Charles Atkinson – University of Pikeville
It’s essentially a living entity that never sleeps, Charles Atkinson says of the University of Pikeville, where he serves as director of facilities. And the backbone of this small private school in Eastern Kentucky that’s affiliated with the Presbyterian Church?
“That’s my team,” he says. “It’s what I tell the new members. Without us, nobody would want to go to this school. They wouldn’t have a place to learn or teach.”
But they do, and he emphasizes how UPike is ascertaining its status as a university of choice, with much help from Atkinson and his 15 to 20 hired hands in facilities and construction. On his watch, the nursing school has undergone an overhaul, and he anticipates grounds soon to break for a dental school partially seeded by $25 million from the estate of the late Kentucky lawyer and philanthropist Robert B. Tanner.
A new aluminum bridge has replaced the crumbling concrete structure that was used to connect a couple of the campus buildings. Then there are plans to upgrade the athletic facilities, as well as him overseeing such standard projects as refreshing dormitories, administrative buildings and the library with energy savings and Americans with Disabilities compliance in mind.
“We’re not just building buildings, we’re also building campus culture,” Atkinson tells Blueprint in November. “Through our work, we can sell this university as an attractive place for students, faculty and staff.”
Nurturing future nurses
He seems especially proud of his team’s performance in the healthcare facilities. There’s much demand everywhere for young nurses, dentists and dental hygienists, and the shortage can be especially acute in rural regions such as Appalachia, of which Pikeville and its surroundings are part.
The Elliott School of Nursing upgrade was underway when Atkinson joined the university in November 2020 after his 20 years of overseeing facilities and securities at Express Services Inc. in Oklahoma City. Atkinson picked the brain of his retiring predecessor, John Holman, and seamlessly took over the project, continuing the gutting and overhauling of one floor annually and putting the finishing touches on the four-level structure last year.
Graduates should be well positioned for the many opportunities to be registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nursing assistants, he says. The COVID-19 pandemic having caused much nursing burnout, healthcare providers are in hiring mode, and he assures that the Elliott School is on a par of that of a major university.
“We’ve created simulation labs, new testing centers, offices for staffers and a computer lab,” Atkinson says. “By tackling every aspect, we’ve enabled our students to enter the workforce better prepared than their peers from other places. They have hands-on experience administering IVs, moving patients from bed to bathroom, using lifts … everything they need to prepare for the workforce.”
He’s equally enthused about what will be the Tanner College of Dental Medicine, which stems from the result of a needs assessment showing that such education and training need to be improved in rural Kentucky. The project’s now in the hands of architects entrusted with schematic design, and the goal is to admit the first class in July 2025.
“This area needs dental provisions,” Atkinson says. “As pretty as Appalachia is, it has some of the poorest populations. Many people can’t drive an hour to see a dentist in Pikeville. We want to train students to start clinics in these parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.”
Another project in its infancy is what will be the Bear Mountain athletic complex. Atkinson has crews laying down roads and infrastructure for a modest football stadium and baseball, soccer and track facilities. Atkinson notes the archery and bowling teams are nationally ranked, and the other squads perform competitively against other small schools. Besides, he says, sport contributes to a greater community, and UPike would be richer in tangible and intangible ways once several thousand people attend football games on an autumn Saturday.
With so many projects underway and this being a small school with limited funds, Atkinson must find ways to economize, and he’s done so by eliminating as much outside spending as is practically possible. He’ll likely always need architects and engineers, but most of the hands-on work—the plumbing, wiring, welding, painting etc.—is done by his hires.
When Atkinson onboards a new hand for facilities or construction, he ensures that person be trained in the trades by veterans. Fortunately, he’s inherited some well-seasoned personnel, including a man who’s been tending to UPike’s facilities for 40-something years.
That said, he acknowledges there is a national shortage of young tradespeople and how the university must recruit and retain through competitive pay supplemented by benefits. It’s all part of his emphasis on greater campus culture, which extends into his weekly meetings with other departments.
“I need their feedback,” he says. “A campus is like a small city with housing, student affairs, food service, housekeeping, safety. We all come together at operations meetings, share what’s happening and try to tear down silos.”
As to how Atkinson came to this role, it wasn’t in his original plan. An Oklahoma-raised son of an auto mechanic, he recalls his father saying, “Son, pay attention. You might learn something,” and how it paid off, though he wasn’t interested in tooling with cars.
He was interested in teaching, and after his 1994 graduation from Southern Nazarene University, Atkinson did teach school. However, the mechanical mindset instilled by his father had him gravitating to construction and furthering his credentials with a certificate in facilities management from the International Facility Management Association and a recent MBA.
And, as Atkinson rhetorically asks, what better place than a university to satisfy one’s interests in construction and education? All the better, he says, that it’s in Eastern Kentucky that’s become such an agreeable home to his wife and him. An empty-nest couple, they’re much involved in church and community.
Ever the builder, Atkinson’s always got some do-it-yourself project at home. An outdoorsman with a wife formidable in kitchen skills, he had just bagged a buck, and she delighted friends with venison pizza. Autumns being long and colorful in these parts, he and a friend hiked 19 miles of Pine Mountain along the Kentucky/Virginia border the day after Thanksgiving.
But the time for such pursuits can be short, given Atkinson’s to-do list and what’s at stake.
“Bringing education to this region is our mission,” he says. “And without the facilities team, it couldn’t be done.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2024 Edition here.
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