Beautiful" and "Staten Island" are not words that often go together in the same sentence. Imagine the surprise, when University Business spent a picture-perfect day on the grounds of Wagner College (N.Y.), voted by students as The Princeton Review's "college with the most beautiful campus" for 2005. Wagner's is a beautiful campus, offering a coveted view of New York Harbor, the skyline of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and other sights many visitors come to see every year.
While strolling under the campus' tree-lined streets and passing the historic ivy-covered halls, it is hard to remember that this is Staten Island. After all, this is the same New York City borough once famous for the Fresh Kills Landfill, which, until 2001, was the dumping ground for garbage from Brooklyn, Queens and beyond. But Fresh Kills is closed now and it is a new day for Staten Island. This fact is certainly not lost on Wagner's President Richard Guarasci.
He is using The Princeton Review's accolade to every advantage. As most schools at the top of Princeton Review's more flattering categories, Wagner now boasts about its status in its print promotional materials. There are several references to it on the website, (www.wagner.edu). Under the heading, "Visiting the college," Wagner reminds prospective students that 92 percent apply after visiting the campus.
Wagner's facilities team quite consciously has designed the landscape to play up a pastoral college image. The lawns and trees are carefully appointed to show off historic, turn-of-the-century brick buildings. Its Sutter Oval--the academic heart of the campus--was redesigned several years ago to remove an access road and parking lot and to add more lawn and leafy trees. This area is now a true college mall, showing off Wagner's Main Hall, library and renovated sports center.
This could just as easily be a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania or Vermont. The difference is, this is also a campus that offers the benefits of a big city. The bucolic setting, along with the view of, and access to, New York City, are marketed simultaneously.
It has taken Wagner a while to get to this point. The college has been on a self-improvement mission for some years now. It's spending on renovation has steadily increased as its operating budget has grown. This year Wagner will spend up to 11 percent of its budget on maintenance and improvement, bringing the total to $5.5 million, which is up by $500,000 from one year ago. Trustee, alumna and native Staten Islander Margaret Bambach Buck Reynolds, has supported the improvements, wanting Wagner to be a "home" for alumni. She recently established a $1 million endowment for the care of Wagner's Reynold's House, a building named after her late husband.
Guarasci has not failed to play up all these changes. It doesn't phase him that prospective students might also be interested in the 50 or so other colleges and universities based--or having significant campuses--in New York City's five boroughs. Guarasci clearly has mettle and isn't intimated by, say, the Ivy League's Columbia University and Manhattan's respected New York University or Fordham University in the Bronx. Nor is he seemingly preoccupied with the many universities in the CUNY system, or the School of Visual Arts and The New School, even though these schools highlight liberal arts and theater arts--two areas Wagner has tagged as specialties.
In fact, Guarasci says, he loves it when parents and students visit one of the larger or more famous schools first. He can then sell students and parents on the New York City experience, while playing up the small school setting.
Guarasci is comfortable marketing the "million-dollar view," as he calls it. Wagner's view is the same one that has lured developers like Donald Trump and real estate buyers to Wagner's neighborhood. But Guarasci was selling Wagner's view several years prior to receiving Princeton Review's recognition. Being recognized for its beautiful campus is a fortunate occurrence that simply fits perfectly into the plan. It also gives Guarasci more material with which to work.
Guarasci's approach to promotion borrows from the old real estate chestnut: location, location, location.
He was initially invited in 1997 to apply for the provost's position at the now 122-year-old college. He convinced himself the interview was worth it because he could couple it with a visit to his mother who lives in New York City. Guarasci was clearly comfortable with his job as dean of the college and professor of political science at Hobart & William Smith Colleges (N.Y.). As a senior officer there he also helped launch a capital campaign that brought in $105 million in five years. There was no strong pull to leave upstate New York, until he saw the view from the Wagner's executive offices. The view of the harbor, New York's famed bridges--including the Verrazano-Narrows--and the then imposing Twin Towers, convinced him to consider Wagner.
"I said, 'this isn't a view, it is a mission.' " After taking the job he set about incorporating the location into the school's academics. "I suggested that we link what you learn to where you learn it." This made Wagner more appealing for internships and service learning, he says.
Guarasci helped revise the strategic plan, which called for Wagner, in part, to be less "accidental" about its relationship to New York City and the tri-state area, and to be more "intentional." Today, Wagner's staff takes pains to find internships in New York City's theaters and businesses. This is played up in the viewbook, which highlights students and their favorite spots in New York City. (One student prefers Tea & Sympathy, a bookstore in Greenwich Village; another favors the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Ignoring the Naysayers
Guarasci came to Wagner, despite some warnings from naysayers. Close friend Dick Hersh, former colleague at Hobart & William Smith and former president of Trinity College (Conn.) cautioned against the move. "He told me, 'In six months you'll be selling cars. Wagner is in debt. They don't have any money.' "
Guarasci obviously ignored the downside. Upon taking office he made changes that would capitalize on resources already in place. He added a writing center to a then underused library and then went on to revamp the curriculum. An academic team helped him create The Wagner Plan, a curricula that clusters students into groups that focus on literature, science, history and other liberal arts.
His initial thrust was to revamp Wagner without "spending a dime," he says. He watched spending for good reason. Eight years ago Wagner's endowment was only $5 million and the student body had dropped to 1,100, down from 3,000 in 1968. A faculty of 140 was down to 80. Wagner was in debt by $45 million.
As provost, and then later as president, he set upon the task of raising money. Today the endowment is $25 million and growing. A capital campaign that closed in 2004 brought in the addition $20 million and was $12 million above projection. The student body is bigger, too, now at 1,400. Debt has been reduced to $41.8 million. While the college, like many, is running in the red, revenues grew from $31.6 million in 1998 to $47.7 million.
Given its accolade as "most beautiful," it is an easy guess that Wagner also spent money improving the campus. The Main Hall, originally built in 1928, was renovated to include a more expansive stage and theater department. (Wagner purchased the original seats from Broadway's Shubert Theatre to give the revamp some historical gravitas.) Wagner's renovation of Spiro Sports Center was completed in 1999. Large windows allow students in the personal fitness area to look down on a water polo match, or a swim meet.
More smart classrooms were added. Wagner also added more student residences and leased nearby apartments owned by Trump. The move paid off. Today, 85 percent of students live at Wagner, up from 50 percent. Wagner's revamping has garnered interest from TV and film location scouts. Most notably, the cast and crew of New York-based Law & Order have filmed here.
About 20 percent of Wagner students come from the New York metropolitan area. A total of 45 percent are from New York state. The rest are from 39 other states. Some are international students.
Given its increasing growth, Wagner could work to become a university. Several years ago Wagner had the chance to add a law school, but administrators chose to pass. "We have a very specific vision. We are not going to get bigger." Instead, his focus will be making Wagner a better liberal arts school--and keeping the tree-lined walkways, and ivy-covered halls in perfect condition for the next photo op.