April 24, 2017
Focus: Education

New UHart president shapes ambitious goals for future

HBJ PHOTO | Patricia Daddona
HBJ PHOTO | Patricia Daddona
Incoming University of Hartford President Gregory Woodward stands by a sculpture outside the administration building at UHart during a recent visit. His tenure begins July 1.

As Gregory Woodward prepares to take over as president of the University of Hartford July 1, he's got some ambitious goals.

Woodward, who is finishing his fifth and final academic year as president of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., wants to double UHart's $150 million endowment and boost a 71 percent first- to second-year student retention rate by 10 percentage points.

He'll also have some big shoes to fill, taking over the reins from longtime President Walter Harrison, who says his replacement shares the vision and values that have helped shape the school over the last two decades.

"He's articulate, charismatic and deeply analytical," said Harrison of his successor. "He's very comfortable understanding numbers and combines that with his own personal skills. It's a great combination."

During his Carthage College tenure, Woodward led a smaller, liberal arts school of about 3,000 students that faced some of the same challenges as UHart does, though the latter has a preponderance of professional schools and a total undergraduate and graduate population of about 7,000.

Key issues facing Woodward, he and Harrison said in separate interviews, include growing that endowment and helping struggling freshmen make it to sophomore year and graduate.

Woodward said he also hopes to amplify diversity, introduce a core curriculum designed to imbue the university with a stronger identity and continue to foster productive relationships with the surrounding community.

A composer, saxophone and clarinet player, athlete, and scholar, Woodward has spent nearly four decades working in many higher-education roles.

Under his leadership, Carthage recently completed a 10-year strategic plan, "Carthage in the Year 2025." He also created Carthage's first president's diversity task force.

Raised in West Hartford, Woodward said he decided to answer a search consultant's call to apply for the top UHart post, literally while in the hospital waiting room as his wife, Penny, underwent cancer surgery.

Her illness is stable now but they both decided to return to Connecticut to be closer to family here and in the Northeast.

Strategic decisions

At Carthage, Woodward had a hand in attracting two of the largest gifts the college ever received, and guided completion of a five-year $35 million fundraising campaign, raising $50 million in three years.

"The challenge with [UHart] is almost always financial," said Harrison, suggesting that tripling the endowment would help sustain the university over the long term. That challenge is "part of the function of being a relatively young university. Most of our funding is driven by tuition, and room and board fees."

Woodward said quintupling the endowment would be even better, but he hopes to double it during his tenure so that future presidents can move the needle after him.

He also raised Carthage's retention rate by 10 percentage points during his time there from 71 percent to 81 percent, and hopes in five years to do the same at UHart, he said.

Improving the already diverse mix of undergraduates — Harrison says 39 percent are students of color — is another goal Woodward shares with Harrison.

Woodward also would like to introduce a broad "core curriculum" — a common educational experience for all students that prepare them for life. Students may take a handful of courses now but he would like to see more substantial requirements — and ones that may even include community service, he said.

"Young people are going to change their jobs seven or eight times in their lives," he explained. "A lot of the careers they're going to be educated for are going to exist, but a lot aren't going to exist. But it is that core of being a broadly educated person that will not only make you a better professional but also make you a better citizen, an educated person of the world."

Harrison also believes the university has room to grow, possibly from 7,000 to 7,500 pupils. Woodward said he'd lean toward preserving its current size.

Physically, neither leader anticipates major changes to the campus itself, with the possible exception of reducing overcrowding in a building shared by engineering and health students.

UHart's West Hartford campus covers slightly more than 300 acres, with less than half built, although a lot of the vacant land, with wetlands, stretches into Bloomfield.

"Do we want to make room on campus or do we want to develop on land in Bloomfield?" Harrison mused. "That's an open question."

It's also a question Woodward will address once he becomes more familiar with the university's needs. As a college undergraduate, he had taken a few courses at UHart, but nonetheless has much more to learn, he said.

Naturally, he also wants to see the reputation of the university, which he describes as continuously improving, rise further — all with an eye to creating a "university of the future."

"The world is a changing place and the jobs students are going into are reliant on a set of skills that isn't necessarily knowledge- or skill-driven but in other kinds of soft skills," he said. "The ability to ask the right questions, answer questions.

"What's the No. 1 thing employers ask for these days? [It's] the ability to work in diverse teams. If that's what employers want as their No. 1 hiring criteria then we're crazy not to provide that. Whether you're a musician or engineer or sculptor or English major. It's a balance."

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