A Conversation with Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa, President, The Citadel
Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa became the 19th president of The Citadel on January 3, 2006. His presidency has been marked by a keen focus on strategic initiatives that will enhance The
Citadel’s mission of developing principled leaders.
His concern for keeping a Citadel education relevant in the 21st century while holding to the values that make the college unique has strengthened the college in significant ways. Since Rosa became president, The Citadel has increased the size of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets to full capacity and completed a $100 million capital campaign — two benchmarks of a vibrant institution.
Tell us about your education and background?
Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa:
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, the only son of a Navy Master Chief. I have three sisters, two older, and one younger. My dad spent thirty years as an enlisted sailor in the Navy and did a lot of traveling.
I attended The Citadel and graduated in 1973 with a degree in business. In my third year, I decided to go into the military, but chose the Air Force over Navy. I met my wife, Donna, here at The Citadel in my sophomore year and, right after graduation, we were married. We have two sons, one of whom attended The Citadel, and two grandsons.
After graduation, I earned a master’s degree at Golden Gate University. In the military, I spent a year at the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and after that, I went to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. So, I am one of the few Air Force guys who went to both Army Colleges. While at the the Army War College, I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a very strong program for senior leaders from around the world.
All told, I flew more than 3,600 flying hours as a command fighter pilot and had a 32-year career in the Air Force.
Who are some leaders that have been important in shaping you as a person?
Early on it was my dad who influenced me most as a person. He was a Type A guy who was very well organized. When he and I changed the oil in our car, for example, it was a four-hour job where everything proceeded strictly by the book. I admired his discipline.
Another person who influenced me was Jerry Disch, my high school football coach. He was an ex-Navy fighter pilot who also had some great success at coaching.
There were a lot of people who influenced me during my time here at The Citadel. I played football here and I remember vividly an encounter that I had coming off the field one day. An Army Major, who I barely knew, came up to me and started talking to me about my grades and football. He encouraged me to take a test. It turns out that I did pretty well on that test and, as a result, I ended up getting into pilot training. The rest of my life was shaped because of one guy taking the time to come up and speak to me. It’s amazing. You never know the impact that you are going to have on a young person’s life. That’s the beautiful part of being involved with young people.
Are there leadership lessons that you can learn in sports that can be carried over to the real world?
Absolutely. There really are great life lessons to be learned on the football field. Besides the camaraderie and the teamwork, every difficult moment on a football field relates directly to the challenges that you have in your life. The day-to-day pressure that I faced playing college football really helped me as I learned to fly. It helped me excel at flying because you had to perform. Another thing I learned on the football field was persistence. When you don’t succeed, go back in and keep trying.
How do you foster leadership in young people at The Citadel?
There have always been leadership programs at The Citadel. It’s what we do. But it’s a great question and one that I have always been interested in when I was a student, a parent (my son was here from 1999-2003), and now as president. The Citadel is strong academically and produces great leaders, but the critical question is – HOW do we produce leaders? If we can’t articulate our leadership program, then, we don’t really have a leadership program. And… we are not going to be able to sell it. Every year we need to recruit new students to the college.
Firstly, the barracks are amazing leadership labs. We put young people of opposite sex together for two semesters in a row, 24/7, in a military barracks setting. What could go wrong? Right? Peer leadership is one of the toughest forms of leadership because you are leading others who are within one or two years in age to you. Learning to lead in that environment is critical.
Beyond the barracks, we also felt that we needed to formalize the leadership process into a series of learning objectives, just as you do in any classroom, and make it part of the curriculum. One of the things that I am most proud of is how we have formalized our four-year leadership program. All four years, cadets take leadership courses in the classroom and relate that learning to life in the barracks. It starts off in the freshman year with ‘followership’ where cadets have a chance to see good and, unfortunately sometimes, bad leadership. In their sophomore year, they are given the opportunity for basic leadership roles. In their junior year, they are actually leading by running the day-to-day operations of the company. When they are seniors, they are commanding. They are able to step into a leadership role with confidence because they have had a steady three-year progression. I am very proud of our leadership curriculum.
It produces men and women who know the difference between right and wrong and have the courage and character to stand up and make the tough calls.
What is unique and different about an education at The Citadel? Why should my son who is in high school come to The Citadel?
We are an institution based firmly on the core values of honor, duty and respect. All of our curriculum is based around living a life of honor, the duty to be at the right place at the right time, and to respect people who are different from you, respect folks that don’t think like you, aren’t the same color and gender as you.
Your son should do some research on this institution and find out what is it that we do. It is better if there are no surprises. The Citadel is not a normal college experience. We are not the U.S. military, but it is a military environment. He will be on a tight schedule, taking 19 hours of classes per week regardless of his major and a lot of physical training. It’s a structured, values-based education, in a military environment. Some kids leave our campus within the first two or three weeks because they did NOT do their research. If anyone’s child is considering an education at The Citadel, I encourage him to participate in our orientation program where he can come and live in the barracks. We invite your son (or daughter) to spend a day or two with a freshman student and see first hand what The Citadel is all about. I’ll say it – it’s a tough environment. Try taking 17 or 18-year-old kids out of today’s society and put them in an environment like this!
Around 82% of our freshman class only apply to The Citadel. The College of Charleston, Clemson, the University of South Carolina – those are all great schools. Their primary job is to create a safe environment and educate in the classroom. Most of the students in those schools live off campus, eat off campus. Here, we are a residential campus. Everybody lives here, eats here. We are together around the clock.
Can you envision yourself in a rigorous system, living in a pretty draconian environment, with people around you that are of like mind, in an honor system where people hold each other accountable?
You have to ask yourself what are you going to be doing in five and ten years after you graduate from an institution. The Citadel is a storied and venerable institution, especially here in the South. A Citadel education carries a lot of weight.
Do you have to go into the military after graduation?
No. We have a lot of graduates who go into business, politics, and medicine. We are proud that our students are accepted in to medical schools at twice the national average.
Can an academic institution be innovative?
I came out of the high-tech, fast-paced world of the Air Force into the world of academics. Keeping institutions of higher learning on the leading edge can be a challenge. We operate in a dual or shared governance environment where the faculty are organized and have a say in the way that the college is run. It works great that way, but it slows the whole process of change and innovation down. You just have to learn to work with it.
Our focus is on developing and executing a strategic plan. That may sound boring and mundane, and I have been a lot of places that develop strategic plans and then you don’t hear about it anymore. That is not the case here. We are four years into a six-year strategic plan.
Everything that we do, and every nickel that we spend, and every metric that we track, is based on accomplishing what we set out to do in our strategic plan.
What are the areas of focus in the strategic plan?
It is called the LEAD Plan 2018, an acronym for Leadership Excellence and Academic Distinction. Those are the two things that are the hallmarks of this college. I am proud that we have funded the strategic plan through our alumni and supporters – very little from the students or the state. Our alumni believe strongly in our leadership model.
Academically, we have five schools: the School of Business, the School of Engineering, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Sciences and Mathematics and the Zucker Family School of Education. Four years ago, we challenged each of the deans to think about what they wanted their disciplines to look like in 2018. In engineering, we decided to add mechanical engineering to our well established electrical and civil programs. Engineering is growing and is now just behind our Business program in terms of popularity. In the school of Humanities and Social Sciences, they are building a program in Intelligence Analysis, Cyber Security and Homeland Security. We are building those three minors into areas of major study. We also just added the Swain Department which received approval from the South Carolina Board of Nursing several weeks ago.
What are the key metrics that you follow as President of the college?
I came out of an institution, the U.S. Air Force, that believes strongly that if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t improve. There are so many metrics that you can look at as a university president that it is easy to over-analyze things. I try hard not to do that. Here are few of the metrics that are important to this institution.
We compare ourselves on the National Student Engagement Survey that compares all freshmen and all seniors. Our students are in the top 10% of every category that they measure.
We track 16 objective measures in cadet performance to see if our leadership program is having an impact on their performance. We have a comprehensive, technologically advanced system that lets us know where we are in each of our goals. I am proud to say that all of our major indicators are either green or yellow.
We just went through our ten-year re-accreditation which is a huge ordeal for any institution. I am not aware of any other academic institution in the country that came out of their re-accreditation with NO recommendations.
We also measure ourselves against 18 peer colleges including the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Norwich University – The Military College of Vermont, our two closest peers. We also look within our conference, the Southern Conference, to compare how much we are spending on education, faculty, scholarships, etc.
The last metric is the U.S. News and World Report. It is based on academic performance, student/faculty ratio, percentage of faculty with a Ph.D., alumni give back, class size, etc. We believe that small class size is the key to success in an academic world. It’s hard to fool the professor when there are eight of you in the class. For six years now we have been the number one public college in the South among our peers. We don’t chase those ratings. It just happens that what we think is important, they think is important, too.
What are the strategic uncertainties that keep you awake at night?
The Chronicle on Higher Education surveys university presidents every year and they ask that very same question. I am very much in line with my fellow presidents in expressing concern about the funding models for higher education. I worry about where higher education is going to be in the next 5-10 years, especially in the Southern states. We are proud to be The Military College of South Carolina, a public school, but right now we are at less than 8% funding from the state. There are only two other states that have cut public education more than South Carolina. It makes us very dependent on tuition, and we don’t want to put funding on the backs of the students. Low funding has forced us into a business model that is more like a private institution than a public one.
As with all other colleges, we need to educate these young people in well-lit, well-maintained buildings that are technologically advanced. Every year I testify before the House and the Senate in Columbia and I have been saying for five years that we can only survive for a few more years at this level of funding. This low level of funding will have a tremendous impact on institutions of higher learning in ten years.
We are blessed to have a strong Foundation and very active and engaged alumni.
What are some of your hobbies?
I was raised in a big Italian family so a good time for me is simply spending time with my family. Our oldest son and his wife and our two grandsons live in Mount Pleasant. Our son who went to The Citadel lives in Charlotte and just got married in April. One of their goals is to come back to Charleston.
A good day for the Rosa family is out on the boat on the water with the kids enjoying the Lowcountry. We are outdoor people. In this business, in any business really, you need to get away.
What book are you reading now?
I am reading The Mayor, by Brian Hicks. I am intrigued by how Joe Riley stayed so focused on improving Charleston for 40 years. He’s amazing!
It must have been his Citadel education!
[Laughs] Well, I’d like to think that we had something to do with it, but I will tell you this. We were smart enough to create what we call the Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Endowed Chair of American Government and Public Policy and invite Joe to teach here. He is on campus every day interfacing with young people and bringing his experience and connections into the classroom.
There are so many books out there on leadership and I laugh because many of them have been written by people who have never led. One of the best books that I have relied on is Good to Great. It came out in the early 2000’s and it is still very relevant for what we do today. It’s all about finding the right talent to give the team the ability to do the job.
Another great book on leadership is American Generalship by Edgar Puryear, Jr. The author interviewed over 100 General Officers about what they believed helped them do the kinds of things that they were able to do. For almost every General Officer the recurring answer is this – character. Character, doing the right thing, always rises to the top.
That is the values-based part of what we do here at The Citadel. You can be the best athlete, the best writer, the best professor, but if you don’t have character, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. People will see through you. I’d like to think that is what we are all about here at The Citadel. Values. Character.