An Interview with Dr. Julie E. Wollman, Widener University’s 10th President

Gregory Potter, associate vice president of University Relations
A graphic design shows a headshot of Dr. Wollman with a graphic that reads "An Interview with Dr. Julie Wollman."

In this podcast interview, Dr. Julie E. Wollman reflects on her service as president of Widener University since 2016. Dr. Wollman discusses the growth of Widener's health sciences programs; Widener's "Agility Experienced" strategy; the pandemic; the university-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; her nationally recognized Common Ground initiative; and her pride in Widener's recognition in the Great Colleges to Work for Survey. 

Associate Vice President Gregory Potter conducted the interview with Dr. Wollman on February 24, 2022. 

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A transcript of the interview follows:

Greg Potter – Hello, I’m Greg Potter, Widener University’s Associate Vice President of University Relations, and I’m here with Dr. Julie Wollman, the 10th president of Widener. Last year, Dr. Wollman announced that she will retire from the Widener presidency in June of 2022 to serve as professor of practice in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Today, Julie and I will be speaking and reflecting on her time here at Widener, her impact, her accomplishments, and her work that has positioned the university for future success. Welcome, Julie. 

Julie Wollman – Thank you so much, Greg. It’s great to be here. 

Greg – Good to have you. So, let’s start with the theme of the spring 2022 issue of Widener Magazine, which is the growth of the university’s health sciences programs. This has been an important goal of your presidency, and I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the progress you’ve made during your tenure, and how that work has positioned Widener students for success in workplaces of the future.

Julie – Sure. When I got here, I recognized the regional need and demand for these programs, as did the provost at the time, and recognized that that was unlikely to change for some time with an aging population and very positive employment projections in the health sciences fields. 

We did a lot of research to learn and sought external expertise to assess the costs and potential of each program, and we found some programs that we felt were really good bets for Widener. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to have the expertise on campus to start a new program. You can build that expertise, and that’s what we’ve done. 

We’ve done that actually over many decades, long before I came here, adding programs well beyond the original engineering and business degrees. We’ve diversified over time a great deal across many areas. And that’s what we did with the health sciences we brought in, developing the expertise. 

We thought this was an investment that would pay off for the university in strong enrollments, that would pay off for students in well-paying jobs, and of course pay off for our region in meeting the health care needs. And that has proved true. It’s been a very good investment for the university and really bolstered our enrollments. 

The foundation was physical therapy and the physical therapy community clinic, and our niche with these programs was and is community-focused, patient-centered, culturally responsive care. And, as we added programs, Doctors Robin Dole and Jill Black recognized the potential to prepare students for how they would actually work in inter-professional teams.

This created a genuine distinction for Widener. The idea that our students are learning before they’re in the field to work with professionals that they’re going to have to interact with to serve the needs of their patients and clients.

So we mapped out possible programs in my first year here, including speech-language pathology and physician’s assistant; later we recognized that occupational therapy and nutrition were also important additions that we have space for. And it created synergies with our other programs. 

We’ve already started occupational therapy and speech-language pathology. Now, physician’s assistant is accepting applications and nutrition science is poised for our board approval. It was just approved by faculty this week. Each of the programs we’ve started has met its enrollment goals consistently, reflecting the demand that we anticipated. 

And we’ve remained steadily focused on these despite the challenges and the long timeline of accreditation for some of them. In that time, the School of Human Service Professions has grown into the College of Health and Human Services and established that vibrant inter-professional focus across all of their programs.

We expanded the space and the reach of the community clinic by renovating an older building and designing it for the expanded clinic, which now includes clinical psychology and social work, as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, and of course those new programs to come. So it’s been a gradual growth, but we’re very focused and very strategic and it’s been very successful.

Greg – That’s a great segue into my next question for you. And obviously as the industry has changed, Widener has kept pace and tried to evolve and change along with it. As an effective leader, you have to embrace change and the challenges and opportunities that come with it, right? So, I’m wondering if you could expand a little bit there and tell us a about the most significant change you experienced during your presidency and what you personally learned from it.

Julie – The first thing that comes to mind are changes that we didn’t make but that came about in the context around us in the world, in the region—the obvious answer is the pandemic. With the pandemic, we were making decisions during uncertain times with ever-evolving information. And I tried to consistently to put our people first when making decisions. What I learned from that was that people appreciate that. Even if they disagree with you on the decisions, they respect the decisions when you put people first. And, of course, when you’re transparent about the why of those decisions.

Another interesting change that we didn’t anticipate was the drop in traditional undergraduate males going to college. And this is a trend across the country, but it is a surprise. Another trend is the clear trajectory toward becoming, for Widener, less of a residential institution at the undergraduate level. So those are two changes, the drop in the number of males interested in going to college, very much linked to the impact of the pandemic I think. And then the drop in students who are interested in a residential undergraduate education, which doesn’t mean they’re not interested in clubs and activities, but they’re not living in residence halls. And some of that is financial, of course.

So, only about 40 percent of our traditional age, undergraduates live in the residence halls now. We anticipated two and a half years ago that we would have more commuters. But the trajectory has become much more dramatic. It’s happened much more quickly than we expected. And in both cases with these changes with the males and the residential students, I think the takeaway is that the external context—families’ financial situations, attitudes about higher education, and whether it’s worth it, especially a private higher education—has an enormous impact that we can’t control. But we have to be ready to adapt to it and that leads us to our focus on agility. 

Greg – Right. Perfect segue. You mentioned strategy, and one might say, you know, the most important response to change is developing a strategy to address it. And one of your signature accomplishments during your presidency has been the development of an innovative strategic process that resulted in our strategy called Agility Experienced. So, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that process, and also the impact you think that it’s having on the university now and how it will lead Widener in the future.

Julie – When it was time to start thinking about a new strategic plan a couple of years ago, before the prior one was to end, I knew that we had an opportunity to be bold and creative. And I was confident that a traditional approach to strategic planning would not help us to win in an intensely competitive environment. Strategy should help you win, not just survive. 

And traditional strategic planning is outdated. It almost always results in tactical non-strategic goals to do more of what’s already occurring. And that’s not strategic. It’s not going to distinguish a university. 

I was determined to create a true strategy in action by really studying our context and the trends around us. And so one example of that is knowing that we would be moving toward more college students being commuters over time, as I mentioned earlier. And I was also determined to think expansively about a strategy for thriving, not just surviving.

And, of course, we started this process before the pandemic. That only accelerated the headwinds that most higher education institutions were facing. So one of the most challenging, and enjoyable, projects I did while here at Widener was to design a process, as you said, that would result in a strategy that would infuse all that we do and serve as a guidepost for decision making in these increasingly volatile and uncertain times. 

I turned to creative studies and design thinking and user experience perspectives, and I think the group had a lot of fun as well. We did some serious and important work, but we did it in a creative way, and we had fun with it. That opened up people’s thinking. 

I think, incidentally, that notion of having fun while also doing serious and important work reflects what we want the entire university experience to be like for our students. So I gathered a group of fewer than 20 of our most creative and open-minded thinkers to develop something bold rather than the traditional menu of 75 goals that lack a clear laser focus. And we were thinking, not about everyone’s pet project or idea, which you often get in traditional strategic planning. Sort of everyone picks something from the menu of ideas, and you have a lot of things thrown into the mix. But what would be best for the university? 

We created a strategy that we could live by as a university, and it’s shaped our work since then. And it’s been a perfect fit for the pandemic-driven changes, which have come quickly, with a very wide range of outcomes that I’ve written about recently, as you know, including innovations and supporting students’ success; leadership; and agility in diversity, equity and inclusion; reorganization; and policy changes that have advanced operational transformation here at the university and improved the user experience. And this is really related to the digital transformation that’s going on around us. 

Academic program agility to respond to students and market expectations and needs. And then agility and responsiveness in our community relations because every brick and mortar university is place based; universities have a public purpose, and we need to support the community that’s around us.

Greg – So, you mentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’d like to explore that with you a little bit. A university-wide commitment to DEI has really been central to your presidency and your leadership. And that was really highlighted by the recent announcement of the Wollman Award for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that will ensure the work continues long after your departure here from Widener. So, from your perspective, what legacy do you hope that you’ve left in regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion? And how do you think that will impact Widener in the future?

Julie – Well, I think above all, it’s important that we appreciate that diversity and inclusion make us better, and we can see that in the outstanding new faculty and staff we’ve hired. And in our increasingly diverse student body, we see how diversity and inclusion makes us better. There really cannot be excellence without diversity. We cannot be a great university without diversity of background race, ethnicity, ability, religion, language, thought, and you know I could go on and on.

We have to be intentional about our efforts to increase diversity of our faculty and staff, and when we are intentional, it works. We’ve done that. We can see the changes happening because of that intentionality in how we recruit and how we hire. I hope that you know part of the legacy is that we’ve made many small changes to erase powerful, unintentional bias in processes and procedures that people took for granted. But these changes, while they may be small, have large impact. They add up and make a difference in the experience of a student, faculty, or staff member, or one or the other constituents of the university in their experience with the university.

And I hope that I’ve also left the legacy that a president has to be fully behind these efforts and unafraid to speak openly about diversity, equity, and inclusion in order to make progress, and that I hope people believe that I was unafraid to speak openly and make progress. 

Greg – I think a perfect example of embracing that thought process is highlighted by another key accomplishment of your presidency, and that was the introduction of your nationally recognized Common Ground initiative. That brought many people in the Widener community together to engage in difficult conversations. And I’m curious after going through that process how you think that initiative impacted discourse on our campuses, and what students, faculty, and staff gained from those experiences.

Julie – Yeah, that’s a great question. So I started Common Ground in 2017 to model discourse across differences. And we’ve continued to have common ground meetings several times a semester since then, so it’s really become ingrained in what we do. I think it’s our responsibility in higher education to encourage and teach people to have these conversations, to reduce polarization and increase civic engagement to feel a responsibility for making the world a better place by working together and listening to each other. 

I think universities are a great place to do that because in many cases for many people they’re the only place where they encounter diverse points of view among peers and colleagues. Many people when they’re outside of work or school go back to their bubble of people who are like them and think like them, and that’s natural. But we have an opportunity here to create this space for learning across differences and diverse points of view. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to take advantage of that opportunity.

So, to your question about what do you think our students, faculty, and staff have gained from these experiences: I actually planned to use our final Common Ground gathering this spring to ask that question about how participants think the initiative has impacted them, and our campuses. I can say though that it has definitely opened up conversations on challenging topics. That seeing me leading it each time, because I lead each of the conversations in collaboration with our chief diversity officer Micki Davis, has legitimized the hard work of these conversations of trying to understand different perspectives and listening, and made it okay to talk about differences in open and honest ways.

I often try to open up with a story that puts me in a vulnerable position, and you know sometimes you’re not sure how to respond or you don’t listen well enough, and then you realize, gosh, I really wasn’t doing what I intended to. So, I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve never had a Common Ground conversation where people didn’t leave with new insights, with new understandings, with new awareness of what it’s like to be someone different from them.

You can see that people say it: “I never realized what that was like.” “I never had any idea.” “I never even thought about that.” “I didn’t know that.” I mean this comes up frequently in each of the conversations, and I hope from their new awareness and new understanding and new insights that they also leave with new commitments. I think people do that, and sometimes I say at the end, I think that this has given us a lot to think about, and to think about how this might change the way we make decisions in the world, or interact with other people. 

I think we’ve also gained a lot of suggestions from the Common Ground conversations for how to advance the work, and we followed up on those as well. So, often a participant will say, “Well, it would be great if we could bring together all the people who are working on this particular issue or whatever across the university.” And sometimes there’s a discovery from these conversations that there are a lot of people working on something that weren’t even connected in the in the work they’re doing. Leveraging all of the good thinking and all the good work that’s going creates connections as well.

Greg – It sounds like it’s given you, and all the participants, an opportunity to do a lot of self-reflection as well through those conversations. 

Julie – Absolutely. 

Greg – And an obvious question when you reach the end of a tenure at a position, and I’m sure you’re doing some self-reflection, what as you look back on your presidency are you most proud of?

Julie – I think I would have to say, it’s our recognition in the Great Colleges to Work For survey, which is an anonymous survey. We don’t know who’s answered it, so there’s no pressure for faculty or staff to answer the survey. And because it’s anonymous and we don’t see the responses, because it’s collected externally, it’s an external organization that does this, you know it’s a safe place to say what you really think. And so the fact that we’ve been recognized in four categories of being a great place to work in for multiple years is something I’m very proud of because without building and nurturing a strong culture, you can’t thrive as an institution. And I feel that that’s a reflection of the strong culture that I’ve worked along with all of my colleagues to build and nurture.

Greg – In your next role, obviously higher education is in your blood, you’re going to continue to make an impact when you leave us to go to the University of Pennsylvania. I’m curious, as you think about Widener, what will you miss most about this aspect of your journey in higher education and serving as president of Widener?

Julie – Well, it’s certainly been an incredible honor, and it’s been really fun to work on advancing the university, to develop new recognition, to develop new programs. But I think what I’ll miss the most is the people – my faculty and staff colleagues, our students, our trustees, and our dedicated alumni. I really value relationships, and I value people’s dedication and hard work, and I’ll really miss working with all these great people.

Greg – I remember when we first met, toward the beginning of your tenure as president at Widener, there was a lot of reflection and recognition that you were the first female president at Widener. And I was always intrigued by your answer that “it doesn’t matter that I’m female, it’s how I approach the job, and the impact that I make.” The first female president will always be something that people attach to you and your success at Widener. But as you think about that concept, I’m just wondering when we celebrate our 250th anniversary in another 50 years, and folks look back upon the history of the organization and your leadership, how do you hope that you will be remembered? 

Julie – I really do believe as you said that all leaders need to be judged as leaders, not by their gender or race or whatever else that might be. But at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that you are a role model in many cases for students. And, actually, I’ve had faculty and staff say to me that it’s meant so much to them to see me as a leader, because it creates a role model that they’ve never had before. So I do need to acknowledge that. 

But I hope, to come to your question, how do I hope I’ll be remembered? That’s a tough question. I think more than anything, I hope I’ll be remembered for caring deeply about the institution and the people, and for working relentlessly on their behalf. I’ll be remembered for building the university’s reputation and greatly expanding awareness of all the great things that are happening here. For expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion as we talked about earlier. And for honoring our rich past, while introducing innovations. We talked a lot about new things we’re doing, but honoring our rich heritage while introducing those innovations that moved the university forward and positioned it for future success.

You know, each of my predecessors also did that in their own ways. We each build on the foundation we’re handed, as we contribute to the future, and we help our community of learners to discover and create better futures, which is our mission.

Greg – Julie, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you today. I know the Widener community will miss you deeply, and we all thank you for your leadership and your contributions to the institution. I wish you the best of success in your future endeavors. 

Julie – Thank you so much.

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