It’s a homecoming of sorts. When Loren J. Blanchard took over as president of the University of Houston Downtown in March, he wasn’t exactly a stranger to Houston. Throughout his life the Louisiana native has spent time in the Bayou City. Now, after his most recent position as California State University system’s executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, he’s excited to come back to his roots.
“I want to be crystal clear about this,” he says half-jokingly. “We’ve missed the Southern cuisine.” He laughs. “We brought the Southern cuisine with us to southern California. We’d cook all the time, and our hours would be filled with people who were so fascinated with all the gumbos and etouffees and you name it.”
Blanchard knows he and his family will have their pick of that kind of food in restaurants around the region, and he’s looking forward to being closer to relatives in his native Lake Charles. But he’s also looking forward to continuing UHD’s legacy as a standout institution of higher learning. He spent his first weeks on campus touring each of the school’s buildings and talking to administrators, faculty, staff and students.
“It was a chance to meet the people who really create the kind of energy which serves as the foundation for what [our campus buildings] stand for. It’s just amazing to see the kind of work that we do. Academics is the core of who we are, but there’s an extension of what we do to ensure our students are engaged in experiential learning. But more importantly to be sure they understand the value and the need for service, for reaching out and helping others.”
Blanchard commends the UHD faculty as experts in their fields, and also for their energy and enthusiasm in supporting their students and colleagues. Whether it’s helping students secure research opportunities or sharing with fellow faculty the best practices for designing a fully online class, the dedication they’ve shown has been inspiring, and it’s a vital part of what makes UHD unique.
Following his arrival at UHD, Blanchard set up a series of town hall meetings this spring, allowing him to hear opinions and concerns from the UHD community. More are slated throughout the year, and Blanchard is confident they’ll fold into his leadership strategy.
First and foremost within that strategy: dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended education across the country. When we interviewed Blanchard, classes with on-campus meeting requirements were taking place on campus, but much was happening in the virtual sphere. As of June 1, the university anticipates in-person classes will resume fully, while staff will work on campus a minimum of three days a week. By mid-summer, it’s expected that staff will be back to pre-COVID schedules, and 60 percent of the campus’ classes will be face-to-face.
During the spring, Blanchard and the university focused on encouraging the UHD community to get vaccinated, inviting members of Houston’s public health institutions to come to campus for a series of discussions about COVID-19 and health precautions. Developing – and using – partnerships like this with other Houston institutions is something Blanchard feels is necessary. They can offer UHD students vital connections with organizations around the city, augmenting the university’s classroom offerings with real-world experience.
When people think of college, it often calls to mind students fresh out of high school, spending the years between 18 and 22 on a residential campus, then graduating and heading off to work. UHD’s students are typically older – the average age is 24 – and they’ve had experience in the workforce or raising families. They are often first-generation college students. Blanchard is a first-gen college graduate himself, so he recognizes providing support to UHD’s students is vital to helping them achieve their educational and career goals.
“We are committed to making sure we can provide the kind of non-traditional services that enables them to not only complete their courses in a timely manner, but more importantly receive all the support they need to be successful in the completion of their degrees.”
UHD has always been committed to providing its students with co-curricular opportunities outside the classroom; Blanchard said it will continue to do so, exploring programs in health and tech, which are among the top career needs in the 21st century.
“We value the whole notion of public service and community service,” he said. “We are engaging students in such a way so they can see and envision themselves through experiential learning experiences, but also envision themselves and how they might contribute to the workforce, meaningfully so, in the state of Texas, and more importantly in the city of Houston, and knowing they’ve got the knowledge, the skills, the disposition that will not only enable them to work effectively, but also become leaders in their fields.”
Ensuring those kinds of successes has been a hallmark of Blanchard’s own administrative success. He earned his bachelor’s degree in speech pathology at Xavier University, and went on to earn a master’s degree in education from McNeese State University and his doctorate in education psychology from the University of Georgia. He served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at his alma mater, Xavier, where he launched programs in public health sciences and communication, as well as clinical psychology and educational leadership. A strong fundraiser, he brought in millions of dollars to prepare undergraduate minority students for degrees in medical school programs, and secured grants to strengthen high school pipeline and student retention programs. While serving in the CSU system, he made increasing graduation rates a priority, along with eliminating equity gaps.
That experience, coupled with his own background and his connections to the region, give him a unique perspective to lead UHD into the future. He plans to dig deeper into looking at how data can demonstrate paths to continued student success, especially when coupled with personal-touch elements such as advising and offering students necessary resources to find internships, fund their educations, and balance education with work and family commitments.
“Many of the students we serve don’t have a built-in model for college success, so it becomes even more important to use data to understand the strategies we should implement in order to see success outcomes. It’s not one size fits all. My mantra is, if we have deemed the students qualified enough to enter our university, then we have a collective responsibility to ensure that students complete a degree program with us,” he said.
He noted that data helps show what barriers students face, which will allow the university to build cohorts of students facing similar challenges. That can provide them with a support system, and also offers a starting point to remove the challenges they’re facing. Maybe they entered college with an uneven K-12 experience. Maybe they’ve had a lot of stops and starts in their college career. Perhaps they simply aren’t used to taking classes during a traditional 9-to-5 school day.
“So, in that instance, what are we doing to offer the evening courses, the weekend courses? What are we doing to make sure we’re not just offering courses here at the University of Houston Downtown? For instance, in urban education, we’re taking education to them in different areas of the city.”
In Katy, for example, UHD is offering courses toward some of its master’s degrees, allowing students on the west side of the city to study closer to home.
Another way data might be applied to UHD’s educational strategies is in looking at the city of Houston, itself. Where are its job centers? What careers will be most prevalent – and relevant – in the coming decades? The answers to those questions can help determine new curriculum approaches, new experiential learning opportunities and new degree programs that UHD might offer.
Blanchard wants to see UHD students complete internships, study abroad and other educational programs, both as a way to augment their school experience and also to offer them different perspectives on learning and life. This, in turn, can help them contribute meaningfully to their communities in their future careers, solving real-world challenges.
“To me, that’s the beauty of it all,” he said. “Our students chose us, which means that they believe in us and then we reciprocate when we provide the foundation of support to reach their goals. There is nothing more energizing and nothing more meaningful in terms of the work that we do.”