Bret Danilowicz. Randy Walker photo

Universities have always been embedded in their communities, but Bret Danilowicz wants to take Radford University’s economic integration with the city of Radford and surrounding counties to the next level. 

Danilowicz, 54, became Radford’s eighth president on July 1, succeeding Brian O. Hemphill, who left to take the same position at Old Dominion University. 

“Economically, the university and community are joined at the hip; a mid-sized university and a small city must leverage each other’s strengths towards economic improvement or we will slide together into decline,” Danilowicz said. “And I didn’t step into the role of president to be a bystander when we are literally surrounded by opportunities for economic improvement.”

Like many colleges and universities nationwide, Radford is struggling with declining enrollment. The answer, Danilowicz suggested, could be a comprehensive plan that would benefit the entire region. 

Many universities are located in areas where desirable jobs are plentiful for graduates. he said. “The students very often stayed locally, and helped the economy of the area. But we haven’t necessarily developed the connection to keep our students in the area, for one, after they graduate; and then similarly, even to attract students to an area to begin with. Students now want to know what they are going to be able to do for employment to help offset the cost of university,” and want jobs that align with their degrees.

For small communities like Radford, “the more economic development in the area, the better it is for the whole community of people that live there. So it’s easier to attract faculty and staff to work at the institution that are going to be really good matches for our students. 

“So basically, as we develop the city, in conjunction with the university, it helps us attract the right people, which is students, faculty and staff. And we give them a better quality of life, including the citizens of the community. I might state that differently if I was at a private institution, but as a public institution, where we’re bringing in state dollars, that’s just leveraging our state dollars farther for the taxpayers. So I think it’s more of a win than is possible than if we just focus on the university. And while I don’t necessarily believe that’s a trend nationally, I believe that situationally, it’s the right thing for Radford University.”

In several of Danilowicz’s prior positions — he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and served in several posts at Georgia Southern in Statesboro — he saw the impact a university could have on a smaller community. Building school spirit is part of it.

“When you go into a smaller city with a university in it, very often, the street signs that lead to the university are all colored in the university’s colors. The mascot or the brand of the institution is present throughout business names in the area. Their businesses are branded in the colors of the university. All of those things make the university feel like it’s a bigger part of the community and the community a bigger part of the university. Radford has many of those opportunities to build that better relationship.

“And that’s going to take working with the city manager or city councilors, business leaders of the area, to understand that that relationship is good for both entities. That actually helps attract other businesses to show that linkage, to show that we care about each other and we’re willing to grow together. In some ways it’s a risk, right? I’m not worried about just the students of the institution. I am worried about the quality of life of people living in our city and area in the surrounding counties.”

Danilowicz has already spoken with Radford’s mayor, city manager and city councilors, and neighboring county managers, including Pulaski County administrator Jonathan Sweet. 

“It’s very exciting for us, because we feel that RU is going to be in a more proactive versus reactive relationship with advancing next-level economic development opportunities,” Sweet said. “The biggest component of that is connecting our business and industry community to Radford University,” and vice versa. Such opportunities will give students not only learning opportunities and job options but a stronger connection to the community, he said.

Pulaski County’s population declined slightly from 34,872 in 2010 to 33,800 in 2020, according to census data.  

“So we not only want it to grow, we want it to be a younger population,  a workforce population,” Sweet said. “It’s all about having a healthy, sustainable community. We have the existing latent capacity to support 40,000 people without having to build new schools or expand our libraries or build more water and sewer capacity. And so that means there’s more folks who are sharing in the overhead costs of the community and then bringing their talents to bear, being the workforce to our business and industry So they can continue to thrive and grow and expand and really just create a perfect-sized community that is affordable, that is safe, that has all of the amenities a next level rural community would have.”

“I don’t think that we can understate the importance of actually having a really strong relationship with the greater Radford community,” said Debra McMahon, rector of the Board of Visitors. While economic development wasn’t the only topic discussed with candidates, Danilowicz’s ability “to recognize that there are more opportunities that Radford University has, that haven’t been tapped into, was something that was exciting for the search committee. We were very much looking for someone who was willing to come in and find new opportunities and take the university in ways that we haven’t been going before.”

“How to get there, that will be developed, hopefully, over the next six months,” Danilowicz said. “And then we can start actually showing successes and how we partner together. Because it’s one thing to have a plan that sounds good. But if people don’t see actions coming up from that plan, it’s very hard for them to believe that their time is being well invested.

“In areas like Southwest Virginia, that have been on a slow population decline through time, it takes that additional effort to try to build up the economy. If it’s not done proactively, everything’s going to continue in a slow decline, from population to student enrollment. I don’t think that’s a good thing for our area of the state. It’s going to take more of my time than maybe other [university] presidents need to put into it. And you can think of it as ambitious, but I think of it simply as the job that’s needed for the president right now for this area.”

Among his upcoming tasks is to help determine Radford’s ideal student population, both in Radford and at the Radford University Carilion (RUC) campus in Roanoke, which offers health care degrees.

Historically, enrollment on the main campus been around 11,000, he said. Enrollment is now about 7,500 on the main campus, plus 1,500 at RUC. “So that’s down significantly from where it once was. I believe we have the capacity here for the long term to be supporting at least 8,000 students well on this campus. You put those two numbers together, we’re at least 9,500 students. So that’s a minimum target of where I’d like to be. But ideally, both of those populations would grow as demand for employment and specific majors changes.”

Danilowicz wants to expand Radford’s offerings beyond traditional degrees into training and certificate programs meeting specific requirements of employers, while avoiding overlap with community colleges, such as New River Community College in Dublin.

“I hope it’s very complementary to what they do, because community colleges are really good at adapting their programs, be it certificates or two-year degree programs, much more towards industry and business needs. What I believe is that there are more training opportunities that are beyond the level of a community college but short of a degree program for non-degree seeking students.”

This is the first time Danilowicz has been a college president, so his plan is untried. But, he pointed to Marshall University in West Virginia as a model for something similar. 

Jerome “Jerry” Gilbert was president of Marshall from 2016 to 2021.  

“My goal at Marshall was to advance its status as a university, increase research funding to the university, improve its student success, raise private money for infrastructure improvements, increase faculty and staff salaries, develop new programs that were helpful to the region, and assist with community and economic development,” Gilbert said in an email. “Many of these individual items were interrelated.

“I knew that in a small state such as West Virginia that a comprehensive university like Marshall could make a huge difference, not just in terms of educating college students but also in terms of employing people, supporting the community in health care delivery, supporting the arts, in attracting new industries, and in assisting with workforce training of workers in existing industries.  I also knew that if two-year and four-year institutions worked together that we could potentially have a larger impact than working alone. 

“In January of 2018, I created an alliance of 11 institutions in our region to foster economic development.  It is called the Alliance for the Economic Development of Southern West Virginia. We work(ed) with local businesses to help identify potential employees by interfacing with our recent alumni; we served as a resource to the state of WV to show businesses outside the state that they could have a ready network of institutions which would work collectively or individually to meet their employment, R&D, and educational needs; we hosted an annual business conference, Small Communities, Big Solutions … I also realized that every dollar that the university spent would be multiplied by at least a factor of 1.5 as it made its way through the local economy.”

It began with Jacques Cousteau

Danilowicz did not enter the academic world with intentions of becoming an administrator or workforce developer. 

He was born in Cleveland and moved to Utica, N.Y., when he was about 6. Academically gifted, he skipped his senior year of high school to attend Utica College of Syracuse University (now Utica University).  “In the records, I probably received my high school graduate degree somewhere along the road, but I went and I completed my college degree first.”

A biology major, Danilowicz had been fascinated by marine biology since the age of 10. It was filmmaker and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his band of intrepid divers aboard the world-traveling Calypso who launched the youngster toward a career in science. He qualified as a scuba diver at 16 and has logged over 2,000 hours underwater.

Danilowicz earned his Ph.D. in zoology and became a marine researcher. Among other things, he helped develop a method for determining a cod’s life story based on mucous membranes in the fish’s mouth and the tiny bones in its inner ear. “If you took a cod off a fishing boat, you can tell where that cod was pulled from the water. And you could also tell where that cod was spawned. Because a fish in the sea grows up, it moves all over the place. And those were critical answers for helping people understand which areas to protect from fishing, where the spawn come from, and also to get a handle on illegal fishing.”

While teaching at University College Dublin, Ireland, he volunteered to set up a program to help students track academic progress. The resulting improvement in graduation rates earned him an offer to move into administration. 

“So I agreed to become associate dean for the year, as long as I had an out-clause, that if I didn’t like it, at the end of the year that I could just return to my faculty job. And in that first year, what I realized is, I enjoyed my students, I enjoyed teaching, but I enjoyed helping others more than I enjoyed …  being a high-powered researcher. I recognized that my own students, several of them were going to be better researchers than me. And that was awesome. But it just encouraged me, that if I could help others help their students more effectively, I could have a bigger impact at the institution.”

Bret and Kay Danilowicz. Courtesy photo.

Danilowicz’s wife, Kay, is a speech-language pathologist. 

“Right now she wants to grow into her role as First Lady. And she has many opportunities around here to be involved in speech and language therapy, including at the university, but she wants to work with me growing our connections in the community. The one project that she is going to develop, is she is going to start a dog therapy program here at the university. We both trained together therapy dogs to work with students at our past institutions, because it was a way of not being a dean or provost. It was a way of being Bret, you know, with the dog, talking to students and our faculty and staff.”

Danilowicz does not plan to hide out in his office in Martin Hall. He and Kay decided to repaint their Jeep with a Radford Highlander red tartan plaid pattern. “We both wanted to make sure that we were driving around with the community, people knew we were here. I don’t want to be anonymous.”

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...