Ainsley McCarthy

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Edward Serna celebrated his fifth month as the new Winthrop University president on Dec. 1 and he appeared as the first guest on the Palmetto Report’s new vodcast to discuss his first few months on the job.

Serna, who is a Winthrop graduate, returned to the school after serving as president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

“It has been exciting, it has been overwhelming, it has been wonderful,” said Serna, who was in the studio for the interview on Oct. 24. “It has gone by very quickly. I can’t believe I’ve already been here four months, but it’s fantastic to be back in Rock Hill and at Winthrop.”

Serna discussed some of his memories of his time as a non-traditional undergraduate student, as well as the tools that he will use to shape Winthrop’s future, including talking to current students.

Serna said that upgrading campus facilities is a priority, as the Board of Trustees has approved $5 million in funds to “upgrade classrooms and classroom technology.” It will also be used to maintain the general upkeep of the campus, including things like painting and powerwashing.

The state legislature has granted the university with $26 million to make improvements, where roughly $9 million will go towards Sims and Dalton Halls and about $6 million will be allotted for Dacus Library and Dinkins Hall, along with plans to demolish Richardson and Wofford Halls.

“We’re talking about a new dining facility in the next few years, so we’re just kind of getting the ball rolling on all these different things and you’re going to start seeing things around campus start to change and transform,” Serna said.

He also said he has been in contact with other schools — including the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and York Technical College — as well as Rock Hill residents to gather their input on Winthrop’s transformation.

“I have opinions and I have a voice, but I should not be the only voice driving that, because we are a community at Winthrop and I want everyone to be invested in that,” he said.

Low enrollment is another issue that Serna plans to address with help from a market assessment firm to ensure that academic programs at the school will be attractive and in demand among prospective students.

“Our enrollment, I actually saw a report the other day that since 2016 we’re down 23 percent. Why?,” Serna asked. “Rock Hill is vibrant and there is so much going on, this is beautiful campus, that should not be happening. So, I think part of what we have to do this year is figure out why, what is going?”

He said he believes enrollment numbers can be improved within a year. One idea is to develop partnerships, by potentially sharing faculty and degree credits between Winthrop and other universities, in order to give students the opportunity to get multiple degrees, which could benefit several institutions across the state.

Serna said he recognizes that much has changed since he graduated from Winthrop in 2002 and that the key to understanding the university’s challenges is being visible and keeping in contact with students.

“There is still work to do, but it is just a wonderful transformation,” Serna said, recalling the changes he has noticed while taking walks around campus, a habit that he has continued since being a Winthrop student.

To keep in touch with students, Serna has started hosting “Ask Me Anything” office hour sessions in the DiGiorgio Student Union, so students can come with their questions and concerns.

Serna has held three of the sessions, so far this semester, and he plans to make them a regular opportunity for students to approach him.

Isaac Pelletier, a junior integrated marketing communication major, said he attended the first session and learned he lives in the same dorm that Serna did as a student.

“When I told him I lived in Roddey, he told me that that was where he used to live too. He joked and he said that he guessed not much had changed,” Pelletier said, “I appreciated the joke and because he kept away from the negative while acknowledging my concerns about facilities being old.”

Victoria Trump, student manager of the campus radio station Eagle Air, attended one of the sessions and invited Serna and his wife to be on her show “Vic Nation,” which they accepted.

Trump said they talked about a variety of topics including university affairs, music and the evolution of college radio.

“What he essentially said was, ‘you can expect us to be heavily involved with student life and trying to make the community-family bond even stronger than it is, which I think is really, motivating as a student here at Winthrop. I really want to see the faculty and higher ups committed to giving us the best experience they can while we are here,” Trump said.

Serna told Trump, during the interview, that he is a fan of the band The Smashing Pumpkins and Latin jazz music, which he said clashes with his wife’s musical tastes.

Serna said that all strategic proposals start with being visible to students and trying to relate to and empathize with them, so that they feel fully immersed in the community.

“We really wanted a president who was going to be highly visible and engaged in the community and when I say community, I mean both on campus and off campus, that was going to be having those conversations, that was going to be talking to people,” he said.

“I hope in my first four months I’ve accomplished that. One of things that we’ve done is try to be really intentional about making me available to students in a variety of different forums and different ways and I’ve enjoyed that.”