Q&A with Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell
‘Our students are dealing with things we never had to,’ says Treadwell, a 1990 graduate of the school.
Melinda Treadwell’s journey to become Keene State College’s first alumna president was almost derailed at the start. In 1986, when she arrived in Keene from her home in central Maine, Treadwell freely admits she was very homesick and felt out of her depth. “I was the first in my family to go to college,” Treadwell recounts of her unlikely path to become KSC’s 11th president.
She stayed, deepened her love of science, played basketball, expanded her cultural and intellectual horizons and graduated in 1990 with a major in industrial safety and a minor in chemistry.
Her college experience, she told NH Business Review, was life-altering, and she shares this enthusiasm with students and the rest of the KSC community. This includes trying to meet every student on campus, driving students to the polls on Election Day, helping them with luggage on campus move-in day and hosting a weekly radio show to find out more about their experiences.
After graduation from Keene State, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth Medical School, worked in the private sector at Lockheed Martin and as an environmental policy expert. She then returned to Keene State to teach and later become an administrator. After a three-year stint serving as provost and CEO of Antioch University New England, Treadwell returned to KSC as interim president in 2017.
Q. When you graduated in 1990, did you ever imagine you’d be back as president?
A. Oh my gosh – it’s been a whirlwind and incredibly humbling. Frankly, I never thought a return would be possible, but I had many great trajectory mentors starting at Keene State. They saw in me skill sets I wasn’t aware of. It was a dream for me to return as a faculty member.
Even when I moved into academic administration and later when I was at Antioch, I still never thought about being a president. I learned a lot at Antioch about finances, budgets and making tough choices, but I didn’t know if I had the skill set to be a president. It was an organic evolution.
I discovered that I have a natural interest in working with, communicating with people. What did come natural to me is to advocate strongly for what I believe in: I believe in Keene State because I know what this college did for me.
Q. How does being a former student inform your perspective?
A. Higher education holds a special relevance for me. When I graduated, I loved the experience, and I want others to feel the same thing. I am all about the student experience, and you will see me around campus talking to students, learning from them.
We offer more amenities than ever, but it matters to me immensely that students should be known and cared about, that they know where to get the support they need. We have an obligation to educate the next generation, and we must make sure we follow through on the promises we make to them. I know what it means to complete a degree and have lots of directions to go.
Q. What are the challenges in the decade ahead for KSC?
A. We are going to have to continue to adapt, innovate and engage. This is a very interesting moment for Keene State and higher ed in general. I believe there is going to be more focus on how to discern fact from fiction. It’s not enough to understand the information in our classes. Our students need to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to deal with all the information streams. I am not a luddite but it’s going to be challenging for everyone, and our students could teach us as much as we teach them.
Many of this first generation of ‘digital natives’ are not as comfortable with direct social networking and communicating. A student told me how disconcerting it was to lose their phone for a few days and not feeling connected. We need to find ways to engage them beyond just sitting in their classes.
Our students are dealing with things we never had to. There’s a lot more to navigate. We just can’t draw on our past experiences when we talk about issues of ‘free speech.’ The social unrest and national discourse of my time is vastly different than today. The world is changing, and it’s more important than ever to ask tough questions, explore difficult topics and help them find their paths.
We will also face changing demographics and a declining college-going population. There will be increasingly pronounced competitive market pressures that will require campuses to change their financial models and get out of their regions. How we adapt to new American populations over the next 10 years will be critical.
Q. How has your campus radio show fared?
A. “Campus Corner” has been really powerful and a gift. We don’t tell our own stories very well about what happens on campus and in the community. I wanted to talk to students about their lives, their campus experiences. I sit down every Wednesday for 30 minutes and hear untold stories and the incredible complexity that happens on campus with students, clubs and organizations.