Becoming a college president at 31 was not originally in Charles L. Welch's plans.
Now he is heading his third institution of higher education, and is still only 39. In April 2011 he became president of the Arkansas State University system, making him the youngest president of a public system in the country, after having served as one of the youngest college presidents. He leads a system of 10 campuses and more than 19,000 students, about three-quarters of them at the flagship Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.
"By nature, I'm a very high energy person, with that enthusiasm level, and that optimism level," he says. Arkansas, he notes, "has historically lagged behind in educational-attainment rates. There's a lot of work that I want to do."
Higher education was not his first career choice. He grew up in Jonesboro, where the Arkansas State University system's offices are. The son of a truck-driving father and a stay-at-home mother, he was the first person in his family to attend college. At the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he studied political science, planning to go on to a law degree and then to seek public office. At college, as in high school, he was elected to lead the student body.
During the presidency of the Arkansas native Bill Clinton, Mr. Welch went to the White House as an intern. He then worked on the staffs of Sen. David Pryor and Rep. Blanche Lincoln, and obtained his master's degree in political management at George Washington University. After he returned to Arkansas to work with Jimmie Lou Fisher, the states's long-term treasurer, his political pedigree only grew.
But Mr. Welch felt more and more drawn to education—because, he says, he saw that educators could change young people's lives. Not one of his grandparents had made it past eighth grade before leaving school to work on family farms, but he had attained a doctoral degree: "So I knew that access to higher education could be literally a life-altering experience, as it was not only for me but for my entire family," he says. Thanks to higher education, "I'm able to live a lifestyle that I'd never dreamed possible," he says.
His first administrative position—assumed while he was still at work on his doctorate in educational administration at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock—was as dean of university studies at Pulaski Technical College. A vice chancellorship at Arkansas State University at Beebe followed, then the chancellorship of the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope, in 2005, and the presidency of four-year Henderson State University, from 2008 to 2011.
Mr. Welch attributes his success to developing a circle of mentors, and to a string of retirements among Arkansas's higher-education leaders. That caught higher education in Arkansas without a leadership "farm team" to readily occupy the vacancies, he says. And now, he wryly adds, it is his job to fill that void, so the lack of such a team "has gone from being a big benefit to me, to being a big challenge."
The president of the Arkansas State University Board of Trustees, Ron Rhodes, a successful real-estate agent, is a big fan of Mr. Welch: "His experience belies his age," he says. He has short but valuable experience in political settings—"in higher ed today, that's critical"—and "certainly his vitality was something that we hoped would translate into the energy that he has brought to the job."
To raise Arkansas's academic standards and to bolster the university's financial picture, Mr. Welch has put together a strong leadership team.
Why don't more institutions end up hiring young dynamos?
Mr. Welch says less-seasoned candidates might have fresh ideas to offer institutions that want to blaze new paths—and they could be around for the 20 years it may take to consolidate them.
Provided they can manage being so busy. Mr. Welch, for instance, might rush to a university luncheon from a meeting with his athletic director, and then soon dash out to attend a grade-school pageant involving one of his three daughters.
Of the responsibilities that come with his young family, he says: "I realize that most of my counterparts aren't doing those kinds of things."