Q&A with Chancellor Kelly


Photo by Brandon Pack

Chancellor Brendan Kelly, Ph.D. joined the University in March and is focused on establishing and nurturing relationships with alumni, students, faculty, staff, and the Spartanburg community. He is driven by Upstate’s ongoing potential for growth after 50 years of existence.

Chancellor Kelly met with The Carolinian staff to discuss his motivation for success and his vision for Upstate in the next 50 years.

Asia Suber, Stephanie Sawaked, Lucy McElroy, Cierra Mills, and Zandra Shafer contributed to this report.



Q: What piqued your interest and brought you to USC Upstate?

A: That’s a good question. You don’t move three children – and one of which is a junior in high school – because your interest has piqued. That’s why you go whitewater rafting. We were at a place where we were ready to transition. I started being recruited for this position last June. Long before any of you were introduced to me, I was introduced to the University.

There were three primary elements that drove that decision for our family, and I’ll tell you – it was a collective decision. One, the geography is incredible. And it’s not just that we’re in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. We’re also in one of the most economically hot areas of the country. When you’re a public university, that’s a really important attribute – because the product is you. And if you were graduating today at a regional comprehensive university in a state, or in an area of a state where the economy was not growing, or it was not robust, there’s not a lot of choice. We have a large contingent of alumni who stay here in the state. In fact, the largest percentage of any university in the state. We also have most of those staying here in the Upstate. That’s a really attractive quality to me, because it tells us that we’ve got an economy where we’ve got the opportunity to grow as a university, and that the region is dependent on us for its success. We have to be a great partner that creates a lot of opportunity.

The second piece was the structure of the institution – a regional comprehensive university. The types of programs that we host, the types of students that we focus on – that’s my interest and passion. I have been offered positions at many different universities, many very large, and this is where I’d love to be a part of the community.

And the third was once I got to come here – meet the faculty, meet the staff, and understand better where the students are and where the institution was – and it seemed like we were ready for what comes next as an institution. I’d been part of that a previous institution and it is a very exciting time in the life cycle of a university when you’re a part of “what comes next,” as opposed to “this is what we’re doing right now.” When I saw that that was probably the opportunity that was here, I got excited to lead us there.


Q: What would you like to accomplish most while you’re here?

A: I appreciate you already talking about me leaving. (Laughs) I would say there are three areas where it’s not about what I want – it’s about what we need and what we’re supposed to be doing for the state of South Carolina and for the Upstate. I say that because where I come from in Michigan, I’ve watched economies fall apart because we didn’t support them the right way. And we’ve had some really great opportunities here. We have to be a great partner. So, stationing us to be that is going to require three things. Many people have heard me talk about those three things because I really do believe that those are the three we have to be focusing on for the next few years in order to be that great partner and to provide every student who graduates from this institution a maximized opportunity to go out and have the most successful life that they possibly can.

First, we have to enhance the resources of the University. That comes in a wide variety of different ways, but making certain we’re focused on enhanced fundraising, auxiliary income, trying to operate more efficiently. The more efficient we are – that’s one way of lowering the cost of operations, which either allows to make new investments in quality and new opportunity, or to lower operational costs altogether. Enhanced resources is a key piece, because we’ve got to pay for the future.

Second is, we have to grow. We have not awarded enough bachelor’s and master’s degrees to supply the Upstate with the white-collar talent that it needs. And we have to make a change there. I would also suggest that if I’m a student at Upstate and I earn a bachelor’s degree, and a couple years later, or a few years later, I want to enhance my prospects, and I need to go and earn a graduate credential – we should be positioned to provide you that graduate credential as well in key disciplines in our areas of strength. We have a number of graduate programs right now, we need to expand that. That would allow us to provide more opportunities to people in this region to earn higher education credentials the way they need to, and to be part of a really extraordinary university community at the same time. That growth is essential. That ambition comes from, “We have to do that for our state and for our region, for all of the people who live here to enhance the quality of life.”

When I get free time, if I go to Target, I am wearing a USC Upstate shirt. I went to Target last Sunday to buy school supplies for my kids – I’ve got a 17-year-old, a 14-year-old, and an 11-year-old – I ran into three people in the store who did not know me, who were all wearing USC Upstate shirts. I stopped every single one of them and told them, “I’m a fan of your shirt.” I just wanted to know what their connection was and get them excited about the University. I did that on one of the first Saturdays I was here, I had three hours before I had to be back on campus. I got my oil changed and went to the grocery store and I wore a USC Upstate softball shirt. And I knew when I wore it that everyone would ask me about the University, that’s why I wore it. But they didn’t ask me just about the University, they asked me if I was the head coach. So, I was like… “yeah.” And I told Chris Hawkins. And yeah, you’ve got to understand – Chris Hawkins is one of the top 25 coaches in the United States in softball. We have one of the finest softball programs in America. And I had to break it to him that his profile wasn’t nearly as big as he thought it was, because people thought I was him. But that type of storytelling – when we walk down the streets of Spartanburg or Greenville, we need to see more of our marks.

We have a lot to brag about and we don’t do nearly enough bragging and I’m going to make it my mission to change that.


Q: What are your plans for fundraising at Upstate?

We have a lot of work to do on that front. We have a lot of relationship building to do. We have hired Dr. Meredith Brunen as well. She is absolutely fantastic, your new Vice Chancellor for University Advancement. She’s a very skilled leader in development, alumni engagement, as well as overseeing university marketing and communications. She’s a skilled higher education leader. She is trying to put together our organization and our foundation in a way that people can have faith in it. If you want to make a gift to the University, you want to make a gift knowing it’s being stewarded and one, in the way you intended and two, in the most careful hands possible. People who treat your treasure like it’s your treasure. We’re setting up that environment first at the same time we’re building relationships with people, our hope is that their faith in this institution and also the way in which we’ll treat their treasure will help enliven our outcomes on that front. I will participate in that on a daily basis and have been, Dr. Brunen will as well. We just brought in our new Athletic Director – Julio Freire. He is absolutely fantastic. Julio is another one who is attempting to build relationships now on behalf of the athletics, but also on behalf of the University at large. There’s one thing we know to be true – it doesn’t really matter where we win in the institution. If we have the best nurses in the state, then the whole University wins. If we win a basketball game, the whole University wins. If we put out a great newspaper, the whole University wins. It’s all of those things connected together to lift up the institution and we need all of those things to be elevated – every single element of the institution. That’s really challenging. That’s why you need a lot of enthusiastic people who are faculty, staff, students, executive administrations, who are all working for that one goal. If we do that, I think our fundraising profile changes dramatically. We are essential as an institution to the success of this region and I believe strongly that people are going to invest in that.


Q: How can we build more job offers and internships?

A: Clif Flynn, who is the Chief Academic Officer – he and I have talked about that in the last six months. We are already doing a lot compared to other universities on that front. We have a great service learning outline, a really great service learning outline. So, you have a lot of faculty and staff – in fact, this is a great representation of it – we can teach you journalism in a wide variety of different ways. We certainly don’t have to have a print product or a digital product to do that. You can go into class and we can simulate all those experiences and that would be it. But instead, we run The Carolinian as an institution. This is a really essential part of what we do, it’s not just for democracy, but it’s to get you that type of professional development. You need to walk out into the world with a great skill set. And that skill set has to make you a great communicator, but it also has to make you someone who can solve complex problems. One of the things that every institution – it’s not just journalism – every institution struggles with, is storytelling. You’re learning how to be those storytellers in this environment. It’s a different experience for us to have our conversation today than it is for you to simulate that in the classroom. That’s kind of the way we want to approach all of our education where it fits. We want to send students into Study Abroad experience. We want to increase that number because those are transformative experiences when you get to go and immersive yourself in another culture, in a different structure, meet a new network of people. We want you to have service learning experiences where you’re taking your skill set, your knowledge set, and testing it out into the community. We want you to especially build a professional network. And that’s what you’re talking about. You should walk away from college knowing some people who own companies, are CEOs or HR directors, or whatnot – some sort of connection to community leadership and business leadership, and that’s one of the things that we’re already doing a lot of. I’d like to see us hang our hat on it as an institution. I think our faculty are really well-connected on that front, we’ve already got a strong set of networks in place, so we’re poised to make it our mission to build those professional networks, specifically for students. The other piece of that is, we’ve restructured the executive administration, so that we’re building more external partnerships. Those external partnerships are what create internships and pipelines. You have to know people and they have to trust you, so I along with several of our Vice Chancellors are working all the time to connect with corporations, community organizations, nonprofits, all kinds of hospitals.


Q: How can The Carolinian help with alumni relationships?

A: That is a great question. One of the things that we can do is to push that content to alumni. We’ve got a lot of work to do to connect with the nearly 30,000 alumni from this institution. We have a lot of work to do. I know, because I meet our alumni and they are not wearing our shirt. So, I’ve started giving them shirts to make certain they do. But The Carolinian tells the stories that connect with a very important part of their lives. We want to make certain they’re part of that.

First, we have the Media Advisory Board. Why not bring alumni in to help be part of your process because that helps build that professional network? I know we have alumni who are working in media and I know we have alumni who are working in communications professionally. You don’t have to bring in journalists. You have to bring in people who understand the value of journalism and what role it plays in our culture and in our society. That would be the first. The second, make certain that you’re telling the story. There’s a lot of ways to talk about this university and what we’re accomplishing. I love the fact that you’re doing Study Abroad. We have a fantastic director for our international center. Alex Cooley, he’s been here a year. He’s accomplished an awful lot in a year. We’re trying to put an awful lot of effort and resources behind enlivening that international presence.

My investiture will be in October. I want you to know, it’ll be on Friday the 13th and I’m a little uncomfortable with that. But the President of Landshut University in Germany will be coming to the United States just to attend my investiture. I say that because we’ve got a wonderful relationship with Landshut. We were talking about the Dual Degree program. We have students from Landshut who study here for a year and we send students there. You graduate with a degree from USC Upstate and a degree from Landshut, and it’s a one-year experience. The Carolinian telling that level of story – that it’s not just about the student experience – that it’s also connected to this larger university priority and partnership, and making people aware of that, is important. The other piece that you have to do, that’s your goal in journalism, is to ask a lot of questions about what’s going on. Especially when you have questions that people are uncomfortable with, and that’ll happen from time to time. You owe it to the alumni, and you owe it to the other students, and you owe it to the community in the Upstate and the state of South Carolina to be part of holding public institutions accountable for doing the best job possible. It’s hard work. We don’t have a billion dollars to work with. We have more ambitions than we do money, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in a constant dialogue about what comes next for the University and how we’re going to go about doing business.


When asked about the Communications field…

If we were savvier at discussion and debate and articulation and perspective, hopefully we’d decrease the levels of hatred and violence and incivility that we see in our culture and that we’ve been grappling with this past week. If, for this particular area, I would love to ensure that every single student is getting a great understanding of the full breadth of their skillset and all the places it fits in the world so that when you graduate, you don’t think you have to just go and get a job in theatre, or a job in mass media. It’s a totally transferable skillset. I got my undergraduate degree in Public Relations and that has served me very well as a university professor and as a consultant, and as a father and husband. Especially when the other Dr. Kelly is mad at me. I think walking away knowing that, it’s always been a struggle with communications students because some of them graduate and go, “I don’t exactly know what I am.” And the answer to that is, you have one of the most robust tool kits of anyone else in the world, as long as you choose to use it for the forces of good and not evil.


Q: What was your reaction to the events in Charlottesville?

A: I don’t know if you can have another reaction than just being disgusted and sad. Scared, frustrated… very frustrated. But, there is no place for hatred and violence and racism and bigotry in public discourse. There is no utility. It accomplishes absolutely nothing. It just destroys the great work of so many people trying to enliven the human community. I don’t know what else to tell you on that front except that we have a duty to ensure that we play a role in making a better human community. Communications is critical, absolutely critical. And the type of communication is even more critical.


Q: What is your vision for the branding of USC Upstate?

A: One, there’s a mechanics question there and that’s, “How are we going to go about that and what would it look like and feel like,” and then there’s “What would it mean.” So, let’s go with “what would it mean” first. I would love for our brand to be one where people feel, they sense, they are enveloped in a feeling of pride, relevance, and that the institution is well-known as a major regional partner. As a place where you can go as a company to find talent, a place where you can go as a student to find opportunity, a place where you can go as a faculty member or a staff member and find a deeply satisfying career, and a place where you can go as an alum to take pride in what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve been associated with. That’s what it would mean.

Now, how do we get there? That’s the mechanics question. We’re going to go through a long process right now and this is important for all of you because of the areas of study you all have. We are restructuring members of marketing and communications as we speak. Organizations restructuring in terms of purpose. So that we only get our resources working in the most important things, that are going to move the ball down the field the quickest. We’re trying to put in place the right government structure, the guideline structure, the right storytelling structure so that we put people like Carolyn Farr-Shanesy, (people) who are leaders in our storytelling mechanism are provided the opportunity to have a laser focus strategy where we’re trying to touch base with target audiences. Not so much worried about anybody touching it, but target audiences.

The second piece is that we have to get all of our standards together. So, all of you have seen a t-shirt with one green and another t-shirt with another green, and their fonts might not match… well, that doesn’t work out. Once we have that structure in place, then we can do the fun stuff. Which is, “What does it look like?,” and “how do we go and tell those stories?,” and “how do you feel that brand when you see a billboard, a television commercial, a radio commercial, a t-shirt, an experience at an athletic event, at orientation, in our recruitment materials, the poster you see at Haywood Mall?” And do you feel that same university through all of those experiences, and then when you pick up the phone and call the University, do you still feel that same experience of brand? That is a branding-from-the-core approach and that is not easy at a public university, because public universities are very complex. But that’s the process that we’re going through. It’s going to take a little while to get all of those pieces in place, because it can’t happen overnight. Creative can’t happen overnight. My hope is that – month by month – just like The Carolinian, you’re going to feel the brand of the University elevate all the time because we’re going to constantly be putting efforts into that strategy.