Merchant embraces Storm Lake

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Joshua Merchant, the next president of Buena Vista University, hit all the right notes during a press conference and introductory reception last week with his wife, Carrie.

The Merchants came out of the gate gushing about returning to the Midwest and small towns with their vital private colleges. He was reared on a farm and met Carrie in grade school in Albion, Mich., a town of 8,000 that bears the same name as the college it hosts, which is Josh Merchant’s alma mater and former employer. BVU Trustee Norm Nielsen made clear that the couple did not date in high school.

They seemed like genuine folk.

And they appeared to be excited, if not relieved, to be heading back to corn country. Carrie Merchant was absolutely beaming, as if she had arrived at her destination.

He worked in Extension and they love 4H. He says he will be the head cheerleader on occasion at sporting events. He will be serving and slopping it up at spaghetti suppers. He will walk around campus and around town to meet people. He says he wants to spend his first year immersing the family in Storm Lake. A son will enter middle school and another high school next fall. His work begins July 1.

“Having boys that are entering high school and middle school, that’ll be another way we can connect with the community, with their friends and their parents who will be no doubt diverse. We can see Storm Lake through their eyes.”

He thought about that answer before the question was posed at the press conference.

Merchant is “mindful.” He must have used that word a dozen times during the press conference. This is a person who keeps constituencies in mind and what their issues are. He understands enrollment is a long-standing challenge. He comes from a fundraising background, which is the lifeblood of any private institution and the primary focus of a president.

Clearly he wanted to send the message that he is mindful of Storm Lake. Most of his comments dealt with community involvement.

And that he respects the faculty and staff. Merchant says he has ideas about enrollment. He has discussed it with VP Mike Frantz. They will come up with a plan to put heads in the beds. He knows it is vital.

He was eager to talk about first-generation college students. He’s one himself. He knows first-hand the challenges, from cost to sticking with it for a full four years. He obviously wants Buena Vista to go after them, which it has been. But his perspective will no doubt serve the effort well.

Cost is a barrier. But, Merchant notes, so is success. Students have to know that their families won’t be stressed by their attending college. Some need special remedial help. Some think all that study will never pay off, when they could be out working and supporting their families. Merchant notes that the University of North Florida, where he is vice president for development, has innovated in reaching minority populations in Jacksonville.

He is interested in alternative forms of academic delivery, which BVU pioneered in Iowa with its community college partnerships. Merchant suggested that BVU might be able to reach out more to non-traditional students in Northwest Iowa through efforts in Storm Lake and “other communities.”

So this is a guy who seems genuine, does not lack for enthusiasm and is a proven salesman, who appears willing to defer to faculty and staff for their expertise.

Everyone who met the Merchants seemed pleased.

His emphasis on Storm Lake and the untapped potential it may bring to Buena Vista were especially welcome.

You don’t know that potential until you go out and find it.

Which he intends to do, first thing.

It appears this is a farm kid who has earned everything he has, looks forward to the county fair, and has succeeded every step of the way by being mindful of where he is. Nielsen said he was the unanimous and leading choice of the trustees among four finalists. We could see why.