New Culver-Stockton president ready to 'get to work'

Douglas Palmer, the new president of Culver-Stockton College, poses on the campus on Monday, July 20, 2020. Palmer replaced Kelly Thompson after she retired in July.
H-W Photo/Katelyn Metzger
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 26, 2020 12:01 am

CANTON, Mo. — The new president of Culver-Stockton College says he doesn't ever want to feel too comfortable in the role.

"I want to feel comfortable about making good decisions for the college, feel comfortable in a role as a servant leader and I certainly want to feel comfortable working with students and faculty," Douglas Palmer said. "But there's too many challenges facing higher education today that if I feel like I've made it, then it's time for me to think of new challenges."

Right now the challenge for Palmer, the college's 27th president on the job since July 1 after taking over from Kelly Thompson who retired, involves getting used to life on "the Hill," and ready for the start of classes on Aug. 24, in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic.

"There are decisions that need to be made every day and every week. There is a task force that's been working very hard on ensuring that we're prepared for the fall, so I have had to jump right in with that task force and get to work," Palmer said.

"It also means there's a lot of uncertainty, and if there is good news from a leadership standpoint, it has flattened the experience curve being a new president," he said. "There is not a president in the country who really knows what's going to happen in the fall. We're all trying to do the best we can to ensure that we can open, provide the education that we know our students want and desire but also protect the safety not just of them but our employees and the broader community."

The pandemic also highlighted the transition facing Culver-Stockton and all of higher education.

"We need to do a better job as an industry, if you will, of providing return on investment for students. Part of that means that we are not just simply assuming the way we did things 20 years ago, 50 years ago are the way we're going to do things for the 21st century," Palmer said.

"The acceleration and pace of change that's going to be brought about by globalization and technology are going to outpace our ability to keep creating new majors and new programs. That's why it's important to invest in everything from athletics to arts to our residential experience because students develop critical skills to continue being adaptable and prepared for this 21st century economy that's going to move very, very quickly."

Palmer and his family -- his wife Cathy and sons Theo, Charlie and Jack -- moved to Canton from Canton, Ohio, where he served as provost, vice president of academic affairs and dean at Walsh University.

Palmer, 49, was drawn to Culver-Stockton's private faith-based education, its contributions not just to training and educating students but to civic life, its clear commitment to student success and its emphasis on learning in both a real-world environment and in the classroom.

"One of the things that I've challenged everyone so far that I've met and will continue to talk about as one of my goals is that every single person on this campus needs to think of himself or herself as an educator," he said. "We are all educators. That is part of our job."

The Culver-Stockton post is his first as college president after serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division and returning to the classroom to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a master's degree from the University of Oregon and a doctorate from Ohio State University along with a Fulbright Scholarship and becoming a history professor with an emphasis on European history and a commitment to global issues with involvement in international development tied to global food security.

"When I came out of graduate school, I thought I would have a long and fulfilling career as a history professor. That's part of who I am, and once I get adjusted and settled, I would very much like to teach a class still," he said. "I ended up in administration really by accident. There was a vacancy in my university, and the provost asked me to step up and fill a role. I found out I enjoy it, and what I like most is thinking about the future and future directions and institution can go."

Palmer wants to see the college's enrollment continue to grow while also ensuring access to education to some of the up to 25 million Americans who have some college credit but no degree. Facilities need to stay up-to-date to maintain a campus environment fostering a sense of community and belonging.

He wants to continue Culver-Stockton's strong tradition in academics, athletics and the arts while investing as much in the creative arts as in every other aspect of campus life.

"I see my primary job as, one, to finding out what others at Culver-Stockton are trying to do and make it easier for them to do that and, two, to really be the cheerleader in chief," Palmer said. "I believe that Culver-Stockton is one of the best-kept secrets in higher education. We need to do a better job of telling that story."