Far and Widener Podcast—An Interview with Stacey Robertson
We are excited to present our new podcast Far and Widener, which explores the far-reaching world of Widener University and the many ways Widener strives to create a better future while shaping tomorrow’s leaders. At Far and Widener, you’ll find engaging interviews on diverse and timely topics with fascinating educators, researchers, experts, and industry professionals. You’ll broaden your perspectives and gain insights related to current events and impactful issues.
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In this podcast interview, Greg Potter interviews Widener University President Stacey Robertson. She reflects on what attracted her to Widener, her first 100 days here, the opportunities and challenges that Widener faces in the future, including the upcoming enrollment cliff faced by all institutions of higher learning, the national discussion about the cost of higher education and the actual long-term return on investment, student loan forgiveness implications, and her values related to the people of the Widener community. She even shares a fun time management tip for saving time in the morning.
A transcript of the interview follows:
Greg Potter – Hello and welcome to Far and Widener. I'm Greg Potter, associate vice president for University Relations here at Widener University and your host for our premier episode. Today I'm very excited to welcome our first guest, Dr. Stacey Robertson, Widener University's eleventh president.
She joined the Pride in July 2022 after serving as provost and vice president for academic affairs and professor of history at SUNY Geneseo. She brings an impressive experience to Widener in strategic planning, workplace practices that support and promote people from underrepresented groups, and developing curricula that prepare students for success in the global workspace. Stacey, welcome to our podcast.
Stacey Robertson – Thank you so much! I’m so happy to be here.
Greg – Why don't we jump in and just learn a little bit more about you? Can you tell me something about yourself that's interesting that maybe the Widener Pride hasn't learned yet?
Stacey – I am fanatical about time management for the obvious reasons. I have a lot on my plate, and there is never enough time in the day, right? We're always just trying to hold time still for a little bit. So, I have found that I've developed a whole series of processes and skills in order to manage my time.
For example – When I use that word fanatical, no joke. I am really fanatical about time management. – So, every Sunday evening, I look through a book that I have. My husband calls it my fashion book, and it is literally pictures of all my different outfits along with the last time I wore them listed on each one of these pages. And I choose five outfits for the week. I set them out. I look at my calendar to see what I'm doing each day. So, if I have a special kind of meeting, I need this kind of outfit. And I look at the weather. And I set those five outfits, and I do not change from those five outfits. I don't care if my mood changes. It doesn't matter.
You know how it is. Women in particular, I think, because we have so much more in terms of opportunities for clothes just in general. Many of us spend a lot of time choosing our outfits. That could be for me as much as 20 minutes every morning, looking at my closet and wondering. Instead, I do this all in just 20 minutes on Sunday night.
Greg – I love this idea, because I have an 11-year-old son, and I’m trying to constantly get him to figure out how to manage his time in the morning just to get on the bus. And I've been telling him, “Hey, let's make your lunch the night before.” It’s kind of the same concept, right? It’s wasting 15 minutes of his time in the morning, and putting on clothes, and thinking about it in the morning—it’s the same kind of idea.
Stacey – Exactly. It ends up making my life so much more smooth in the morning. I don't have to think about things. And actually, as a result of this, I've saved so much time. I can now not only do my workout every morning, but I also have 15 minutes that I can use for meditation, and that just sets my day off to a great start.
Greg – I love that. So, tell us a little bit about why you are here. What brought you to Widener? Obviously you were a part of the presidential search, but as you were going through and you introduced yourself to Widener, what was it that attracted you to the institution?
Stacey – I absolutely loved several things that just hit me really hard in a good way when I started to investigate Widener. One was the amazing “Great Colleges to Work For” accolades that the institution has garnered over the last several years. To me, what that said was, this is a community that cares. This is a community that has developed a sense of belonging. This is a community where people are all in.
And for me, that was just absolutely so important. Being part of a community that respects each other, that actually likes each other, that enjoys spending time with each other. These were just, really important things. So the community, and the recognition that this is a community that cares, was critical for me. So really the people, right? The people at the institution. And frankly having been here now for about 100 days, you know that there's a reason why we won those accolades. It is an amazing community. The people are so important.
I think more pragmatically speaking, for me, the spirit of innovation that I saw at Widener was so very important. And that manifested in the variety of our program portfolio. You can see we are not an institution that rests on our laurels. We are always looking to innovate and get better. That kind of beautiful balance in our programs of undergraduate and graduate—we offer continuing education, we offer online, we offer full time, we offer part time— We meet students where they are. That was really, really important to me.
And you add that into this incredible history—obviously as a historian, the history was just absolutely fascinating. But clearly that ability to innovate and to be agile began in the 19th century, when the institution went from being a Quaker boys school to a military school, right?
Greg – I was just going to ask you if you had been boning up on your Chester and Widener history.
Stacey – Absolutely! In the time that I have saved from organizing my clothes at the beginning of the week [laughs], I have managed to read a couple of books on both Widener and Chester, and it's been absolutely wonderful learning that history, and really, again, just kind of admiring that spirit of innovation.
I can’t help but also mention our commitment to student success was also really important to me: “The Inside Track,” the Widener advantage, our personal student success teams, which I thought was incredibly innovative, all speak to this. That spirit that we have of: ‘We're here so that our students succeed.’
But, you know, being in Philadelphia area didn't hurt. This is just an incredible region. Chester is a wonderful community. It's been so welcoming, and this greater region is just an incredible opportunity.
Greg – Certainly learning a lot as a new leader involves getting to know the people, as you mentioned. I also remember speaking with you during your first couple of days about how you needed to learn about the ins and outs and of the intricacies of the institution. I'm just curious, after your first 100 days, or a few months here, what's jumping out to you as some of our biggest opportunities and some of our biggest challenges that we're going to be facing over the next couple of years.
Stacey – Well, I’m a big believer that every challenge is just a disguised opportunity. And, you know, I’m a glass is half full, I'm a rainbow person, super positive. The challenges are opportunities for us to grow. I think first of all I'll go back to how I answered that earlier question. Our people and our students are our greatest strengths at this institution. There's no question about it. You will not find a more dedicated and passionate group of members of a community than we have here at Widener. Inclusive of our students, and also inclusive of our alumni.
As we face the challenges of the enrollment reality, we need to leverage the greatest strengths that we have, which is our people, and our students, and our alumni. And frankly an amazing brand that we have here at Widener. We have always done a good job at sharing our strengths with a wider community. I think those strengths have changed over the years. I think we have changed over the years, and we will continue, and we must continue to do better at sharing who we are, who Widener is, with the larger Philadelphia community. But also, frankly, the larger national and even international community. I think we have tremendous potential around recruitment of international students.
I think the fact that nearly 40 percent of our incoming class are students from underrepresented backgrounds and that we have nearly 40 percent first generation students, these are amazing opportunities for us to continue to build on and grow. And that's going to involve not only a slight shift in our recruitment strategies, but also ensuring that we have all the tools that we need here at Widener so that every single student who comes to Widener is able to graduate on time, pursue a fantastic career, and have great success in life as well.
Greg – You mentioned one of the challenges that we have been talking about a lot here in the trenches of the university, which is enrollment challenges that higher education is facing across the board in the future. For some of our listeners out there who are not as embedded in higher education as we might be, can you talk a little bit about what's happening in the industry and what we're facing, and how some of those opportunities that you mentioned are going to help us to succeed?
Stacey – That's a great question and a great comment. Nationally, we've known for a while that we face what researchers and others are calling the enrollment cliff. So come 2025, 2026, about that time, we’re going to see fewer college age students pursuing higher education. Which means that we are going to be competing with the same or more institutions for a smaller share of that student body. What that means for colleges and universities is we need to be thinking yesterday about how we diversify our portfolio. That goes back to my earlier comment, right? We are not limiting our student body simply to thinking about 18- to 22-year-olds.
We're thinking about those students who, for example, during the pandemic chose to step out of higher education. They may want to come back eventually—so, being able to speak to their needs in terms of the kinds of educational opportunities that we offer here.
Right now, I think many institutions are thinking about how they can partner with various industries to serve employees at those industries and provide them with a particularly curated educational opportunity, which might mean a certificate, it might mean a master's degree, or it might mean an online doctoral degree. It could be upskilling, or reskilling. There are all kinds of things that we could do to participate and continue to participate in that market. I think all of higher education is beginning to see that diversification is absolutely critical.
The other thing we know in terms of higher education trends is that while the younger generation is decreasing, 30- to 40-year-olds and 40-to-50-year-olds, those generations are actually increasing. Again, speaking to those markets, finding ways to appeal, and showing that we offer educational opportunities here that aren’t just for first-time, first-year students, but are, in fact, for students who want to come back for any reason. Whether that means they want to reskill or retool for a new career opportunity. It may mean they want to come back and learn about a topic that they're just interested in.
I think we can also bring our alumni in who have fascinating skills and knowledge. They can begin to offer classes and experiences that a broader swath of our community would be interested in. So, there's all kinds of ways in which we can continue to be innovative to attract students to the Widener experience.
Greg – There's another national discussion going on right now about higher education in regard to cost. I’m interested in your thoughts on how we hit on that topic of the ROI of a college education in today's world, and what institutions like Widener should be doing to meet those cost expectations of our future students.
Stacey – You know, there's no question that the growing college debt crisis in this country is something we all need to be thinking about. And particularly those of us at institutions of higher education. We know, and the data supports this, that a college education pays off lifelong, right? No matter what your major is. It doesn't matter if it's in the humanities, or engineering, or nursing, or physical therapy. A college education pays off. Oftentimes that payoff isn't on day one. We end up seeing it mid-career. I like to say that the real payoff of a college education is that first promotion, right? And it's the second promotion. And it's your ability to pivot mid-career and try something new. So the return on investment, as we talk about it in higher education, it needs to be long term that conversation not just short term.
We see this time and again. Because the problem isn't when folks get trained in a particular skill, a particular technology, it’s when that technology changes or that skill gets outdated. If you aren't able to pivot to engage in critical thinking and communication skills and learning quickly and efficiently, it's easy to get left behind. What a college education, what a university education provides are those critical thinking skills, those pivot skills, and the global communication skills as well. All of those things are just absolutely so critical, and that return is there. I think we have too often allowed the conversation to be driven on short-term numbers, right?
Greg – I was thinking that exact thing. I mean, we, even in this institution, sometimes get so fixated on those numbers that we look at student success immediately after graduation. Do they go on to their career goals and things like that. Whereas, looking at mid-career opportunities is equally as important.
Stacey – You know, it's so important, Greg. And two other quick things to note. One is there's a lot of research to suggest that a college degree also leads to greater happiness in life. And that's not something that you often see in the numbers. It's really much more challenging to quantify. But there's some really interesting research out there on that. [For example, check out this CNBC story covering the research findings.]
And the other thing is that we need an educated and skilled and thoughtful citizenry of critical thinkers who are going to help us make good decisions as a nation, right? That's our commitment to democracy. That's our commitment to the future. And, you know we just can't have enough college educated students to engage in that conversation.
Greg – Yeah, we started to go down the road a little bit about ROI, and it sort of leads into another national decision that's going on right now. And you mentioned it—the student loan forgiveness issue and the president's recent executive actions and how they're impacting costs. I'm just curious about your thoughts about the long-term implications of a loan forgiveness on academic institutions and costs, and what we might expect to face at Widener if that continues to evolve.
Stacey – I think ultimately what this is about is ensuring that we have accessible, affordable educational opportunities for everyone. The loan forgiveness program really will have the greatest impact on those who are struggling the most to pay off debt. And the truth is that—I believe the number is about 80 to 85 percent of all student loan debt is under $25,000. Which means that many folks who are struggling with paying that debt, you know, month after month, year after year, this could really mean such an enormous difference for them in their standard of living, in their ability, frankly, to contribute to the economy. I believe that the turnaround there will be well worth the investment, and I think long term this whole conversation is beneficial, because it continues to demand that we ask the question, ‘How can we ensure, whether we're a private institution or a public institution, that we are making college affordable, and that the ROI is there?’
Frankly, even though the loan forgiveness program will impact students who leave college without a degree, that's the group of people who I worry about the most. It’s the group of folks who have debt, who are paying off that debt, but don't have the degree to benefit from that debt. The loan forgiveness may help those students long term to think about how they can complete their degree eventually, and get the benefit of having the degree.
I think the implications are much larger than we recognize. As long as that conversation is ongoing about how we can make college affordable and accessible, it’s a great conversation to be having.
Greg – Some of this obviously plays in with students and their lives after they leave Widener. I want to talk to you a little bit about the part of our audience here on Far and Widener that are our alumni. I know as you've been off and running meeting people on campus, you've also been engaging with alumni. I'm just curious if you could share what role you feel that they play in helping us capitalize on any of those opportunities that you mentioned. And, in addressing some of our challenges, how can alumni participate in helping Widener move forward?
Stacey – You know our alumni—really, their lives are the story of Widener—their successes, their resilience, their stories. That's the history of Widener. Our alums are the living embodiment of who we are at Widener, and I think that in and of itself is of incredible value to us at the institution. There are more pragmatic ways in which alumni can engage with and contribute to what we're doing here at Widener. Really important paths, I think.
First of all, our alums are engaging in incredible innovations within all kinds of industries. And the more that are our alums are willing to bring back that technological and innovative spirit, the better. Like what's happening in nursing in the real world that our nursing alums can bring back to the classroom? What's the latest technology? What's the latest skill? The same with engineering. The same with business. What’s the latest software that all our students need to fully understand? Bringing back that real-world expertise into our classroom would be incredibly beneficial.
Linked to that, our alumni are amazing mentors for our students. It is my dream that every single Widener student has an alum who serves as a mentor for them throughout their four years here and beyond. I think our alums, the more that they can get back on campus, and the more that they can model a lifelong commitment to their alma mater, the more that our current students will benefit from that. Coming back and sponsoring scholarships for ongoing students and giving back to the community as much as they are able financially is a great model for our current students. And, of course, a great benefit to the institution.
There are just countless ways in which I think our alums can think about how they can give back. And, frankly, maybe most important, our alums are our best recruiters. Whatever community they are in, being willing to help us recruit a new generation of students to Widener through talking about their experiences with friends and neighbors and colleagues, and even at high school events and other types of events, that's a wonderful recruiting opportunity for us. So many ways in which our alums can continue to participate and contribute and enrich us here at Widener.
Greg – This is a timely discussion as we’re just a few days from homecoming as we're recording this conversation together. And we have lots of alums coming back to enjoy themselves and meet with their peers. But we also, as you mentioned, have some innovative and fascinating programs going on. Our business school is doing a workshop on the future of work. I assume you’ll be joining us?
Stacey – Yes, I cannot wait. I absolutely will be. I am scheduled, I think, for every moment of the next several days, and I can't tell you how excited I am to participate in that future of work program. Our students have really gone above and beyond and initiated a lot of wonderful events and activities. And what I love about homecoming is not only are we welcoming back alums from all over the place, but we're also bringing alums together into conversation with our students, and our faculty, and our staff. You just have this, you know, revived community spirit that I think is just incredibly beautiful, and it's such a wonderful moment to be able to experience that for my first time. Especially this year, having not had that opportunity before. I'm just really excited to see what that looks like this year.
Greg – Yeah, it will definitely be a fun time. I think earlier in the conversation we got a little bit of a window into what the morning looks like for Stacey Robertson. And I'm just curious in addition to your clothes already being mapped out and your meditation time, [they laugh] which sounds lovely in the morning (I think I need to build that in as well), when you get up each day, what excites you most in life these days?
Stacey – Oh, wow! Honestly, it is the opportunities that I have to spend time with our students, Greg. It's been one of the greatest joys that I've had in being here at Widener. The opportunity I have not only to engage with students in the classroom, but also outside the classroom. Talking to students after athletic events, after lectures on campus. I try and go to the Pride Cafe, which offers amazing food, at least two or three times a week. Sitting around, chatting with students. Sometimes I’ll just hang around in the evenings and go over to the Student Union and sit down and talk with students, and those are my absolute favorite times.
I'll give you an example: I ran into a student maybe about a month ago. I had seen this young man on several occasions. We had opportunities to engage at various events, and I ran into him, and he looked a little bit down. I asked him how he was feeling, and he said, ‘You know, I'm not doing really well, right now.’ And I said, ‘Listen. Tomorrow we're going to be on campus. We have some time for lunch, my husband and I. Why don’t you come out for lunch with us?’ And he said, ‘That'd be great. Let's do it.’
So Steve and the student and I went out to Zac’s for lunch, and we just spent an hour chatting about our families, about our pets, about the different locations we had lived in, about our parents, and we just had this real moment. And it’s in the grand scheme of things, just a mundane story, right? Having lunch with a new individual and getting to know them. But for me, it symbolized everything that I care about here at Widener. The opportunity to get to know each and every student, not just as a student, but as an individual. As a whole human being. Their whole story, their dreams, their goals. How can we hear? How can I help them achieve those dreams and goals?
And so that lunch just meant so much to me, because I got to know this young man. And I would just love to have the opportunity, unrealistic though it may be, to get to know at that level as much as I can each and every one of our students.
Greg – And this is a great opportunity also for me to give a plug out to Stacey's Instagram account, which is @wu.pres.robertson. I think what you're describing there really shows through your account. I encourage everyone listening to check that out because you're posting those experiences with students and your travels around the Widener community, and it’s very engaging. You do a really nice job with that.
Stacey – Thank you.
Greg – So, I’d like to close with a question that I hope to ask a lot of people who come onto the Far and Widener podcast, because we all have Widener in common. And so far for you in your first 100 days, and others will maybe have years to draw on, so they have a bit of an advantage, but I know you'll have an answer to this question, and that is: What's the most impactful memory you've had thus far at Widener, and how has it changed you?
Stacey – That's a difficult question, even though I've only been here for 100 days, because there really is a memory every single day. I'm a big believer in doing a lot of self-reflection. I'm a journaler. I journal pretty much every day, and I try and reflect on good and complicated memories from each and every day. And you get to an age, Greg, but you're not there yet, but you will be. You get to an age where life feels like it's all about creating memories, you know. It's about creating wonderful memories, and memories that help you to reflect on life in general. And I really believe strongly in this. So, there's many.
But I'll highlight one that comes to mind, and it was recent. A group of about a 130, maybe more, members of the Widener community collaborated with the Chester community to spend a couple of days in the community. And we built a playground in a very short period of time. That memory of being outside on a gorgeous, gorgeous fall day with students, with faculty, with staff, with community members. We got to partner with PECO employees, and so I got to meet a few Widener alums who were there who are PECO employees, including their current CEO. Just moving mulch and picking up trash and picking out weeds and helping put together a complicated piece of equipment for the playground with others, and just the conversation and the feeling of physical exertion. This idea that we are all out there because we chose to be out there. Because we chose to devote those moments to what we hoped would be a wonderful place for families in the community to go and to experience community together. That was such a great experience. And I know, Greg, that that memory will be with me for the rest of my life. And I'm so grateful just to have that, and to me it speaks to the very spirit of Widener and who we are, and why we do what we do.
Greg – And hopefully, there will be many more like that come.
Stacey – Absolutely.
Greg – Well, Stacey, thank you so much for joining us here today on Far and Widener. It was a pleasure to have you here in the studio.
Stacey – The pleasure was all mine, Greg.
We hope you enjoyed this episode. Upcoming episodes include an interview with Widener School of Business Administration Dean Anthony Wheeler on “The Future of Work” and an interview with alumnus Luis Aguilar ’18 about his experience with Widener’s Lone Brick Theater since its inception.
Check out these other Widener-affiliated podcasts: