Bridging ‘Islands of Innovation’ at CSU … Chris Markwood hopes to use a subtle leadership style to improve what works (Columbus and the Valley magazine, February 2016)

by Jim Lynn

By Jim Lynn

So he probably wasn’t the best teacher on campus that summer.

Chris Markwood had just moved his tassel at his Southwest Baptist University graduation ceremony moments before Larry Whatley cornered him. An associate professor of political science, Whatley told Markwood that another instructor was unable to teach a summer class and asked if he’d be willing to fill in.

Markwood had been accepted at the University of Missouri law school, thinking of a career in law and politics. But the summer adventure sounded like a way to earn cash for law school and he accepted. He had been an undergraduate teaching assistant to Whatley and knew the material well.

“So I taught the class,” he remembered. Just 20 years old, many of the students were his age or younger. “It was probably not the best class I ever taught.”

But it was enough, becoming one of those unpredictable turning points in life. “I went to Columbia and started law school, but I couldn’t get that class out of my head,” he said. He jumped to political science, getting his masters and doctorate. Twenty-eight years later, Markwood finds himself in the president’s office at Columbus State after teaching and administrative jobs at multiple colleges in the Midwest and Southwest, most recently as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Markwood arrived in Columbus last summer without a legal pad of things to do. He’s spent the last six months talking to faculty, students and those with various education or benefactor roles in the Columbus community. He plans an announcement this month of his strategic plans, but he emphasizes that he’s a big believer in collaborative leadership and plans no shock-and-awe with his announcement.

“One of the benefits of the last few months of very intentionally going around and talking to folks was the discovery process,” he said during a recent discussion in his main campus office. “I was really able to identify islands of innovation that already exist on this campus. Every single one of which if I had made a list would have been on that list. They’re already here. So I really see my job as building bridges from island to island, enhancing and connecting those islands, … providing the staff the support and the faculty the support and resources needed to grow the work that’s already being done. That to me is extremely exciting.”

When you talk to Chris Markwood, in less than a minute it’s clear he is not his predecessor. He is pianissimo to Tim Mescon’s forte, calm to Mescon’s kinetic. The former president was a former business dean; Markwood studied law and political systems, a background he only half-jokingly says has helped him in post-secondary administration.

Mescon left last year to take a position with an international group that promotes business schools. He is credited with getting a lot done and boosting the infrastructure both downtown and on University Avenue. But his go-go style left little room for relationships or collaboration. Markwood, the opposite. His focus is on reinforcing partnerships.

While most – though not all – spouses of prominent Columbus business and educational leaders have remained in the background, Markwood speaks openly about his wife, Bridget, as “part of the team.”

He says “we” made the decision to apply for the Columbus job because it met the criteria they established together on the type of college they’d want to seek out. The criteria included a focus on student success, a focus on community partnerships, on servant leadership and the arts. When the CSU job opened up, Bridget reminded him about The List. “I told someone it would take the perfect opportunity to pull us away (from Corpus Christi), and this seemed to be it and does seem to be it,” he said.

Bridget Markwood is often seen at her husband’s side, as at the recent “WinterFest” CSU community event. While she is not employed by the university, she does use a CSU email account and is a seasoned expert in post-secondary education in her own right. She was an adjunct professor at Corpus Christi, runs her own leadership consulting firm (Leader N U), has published books on helping teens adjust to college, and was named one of Corpus Christi’s top leaders under 40. She is also very active in the Rotary Club and in summer camps for youth.

She has already conducted multiple workshops for CSU faculty on new teaching and assessment techniques. She says she wants to “use my education, experience and passion for working with students to support the goals of the university.” She also plans to be active with Rotary, as well as spending a lot of time with their young daughter, Reagan.

Her goal is simple, Bridget says: “to contribute in the community and at CSU.”

Chris Markwood was born in Texas, raised in Iowa and Minnesota. His father was a minister and an adjunct professor of English and communications. His mother a piano teacher. Shaped by his upbringing and his study of political systems, at Columbus State he speaks unhesitatingly about his emerging vision and his pedagogical approaches but with a tone of respect for the institution and what it’s achieved.

“It’s not about him,” longtime education promoter and community observer Marquette McKnight said. “It’s about the institution and what it does for the students and for the city of Columbus… People have been helpful and welcoming to someone who is not so much about hitting the ground running as he is listening to people and seeing what’s good and listening to ideas about making it better.” Others said the same thing. The job requires vision, leadership strength and an ability to forge partnerships in a community that values discretion and protocol. CSU boosters are optimistic Markwood will excel at all three traits.

While Markwood didn’t lay out his complete plan ahead of his remarks to the faculty this month, he did mention several areas that will be part of his focus on growing programs and fostering development of ideas conceived before he arrived.

The arts – Markwood hopes soon to hire the university’s first dance instructor. “That’s important because we want dance in and of itself, but we need dance as well for musical theater,” he said. “There’s a real desire to build a musical theatre program. That requires, if you want triple threats, to develop students who can sing, dance and act, we need that strong dance program.”

The university also plans a stronger relationship with the Springer Opera House, including offering the Georgia Film Academy’s certification program at the Springer and creating other learning opportunities and professional theatre experiences for CSU theatre students.

Cyber security – There’s a lot of potential, Markwood said, in developing cyber security instruction following a $5 million gift from TSYS and the recent designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.

“Our focus is going to be first in the financial services industry because that’s where the jobs are currently for our students, but the opportunity also to work with … Fort Benning … and in other fields is expansive for us. I do know that our plans include the ability for any student on campus, regardless of their major, to pursue a cyber security certificate to go along with their degree.”

K-12 – Markwood hopes to expand and deepen the relationship with the Columbus public school system. More than 60 percent of Muscogee County School District teachers are CSU graduates, so the potential is evident to shape K-12 education. “We do exist in an ecosystem together … and we need move forward together,” Markwood said.

Science – Markwood spoke of the “strength and the opportunity” for faculty research and unique potential for students to join the research efforts. In November, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) named CSU physicist Kim Shaw as Georgia’s Professor of the Year. Markwood also mentioned being impressed by work in areas as diverse as bar coding and research on plant species. “I think you’re going to see great things in our sciences and our STEM areas, where we have been very active in recruiting folks with very quality research agendas,” he said.

There are also interdisciplinary concerns. He wants to encourage faculty to experiment with newer teaching techniques, particularly more seamless use of technology, “to really engage students as opposed to just lecturing at them.”

“The more we learn about the neuroscience of learning … the more we realize that people need to be engaged in that process, I think more and more of us in higher education are being convinced that the typical lecture style of education needs to change,” he said. “… Students walk into a classroom with close to the sum of all knowledge at their fingertips. They don’t need me to tell them things, to just give them information. Our role actually is much deeper than that, and potentially much more meaningful.”

“The role of a faculty member has become even more important because of the information explosion and the technology revolution, but it’s a different role,” Markwood continued.
“And for faculty members who have not been approaching classroom situations and teaching and learning situations from that perspective, it’s a change. It’s a real change, and we need to be aware and understand that change.”

The lecture versus engagement debate is being waged at universities everywhere, particularly after recently published arguments that lecture approaches are more effective with students from elite educational and family backgrounds and far less effective with under-served or first-generation students or those from low-income families.

Fully a third of CSU’s enrollment is made up of those who are the first in their families to attend college. That’s 10 percent more than the national average, and double the percentage at larger, elite and Ivy League institutions. That makes the demands even stronger at CSU and colleges like it to experiment with “engagement” in the classroom. Corpus Christi has a similar demographic makeup.

Markwood draws the example of a professor assigning students to search out online content on their own for a particular subject, then curating a discussion in class about the material and guiding the students toward thoughtful decisions about the most contextually significant content. It’s an approach that doesn’t work well for all classes or all students, Markwood acknowledges, but he wants to encourage faculty to experiment with different techniques.

Overarching all aims, he says, is maintaining a clear focus on “student success.” Partly because of the types of students served at a regional university, CSU is not in the business of weeding out students who don’t do well adjusting to university-level work. “We’ve made the decision when we accept students that we’re going to meet them where they are and we’re going to help get them where they need to be,” he said. “If the student has the motivation, the student has the determination, we need to help them get where they need to be.”

Jim Lynn is an independent journalist. He also helps manage client information for TSYS and is a former Knight-Ridder editor and reporter. You can reach him at or at