Leading with conviction

April 25th, 2014

News Coverage:

Leading with conviction

Jo Switzer, who guided Manchester’s transformation from ‘college’ to ‘university,’ will retire as president June 30

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:44 am, Fri Apr 25, 2014.

By Linda Lipp

When Jo Switzer arrived on the campus of Manchester College as a student in 1966, she never thought that one day she would not only be president of that institution, she would lead it during its transition into a full-fledged university.

That doesn’t mean that, full of youth and fire and inspired by the civil-rights movement, Switzer wouldn’t have hesitated at the time to give Manchester’s then-president pointers on what she thought the school should be doing.

“This was a very hot campus politically. I could have told him then. We all could,” she chuckled.

While just a sophomore at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Switzer had traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 1964 march organized by Martin Luther King Jr. And her eyes glow when she remembers King’s visit to Manchester on Feb. 1, 1968, to give what would turn out to be his last speech on a college campus before he was killed.

But Switzer also pushed hard to graduate in three years — because her father had promised to pay for just the first two — and got a job as a high-school English teacher. She went on to graduate school at the University of Kansas, earning a master’s and a doctorate, then returned to Fort Wayne to teach at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Manchester called, and she returned there to teach for awhile, then went back to IPFW, then back to Manchester as interim and then permanent dean and vice president. In 2004, when Parker Marden announced his intention to retire from the Manchester president’s post, the board of trustees picked her to succeed him.

“I was chosen despite the fact they knew all of my weaknesses. I had no secrets at that point,” she said.

As she took on her new position, Switzer said, she was guided first by Manchester’s mission: “to graduate persons of ability and conviction.”

On a philosophical level, that means, “We don’t want to educate people to just know how to be athletic trainers or English teachers or pastors or accountants. We want them to be those things, but also to have the conviction to give back to their communities, to be responsible consumers, to ask hard questions, to engage in difficult dialogue,” she said.

“We want … them to be constructive voices, particularly now in a culture that has become comfortable with screaming at each other or with showing disrespect for people of a different point of view. I think we need citizens that can listen and understand that people can disagree on things but together they can work to solve problems.”

On a practical level, however, Manchester faced a number of challenges. Enrollment was declining, and when the economic downturn struck in 2008, its endowment lost 40 percent of its value.

Manchester is a campus where every single student gets at least a little bit of scholarship money. “What they pay doesn’t cover what it costs to educate them. There is just this constant need for finding revenue to fill up that gap,” Switzer said.

“We had to make some changes, for monetary reasons, for financial reasons. I think it really was the challenges the economy placed on us that forced us to really think carefully about how we could save money and also how we could invest money to create things that eventually would help us generate more revenue, to help our students.”

One of the things the school initiated was its “fast forward” program that allowed students to earn four-year degrees in three years of accelerated study, saving a year’s worth of tuition and room and board costs. Another bolder move, after lengthy study, was to launch its first doctorate program through a pharmacy school to be located in Fort Wayne.

“Part of the spark of that was to say, ‘Here is a program that builds on our sciences.’ We have a very strong science program, and it was also that the country has a need for qualified pharmacists. I’d like nothing more than to have pharmacists of conviction, who care about more than just counting the pills,” Switzer explained.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and some looked askance at a small school in a tiny town taking on such a daunting challenge.

“It took us years of research to make sure we could make that investment. It was very risky. Our board was very brave,” Switzer recalled.

“I remember making a speech to the board about why they should vote yes, and I made what I thought was a very compelling speech, and as soon as I got done, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they might approve this and then we’d have to do it.’”

And do it they did. The school, built near Parkview Regional Medical Center, opened its doors to its first cohort of students in the fall of 2012 and is in the process now of selecting students for the third class that will begin next fall.

Concurrent with that, Manchester also changed its name from “college” to “university,” a move that was, in some sectors, unexpectedly controversial.

“We did that really for two reasons,” Switzer said. “One is that we had a doctoral program, and you just don’t graduate doctoral degrees from a college. Second, was we became a much more complex institution, with two campuses, and now three areas: undergrad, graduate and pharmacy. It was a very logical time to make the change.”

While the switch satisfied international students and others who thought the old name made Manchester sound like a community college or high school, some alumni didn’t want to let go of the name of the place they’d graduated from. Switzer took it in stride.

“I’ve learned that with any decision you make, there will be some people who support it and some others who criticize it,” she reflected. “And anybody who wants to be popular, who wants to please everybody all the time, should not go into this line of work.”

The school also made a number of other capital investments in a science center, an academic center and the renovation of the student union. They’re part of $100-million program, launched in 2007, that is just $5 million from reaching its goal.

The work could not have been accomplished without the help of Manchester’s alumni, board of trustees and administrative cabinet — the six vice presidents who advise Switzer on most decisions.

“I’m a very collaborative leader, so my cabinet has been super active in that,” she said. “In fact, the cabinet has not changed very much. It’s been a amazingly stable group. It’s a great combination of people — risk takers and those who are more methodical. We get along well so we have the best discussions I have ever seen.”

Retiring at the same time as Jo Switzer is her husband, Dave, a professor of communications studies.

“We’re going to ride out into that sunset together,” she joked.

Although wider travel may be in the future, for a while the couple intend to move from their house a few blocks from the university to a home they own in Roanoke and relax. Switzer said she is looking forward to “just getting up in the morning and starting slowly. I have not done that since 1993.”

“This is a job that is really kind of a 24/7 job,” she said. “I haven’t had a weekend day off for ages. I look forward to slowing down and having time to savor life.”

What she will miss, Switzer added, is the daily contact with students. “It’s a neat, neat student body. That’s what I’ll miss … because they’re just funny. They’re not afraid to say anything. They just give you energy. I see students change from the way they are when they arrive here and how they are when they leave. It is just remarkable.”

Switzer and her husband, who love Tuscan cooking, have hosted dinners for students — the most recent for a hungry crowd of 25 who polished off every bite. She’s always tried to been a friendly, approachable presence on campus. “I don’t walk around with my footman. I don’t have security,” she said.

And Switzer’s name will stay on campus, even if she doesn’t. The student union has been renamed the Jo Young Switzer Center. Students already have taken to calling it — simply — “the Jo.”

Switzer’s successor as president is one of her cabinet members, pharmacy dean and Executive Vice President Dave McFadden, who will take over when she retires June 30.

“I am really committed to making a smooth transition for Dave and the university, and I think we will not miss a beat,” she said.

The two meet often, and she constantly writes notes of things she wants to remind him of or caution him about. But the best advice she could give him, she said, is the first pledge she made to herself: “Stay focused on the mission.”

“I think the challenge now, with all the pressures from outside, the pressure for economic development, is companies want students who are job-ready, who are very specifically trained,” Switzer said.

“We need to make sure we continue to tell the story of the value of the well-rounded person coming out, who may not know the specific computer program that a company uses but has all the skills to learn how to use it very quickly. We don’t want too narrow a focus. We don’t want to lose our critical thinkers, people who can write, run meetings and work in groups.”

“Some have majors that move right into jobs. Some don’t but are enormously valuable for those organizations that are going to hire them,” Switzer continued.

“I think that one challenge now for college presidents is to help employers understand that there are some people who are really going to help your organization who may have majored in something that looks impractical. I was an English major. What can you do with an English major or a history major? You can do a heck of a lot.”