Region’s new college presidents chart their own course

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The first few weeks on any new job can be chaotic and exciting. There are new people to meet, policies to learn and a chance to set up your office in your own way. 

It is no different for new college presidents. Many begin their roles in mid-summer when a college campus is quieter and lacks the same level of energy as the fall or spring. But that time also offers an opportunity for new leaders to get their bearings and meet with board members, administrators, faculty, students and staff.

Credit: Dan Profio Photography

That’s exactly how Cindy Gnadinger spent the first few weeks as the new president of Carroll University, so it is understandable the tags were still on the chairs in her office in mid-August as she discussed her vision for Carroll. Gnadinger also pointed out her new conference table was yet to arrive and she was waiting to make sure the chairs fit the table.

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The challenge of setting up the office wasn’t unique to Gnadinger. Six weeks into his role as Carthage College president, John Swallow had yet to figure out how he would rearrange his office. He’d taken to asking visitors for their input.

Decisions about office furniture are pretty small in the scope of things a college president has to do. Gnadinger arrives at Carroll after the tenure of Doug Hastad, who took the school from a college to a university and capped off his time by starting more than $50 million in capital improvement projects. When he arrived in 2006, Hastad launched a strategic plan the school has now lived out. 

“This is my time to do the same,” Gnadinger said. “We’re going to dive totally in and launch a full-scale strategic plan.”

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Carthage is in the midst of capital improvements of its own. It is currently constructing a $21.5 million residence hall, and received a $15 million gift last year for a career and welcome center, on the heels of opening a $43 million science center in 2015. 

Gnadinger and Swallow are among a group of six new presidents named either last year or this year at private higher education institutions in southeastern Wisconsin. The six are tasked with charting a course for schools that together serve roughly 16,000 students.

The infusion of new leadership comes at a time of increasing tuition and frequent questions about the value of a college degree or of a liberal arts education. Surveys from the Pew Research Center and other organizations have shown an increasing number of people think colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, while those who see a degree as necessary for success in the workforce is declining.

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“The business model is broken,” said David Black, now on his second stint as president of Lakeland University. “I have for years wondered, what is the new model that would in fact work?”

Lakeland is in the process of adopting a new approach to its undergraduate programs focused on co-operative education. Black said the idea is to lengthen the school year closer to 11 or 12 months, but give students the opportunity for paid work experiences at area companies to help minimize their debt burden and prepare them to enter the workforce.

Black, like many of the other new school leaders, emphasized the value of a liberal arts education, but said there’s no reason students can’t also graduate with a relationship with a world-class company or organization.

“Liberal arts colleges have always had three objectives for students – understanding, knowledge and wisdom. It’s precious,” he said. “My goodness, how do you make sense out of Charlottesville if you lack understanding or knowledge or wisdom? So there’s a reason for us to continue, but we have to continue in a business or operating model that is sustainable.”

Getting to know a new place

Black previously led Lakeland from 1989 to 1997 before leaving to become president of Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Unlike many of the other new presidents, he steps into the job with the benefit of the relationships he maintained over the past 20 years.

Others have to begin building relationships in a new city. Christine Pharr, Mount Mary University’s new president, met with every board member individually for an hour-and-a-half and offered all faculty and staff the opportunity to meet with her for 30 minutes. She said some came prepared with a detailed list of talking points to discuss and while it is a bit of a scheduling nightmare, the process has helped her get to know the institution.

Swallow credited Carthage’s presidential transition committee for setting up meetings with local leaders he needed to get to know, including those in government, nonprofits and the business community.

“I’m not sure I would have come up with those ideas myself,” he said.

John Walz, who took over as president at Milwaukee School of Engineering in 2016, said he was once advised to take the first year to learn as much as possible about the institution. He tried to adhere to that while also getting his leadership team set.

“There’s been a lot of stuff the first year just laying the base,” he said.

Like Black, Sister Andrea Lee was able to hit the ground running at Alverno College thanks to her previous three years on the school’s board of directors. She transitioned from president of St. Catherine University in Minneapolis-St. Paul to president of Alverno over the course of a weekend.

“It was not a hard transition for me because I already knew the institution,” she said. “I was captured by the magic and the mission of Alverno.”

Lee said she believes women’s colleges allow student potential and leadership to take hold. That’s especially true, she said, when combined with Alverno’s abilities-based education, which includes things like communication, analysis, problem-solving and developing a global perspective. 

“They do embody the skills employers tell us they are looking for,” Lee said. 

The other five new presidents expressed a similar sentiment – the mission of the schools that selected them helped draw them to Wisconsin.

Pharr, who was previously an administrator at a women’s college in Omaha, Nebraska, said she “saw what that did to empower women and Mount Mary is very similar in nature to that institution, so for me this is a logical career step.”

“I think that this is a very mission-focused institution and I really care about that,” she said. 

Gnadinger, a self-described history nut, said she saw Carroll’s founding as the state’s first four-year institution of higher education, combined with its recent emphasis on health sciences, as a sign the school was able to adapt. 

“What that told me was this is an institution rooted in history, deep in tradition, but is also aware of and meets the needs of its community,” she said. 

Swallow saw something similar in Carthage’s relocation in 1962 from Illinois to Kenosha and the continued evolution of its programs. He said the school has been willing to ask what the world needs and then participate in delivering it. 

“I am not afraid of that question,” Swallow said. “I don’t think that question is going to lead us to a fundamentally different institution, but I think it can offer us new opportunities.”

Walz, previously the engineering dean at the University of Kentucky, said MSOE fit exactly what he imagined if he ever did become a college president. 

“One thing about being small and private is you can be nimble, you have the ability to respond quickly to opportunities, maybe more than you would have at a large state school,” he said. 

MSOE was founded to prepare students for the workforce, Walz said, and given the school’s emphasis in engineering, business and nursing, it is well-positioned for today’s job market. 

“There’s always a need for schools like us and there’s always a demand for the types of students that we graduate here,” he said. “So you keep that as your base and then you answer the question of how can you do that better.”

Addressing challenges

Doing better is a challenge for all of the institutions, especially in the area of tuition. Black pointed out tuition has gone up as technology, insurance and other costs have gone up for schools, “but family incomes, adjusted for inflation, have remained essentially static in the Midwest for 40 years.”

“So how do we make all of that work?” he asked. 

Private schools often point out most students don’t pay the full tuition price after receiving scholarships and other financial aid, but Swallow said there should be more simplicity. 

“I am disappointed sometimes at how complicated it is for a student and a family to learn what they need to learn about what it will cost,” he said, noting someone once pointed out to him there aren’t other industries where the consumer indicates his or her interest in making a purchase, sends in a tax form and then hears nine months later whether he or she can make the purchase and what the price will be. 

“That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but it just shows you how complicated it can be … the first question should be, ‘How will I be a more developed person after four years at this institution?’”

Walz and Pharr both said they understand that costs are going up, but added there is still value in a higher education. 

“It’s the best investment you can make in your life and I really believe that,” Pharr said. “What you pay for your education, even if you have some debt when you come out, that’s going to last you a lifetime and that’s what we have to get across to students.

“I understand that it’s getting more expensive.No one likes that. We don’t like that,” Walz said. “But I still believe that education is a worthwhile endeavor. Is a college education necessary for everything? Probably not. But I’m a big believer that education provides opportunities to people.”

Swallow said he doesn’t have a “grand solution” but suggests schools embrace honesty and transparency when it comes to their value, along with whatever it is that makes the college distinctive. 

“I’m not sure that liberal arts colleges as a sector are fundamentally challenged. I think a lot of them have a lot to offer at prices that people can afford,” he said. “I would also say the success of many of those institutions will be by being distinctive. This is not a good time to be offering an education that seems just like 20 other institutions.”

Lee said making the case to prospective Alverno students is “probably the easiest and hardest task I have.” 

When students are already interested in the school, it is easy to point at the success of graduates.

“The difficult part is if you never get a chance to do that,” she said, noting some prospective students write off the school because it is an all-women’s college. 

Gnadinger said “the liberal arts are alive and well and very much needed in our world today.”

“I don’t worry as much about that,” she said. “What I think we need to do is just sort of change the way we frame our discussions.”

Students used to come to college for the education and that was it. They would figure out the job portion later. 

“Now we know students and parents in our society today really want to know as they come to school, ‘What kind of job can I get?’” Gnadinger said. “So we just need to change our way of conversing about our different degree programs.”

During her time at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Pharr said the school sought to make its business program more responsive to the community’s needs. After a survey determined businesses weren’t getting enough people who could turn data into decisions or communicate those decisions to stakeholders, the school launched a business analytics and strategic communications program. 

The program was based in general education and basic business classes, but focused on analysis and strategic communication. Students had one job shadow and two internships, and every one had a job before graduation, Pharr said. 

“I think it was a perfect example of what happens when you go to the community and say, ‘What do you need?’ and then you try and fashion your curriculum so it’s responsive to those needs,” she said.  

All of the new presidents said they would look to deepen their institutions’ ties to the business and wider communities, whether through expanded internships and career services or through advisory boards and other relationships. 

But if Lakeland’s Black is able to complete the university’s transition to a co-op model, it will represent one of the more significant moves toward more engagement with the business community. He said the school is fortunate to share a community with world-class, family-owned companies who respect the school and are interested in participating.

“We’re in the planning stages and in the partnering stages, so we’re putting the model on paper,” he said, noting companies need workers now, but one of the questions is what will happen when the economy eventually reaches a downturn. “If we do this as a partnership, there has to be some co-ownership. … That’s a conversation that’s going on; they don’t want to make a promise they can’t keep.”

Black said the pressure to fundraise and have good corporate relationships has meant the job of college presidents has become more about raising money and less about ideas. 

“I get that and I must do it, but not to the expense of the ideas,” he said. 

He wants to find a model that takes some of the pressure off of fundraising and makes the support more of a partnership. 

“Those from whom we ask funds would be getting something from us in return – that is the work, knowledge – and would still invest but maybe instead of through a gift they would pay students, who would then pay their tuition,” he said. “I just think the model needs to change and I just couldn’t wait to try it.”

Even after retiring once?

“Aw heck, retirement is really overrated and my wife’s so happy that I’m here,” Black said. “I was driving her crazy.”  

Cindy Gnadinger, Carroll University

Age: 50

Undergraduate degree: B.S. in elementary education

Previous job: President, St. Catharine College

Childhood dream job: Third grade teacher

Favorite thing about your school: “The people! Our students are enthusiastic and achieve at high levels, and the faculty and staff are fully committed to our students’ success, which shows in their work each and every day.”

Favorite book: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger – “After all these years, I still find it a timeless depiction of adolescent angst.”

Favorite music genre: Americana-bluegrass rock

Three words to describe you: Compassionate, energetic and driven

Best advice you’ve ever received: “If you want something you’ve never had, then you must do something you’ve never done.”

Interview excerpt: Gnadinger is actually the second woman to be named the first female president of Carroll, since Sara Ray Stoelinga withdrew in February after initially being chosen. Gnadinger said that situation hasn’t come up much in her first few weeks. “I’ve not actually heard anything about it. You are the first to bring that up,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be here and think it’s an opportunity that I was just fortunate enough to be part of.”


John Swallow, Carthage College

Age: 47

Undergraduate degree: Bachelor of arts (summa cum laude) in mathematics and English literature, The University of the South

Previous job: Provost and executive vice president, The University of the South

Childhood dream job: College professor (really!)

Favorite thing about your school: “The warmth and friendliness of everyone on campus.”

Favorite book: “The Aeneid”

Favorite music genre: Contemporary jazz

Three words to describe you: Friendly, focused, curious

Best advice you’ve ever received: “Know thyself.”

Interview excerpt: Swallow is originally from North Carolina and lived for the past several years in Tennessee. He was surprised when someone stopped him before he went for a bike ride on an 80-degree day to express concern about the heat and humidity. As for Wisconsin winters, he said he’s been warned: “I hear there’s a lot of clothing one might need so I’m prepared to be making some purchases.”


Christine Pharr

Mount Mary University

Age: 60

Undergraduate degree: Chemistry and biology

Previous job: Vice president for academic affairs and vice president for alumnae and donor relations at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska.

Childhood dream job: Cowgirl who could wear boots, hat and holster every day.

Favorite thing about your school: “I’m impressed by the multidimensional approach we take to educating the whole person. In addition to creating working professionals, Mount Mary instills a foundation in the liberal arts, an appreciation for diversity and a willingness to give back to society. This creative fusion engages students and turns them into leaders.”

Favorite book: “I usually tackle three books at once – one for professional development, one for inspiration and a good historical fiction novel. Right now I’m reading a book about the first hundred days of a college presidency, a book about Mother Theresa Gerhardinger, foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and just for fun, I’m rereading one of my favorites, ‘Follow the River’ by James Alexander Thom.”

Favorite music genre: “I like to listen to soft rock when I’m relaxing; I also unwind by playing Broadway musicals on the piano. I’ve been playing piano in church since I was 13 and I find liturgical music very inspiring.”

Three words to describe you:  Passionate, energetic and enthusiastic

Best advice you’ve ever received: “‘Strive for balance.’ True wellness is achieving balance in life; that’s what we prepare our students to do, too. As professionals, we are role models for our students on how to achieve richer and more fulfilling lives.”

Interview excerpt: With a roughly 50 percent minority student body, Pharr said Mount Mary can be a model for the community. “We are mixing all kinds of people here,” she said. “They’re all working together, they’re in the classrooms together, they are succeeding and failing together and so really, we are a model for the community of what it means to really work together with those who don’t look or don’t have the same backgrounds that we do.”


John Walz

Milwaukee School of Engineering

Age: 57

Undergraduate degree: Chemical engineering

Previous job: Dean of Engineering, University of Kentucky

Childhood dream job: Scientist

Favorite thing about your school: “Our great students.”

Favorite book: “Hard to pick one – I read a bit of everything.”

Favorite music genre: Alternative rock

Three words to describe you: Determined, persistent, hardworking

Best advice you’ve ever received: “Never be afraid to move out of your comfort zone.”

Interview excerpt: “The job is a demanding job; I knew it would be. Sometimes it’s more demanding than I thought it would be, but that is what I wanted to do. I love the job. I’ve heard someone use the term ‘wonderfully consuming’ and it can be all-consuming, but in a very great way. The university environment is a great place to be.”


David Black

Lakeland University

Age: 68

Undergraduate degree: History and psychology

Previous job: President of Eastern University

Childhood dream job: Play in the NBA

Favorite thing about your school: “The opportunities Lakeland provides for making the world a better place.”

Favorite book: “Sophie’s Choice”

Favorite music genre: Handel, Kirk Franklin

Three words to describe you: Faith, reason, justice

Best advice you’ve ever received: “Comparison is the basis for all unhappiness.” (from Soren Kierkegaard, via my dad)

Interview excerpt: Black is the son of a university president and a professor. He said he loves the industry and it’s all he’s ever done. “I never met an idea I didn’t like and our business is ideas. We talk about the great ideas of time and think about new ones. It is the family business.”


Sister Andrea Lee

Alverno College

Previous job: President of St. Catherine University in Minneapolis-St. Paul

Interview excerpt: Lee is in her 20th year as a college president, but after nearly two decades at St. Catherine, she wanted one more adventure before retirement. “I knew I wanted to do one more thing in my career,” she said.

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