Connie Book, Elon University’s ninth and first female president, began her role in 2018. Since she began her presidency, Book said the world has experienced a number of obstacles, including infectious disease outbreaks, social movements and international conflict.
Book sat down with Elon News Network before the beginning of the academic year to discuss a number of topics including monkeypox, diversity efforts and the university’s plans for expansion.
A higher price tag
Tuition and fees saw over a 9% increase for the 2022-23 academic year, something Book said comes with the need to combat inflation. Looking to next year, Book expects another tuition increase because of the rising cost of bills.
"It is unfortunate. No one was happy about the tuition increase, and it's something we're all really sensitive to," Book said. "We understand the private model and the commitment families make for their student to be able to attend Elon."
The largest use of the additional funds went to a raise for Elon employees. New engineering and nursing faculty were also hired as each program continues to expand.
Another significant portion, Book said, is used to fund financial aid programs like the Odyssey Program scholarships and Fellows Program packages. Odyssey scholarships are awarded to students with the highest need for financial aid, and Book said the university commits to covering their tuition. When tuition increases, the financial packages have to increase as well. In addition, she said the university has awarded $800,000 in student scholarships from profits made through the Inn at Elon on campus.
“We did create a bucket of support for students on scholarship now that the increase really caused financial hardship to be able to request and to help them increase their financial aid to the equivalence of the increase we were having,” Book said.
Book said the university experiences a tuition increase each year, which typically ranges between 3 to 5%.
One of the fees that was part of the increase was the cost of the student meal plan. The price of all meal plans is at least $200 more expensive than last year due to increased food costs, but there are no increases in meal dollars, guest swipes or any additional benefits. Book said Harvest Table, a collegiate food service company, can come back to Elon when their food costs increase and renegotiate the meal plan rate.
As tuition increases, student wages are continuing to increase as well. Last year, the university announced it would incrementally raise the hourly wages for student workers with an end goal to reach $15 an hour, a commitment that was made back in 2015.
Student wages increased from nine to $10 an hour in February, and on Aug. 1, it rose to $11 an hour. Book said the university also wants returning workers’ salaries to have an additional increase, which is currently an extra 25 cents an hour.
Elon has seen several senior staff members leave the university over the past year. Book noted that three of the recent faculty members that left went to be university presidents. She said she’s done a number of reference calls with the Board of Trustees at other universities.
"You're not going to say no to being a college president,” Book said. “It is bittersweet because you're sorry to lose them, but then you're also excited that Elon has a lot of unique and distinctive features that people are seeking for their own universities.”
One position the university is trying to fill is the provost, a role that acts in the absence of the president and oversees academic affairs, administrative operations and student life. The role was previously held by Aswani Volety, who announced his departure from Elon in May to serve as chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Book said Elon is currently in the “listening” part of the search process for a new senior academic administrator.
“We need a great, seasoned leader, that's a very student-centered leader to step into that,” Book said.
The university has hired a search firm to help its search committee find a new provost. Book said there has been interest in the position. The search committee is made up of 23 people and is co-chaired by chair of the Academic Council Jason Husser and Vice President of Finance and Administration Janet Williams.
Book said certain departments, such as Student Life, are feeling the transition and change more than others.
“We're gonna miss their leadership here on campus,” Book said. “I'm so excited when I meet this new community of staff and faculty that are thrilled to be here and excited to get started. So it also creates new opportunities, new people into our community.”
She said during the pandemic, there was not as much staff turnover because Elon froze certain positions. However, Book said the turnover Elon is experiencing is not as severe as other institutions. She called it a “two-year backlog” of hiring.
Book said Elon is following a "slow growth model" when it comes to expansion, as the university is adding anywhere from 30 to 50 more students every year. She also said, however, the biggest changes are in the majors. In the class of 2026, engineering is the eighth most popular major , with nursing at eleventh as two of Elon’s newest programs.
“It's an effort to keep our model which is very much about the strength of our core curriculum and our experiential pieces,” Book said. “We surround ourselves with excellence in professional programs like communications and business and now nursing and engineering. So to me, we offer students — I call it the sweet spot — where you actually get the best of both worlds.”
Book said the next construction project taking priority on campus will be additions to the East Neighborhood.
"Right now we have three units, and so we're bringing that fourth one on. It will include a commons and a faculty apartment and a staff apartment, as well as 90 rooms,” Book said. “We'll break ground on that probably next year."
According to Book, Elon also wants to build an integrated wellness center. The initiative is part of the Boldly Elon Strategic Plan and the university’s special focus on well-being for this academic year. The university is considering whether to renovate the existing Koury Center or add an entirely new building. Book said a final decision will be made this semester.
Aside from physical campus growth, Elon is adding a new Advancing Equity Requirement to its Core Curriculum.
"It's tied to a learning outcome around equitable thinking,” Book said. “What are the skill sets that help us to foster equitable thinking? Well, it's critical thinking about how my journey might be different from your journey. — to listen, to seek to understand, to be creative, to come up with solutions that help close gaps.”
Book said the school already has several classes that push for equitable thinking, but those courses are not required and are estimated to only be taken by 25 to 35% of students. She said the school is encouraging equitable thinking to be taught in different courses no matter the discipline.
Book said the faculty will take a year to finish forming the curriculum, and the class of 2027 will be the first to have the requirement. She said the aspect that excites her the most about the course is the inclusion of a project where students try to bring about equity in a situation where inequality is present.
"It’s teaching students that they have the power to make change, and that they are going to encounter times in their lives where they are participating in a project at work, or some other aspect of their life, where they could go, ‘Hey, if we did it like this, that would encourage so-and-so to participate, and remove this barrier,’” Book said. “To me, that is how the world changes — when educated people get together and think of creative solutions."
Book said she hopes the new class will have the same effect as the current Global Experience class, meaning that each professor will do something different with the course and it will evolve as time goes on.
"That's the same seed that we're going to plant with this new [AER] requirement,” Book said. “30 years from now, the whole campus will be a community of problem solvers, a community of equitable thinkers that are looking at all the outcomes and thinking about ways they can drive justice and equity for everyone," Book said.
While COVID-19 is the most prevalent health concern Elon is monitoring this semester, monkeypox is emerging as a growing concern. The university’s Infectious Disease Response Team is working with health officials to develop a plan for the university. The committee is a standing one, and previously worked on the mumps outbreak.
"The work with COVID and other infectious diseases, like monkeypox, has returned to that committee,” Book said. “North Carolina is in receipt of monkeypox, vaccines, outreach, educational efforts — and so they sent an email this week just highlighting to campus that these are all the precautions that we're taking and the kind of access our students have,” Book said.
Book said the committee has not figured out all the details, but it is working with the Academic Council and faculty to determine what to do if a student contracts monkeypox. Book said she expects the Elon community will take the disease seriously despite the chance of public health fatigue.
"I think most people are even better about realizing how diseases spread and that they have a lot of ownership in how to keep themselves healthy, which I think is where it begins in keeping your community healthy,” Book said.
Book said the Infectious Disease Response Team will continue to make sure people can make decisions that work for them.
"We have this great committee. They listen, they take all that feedback, they create a series of recommendations that they bring to me, and then I process that with them and make the determination,” Book said. “At the end of the day, you do need someone to make the decision about how we're going to move forward, and that's my responsibility, so I'm happy to do it. But I want to do it in an informed way where people have had the opportunity to provide feedback.”
Message for the academic year
Book said she’s grateful for a sense of normalcy this year and a more traditional workload. She was also happy to have a summer without heavy COVID-19 planning and protocols.
She also reiterated the sense of hopefulness for the year that she mentioned in the President’s Address that began the academic year for faculty and staff. She said she thinks the Elon community has learned a lot about navigating challenges and crises in the world.
“There's always opportunities that each of these challenges that we've encountered present,” Book said. “I enjoy being Elon’s president because of the sense of ownership the community has about the future of the university. We all care deeply about Elon, and we care deeply about each other, and I think it makes us a great institution.”