By Bob Castello
Brendan Kelly realizes he’s an easy target.
“I’m 6-5, I’m always in a suit and I walk fast,” said Kelly, who is two years into his position as chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate.
He can be caught, but more often than not, he stops on his own to talk with students, faculty members, various other employees of the school — anyone from whom he can gain insight.
Since his arrival in March 2017, USC Upstate, which Kelly said has an economic impact of $506 billion in a 10-county region of the Upstate, has seen its enrollment rise from 5,821 to 6,175 (it’s the fifth-largest university in the state); its academic affairs undergo a total reorganization; and its athletic teams switch conferences.
Kelly also has overseen the implementation of a strategic plan — “Up. Together” — that he hopes will lead the way for even more growth in the years to come.
“We’re trying to create a better place to live for students, a better place to learn and certainly a better place to work for everybody who is part of this university community,” Kelly said.
Kelly, 44, a native of Flint, Michigan, has merged simple roots with a background in speech and debate in order to not only speak to the masses but listen to them.
“I worked in restaurants while I was in college and high school,” he said. “The only thing that makes a successful restaurant is, how much does the customer enjoy the food and the experience? That’s a lot of things tied together. How clean is the floor? How good is the service? How does the food taste? Do I feel like people were grateful that I came? I think those same principles work anywhere.
“For us, we have to be assessing the national landscape in higher education and addressing all of the institutional priorities, of course. But at the end of the day, it’s the user experience. … The only thing that should be hard about going to college is the work you do in class. Everything else should be easy. If it’s not, then we’re doing it wrong. We have to make it so that we remove impediments.”
Kelly has been all about creating more and better opportunities for both the students and the area businesses for which they are likely to serve. After all, more than 80 percent of the university’s graduates remain in the Upstate.
Kelly has engrained himself in the community after beginning his career in his home state at Eastern Michigan University, his alma mater, and serving for 13 years at the University of West Florida.
Kelly and his wife, Tressa, both have their PhD’s. Tressa Kelly was on the staff at EMU and UWF and is now an adjunct instructor at both Wofford and UWF. The couple has three children: Bree, 18, Liam 15, and Kieran 12.
Brendan Kelly earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern Michigan and a doctorate from Wayne State University in Detroit. He was a faculty member and the director of the speech and debate program at EMU, which was one of the top three programs in the country.
In 2004, he moved to West Florida, which didn’t even have a speech and debate team.
“Four years later,” he said, “we were one of the top 20 teams in the country.”
He went on to become chair of the Department of Communication Arts, then director of the School of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts and then vice president of university advancement.
Kelly said he was being recruited by several universities, but USC Upstate stood out.
“All I saw was opportunity, because there weren’t other large regional comprehensive universities providing for the needs of this region,” Kelly said.
Since Kelly’s arrival, academics have undergone a facelift. The College of Arts and Sciences has been eliminated and University College has been created, which he said is “all of the component parts of academic affairs that are focused on students staying in college and graduating successfully.”
“That’s been a difference-maker for us,” he said.
The College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Science and Technology, both smaller, have been created to help everyone within each program to speak the same language. The Center for African American Studies also has been added.
The school also has added programs in supply chain logistics and business analytics, and the Medical development program has been expanded.
USC Upstate already has the largest bachelor of science in nursing program in the state. Seventy percent of Spartanburg Regional’s nursing workforce is comprised of USC Upstate graduates.
Where athletics are concerned, Kelly had USC Upstate move from the Atlantic Sun Conference to the Big South Conference. In the A-Sun, the Spartans had one opponent less than 300 miles away; in the Big South, they have one that is more than 300.
“Last year, our students missed 1,200 classes for travel that they are back in this year,” Kelly said. “The cost savings creates an opportunity to invest more in making positive student experiences.”
In addition, 71 percent of the school’s 257 student-athletes have above a 3.0 grade-point average, with 10 percent at 4.0.
Kelly turned a conversation with the vice president of a local company into the school’s More Places to Sit initiative, which put a plan in place that invited students to stay on campus.
The strategic plan involved about 500 people, with chamber of commerce and community leaders, donors, faculty, staff and students all participating in the process.
The plan calls for improving education, enhancing the quality of life in the Upstate and being the “university of choice” for employees and students.
“We need to be much more visible than we’ve been,” Kelly said. “We’ve been a quiet partner to the region, and that shouldn’t be the case. We should be a point of pride for everyone.
“We’re not competitors with a Clemson or a USC Columbia. Those are institutions that have different missions than we do. There is no reason why people can’t love more than one university, and there is no reason why everybody shouldn’t love this one, because it is really in service to the place in which we live. That is where I hope we are in a few years, that that’s how we’re viewed as an institution in the hearts and minds of our many stakeholders.”