A Q&A With President Varlotta
On day one of the job, President Varlotta shared insight into her vision for Hiram College.
Since being selected as Hiram’s 22nd President, you have been on campus for three weeklong visits. What are your impressions of the people with whom you have met?
The sense of community at Hiram College is palpable. It’s the real thing: People take pride in working hard, caring about one another and collectively contributing to the deep learning that takes place here. The Hiram College learning experience belongs to everyone here, and it shows. Folks from all corners of campus contribute to making that experience personal, meaningful and long-lasting. Almost everyone seems to know that our solid foundation at Hiram has been built upon enduring values. This is a foundation that simultaneously keeps the campus grounded in traditions and well-positioned for the future. Speaking of the future, one of the reasons Hiram has fared well amidst the recent recession is because the people here went the extra mile again and again. Faculty, staff and administrators alike went beyond the call of duty to do more for less so that students could continue to access the programs and services for which Hiram is known. As Northeast Ohio starts to ease out of this economic turmoil, Hiram’s graduates are ready and able to meet the emerging demands of regional companies, agencies and non-profit organizations.
What were your impressions of the faculty you have met with during your visits?
At many colleges, people refer to “the faculty” as if they are a uniform, monolithic group. At Hiram, “the faculty” constitute a remarkably diverse and accomplished group of people. While their backgrounds, ideologies and personal experiences may differ, they are unified in their commitment both to teaching and to learning. Each faculty member with whom I met was passionate about working with students and colleagues alike, open to new ideas and willing to consider changes that might improve an already great place. In addition to being outstanding teachers, Hiram faculty are established scholars as well. Many publish in respected journals; many have secured prestigious grants and rewards. Even more impressive: Many have achieved these goals with students as their co-authors and collaborators. Giving undergraduates this type of first-hand opportunity is yet another reason Hiram is special.
And Hiram students?
It is clear that Hiram strives to attract and retain a diverse student body, and that is very important to me. The College’s efforts in this area are visible, and I look forward to enriching the diversity that exists on campus. The students I met were gracious, engaged, intellectually curious and excited to be a part of the community. Many are first generation students who are working very hard to represent their families and communities well. I understand first-hand the power and pressures of being in that role.
Many colleges and universities in the country currently face a number of fiscal challenges. Is that the case at Hiram?
There are only a few institutions in the country that don’t need to worry about finances each and every year. Like nearly all of its competitors, Hiram remains tuition driven and lives by its ability to recruit and retain students. Hiram should be proud of the fact that it is a stronger institution than it was a decade ago. It will be my job to build on that momentum and make it an even more robust college than it is today.
You have spoken at great length about your positive interactions with the campus community. How comfortable are you in working with external stakeholders as well?
I have been actively engaged in friend- and fundraising for many years. During my 11 years at Sacramento State, I worked closely with the development office to identify and cultivate friends and donors. I also worked with the University's Foundation Board, local and national foundations and grant-related agencies of all sorts. I thoroughly enjoyed building these kinds of relationships, and I look forward to forging similar ones with alumni, community members and business leaders in and beyond Northeast Ohio.
I think I am off to a pretty good start, thanks to the alumni and development staff here. During my visits to campus, including the jammed-packed Alumni Weekend in mid-June, these colleagues have arranged for me to meet with hundreds (literally) of friends, alumni, donors and board members. I am fortunate to have a staff that is so effective in getting me “out and about.” Thanks to their counsel and coordination, I have had the opportunity, before I even take the helm officially, to host small and large receptions, intimate breakfasts and dinners and roundtable discussions. Each time I meet with an alumnus and hear his or her “Hiram story,” my decision to leave California and move to Hiram is affirmed.
What do you see as the biggest challenge you will face as the new president?
One of Hiram’s most attractive features — its peaceful, beautiful location, in an almost surreal close-knit community — is also one of its greatest challenges. Hiram is not a place you accidentally stumble upon while you are walking your dog or enjoying a Sunday drive. Most people have to make a point of visiting here. This means we all need to join forces to get people to campus for a “look and see.” Over the last few months, I have spread the word to high school students in my hometown of Pittsburgh about the weeklong camps scheduled throughout the summer. I have personally encouraged several of them to register for these programs. This is just one example of getting folks to check us out. I suspect that many of you have made similar referrals to programs. But even impromptu, casual visits might do the trick. We all can encourage friends and regional acquaintances to make an afternoon of it. As soon as people visit the campus, they will be impressed by what they see, how they feel and how they are treated by members of the College. Hiram College is special, and most people feel it right away.
Is it too soon to ask about priorities?
No, it is not too soon to ask what is on my mind in that regard. I have done quite a bit of listening during the 30 or so days I have spent on campus. Thankfully, this is not a place short on ideas. Given that so many good ideas are already “in the hopper,” I think the best thing I can do as president is to help the campus prioritize the ideas people have already conceptualized.
By everyone’s account, including my own, our first line of business is to create and maintain a strategic enrollment plan. Based on what I have seen and heard, Hiram must refine and nuance its message in ways that clarify our distinctiveness and appeal to students and their parents. Additionally we must broaden the target of this sharper message to extend beyond the region we call “home.” I believe that students and families from coast-to-coast would be impressed by the Hiram Plan of study that includes the three-week intensive course, the integrative and interdisciplinary approach to study and the expectations that students not only engage in analytical reasoning but in reflective thinking and feeling. Let’s tell them our story, and get them here to the Hiram Hill!
Will you indulge me for a moment to talk about this thing called “reflection”?
I know that a pedagogical commitment to reflection may not be the most important thing a teenager is looking for as he or she begins the college search process. As a student who used most of her classroom time to focus on matters of the mind, it took me longer than I would like to admit to appreciate the other side of learning: the emotional, spiritual or interpersonal side. I came to appreciate those things through my work in student affairs. But now I see that they are the very issues that should be part of the formal and informal curricula. Most universities relegate these issues to the latter, but Hiram is exactly the type of college that can help students develop these very parts of their lives while they are in the classroom, conducting research, participating in a service-learning project, experiencing a study away program, you name it. Hiram helps students become whole people: people committed not only to their own learning, but to the development of those around them. In this way, Hiram does not prepare people simply to become workers or to get their first jobs, but to become leaders — ethical ones committed to continuously improving their own lives and the communities to which they are connected.
Let’s talk a bit more about this notion of career preparation. You state very confidently that Hiram is “exactly the type of college that prepares students to become leaders in their chosen field.” This comment runs counter to the way many people view liberal arts colleges, yet you seem unwavering in your stance. Why?
Thanks for pushing back and digging a bit deeper on this critical topic. I agree. There is a common, but in my opinion, erroneous perception that liberal arts colleges pale in comparison to other institutions of higher learning in preparing students for careers. I have worked with and supervised career centers on campuses throughout the country. Employers who partner with these centers tell me the same thing. They are looking for prospective employees who have the following: outstanding written and oral communication skills, an interest and ability to work well with diverse populations, an ability to see all sides of an argument and the willingness to learn and change, no matter where they are on the career ladder. These are the very attributes and traits I have seen in Hiram alumni. (If you want a third-party's take on this, Hiram College was recently ranked in the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide for return on investment.)
I believe that Hiram’s liberal arts curriculum, combined with its close-knit, you-can’t-slip-through-the cracks-or-fake-it-here community, almost ensures that students embody these attributes and master these skills. After all, Hiram is not a place where you simply learn to check a box or “beat the system.” It’s a place where students are constantly learning, being tested and getting challenged. On that same note, it is also a place where students must re-do, reimagine, try something new or try something over. That is exactly why we tell students: Hiram does not only prepare you for your first job, it sets you up for life. What you learn and the person you become here shapes you forever. Hiram graduates are leaders, not just workers.
What is the one thing that excites or inspires you the most as you begin your presidency?
Great question. I have been truly inspired by the Hiram alumni with whom I have met. No matter what they do or what they have done in their chosen fields, they are leaders and innovators and men and women of integrity. I think I have been most impressed by the 80- and 90-year-old alumni I met during the reunion weekend. Some of them were canoeing down the Cuyahoga, dancing the night away under the Hinsdale Arch and enjoying a beverage at cocktail hour. Each and everyone one of them told me a Hiram story that gave me pause and made me proud to join this family. They also gave me hope I will be paddling down a river at 85 and rewarding myself with a glass of wine at the trip’s end.