ABOVE: The opening spread of the 2007 Coastal Magazine cover story
David DeCenzo grew up in Clinton, Md., a small bedroom community outside Washington, D.C. He was a good athlete in high school, lettering in football, wrestling, baseball and track. After graduating in 1973, he enrolled in the local police cadet program. During the three years he was with the Prince George’s County Police Department, he learned a few lessons that have stuck with him.
“One of the best things I learned was how to talk to angry people,” says DeCenzo. “I learned that there are people out there who dislike other people because of a uniform, a badge, a patch on your arm -- because of what these things represent. I’ve been spit at and put in situations that were potentially explosive. I learned to remain calm, to figure out how to defuse a situation rather than inflame it.”
DeCenzo’s potential was recognized within the department, and his mentors on the force encouraged him to continue his education. In his three years as a cadet he earned two years of college credit, taking evening classes at the local community college. He was interested in business and economics, and during his final semester there he won a Wall Street Journal Junior Achievement award. Then he received a senatorial scholarship that enabled him to go on to the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1978, specializing in labor economics.
With the nation in the middle of a recession, DeCenzo encountered a poor job market upon graduating, so he applied to graduate schools and was accepted for an assistantship at West Virginia University. Soon after enrolling he learned about a brand new Ph.D. program in industrial relations that combined studies in labor economics, business psychology, sociology and labor law. The program appealed to DeCenzo’s interests, and he became its second graduate in 1981.
Upon graduating he took a job as assistant professor at University of Baltimore where he met his wife Terri, who grew up in nearby Eldersburg. They married in 1982 and now have four children: Mark, Meredith, Gabriella, and Natalie.
After three years on the faculty at Baltimore, DeCenzo knew that higher education was his true vocation, but he decided that experience in the corporate world was necessary to his development as a business professor. He joined Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland as a corporate training/ employee development specialist.
“It’s always been my passion to work with people,” says DeCenzo. “I enjoy developed methods to enhance their skills in ways that benefit them as well as the company they work for.”
At Blue Cross, he and a colleague created a management development program for secretarial-level administrative staff. Based on the principle that administrative staffers apply much the same skill sets to perform their jobs as upper-level managers, the program they implemented was extremely well received throughout the company.
While DeCenzo was employed there, the “merging of the blues” -- the great merger of the formerly separate Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies into one giant corporation -- took place. It was a mammoth administrative/ managerial undertaking, and the experience DeCenzo received as a consequence proved very useful to him in his chosen field of study.
“My original plan was to work in the corporate world for five years, but as a result of the merger and all the fun and games associated with that kind of event, I felt I got five years of experience in two.”
After he had been at Blue Cross Blue Shield for about two and a half years, he was invited to join the faculty at Towson University in Baltimore. It was, he felt, the right time and the right place to re-enter academe. In the fall of 1986 he joined the faculty as an associate professor of management, beginning a 16-year association with Towson.
These were years of steady accomplishment as a teacher, scholar and administrator. He rose from tenured vice chair to chair of the management department to associate dean of Towson’s business school. He co-wrote two highly regarded and widely used textbooks on supervision and management. He published dozens of articles in professional and scholastic journals. He began a long association with the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the international accrediting agency for business schools.
During his final years at Towson, DeCenzo ran the business school’s external department as director of partnership development, forging synergistic alliances between the university and companies such as Moen Inc., VITAL Resources and Motorola Inc. His academic/corporate expertise also led him into consulting. Companies and agencies he has served include Citicorp Global Technology, AlliedSignal Technical Services and, more recently, Burroughs & Chapin Company and the Conway Chamber of Commerce.
DeCenzo knew about Coastal and South Carolina long before he applied for the position of dean of CCU’s E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business in 2002. His family vacationed in Myrtle Beach while he was growing up, and he had collected a store of fond memories of the area. Also, in 1968, as a result of the Pueblo incident (when North Korea captured an American military ship), his father’s national guard unit was sent from its home at Andrews Air Force Base to the Myrtle Beach AFB for a time.
During most of his years at Towson, DeCenzo participated in an annual academic conference for college business schools held every September in Myrtle Beach. The Wall College always had a large role in the event, and over the years DeCenzo got to know some of the school’s faculty— and something about the culture of Coastal as well.
“Coastal was known as a place with a congenial atmosphere for teaching and learning,” he remembers. “The faculty who were hired at Coastal stayed at Coastal. There was no revolving door. That sense of morale is passed to the students. It’s something you don’t find at every university. Often on my way to this annual conference I would swing through the campus from Highway 501 periodically to see how much it had grown since my last visit. I always had a feeling that Coastal was a diamond in the rough that was clearly becoming an institution of importance.”
When DeCenzo learned that the position of dean of the Wall College was open, he knew Coastal was where he wanted to be. He got the job in July 2002 and immediately set about enhancing the reach and the quality of Coastal’s business program. During his four years as dean, he led the movement to start an M.B.A. program, established the Wall Center for Excellence and the Retired Executive-in-Residence programs, and expanded student internship opportunities in the U.S and abroad.
DeCenzo was promoted to the position of provost and chief academic officer in May 2006, the same month that Coastal formed an advisory committee to begin the search for a new president. He was one of the 76 original applicants for the president’s position, and was among the five chosen finalists. Although the competition was stiff and complicated, DeCenzo was named president by the board of trustees in February 2007. Veteran CCU professor and administrator Edgar Dyer, the other chief contender for the job, was named the executive vice president, a new position that focuses on the areas of strategic planning, capital projects and government relations.
DeCenzo officially became Coastal’s new leader on May 7 when outgoing President Ronald R. Ingle presented him with the seal of office. Within a week of taking the helm he hired a new provost, Robert Sheehan of the University of Toledo, and began the process of defining the direction the university will take under his leadership.
The broad outline of the new president’s vision is contained in a document called “20/20,” a blueprint-in-progress for Coastal’s next decade. The name of the plan according to DeCenzo, does double duty, referring to goals the university will achieve by the year 2020 and also a clarity of vision.
The four primary goals of 20/20 are: (1) meet the educational needs of our stakeholders, (2) ensure student success, (3) ensure faculty and staff success and (4) ensure the financial viability of the university.
DeCenzo says his personal goal is for Coastal Carolina University to become the university of choice for students seeking a four-year degree from a college or university in the state of South Carolina. Despite the success of CCU’s enrollment numbers, a higher percentage of many students say that Coastal was not their first choice. Many in-state students regard Coastal as a “safety-net” school, according to DeCenzo, where students can get their start before moving on to another institution. This is something he plans to change.
“When I address freshman and ask them if they are planning to come back, I get about a third of the hands that say ‘no,” says DeCenzo. “I’m often asked if their response bothers me and I answer ‘No, it doesn’t.’ My feeling is that those students are on our campus now, and we have a year to prove ourselves. If we can’t prove the value of what Coastal has to offer in their first year, shame on us.”
This is the cover of the 2000 Coastal Magazine issue. Story was written by current Coastal Carolina staff member Doug Bell