Daily Times reports: Maryville College President Bryan Coker is 'where I'm supposed to be' 

Daily Times reports: Maryville College President Bryan Coker is 'where I'm supposed to be' 

By Amy Beth Miller, The Daily Times

*This story appeared in The Daily Times on Aug. 19, 2020 

A day before classes began at Maryville College, the new president’s office reflected the transition with pictures propped against the wall, waiting to be hung.

Bryan Coker, who took office July 1 as the 12th president, plans to hang artwork from faculty and his children, along with works honoring the college’s more than 200-year history.

The view from his window of Anderson Hall, named for the founder, is a reminder that “I’m a temporary steward,” he said during an interview Tuesday.

In the grand history of the institution, Coker recognizes that his term might not be significant but he does have an immense responsibility leading it during this pandemic. Bluntly put, Coker said his job is to be “the guy who doesn’t screw it up.”

“I want us to be around another 200 years,” he said.

Coker first interviewed for the job on Jan. 13 and was introduced to the community Feb. 13. A month later, March 13, was the last day on campus for students at Goucher College, where he was finishing his term as vice president and dean of students.

He watched the pandemic hit the Baltimore area hard, seeming to be two weeks to a month ahead of what was happening in Blount County. Fulfilling his commitments there, he relied on his predecessor at Maryville College to prepare the campus for the fall semester.

“Tom Bogart worked until the last hour of the last day, and I’m grateful for that,” Coker said. “I really had to trust Tom, and I did. He left this college in remarkably good shape.”

On solid ground

While other small liberal arts schools are looking at major deficits because of the pandemic, Maryville College is starting the fiscal year on solid financial footing.

A move to single occupancy in the residence halls because of COVID-19 will decrease some revenue, but Coker said enrollment is strong, down only slightly from last year.

Already the college is looking toward next year’s budget, and Coker plans to hold to the typical tuition increase of about 2%. “We understand that these are very difficult times for so many families out there,” he said. 

Serious safety

All around the Maryville College campus are signs that this year is different. Several tents have been set up to offer outdoor classroom space, and everyone is wearing masks.

In fact, the college cited some students over the weekend for violating its mask policy.

“Multiple offenses can result in students having to leave the college or employees being dismissed,” Coker said. “We’re committed to that, because it’s absolutely the only way this can work.”

“A mask requirement without enforcement is pretty useless,” he said, wearing his own Scots mask during an interview in his office.

Students can complete a daily health check through an app and now have access to telemedicine services. The college is checking on both physical and mental health.

Coker notes that it will be a hard semester socially.

The college thrives on face-to-face interaction, but this year some courses already are partly or completely online, with all prepared to go that way if necessary.

Over the summer a couple of staff members tested positive for COVID-19 but have completed quarantine, Coker said. The college has set up quarantine space on campus for students and will allow locals to quarantine at home if they choose.

Post-COVID plans

Even amid the pandemic, Maryville College is looking for how it will thrive in the future.

“Our overall focus is going to be on what we call ‘future-proofing the college,’” Coker explained.

One part of that is tapping into the college’s location as one of its greatest strengths. That encompasses everything from the College Woods on campus to the most-visited national park down the road and the local community. “It’s a small-town feeling, yet you’ve got the resources of Knoxville right there,” the new president noted.

“We need a new science building on campus,” he said, and the college is looking closely at environmental sciences as it plans for that.

He’s not only looking for how the college can benefit from its location, but how the campus can serve the larger community. For example, he’d like Maryville College to be a stop on tours for businesses considering a move to the area.

“I want us to grow and strengthen as a college, but I want this area to grow and strengthen with us,” he said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Second is a focus on building on both the college’s and Coker’s history in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s a passion for me,” said Coker, who noted that during his term at Goucher the percentage of nonwhite students rose from 29% to 42%.

Maryville College’s history in those areas now serves as a call to action in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

“We have work to do here in terms of diversifying faculty, staff and students,” he said, and that will require not only increasing numbers but ensuring they have support.

“This is the moment in our nation and world and the moment for the college that we’ve got to take a serious look at how we can be a more just, equitable, diverse and welcoming community here and be an example for the community that exists outside of the campus, too,” Coker said.

Then there is the mission to build on its reputation for the liberal arts, or as they say at Maryville College, “Study everything so that you’re prepared for anything.”

These days Coker sees that as very relevant to preparing students. “The future is dynamic and uncertain, and I think a broad perspective, a broad knowledge base, is the way to go, and that’s certainly what we do best.”

While Coker recognizes the momentous responsibility ahead, he’s also very comfortable with his decision to become president of Maryville College.

“I think this is where I’m supposed to be, where my family is supposed to be, and I hope and pray I’m the right leader for the college right now during this challenging time,” he said.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”