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February 20, 2023 / 2023 Power 50

2023 Power 50: 41. Rhona Free & Gregory Woodward

Rhona Free

University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free and University of Hartford President Gregory Woodward lead West Hartford-based private universities that have faced similar issues: Both are working to boost enrollment; they’ve signed off on new campus buildings; and have made news with their sports programs, albeit for different reasons.

Free, president since 2015, recruited some high-profile staffers to the once all-women college. That included Hall of Fame former UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun, who helped launch USJ’s men’s basketball program. He stepped away from coaching in 2021 and is still an advisor to Free.

In addition, USJ opened a new $16-million sports and recreational venue for men’s and women’s basketball and student use in late 2021. And, in the last few years the university launched six Division III men’s teams in basketball, lacrosse, soccer, swimming/diving, tennis and men’s basketball.

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER
University of Hartford President Gregory Woodward.

At UHart, Woodward faced some public backlash in 2021 when the university’s Board of Regents announced the transition of the school’s athletics program from NCAA Division I to Division III. Some students, alum and sports fans expressed displeasure with the move. It even led to a student-led lawsuit claiming UHart “reneged on its commitment” to student-athletes.

Throughout it all, Woodward has not wavered in his support for the transition, which he said is a necessary cost-cutting move. 

The school’s 17 athletic programs are currently competing in Division I but are not in a conference, while they await the move to Division III.

Both presidents have also overseen several expansion efforts. Free has led the transition from five schools to three; the start of a physician assistant studies program; the relocation of the school’s pharmacy doctorate program from downtown Hartford to West Hartford; the launch of the Catholic Promise Scholarship; and the creation of the Women’s Leadership Center.

Woodward, president since 2017, oversaw the opening in late 2021 of the 60,000-square-foot Hursey Center for advanced engineering and health care that made it possible for the school to introduce new majors in construction management, technology and aerospace, and to expand offerings for nursing and healthcare professions. 

Woodward recently said there would be additional new programs added in the years ahead.

Find out who else is in the 2023 Power 50.

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