CLINTON — When Ashford University President James Chitwood talks about the progress his school has made in the past year, he does so with optimism and with a smile.

The year has exceeded his expectations.

“Whenever there is any change — change can be a very difficult element and change can often bring turmoil — we haven’t seen it,” Chitwood said. “Everybody has been very much on board and receptive to the changes that have been necessary. I’ve been extremely pleased with the way everything has gone.”

Ashford is celebrating its first year in business. Founded as Mount St. Clare College and Academy and sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis, The Franciscan University of the Prairies was sold to Bridgepoint Education, based in Poway, Calif., in March 2005.

According to Chitwood, the biggest changes have been in the administrative structure and the addition of personnel.

“There was not a vice-president of academic affairs before,” Chitwood explained, “Now we have a vice-president of academic affairs (Hope Gardina) who oversees the academic side and the president, who’s focus is more on administration.”

The university has hired more than 43 new employees with more to come. Chitwood said everyone is being hired so quickly he can’t keep an accurate total. The new staff members serve both the campus and on-line programs.

“There were already 70 full-time staff members and we’ve hired an additional 43. That’s a significant infusion of personnel.”

But more people means less space and Chitwood has had to move his staff around. “They are all sharing offices and we are running out of room,” he laughed.

University officials have made the commitment to upgrade the computer labs as well as the animation equipment.

“We have made the decisions of implementing a staged upgrading plan,” Chitwood explained. “We can’t do them all at once. A staged implementation was to begin four years ago — but had not. It will be an ongoing process.”

Numerous physical changes have been made to the campus including the replacement of more than 100 mattresses and covers, new furniture in the dorm lounges and added television sets. In the student union, furniture has been replaced, pool tables recovered and a ping pong table added.

“Some purchases were not so glamorous — but very costly,” Chitwood said, including a new freezer and fire alarm upgrades.

Andrew Clark, chairman of the university’s board of directors, said Ashford has made a lot of investments locally in a variety of ways.

“One of the big investments we’ve made was in getting the word out because we’ve viewed Ashford as kind of a really well-known ‘best kept secret,’” Clark told the Herald in a phone interview. “It’s a wonderful university with great faculty, great students, great staff, but they (Sisters of St. Francis) hadn’t really been able to put any great financial resources into getting the word out.”

Clark said Bridgepoint also has also invested in the community financially.

“We spent a lot of money in the community in terms of community involvement,” Clark said. “The dollars that we spent in 2005 was over $30,000 put toward events like Riverboat Days.”

Chitwood has progressive plans for the future.

“We will be a pre-eminent university in the Midwest region,” he said. “We’re going after international students for the first time. This is a focused effort. We have hired people — that is their focus. Students who will be in this city and on our campus.”

According to Chitwood, the online staff and infrastructure is growing so fast that within the next couple of years they will have to move that program off the campus to another Clinton location.

“It’s a lot of jobs we’re talking about,” Chitwood explained. “A lot of white collar, non-polluting jobs.”

Ashford and Bridgepoint already are looking at buildings because the new Enrollment Center that opened in September is bursting at the seams.

Clark said the university has done a good job of demonstrating it’s here to stay.

“Not only stay but grow and contribute to the university campus and the Clinton community.”

Chitwood believes in what he and his staff are doing.

“Having a high academic program, having the resources to continually invest in ourselves, improve, evolve — while doing that and adding a diversified student base — we will be the premiere Midwest university, right here in Clinton, Iowa,” Chitwood concluded. “It’s going to be pretty exciting.”