment has been flat to declining, as it has been for most Iowa colleges. But he said that admissions are up a tad this year with 200 freshmen and 50-plus transfers. Out-of-state enrollment over the past three years has picked up from 47 to 51 to 96. Of the athletes, 59 are from non-contiguous states (most of them from out West).

Buena Vista has to reach out to survive. Merchant says it is starting to show dividends.

“At our supper with the RAs I was struck with how diverse a group it was. They were from Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan,” Merchant said.

As he learns about Storm Lake and Buena Vista, Merchant sees opportunities with recruiting from a diverse base.

“It’s really important to me. Really important,” Merchant said.

He said it is important for Buena Vista to be able to understand what families need, what barriers exist and how to grow both the university and the community organically. Merchant wants to understand himself by diving into the community through his children’s involvement in the school system.

You have the sense that he means it.

Merchant is working hard at establishing relationships on campus, with donors and in town. That he came by our office with no agenda in mind other than emphasizing his accessibility speaks volumes about change at Buena Vista. He is off to a good start.

He doesn’t know everything or who the players are in Iowa. He is learning fast. He argued for the Iowa Tuition Grants to Gov. Kim Reynolds during a recent volunteer awards ceremony at BVU. He wants to be active in the community and advocating for it, which is the point. Colleges are learning that they can only be as good as their host communities, and that we all have a lot of work to do in fostering the town and gown relationship.

Merchant is an accomplished fundraiser. His resume proves it. He appears to have an appetite for community building, which is what both BVU and Storm Lake need right now. His attention is focused at home, which is right where it should be.

See you at the game, coach.