Cheryl Davenport Dozier has served as the 13th president of Savannah State University. In 2011, Dozier assumed the role as the first permanent female president at the university. This year, Dozier announced she would retire from her role.
Throughout her tenure, there were some positive changes- such as the much-needed renovations to aging buildings and the addition of newly erected ones; there were also some difficulties- such as steep drops in enrollment and morale, multiple shootings and safety issues. And some changes that were harder to acknowledge, like the steep drops in enrollment and morale. Tiger’s Roar sat down with Dozier as she prepares for her final commencement as president of the university.
Ashia Manning: In your words, what is the role of a university president?
Dozier: The president is the CEO just like of any corporation, the chief executive officer. The president is responsible for everything. Anything that happens on campus is it president's responsibility. Sometimes we think of it different in education and in business, but I am the chief executive officer.
Manning: Looking back on your years here at Savannah State, what would you say was your greatest accomplishment?
Dozier: The greatest accomplishment in higher-ed as a president is the completion of degrees by our students. So, commencement, increasing the number of students graduating, is always the proudest moments because that's what higher education is about. So, there's a lot of them but that would be the one that brings me joy. Seeing the accomplishments of our students. It’s all about the students. And seeing them move on to be productive and then hearing back from them, to know that they’ve reached their milestones. Those are some of the proudest moments.
Manning: Is there anything that you would change?
Dozier: In hindsight, you always can think of the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’s, right? But, I couldn’t exactly say change. When you come into a role, there are always things you wish you would’ve known, but that’s in any new position. As you go into the world, all of our students will go into positions, and wish you knew more information, but I wouldn’t necessarily change. There are those decisions that you make at the moment with the information that you have and there are times that you later get additional information and you wish you had had that sooner. That’s a part of life. I believe that I made the best decisions at the times that they were made.
Manning: Being a woman, did you face any opposition here as president?
Dozier: No, I did not. I was embraced as being the first permanent woman (president). A woman served as the acting president for almost two years here and she’s very well known in this community, I think that kind of buffered me from being the first. Being the first permanent woman was embraced in this community, and if it wasn’t, I didn’t know it and didn’t allow it to impact me. But, I believe that I came at a time that I wasn’t the first woman president in this university system, nor in the state and I'm proud to see that there are many more women presidents in the university system than when I started.
Manning: What are some things your administration implemented to address not only the low enrollment, but the retention and graduation rates?
Dozier: So, let me start off by saying, I arrived at a time when enrollment was increasing and that was not just here but around the country. I’m leaving at a time when enrollment is declining, and that’s not just here, but around the country. We have done a number of things during this administration to reach out. I had data collected to look at all of the students who stopped out between 2012 and 2017. We reached out to every one of those students to see where they are. If they transferred and finished their degree, then that was great, because that’s the best news. Every student that starts at a university doesn’t finish, but the challenge was with those who stopped out, and most of them had balances. So, there was nothing we could do.
What we created, that I'm proud of, is the Closing the Gap fund. My first semester I was here, I met students who said to me that they couldn’t finish, that they couldn’t graduate that May, because they needed to take one or two more classes and they didn’t have enough money. So, I created the Closing the Gap fund. It was very effective. I had a donor, one of our alumni, give me the first check. Every semester we have helped students with that Closing the Gap fund.
Manning: Looking back, regarding the decline in enrollment, is there anything you feel you and your team may have missed?
Dozier: I would love to ask students that question. You know, I think that we take it for granted that once you start, and you’re excited and you’re doing all the things you need to do, that you can finish. But students are dependent on their families to have the resources to pay. We are a school that still has an access mission, but close to 50% of our students are first-generation and many of those students come from families that do not have a savings plan for college. So, the students are paying as they go. Students are working. We've seen data that shows over half, two-thirds of our students have one or more jobs. We’ve looked at a lot of measures, and we’re learning more about our students. We’re reaching out and asking what they need.
Manning: What other things have you, or will we see, implemented to boost enrollment and retention rates?
Dozier: One of the things that we’re doing right now with our transition team is looking at enrollment management. The way we used to recruit is different. Most of you are recruited on your phones and through social media, it’s how you receive your information. So, we’re looking at making sure that we are using our technology here and that we are reaching out to students. We are creating our enrollment management to be a one-stop shop. Hopefully that will be implemented by the time that I leave. Bringing together all of those enrollment entities that sometimes kind of bottle-neck with students. So that from the registrar’s office, to the bursar, the cashier’s office, then the admissions office, then your advising, then someone sends you to financial aid, so you’re sent from one office to the other. We’re moving all of these offices to Colston so, they’re all right there. We have a plan, and we will implement that by the start of the fall semester. So that students and parents who walk in the building will be able to receive all the services that they need. The only one that may not move immediately in the cashier, but if we can, that would happen as well.
Manning: What are some of the most pivotal changes you’ve seen during your time here?
Dozier: One of my proudest moments is knowing that all of our buildings are open and operated or being renovated. I came at a time when I did the ribbon cutting on the new housing. Tiger Place, Tiger Court, and Wright Hall, I had the opportunity to do the ribbon cutting. I watched Tiger Court and Wright Hall go up. I watched those go up, and Camilla Hubert renovated, and Morgan Hall built, and then to be able to have the two new science buildings as well as now renovating Herty Hall. I came in when we built the new Student Union, so I did the ribbon cutting for that and our athletic fields. Our campus is expanding. We are in downtown Savannah, where we are offering our graduate program at the Georgia Coastal Center, and we’re in Liberty County. These have both opened this academic year.
Manning: Students are concerned with SSU possibly losing its identity with talks of merging programs with Georgia Southern. What can you tell me about that?
Dozier: The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents consolidated Georgia Southern and Armstrong State University. At this time, they have no plans of future consolidation. It can change at any time. But right now, we are one of the 26 state schools. I think that we need to recognize that Savannah State is a premier institution. We have our niche, our programs, our identity, and we need to take pride in that and showcasing it. Telling our story, showing how valuable we are, showing the worth of this institution, and just be who we are, that historical campus. Are there risks of mergers and consolidations? Consolidations and mergers take place all the time. Consolidations and mergers are what happens in business and education, and we can’t control it. But I say, the best way to make sure that we survive, is to continue to make this that premier institution. To be able to show the benefits of what we have, and what we do that is so unique and so special for Savannah State.
Manning: What advice, based on the wisdom that you’ve gained, would you give to the new president?
Dozier: Be intentional, be intrusive, and listen. Focus on the students’ needs. If you focus on what equates to students’ success outcomes, then you won’t go wrong. It’s about working closely with faculty, making sure they have the resources they need, so they’re better equipped to serve our students. That doesn’t mean everything a student asks, you’re able to give, but it means that you’re understanding what the student success outcomes look like. And it’s looking at new means of recruiting and bringing students on.
One question you asked earlier that I want to add to, I think we need to do a better job of preparing parents for what it costs to attend college so that they can be better prepared. College planning takes a lifetime of planning. There are some states that let you make pre-tax accounts when they’re babies. We have to make sure that we educate our students, because then they’ll be prepared for their children when they go to college.
Manning: What words do you want to leave with students?
Dozier: I’m going to have an opportunity to share those at commencement, but I want students to be courageous about conquering their careers, goals, and expectations. Be courageous. I want them to recognize that the sky's the limit. Don’t limit yourselves to what you think you can’t do. Be confident in what you can do. I have seen students enter; I’ve watched students from high school come here, and I’ve seen their growth and maturity, and I would hire them. Be purposeful, and you’re going to be productive in your careers and your future. I look forward to seeing those students. I follow my students on Facebook and Instagram, and other places because I'm so proud of who and what they have become and I'm going to continue to do that.
Manning: Where will you go from here?
Dozier: I have absolutely no idea, but I will always be in higher ed in some way. I will return as a professor. I want to teach leadership at different levels. I want to be a voice where I can talk about some of the challenges that I have seen, and I want to be a change agent. I want to be able to work with nonprofits and make a difference. I believe that has happened here and I can take it to a different level. How I will do that, I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to it and I have to say, these have been the most productive, rewarding eight years of my career. I’m proud to have been the 13th president of this university.