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Rhodes Welcomes New Board Chair

On July 1, 2009, Bill Michaelcheck ’69 became chairman of the Rhodes Board of Trustees, of which he has been a member for 19 years. The founder of New York-based Mariner Investments, Michaelcheck succeeds Spence Wilson, who has served on the board for 38 years and as chairman for nine. The college prizes both men’s unparalleled service—and longevity.

As an alum, a longtime trustee and a member of the board’s Finance Committee, what does Bill Michaelcheck consider the most pressing challenge facing Rhodes as it prepares to educate the next generation?

“Financial aid,” he answers. Being able to provide access to the students who really want to come to Rhodes but may not be able to afford it is critical to the college’s future, he explains. And doing so, he continues, will take a significantly larger endowment than Rhodes currently has.

“I think the college today wants the best student body, not the richest student body,” he says, noting that a diverse cross-section of students is a major goal. “But that is very expensive,” he says.

(The college’s ultimate goal is to provide 100% of a student’s financial need. Currently, Rhodes meets 84% of students’ need. According to college officials, fully funding the current aid budget and meeting the 100% of need would require an additional $345 million in scholarship endowment.)

“We compete with colleges like Middlebury and Williams, not to mention Emory, Vanderbilt and Davidson,” says Michaelcheck. “Most, if not all of these institutions have larger endowments per student and therefore more scholarships. It’s a real challenge.”

What’s more, Michaelcheck says, Rhodes must compete more vigorously with state institutions that offer “very special scholarships for the best students.”

“Right now we don’t have the money to do this. So we make compromises. Students have to take out giant loans. Some just can’t come,” he says.

Among the nation’s 50 top liberal arts colleges, Rhodes ranked 37th in endowment per student in 2008, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“While Rhodes has a nice endowment, we’re way down that list. If you compare Rhodes to some schools in the region, we look great. We have a beautiful campus and buildings. We balance the budget every year. But given our goals and objectives, we are certainly the poor relation in the liberal arts world among the colleges with which we compete.”

Throughout its history, Rhodes has outperformed its financial resources, notes Michaelcheck. “Rhodes has always been fighting above its weight class,” he claims.

In addition to providing access for worthy students to attend the college, an expanded endowment, notes Michaelcheck, would benefit the other major component in a top-tier education: faculty.

As Rhodes increases its emphasis on student-faculty undergraduate research, the costs escalate—for laboratories and facilities as well as faculty. “These experiences are very faculty intensive. If we expect our faculty to give the individualized attention that Rhodes is all about, we have to maintain a low student-faculty ratio. And to do that, we will have to have a relatively large group of faculty for our size.”

Another priority, he explains, is access to international study.

“I was lucky enough to spend a year abroad on a scholarship when I was at Rhodes,” he says. “In the world we’re in, our students need that global exposure to be well-rounded, truly educated students. In the future we’d like to be able to say that every Rhodes student gets at least one semester abroad.”

While Rhodes faces some steep challenges ahead, Michaelcheck believes the college will succeed.

“Rhodes is doing so many great things that people want to help it. People want to be affiliated with a winning team. If you’re going to give a scholarship or fellowship, if you’re going to build a building, you want it at a place that is doing great things, a place that you are proud of, that represents the values you have.”

“There are a lot of people out there who are proud to remember they went to Rhodes,” Michaelcheck emphasizes.

By all indications, Bill Michaelcheck heads the list.