Lyle D. Roelofs, Ph.D., has begun his tenure as Berea College’s ninth president, effective July 1, 2012. He succeeds Larry D. Shinn, who retired on June 30, 2012, after serving for 18 years as president.
“My wife Laurie and I are so very excited to be joining the Berea community and are looking forward to fully investing ourselves in Berea’s historic mission,” says Roelofs, who comes to Berea after serving as provost and dean of faculty, and as interim president at Colgate University.
Roelofs now leads Berea College, nationally known for its historic commitments to interracial and coeducational education, an enduring focus on the Appalachian region, its student labor program, and its unmatched commitment to providing an affordable education to students with limited financial resources.
During several months of intensive preparations for his service at Berea, Roelofs immersed himself in studying the college’s history and learning about Appalachia, its cultures, people and complex challenges. “The leader will be the student,” says David Shelton, Ph.D., Chairman of the Berea College board of trustees. “The principles of learning, labor and service speak deeply to Lyle’s concept of leadership.”
To gain an understanding of Berea’s regional context, Lyle and Laurie traveled in Appalachia on four occasions since his election by the Berea College board of trustees last October. During these visits they were accompanied by various Bereans including Chad Berry, provost and dean of the faculty and former director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, and Professor Bill Turner, former National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. Berry is an historian and scholar of the region who added tremendous depth and texture to the Roelofs’ tour and Turner is a sociologist whose specialties include the experience of African Americans in Appalachia. Together, they enabled a focus on Berea’s longstanding and compelling commitments to interracial education and service to the Appalachian region.
Roelofs’ tours included stops in Virginia, West Virginia, Southeastern Kentucky and North Carolina. “Laurie and I met with Bereans throughout these areas and we’ve seen how our alumni become service-oriented leaders in their communities. We’re learning about the issues many Appalachians face and experienced some of the culture that shapes many of our students,” says Roelofs. “The opportunity to lead such an outstanding college with a unique commitment to serving this region is truly a humbling responsibility.”
In the coalfields of West Virginia, Roelofs experienced the complexities of the coal industry when he witnessed a mountaintop removal operation. “Striking, even overwhelming, as was this first view of the sheer scope and topographical impact of surface mining,” says Roelofs. “And, yet our very next stop after viewing the mountaintop removal site was in War, West Virginia, where we met folks very grateful for their jobs, many of whom depend on the coal industry. It’s a complex issue, with many dimensions of concern. In our travels we focused on the experiences of the people living in the mountain territories. Just how desperate the circumstances are in some of these areas is so worrisome,” he adds. “There are towns in Central Appalachia where maybe ten percent of the buildings are occupied or in use, there are places where there seems to be virtually no economic activity and other places where the only jobs are directly or indirectly related to coal mining. The depopulation of some counties has resulted in school consolidation so that some students have to travel for two hours to get to school. The achievements of those who succeed and are ready to attend college are truly remarkable and we were honored to meet so many Berea alumni who devote themselves to making this possible and working in other ways to make a difference in the region.”
Touring Southeastern Kentucky, Roelofs visited Laurel County and a Grow Appalachia site, one of 15 such sites working with more than 500 families in four states. Grow Appalachia is an initiative of John Paul Dejoria, founder and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems, to address hunger in the region. Administered by Berea College’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Grow Appalachia teaches people to have more independence and control over growing, sharing and preserving their own food.
“Another element of Berea’s mission that is so unique is its commitment to support the Appalachian region in ways beyond its educational program,” says Roelofs. “Because we are an educational institution and because of our focus entirely on young men and women who would not otherwise be able to attend college, we are profoundly influencing students, transforming lives and empowering our graduates to go back and be influential citizens and leaders in their communities. But,” Roelofs continues, “Berea goes beyond even that profoundly important work reaching out through our external programs like Gear Up and Promise Neighborhoods, which address college readiness in several school districts in Eastern Kentucky to directly impact the lives of the people of our region.
At the Floyd Country Store, a century-old community gathering place in Floyd, Virginia, Roelofs experienced some of the artistic culture of Appalachia. “We narrowly escaped getting dragged up to the dance floor after we made friends there,” recalls Roelofs. “I definitely wasn’t ready for that and didn’t have the right shoes for clogging,” said Roelofs, a long-distance runner, but not an experienced clogger. On his visit to North Carolina, Roelofs visited with Billy Edd Wheeler , ’55, a Berea alumnus and member of the Country Music Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“The reason to explore Appalachia was to start getting the context from which many of our students come, and also, to start making connections with people who support Berea’s work in the region and people who are involved in admissions activities. From that point of view, we are only just beginning to get to know Appalachia.” In fact, Roelofs plans to visit Tennessee and Alabama this fall and expects to visit the region regularly throughout his presidency.
Berea College is distinctive among institutions of higher learning. The first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea College provides full-tuition scholarships to all admitted students, who because of financial circumstances cannot otherwise afford a high-quality, residential, liberal arts education. In addition, Berea is one of only seven “work colleges” in the nation providing and requiring on-campus employment for all enrolled students who also have the opportunity to use their wages to pay other educational costs such as room and board, books and fees.
“There is no other college in America that invests in students the way Berea does,” says Roelofs. “Our commitment to providing an affordable, world-class, liberal arts education to promising students with limited financial resources is unmatched, anywhere. As higher education costs continue to increase nationwide, and as students across the country incur increasing amounts of loan debt, our students are the exception because our supporters believe in them and in Berea’s mission.”
Roelofs graduated from Calvin College with a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in physics at the University of Maryland and has more than 35 years of experience in teaching and research at the University of Maryland, Calvin College, Brown University, Haverford College and Colgate University. He is also an experienced administrator, having also served as associate provost at Haverford College. A number of U.S. and international institutions have tapped Roelofs for visiting appointments and fellowships, such as the Sandia National Laboratory; the Fritz-Haber Institut in Berlin; University of Munich; Technical University Clausthal-Zellerfeld; and Universität Ulm.
Roelofs’ academic and scholarly research has resulted in substantial grants from the Research Corporation, Pew Mid-Atlantic Cluster, and the National Science Foundation. Other honors include the Humboldt Research Fellowship and the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Teaching Fellowship. He held an endowed faculty chair at Haverford College as distinguished professor of computational science.
Roelofs has many accomplishments in research and pedagogy, numerous publications in refereed professional journals, as well as invited papers and presentations at national and international seminars and colloquia. Beyond his academic interests, Roelofs enjoys reading, running (for exercise and the occasional distance race), cooking, and various outdoor activities including bird watching, camping and hiking. He and his wife Lauren have two sons, both of whom are in graduate school.
Since its founding by Kentuckian John G. Fee, an abolitionist, preacher and educator, Berea has been guided by the welcoming and inclusive words of the Apostle Paul, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26). These words, which serve as the college’s motto, have guided Berea in building a strong, nationally recognized liberal arts program, while maintaining its commitment to the Appalachian region, to interracial education, to the equality of all women and men from all nations, and to making a college education affordable and accessible.