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Widener's Transformation Highlighted in New Book

Widener University’s transition from an institution that “walled itself off” from the city of Chester to one of the nation’s top-ranked community service universities in less than 10 years is highlighted in a new book titled Leading Change: How Boards and Presidents Build Exceptional Academic Institutions.

The book examines significant change at 18 colleges and universities and how boards have interacted with presidents of institutions to guide that change. It is published by AGB Press, a branch of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

Author Terrence MacTaggart, a senior fellow with AGB, paints a picture of Widener 10 years ago as an institution that faced turmoil on campus, isolation from the surrounding neighborhood, and declining enrollment.

“At Widener, the board understood that it faced complex, interconnected issues…but looked to a new president from outside to redefine the vision and reposition the university to address these problems,” MacTaggart writes.

In 2002, Widener’s Board of Trustees, then chaired by David W. Oskin, hired James T. Harris III to lead that change. Working with the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students, Harris instituted a new mission and vision for the university based on civic engagement and launched a new strategic plan.

Under Harris’s leadership, Widener developed strong community partnerships and opened the state’s first university-based charter school, a small business development center and a college access center. In addition, the university worked with community partners to develop University Crossings, a Chester revitalization effort which includes the first hotel, convenience store and full-service bank in Chester in recent memory, an apartment complex and a Chester police substation.

As a result, Widener has received national recognition for its efforts. Newsweek/The Daily Beast ranks Widener among the top 20 service-oriented institutions in the nation. In addition, the university has ranked among the top 100 institutions in the annual Washington Monthly rankings since the magazine’s inaugural college issue in 2005. In addition, Widener was among the first universities in the nation to be categorized as a “community engagement” institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2006. Widener has also consistently been named to the annual President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

“Today, Widener is prospering,” MacTaggert writes. “Rather than ignoring the problems of its hometown, Widener has found a way to become a positive part of its community and meet the needs of one of the most beleaguered cities in the country.”

Harris said he was flattered when AGB approached Widener about telling its story in the book. He said the university could not have made the astounding transition it has made without a strong board of trustees, its partnerships with the community, and the cooperation of faculty, staff and students.

“Widener is fortunate to have such a very dynamic Board of Trustees,” Harris said. “It takes true leaders to make the kind of positive change that has taken place at Widener in such a short period of time. That is exactly the type of leadership and commitment to community that we strive to develop in all of our students.”  

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener comprises eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate’s, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university’s campuses in Chester, Exton, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., serve some 6,700 students. Visit the university website, www.widener.edu.

 

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