Tim Mescon … Getting CSU in the Game (Columbus and the Valley magazine, 2011)

by Jim Lynn

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Tim Mescon is a man on the move.  Constantly.

The new Columbus State University president seems to have enough energy to run a handful of colleges.  Foot-twitching energy.  Taking notes – while he’s being interviewed – energy.  Never lose a quick thought.  He’s not an ounce overweight, surely burning calories as fast as he takes them in.

Keep him away from energy drinks.  But Tim Mescon’s high-octane energy and passion may well be exactly what’s needed to put CSU in a tighter spotlight among Georgia’s public colleges.

“The people in the community have been great. The faculty have been very enthusiastic,” Mescon said of his time on the job since August.  “… There’s a very impressive 50-year history and tradition here. We clearly want to continue a lot of the momentum.”

Big Mo.  If there wasn’t momentum before Mescon got to town, there is now.  Wasting time is not on his agenda.

Mescon, sitting in the office that was Frank Brown’s for two decades, is a strong contrast with his predecessor, both in personality and focus.  Brown, the quiet, methodical relationship builder, re-established CSU’s credibility with the Columbus community, with students, politicians and benefactors.  He presided over an unprecedented building boom, adding world-class arts facilities to the CSU repertoire largely by leveraging community relationships into partnerships that benefit both the community and the campus.

In a series of discussions before leaving the helm, Brown offered that the time had come for a different kind of leader, someone who would focus more inside the fence.  The buildings are there.  It’s time to focus on the academic side and on marketing. Mescon sees a lot of it as “blocking and tackling” and “filling the pipeline,” taking CSU to greater prominence through growth of existing programs.

“It’s been a great handoff,” Mescon said, likening the transition to a smoothly run 400-meter Olympic relay.

Mescon, both student and professor of strategic business management, has lost no time in launching an aggressive, 100-day strategic planning process.  By year end, he vows, the effort will result in a blueprint for a larger, more vibrant, higher-profile, more tech-savvy, even more physically attractive community of learning.

At the heart of Mescon’s emerging vision for ColumbusState is growth.  Simple notion, but a big job.  The school currently has 7,953 students.  He says flatly that enrollment growth has been sluggish and must be his number one priority.  He’s already expanding recruiting efforts at metro Atlanta high schools.

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating the great CSU story statewide,” he said.  “We’re going to put more recruiters on the road, knocking on doors.  We’ve got to go to the market to sell our story.”

“No matter what we determine in the strategic study, the grand strategy has to be determined by enrollment growth,” he said.  “We’ve got to focus significant attention on enrollment growth, and we’ll craft our strategies around that.  But the great news is that the infrastructure is in place to do that.”

The goal:  10,000 by 2011.

Growing the number of students doesn’t mean trying to siphon even more Columbus-area high schoolers to the campus.  Already, 61 percent of local college-bound high school graduates enroll at CSU.  Rather, it means expanding the university’s presence at FortBenning, where TroyUniversity has grabbed a toe-hold, and expanding satellite locations to areas like West Point, in a region primed for growth by the Kia auto plant development.

“We’ve captured much of the local market,” he said. “… What we don’t do well is market ourselves outside this area.”

It also means an even stronger Uptown presence, expanding business school offerings in addition to the well-established arts program.

The new chief’s go-go vision also includes a rapid expansion of online courses.  He’s already urging professors to design and teach online classes, and 39 will be available by spring.

”We’ve got to get in that game, and we’ve got to get into it right now!,” he exclaims, pausing between right and now to indicate he means business.  The post-secondary market is different today, and ColumbusState needs to adjust.  More attention must be paid to the educational needs of working professionals who don’t fit the traditional, on-campus, day-class mode.

The school’s technology must be enhanced, he said.  “Did you know that only half the campus is wireless?” he asks.  A stronger web presence is essential, to include a new web address.

“The current one is ‘colstate,’ Mescon says with a slight grimace.  A new web domain would enhance the school’s marketing plans.  He wants to repaint the railroad bridge over Interstate 185 when it’s converted to a pedestrian trail, perhaps with the new url prominent enough to be seen by the thousands of motorists who pass under it each day.

His list is ambitious.  Some new ideas.  Some expedited implementation of initiatives already on the table.

The CornCenter for the Visual Arts needs to be fully developed.  Synergies must be encouraged between the Continuing Education school and the CunninghamCenter for Leadership Development.  “And we need a lot more housing for the Uptown campus,” he said.

A large part of Mescon’s vision is to take the existing infrastructure, of facilities and faculty, and leverage the assets to create a stronger sense of community, a richer college experience to help attract a larger student body.

That means more campus housing.  It might mean requiring freshmen to live on campus, as do many larger colleges.  And it even means improving the look of the main campus.  Mescon hopes to find $3 million to rehab the campus’ ragtag landscape under a previously designed plan that puts a stronger emphasis on the natural setting, uncovering streams and creating a more cohesive environment for the student community.

It’s clear Mescon has the creative mind CSU needs for the post-Brown era, said Pam Siddall, the former Ledger-Enquirer publisher who was part of the selection committee that landed Mescon this summer.

“He’s a strategic leader who will seek innovative approaches to meeting the needs of students, faculty and the community,” said Siddall, now publisher of the Wichita Eagle. “He has great vision and the tenacity to pursue big ideas.”

“Dr. Mescon will build – with panache – on the ambition we see everywhere in

Columbus,” Susan Herbst, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia, said in announcing the Mescon choice.

Echoed Don Leebern, the Columbus member of the Board of Regents, “The board was impressed with Dr. Mescon’s ‘seize the day’ approach.”

Tenacity.  Panache.  Drive.  Energy.  Vision.  Passion.  All descriptors of a hard-charging change agent.  Feathers are sure to be ruffled.  But the affable, chatty, down-to-earth, easy-to-laugh Mescon exudes deep caring for the institution he’s inherited, despite just being on the job since August.

When he talks about change, Mescon’s passion comes through in the rhythm of an old-fashioned stump speech.  He punches each topic in his emergent strategy with “we’ve got to get in the game.”  Technology, promotion, expansion, recruitment.  The refrain is the same – “We’ve got to get CSU in the game.”

He brings an entrepreneurial instinct to the job that he gets honestly.  He’s the son of Michael Mescon, the legendary longtime head of GeorgiaStateUniversity’s business school.  He watched his dad from childhood, and grew up to take over the family business of business education.

The Mescon duo has written two books together and wrote a monthly column in Delta Airlines’ Sky Magazine for nearly 20 years.  The younger Mescon has taught at ArizonaState, the University of Miami and helped start a business school at SalisburyUniversity in Maryland at the behest of chicken mogul and benefactor Frank Purdue.

But Mescon made a name for himself as dean of the Michael J. Coles College of Business at KennesawStateUniversity.  Vowing never to compete with his father, he took the job only after his dad retired from GeorgiaState.  (The elder Mescon still teaches one class a year, a course on managing philanthropies.)

Tim Mescon oversaw the Coles school’s growth to include 5,000 of the university’s 21,000 students and created KennesawState’s first three eminent scholar chairs.

Mescon says CSU has been under-marketed in general, including its highly accredited but little recognized D. Abbott Turner College of Business.  The notion that CSU is an academic, arts and athletic treasure that’s badly undersold is a theme that informs Tim Mescon’s entire vision.

He makes a point to be on the road as much as he can, getting as much face time as he can with each member of the state Board of Regents and with University System staff.  “There are 35 colleges and universities, so how do you rise above the clutter?  Well, first, it’s great academic programs and great students.  But also, you’ve got to be there.”

Mescon is already known in the community as a go-getter.  And he knows there’s a lot more go to be got.

He tells a story about meeting a prominent Newnan businesswoman at a state Kiwanis convention recently.

“Columbus State University,” he said.

“Where’s that?” she asked.

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