SE president speaks of COVID challenges, moving forward

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When Dr. Thomas Newsom took the reins as president of Southeastern in April 2020, a pandemic was raging across the country.

Now, the Southeastern president is looking forward to what will hopefully be a more normal school year this fall and he says the university is emerging even better than before.

“We did have a lot of challenges but everybody was having challenges,” Newsom said, during a recent interview. “Our society was just having challenges. I think the reason why Southeastern is emerging from the pandemic a stronger university than we were going in is because of decisions that were made prior to the pandemic by Sean Burrage and Bryon Clark, and the incredible executive team and faculty and staff here that really in hindsight, had this university poised very well to deal with some of the challenges of the pandemic.”

Newsom said that because SE already had a large number of students online, they had a foundation for delivering curriculum during the pandemic. A COVID-19 Task Force was established shortly after Newsom assumed his duties which worked with the county health department to not only handle the pandemic, but also get students back on campus last fall.

“Really, that was probably the driver that kept our campus relatively safe, relatively healthy and quite frankly, thriving during the pandemic,” Newsom said.

Enrollment has been up every semester for the last three years and that continued during the pandemic with SE having the highest enrollment in history last fall.

Newsom is pleased that during all of the turmoil because of the pandemic, students did not have their education interrupted because SE’s faculty and staff were able to adapt.

“Probably the real true measure of our success during this is we talk about record enrollments,” Newsom said. “We had record graduating classes.”

SE is going to have commencement on July 30-31 and this is the first time since 1997 the university has had a summer graduation ceremony. The university has more than 460 students that have petitioned to graduate this summer.

“If you look back probably four years, our fall commencement was the largest and it was between 450 and 500 students so we’re graduating now as many in the summer as we traditionally would in the fall which is fantastic,” Newsom said. “It’s a huge indicator of the growth and the way our university has changed and continues to deliver great success to our students.”

Also, for the first time ever on July 30, SE will have a dedicated commencement for those who earned Master’s degrees.

“I anticipate in the fall and going forward, we’ve got enough graduate students who are graduating every semester, that we’ll have a dedicated ceremony just for our graduate students,” Newsom said.

Most of SE’s graduate programs are fully online. Of all of SE’s students presently, about 40 percent are graduate students and 60 percent undergraduate. The university has had a high occupancy rate in the residence halls this year with more than 600 students living on campus in single-occupancy rooms, according to Newsom.

“We modified the way that they eat in the dining hall with to-go type service,” Newsom said. “We’ll be back to full dining hall operations this coming fall.”

The SE president said that residence halls that have rooms for more than one student will be back to double occupancy in the fall. Newsom is looking forward to a full slate of athletics, performing arts and other activities on campus this fall. There are six home football games scheduled and there will be volleyball games in the new Bloomer Sullivan Volleyball Gymnasium.

“So we’re geared up for, I hate to say normal because I don’t know if we’ll every be normal again, but we’re geared up to operate as a university much in the same way we operated pre-pandemic.”

Newsom has been at Southeastern for 15 months and has yet to see a Savage Storm football game.

“I’m looking forward to being able to enjoy those kind of activities,” he said. “Honestly, one of the things I really enjoy throughout my career in higher education is just being able to go over to the cafeteria and just sit down with a random group of students and have lunch and talk to them about their experience at Southeastern, and get to know them. In over a year of me being here, I haven’t been able to do that yet.”

Homecoming is scheduled for Oct. 15-16 and it will include the distinguished alumni banquet. SE is planning to have ceremonies for the grand opening of the Semple Family Museum of Native American Art. The museum was finished almost a year ago and has not yet opened. A soft opening is planned in September and Newsom expects the grand opening of the museum to be held around homecoming.

Newsom noted the university had an abridged and modified version of the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival this summer with social distancing and a smaller number of participants. He said the program will be fully reinstated next summer. He said SE has had many activities on campus this summer, including sports camps and STEM camps. They also had “Operation Orange” which is a partnership with Oklahoma State to bring high school students on campus who are interested in the medical field.

The university is planning improvements to the campus such as replacing HVAC units, LED lights and classroom furniture. The Einstein Bagels location is expected to open in late August if construction goes well.

During the next few weeks, Newsom plans to start getting out and traveling more. He’s looking forward to having lunch with students at the student union and inviting people to the Magnolia House for events. Newsom’s biggest personal regret during the pandemic is that it hindered his ability to establish relationships with people and see them face to face.

“I met an alumni and I told her that really in the fall, I’m probably going to have to do a little bit of a reboot,” Newsom said. “We’re probably going to do some things that may look like something that a brand-new president would be doing because I really didn’t have the opportunity to do those. It’s important for our alumni to know who I am, know what my vision is for our university, and I haven’t been able to really do that and communicate over the last year.”

Also in the fall, SE will be looking at long-range strategic planning.

“We’re starting to catch some steam with our facilities master plan that we’re working on with a architecture firm out of Tulsa,” Newsom said. “We have some real ideas for improving the student experience and improving the success of our students in the classroom through some student success models. So I think the fall is going to be an incredibly exciting time at Southeastern.”

Newsom spoke of the Morrison building which is the signature building on campus. SE was founded in 1909 and Morrison opened in 1911.

“Everybody that has interacted or engaged with Southeastern Oklahoma State University has had some interaction with Morrison Hall,” he said. “Part of our long-range facilities plan is to ensure that we preserve that history.”

The university has borrowed money through the master lease program from the state and Newsom said some significant debt will be expiring over the next 6-12 months. These funds, along with some CARES Relief Act money from the federal government, should take care of about 95 percent of the university’s deferred maintenance issues over the next couple of years.

Newsom said the university will be repaving parking lots and sidewalks and at some point, the loop will be resurfaced. There are also plans for refurbishing the amphitheater that was built in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project.

“We started using the amphitheater again more regularly this last year because we did outdoor classes there because of the pandemic,” Newsom said. “It’s proven to be a really great space. We’re in the planning stages now and at some point, we’ll have to go out and ask for some support on that project. I think there will be a lot of support because that space can not only be used for university purposes, but it could be a great community space as well.”

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