In his 11 years as president of Berea College, Lyle Roelofs has seen several thousand students of limited financial means earn their degrees and move on to graduate studies or successful careers. He’s also guided the 168-year liberal arts institution through a dangerous pandemic and seen some politicians dismiss the value of higher education.
Now as he prepares to depart the school at the end of June, he says it’s been an honor to lead such an “audacious” institution.
“It’s a hard place to leave, especially the people,” says Roelofs. “They’re just wonderful.”
The Unique Mission of Berea
In a recent essay for the Richmond Register, Roelofs traced his time at Berea across the college careers of five siblings from a farm family in Indiana. Kaitlyn Reasoner enrolled at the Madison County school the same year Roelofs started his presidency. In the years since, Reasoner’s four younger siblings also attended the college, with the youngest graduating this year as Roelofs also prepares to leave.
Two have continued their educations in medical and veterinary school, while the others have had prestigious internships that will launch them into good careers. Yet Roelofs says the Reasoners didn’t have the funds to send one child to college, much less all five of them.
“They illustrate the fact that if you don’t have money for college, it doesn’t matter what race you are, you need a place like Berea,” he says.
Started by abolitionist Rev. John G. Fee in 1855, Berea College primarily serves economically challenged students from Kentucky and the Appalachia region. Those students – about 1,400 of them, according to 2021 enrollment numbers – pay no tuition. Instead, they are required to work 10 to 15 hours a week on campus or in the community.
“They see me as a coworker, they see their faculty as coworkers,” says Roelofs. “As they grow accustomed to the community, they feel like they own it and they’re proud of it.”
That tuition-free promise makes Berea unique in American higher education, where school operating budgets rely on tuitions and other student fees. Roelofs says Berea depends on bequests and donations from alumni and friends of the school.
“Most of our money comes from an endowment that was created by people putting us in our wills,” he says. So instead of saying ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ at Berea, I’ve been saying to donors… ‘Where there’s a will, we want to be in it.’”
Challenges for Higher Education and for Students
A native of Michigan, Roelofs spent more than 35 years in teaching and research in physics before serving as provost and interim president at Colgate University in New York. He started at Berea in 2012.
“Compared to 11 years ago, higher education is under greater threat,” says Roelofs. “I believe education is the answer to most of the social challenges we face.”
That some colleges have shuttered in the past decade is sad for the students who could have studied there, says Roelofs. But he says it’s also a symptom of greater social, political, and financial forces that are undermining higher education and devaluing the benefits of post-secondary training.
Fortunately, though, Roelofs sees Berea College as insulated from those wider trends.
“I don’t worry particularly about Berea,” he says. “There are always going to be people for whom Berea is the best and sometimes the only answer.”
Beyond its business model, Roelofs says Berea is unique for having a legacy and mission that’s rooted in a quality education for all, regardless of the student’s racial or ethnic background or ability to pay.
“We don’t accept the situation as it is for our students,” says Roelofs. “Our mission calls us to do more than that, and I think that’s audacious.”
Being president of a small college has given Roelofs the opportunity to interact with and get to know many of the youth enrolled at Berea. He and his wife Laurie started a Run/Walk Club so they could spend time with students while exercising. Roelofs estimates he’s run about 2,500 miles with students over the past decade, while his wife has walked more than 1,200 miles with them. They’ve also personally purchased hundreds of pairs of running shoes for students who couldn’t afford them.
Because of that close contact, Roelofs says he’s developed a much better understanding of the difficulties Berea students may experience, whether that’s coming from low-income families, being a person of color, or being LGBTQ.
“I probably didn’t realize just how challenging it is for so many people, especially coming out of the kinds of backgrounds that our students come from,” he says. “Some of them are closeted to the extent they hardly know they are until they get an opportunity to be in a different kind of environment.”
The Future for Roelofs and Berea College
The work hasn’t been all administrative and fundraising for Roelofs. He got to draw on his science background when he led a project two years ago to build a hydroelectric generating station on the Kentucky River in Estill County. That plant now offsets about half of the college’s electrical usage each year. A second plant at an old lock and dam on the Kentucky in Lee County is set to become operational by the end of 2024. He says that will more than offset the school’s total energy needs and generate revenue for the college in the process.
Roelofs says leaving Berea will create a hole in his life as well as his wife’s. He says they approached his presidency as a team effort, with Laurie leading sustainability programs on campus, serving as hostess in chief, and overseeing a committee that manages the school’s Boone Tavern hotel and restaurant. As for retirement, Roelofs says he’s looking forward to gardening, birdwatching, and maybe a little traveling.
“I picture myself as still having days that are full, but doing the things I would choose to do as opposed to things I know I better do,” says Roelofs.
Until his departure, he’s been helping prepare his successor at Berea. Cheryl Nixon comes from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Col., where she was provost. Roelofs says that school offers tuition-free educations to any youth of Native American ancestry.
“The search committee saw that a person who has chosen to be in leadership at a school like that understands a mission-oriented school like Berea,” he says. “I think she’ll be a wonderful 10th president of Berea College.”