Rising Stars: Spark of Transformation

Rising Stars: Spark of Transformation

Roy Nirschel, Roger Williams University

Look up the word "growth" in the dictionary, and you will be hard-pressed to find a much better definition than what's happened at Roger Williams University.

Since 2001, the school-which enrolls nearly 5,000 students in 36 majors and five professional schools-has seen a 100 percent increase in applications, a 50 percent increase in enrollment, a 50 percent improvement in the graduation rate, and $58 million in new endowment funds.

All without steroids.

RWU, which hugs a stretch of water along Rhode Island's squiggly coastline, was created as a junior college in 1956. While it started out using space in various public buildings in Providence, it moved to Bristol in the 1960s as Roger Williams College, a four-year institution, and then became a full-fledged university in 1992. The university developed several programs with respectable reputations, including those in architecture, business, law, construction management, and marine science.

Yet it grappled with a perception problem. People didn't know of the school, and if they did they didn't always think much of it. In the late 1990s, the university showed an applicant acceptance rate of more than 90 percent. The graduation rate was 34 percent. Some folks referred to RWU as "Rich White Underachiever."

"I have watched Roger Williams over the years evolve from a community college with a very tenuous foothold on the educational community to become a full-fledged college, and then a university," says Chas. Freeman Jr., former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who now sits on RWU's Board of Overseers.

Freeman is one of many people who believe that under Roy Nirschel, the president of RWU since 2001, the university has been like a teenager growing into adulthood. Its strong points and potential have come into clearer focus. Its mission has become more fine-tuned and purposeful.

"What's happened under Nirschel is that this frankly third-rate educational establishment has moved very rapidly up the ranks," says Freeman, who also served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. "He's got a gift for innovation, for finding the niches that others have overlooked."

Call it a gift, a drive, or learned behavior-whatever the mechanics of Roy Nirschel's inner workings, this president is making things happen and moving up in the world of higher education. Many leaders can learn from his moves.

Nirschel crouched atop Mount Kilimanjaro, face raw from the wind and cold, mouth covered by material protecting skin from frigid air. He had climbed workplace ladders and faced challenges before, but this was among his most hard-won triumphs.

He posed for a picture adjacent to a sign etched with yellow lettering marking the top of the African continent. As the camera snapped, Nirschel held "Little Roger," a small cutout of the mascot of Roger Williams University. The moment embodied what Nirschel wanted for RWU, its faculty, its staff, and its students: to reach new heights with a wide view of the world.

The Kilimanjaro crest was just 11 months ago and Nirschel has now been president of Roger Williams for nearly six years. (As for Little Roger, he's made trips to such high-profile destinations as the White House since his Kilimanjaro climb.)

In his time at RWU, Nirschel has managed to change the essence of the school, the way it is perceived by others, and its outlook on the world. He has overseen so many initiatives that the university seems just back from a much-needed vacation-focused, energized, invigorated.

A number of qualities make Nirschel an up-and-comer in higher education. Here are insights into just a few.

Nirschel has a way with people. Just follow him around campus and this quality surfaces quickly. Students sometimes look bewildered when they receive a smile and a "hello" from the president (it's like he knows them or something).

Nirschel credits this trait in part to having grown up in a working class family-Dad was a firefighter, Mom was a homemaker-in Stamford, Conn. He feels comfortable around all kinds of individuals and appreciates the value of their work.

Nirschel also has a strong internal compass. Unlike some leaders who boast the same trait but can't seem to deal with discord, he believes in collaboration. When he first joined RWU, he launched a strategic planning process and formed committees to examine seven key areas of concern on campus. The committees included more than 125 individuals and were purposefully cross-pollinated, so as to remove members from their comfort zones. Someone from Admissions, for example, was assigned to look at graduation rates.

"It took many people here a little bit by surprise," says Anthony Hollingsworth, chair of the department of Foreign Languages and an associate professor of classical and Germanic languages. "He came in here bringing with him almost a business plan or a corporate feel, and he really compelled faculty to start working more with staff and administration." Hollingsworth adds, "There had definitely been a desire to break down silos, and I think that was happening, but he put a lot of impetus into it and at the same time expected results."

While still a newbie on the job, Nirschel navigated his way through what could have been a horrendous process: negotiating a contract with the university's faculty union.

"Roy's presidency began right in the middle of some very contentious faculty contract negotiations. To make matters worse, the outgoing administration had suspended faculty pay," says Kathy Micken, associate professor of Marketing at RWU. "A new president could have made himself scarce, choosing to be ensconced in the office surrounded by other administrators. Instead, Roy made a point of walking around campus, including the campus center where he was sure to encounter both faculty and students-and was sure to hear what faculty were thinking. If he did not hear, he made it a point to ask."

Nirschel helped shepherd a new faculty contract to approval by a 4-to-1 margin. While it had some controversial aspects, the contract also cleared the way for faculty gains. "It is a contract that expects results," says Hollingsworth. "It rewards people for doing good work and for publishing, and it sends a very clear message that we want our faculty to be not only pedagogically active but also in scholarship. ... If people do good research and good teaching, they can receive merit. We see that there is more pay in it, and there is more pay when people get promoted."

The relationship between faculty members and Nirschel is still strengthening. "His 'management by walking around' style continues," says Micken. "He has judiciously joined in faculty e-mail discussions, issues presidential missives on hot topics, and seeks the advice and counsel of faculty both formally and informally. As one faculty colleague e-mailed to the rest of us recently, when a topic of importance needs a good hearing, 'coffee with President Nirschel is a very attractive alternative. And the coffee in the Administration Building is very good.' "

Roger Williams University boasts myriad indicators of transformation under Nirschel. Its endowment hovers around $95 million (compared to $37 million five years ago) and the school is running an approximately $10 million surplus. The business school recently received accreditation from the International Association for Management Education (AACSB), putting it in an elite group.

Yet the university's clarification of core values and mission may well be the school's greatest recent advance. This is a process that Nirschel believes in deeply. Namely, the university's institutional values are: a love of learning as an intrinsic value; preparation for a career and future study; development of undergraduate research opportunities; service to the community; adoption of a global perspective; and nurturing of a caring and respectful community.

Nirschel ensures that decisions made on campus, whether about budgets, programs, or faculty projects, relate directly to the above values. "You set the values, you define the mission," says Nirschel. "Those values may mean something different in the business school or the law school, but if you talk to the deans and say 'love of learning, research, service, global perspective, respectful and caring environment'-those are the core values-you buy into it and how it is operationalized in your school."

Funding ties into how those values are articulated, he adds. "I say to people all the time, a lack of resources is not the biggest problem. A lack of a mission-driven, well-defined plan is the problem. You give me a terrific plan that ties into our core values, that adds value to students' experience, we'll give you the money. If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."

A fall 2002 survey of faculty and staff, which asked what people outside of RWU said to them about the institution, indicated that RWU wasn't even on many folks' radar screens. "If it was, high-profile programs such as architecture or marine biology were all people knew about, except for perhaps the beautiful waterfront campus," says Micken, who was involved with the survey.

"If we asked the same question today," she says, "my guess is that the responses would be much different."

That's largely because Nirschel believes in making one's strengths known. One of the president's most notable accomplishments has been engineering a shift in public perception of Roger Williams.

When Nirschel first joined RWU's administration, he involved campus and community constituencies in creating a branding campaign, complete with a slogan, "Learning to Bridge the World." The university purchased billboard space for ads, not necessarily in Rhode Island but beyond. In the campaign's second year, a freshman approached Nirschel on campus. The new student remarked on the university's visibility, noting that he had seen a billboard down in Florida. "The one near Orlando, near Sea World?" Nirschel asked. "Yeah, great billboard," the student said.

"If you give me an idea that doesn't really resonate with the mission of the university, the odds of getting funding are in the zero to zero category."

But there wasn't a billboard in Florida. "People were saying they saw us in places where we weren't," Nirschel says. "Some people say billboards are tacky, advertising's tacky. I don't agree. We don't do billboards now, but people saw us everywhere. People would see a billboard in Westchester County (N.Y.), and a week later they would open U.S. News & World Report and think we were everywhere."

An ad campaign and public relations push mean little, however, without good stories to tell. Since taking on his role, Nirschel has set about helping RWU build its brag book.

This past spring alone, the university gathered a thick stack of news clips. RWU broke ground on a new marine science center, the Luther Blount Shellfish Hatchery and Oyster Restoration Center. First Lady Laura Bush spoke at graduation. And three young women who had witnessed horrors growing up in Afghanistan graduated from Roger Williams, thanks to the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a scholarship program founded by Paula Nirschel, the president's wife. (The initiative provides Afghan women with four-year scholarships to RWU and other U.S. colleges and universities, bringing the students together at events and supporting them as they return to their home country to create lasting change.)

"We've got great projects going on," says President Nirschel, "and we're telling people the story."

International relations and a global perspective lie high on Nirschel's list of priorities. His work is "projecting us far beyond the campus and region, so that we'll improve qualitatively by being connected both locally and globally, which matches the 'Learning to Bridge the World' identity that he's created," says Stephen White, dean of RWU's School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation.

Exhibit A of that global mindset: The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, created in 2003. Working with Nirschel, White and RWU Overseer and MIT Professor Frank Davidson (who helped develop the English Channel Tunnel) created the center to produce broad proposals to meet challenges around the world.

Rather than just ponder issues like a think tank, the center acts as a "do tank," as Nirschel likes to say. It teams researchers, policy experts, and academics from various disciplines to create real proposals. For example, the center has overseen development of a strategy for the infrastructure of an independent Palestinian state. High-ranking United Nations officials, engineers, architects, and international relations experts, among others, have joined in planning Palestinian ports, an offshore island, and linkages between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The center has secured $250,000 for feasibility studies.

"The president has been centrally involved in that," says White. "We work out the agenda for the work together. He really sees it as one of the key elements of the globalization of the university."

Study abroad and admissions of international students have also blossomed under Nirschel's guidance. In 2005, 39 percent of juniors at RWU participated in study-abroad programs. Five years ago, students had five sites to choose from. Now there are 39, including RWU campuses in Florence and Ho Chi Minh City. The newest destinations include Jordan, India, Costa Rica, South Africa, Germany, and Argentina.

In April, sophomores with 3.0 GPAs or higher got invited to hear Wolfgang Vorwerk, the consul general of Germany in Boston, speak; had their passport pictures taken free of charge; and completed passport forms. Eighteen-year-old Hilary Wehner had never had her own passport until that day. "I feel like he's trying to get us to be more international," she says of Nirschel. Indeed, the event was his idea.

In 2004, the Roger Williams University College Republicans attempted to make a point about race-based preferences by advertising a "Whites Only" scholarship. The move, while intended somewhat as a joke, brought tensions to the surface. Nirschel issued a statement on the university's commitment to diversity and to free, but civil, speech. "He did more than admonish the students," says Micken. "He used the incident to initiate a program of 'civil discourse.' "

Through the initiative, a variety of speakers have been brought to RWU's campus, from Salman Rushdie to Professor David Wilkins of Harvard Law School to the civil rights attorney Morris Dees. A new journal, Reason & Respect: A Journal of Civil Discourse, has been established as well. "This initiative really compels people to think and to speak with some reason and some respect, so that their arguments are made in a kind of manner that does not make people uncomfortable, and that we create an environment on campus that allows people to think and speak in a variety of ways," says Robert Engvall, an associate professor of Justice Studies who co-edits Reason & Respect.

"It is a vindication of the name of the school," notes Freeman, adding that Roger Williams stood for tolerance of differences and civil discourse.

Freeman actually first met Nirschel when he was asked to speak on campus about the invasion of Iraq. Freeman believed the U.S. government was taking the country into an ambush in Iraq, yet he spoke to a largely Republican RWU student body. "[Nirschel] always seems to recognize the need to cause people to reflect about their own beliefs," Freeman says. "I think that is the mark of a great educator."


Advertisement