When Susan D. Stuebner, Ed.D., talks about the impact of higher education — especially the transformation that students can experience in their time at a small, liberal arts-based college like Colby-Sawyer — she gets actual goose bumps.
Colby-Sawyer celebrated the college's new leader at her investiture on Friday, Oct. 14. The event fell on the first day of Homecoming Weekend and was followed by a reception in the Marian Graves Mugar Art Gallery.
The 45-year-old Minnesota native, who was unanimously appointed Colby-Sawyer’s ninth president by the Board of Trustees in March to succeed Thomas C. Galligan Jr., has dedicated her career to higher education. She comes to Colby-Sawyer from Allegheny College, where she served three years as executive vice president and chief operating officer. A student and champion of the liberal arts model with more than two decades’ experience in almost every facet of higher education, she lives for the moments when learning comes alive for students — the ultimate goal of educators, whether faculty or administrators.
Shake her family tree and you’ll find generations of educators: Her paternal great-grandfather, Dr. Arthur Hobson Quinn, was an English professor at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He was also dean of the college (1912 – 1922), and one of his daughters was very involved in the arts at the university. Her maternal great-grandmother, Josephine Shellabarger Greef, was one of the founders and first faculty members of Kansas’s Pittsburg State University in 1903.
President Stuebner’s own dedication to education began when she was a student. Curious and competitive, she focused on doing what needed to be done and doing it well. When she was inducted into Minnetonka High School’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, she was fêted with the words of her 12th-grade English teacher: “[Sue] was in love with learning. She was in love with books. She was in love with language, and she inspired me to be the kind of teacher she deserved.”
Though she’s the first to say she’s been blessed to have worked with people who’ve instilled in her the value of education, hard work and the belief she can do anything, President Stuebner’s abilities to lead and inspire were clear early on: She was team captain of her high school’s volleyball, basketball and track teams, and at Dartmouth, where she earned her A.B. in psychology, she was captain of the women’s basketball team as well as a member of the senior leadership society Casque and Gauntlet.
President Stuebner’s love of learning grew into a professional passion that centers on how to preserve and enhance the liberal arts model of education. As a doctoral student at Harvard University, her research focused on the role of the college presidency and decision making in sustaining liberal arts education for more than just the institutions and students with the most means.
She has put her research to work every day of her career. Prior to Allegheny, President Stuebner rose through the ranks at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., to vice president for administration and planning. She’s also held posts at Dartmouth College, Wheelock College, Harvard University, Albright College and Carleton College.
I sat down with Sue, as she prefers to be called, for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from her favorite author (John Irving) and favorite hikes (anywhere in Acadia National Park) to her habits for success (writing, compartmentalizing and making the most of every minute), but here we focus on how her educational and professional opportunities have prepared her to be Colby-Sawyer College’s ninth president.
We’re having this conversation one month to the day before you take office, but it’s the fourth time we’ve met. You’re already attending senior staff meetings and becoming part of the Colby-Sawyer community. It’s remarkable.
I credit a lot of that to Tom Galligan. He’s been so gracious about creating the space for these early visits, and he’s been a phenomenal partner in the transition. These visits have helped me to get a head start on conversations that would normally take place in the first 90 days.
This is your first college presidency. Why Colby-Sawyer?
The education delivered here is incredibly strong. The institution has evolved throughout its history, but the commitment to a liberal arts foundation has remained. Ultimately, what we’re about as educators is creating moments of transformation and connecting our students with learning and identifying paths they didn’t know were possible. The liberal arts model, which is the foundation Colby-Sawyer has stayed committed to, is compelling.
Another thing that excites me is Colby-Sawyer’s distinct mission. There’s great scrutiny today about the value of the liberal arts. We all can say why critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills and working with diverse groups matter, but Colby-Sawyer pairs a liberal arts foundation with pre-professional majors and combines the two through experiential opportunities. The students are articulate about how things like internships and the Capstone experience come together, and how involved the faculty is in creating a great educational experience. When you think about the landscape of small private colleges, the meaningful experiential component that Colby-Sawyer offers really distinguishes it in the marketplace.
Location is another reason Colby-Sawyer appealed. As a Dartmouth graduate and someone who has spent 10 years in New England, returning to this region felt like coming home. New London is a wonderful community in a beautiful setting.
A couple years ago you gave a presentation called Keys to Survival at Small, Private Colleges: What Every Trustee, President and CFO Should be Contemplating Amidst the Current Economic Crisis and the Changing Landscape of Higher Education. What are some of those issues for Colby-Sawyer?
It’s an enormously competitive time in higher education, so first and foremost is considering how we articulate our value in compelling ways to our different audiences.
Financing any college or university is a challenge, but for small, private residential colleges, it’s a very challenging issue. One of the central questions we need to address is, What is the ideal size for Colby-Sawyer that allows us to predict with certainty how many students will enroll, that attracts students who will succeed academically and socially, and that maximizes net tuition revenue?
It is critical for small private colleges not only to focus on the near term, but also to build long-term stability through our endowment. The Power of Infinity Campaign will give us an opportunity not only to address current needs but also to find ways to endow programs that are central to delivering our mission for our
next 179 years.
Another question we need to address is, What can we do well programmatically? For example, there are many options today in terms of how to deliver an academic program, and Colby-Sawyer has explored some of these alternatives. This fall, we will enroll our first class of graduate students in the Master of Science in Nursing program. Academic strategic planning will be important. Sometimes institutions based in the liberal arts try to be all things; it is important that we examine what we can do best and then deliver that really well.
How will you connect with students?
Students are what our work is all about. One of the ironies for many of us in higher education administration is that we get into this work because of our passion for working with students, and then the more success we have, the less contact we have with them. I will offer a weekly office hour. I would like to meet regularly with our leaders in student government as well as interact with students in more informal ways. And I find it inspiring to see students participating across campus. My wife, Amanda, and I look forward to going to athletic events, performances and cheering our students on in all they do.
One of the first things you asked the leadership team to do was to read an article about creating a diversity agenda. Why is diversity important to you?
Diversity is about much more than just composition and having, say, students of different nationalities or ethnicities or LGBT folks here. There is some wonderful diversity at Colby-Sawyer, but all of us are going to miss out if we don’t keep engaging in conversations about how to learn from one another’s perspectives and backgrounds. For our students to succeed, it’s important for them to have even more discussions about tough topics. I’ve learned a lot in the past three years from having these kinds of conversations and reflecting on my own core values and hearing how others have gotten to theirs.
As executive vice president and chief operating officer at Allegheny College, you oversaw the vice presidents in the way a president typically does, so essentially you have three years’ experience in the role. How will you apply what you learned to your own presidency?
The Allegheny position was a great learning opportunity. One of the things that’s interesting about higher ed administration is you move up because you’re a good doer, and then when you get to this kind of role, you have to trust the really good doers around you. I have a very strong Senior Leadership Team here at Colby-Sawyer. The faculty is wonderful. Colby-Sawyer has an incredible Board of Trustees. Everyone on this campus has an impact on the student experience in one way or another. My role is helping to clarify roles and responsibilities, defining the questions and helping set top priorities and, as we get our strategic plan defined, keeping us all focused on what matters most.
I’m excited about the opportunity as president to do even more work with alumni and students. Getting to know the people who have connections to the college is what energizes me as a leader. During one of my transition visits, I spent the day with the President’s Alumni Advisory Council, and it was so fun. What a great group! Colleges are a lot about stories, and I look forward to hearing more about what mattered to alumni when they were here and what they care about now, as well as what matters to current students, faculty and staff.
Can you elaborate on your leadership style?
One of the hardest things, especially in small institutions where we all wear many hats, is helping folks understand that whatever their role, they have value and are contributing. It is important to give direct feedback, but in a way that still has compassion. I’ve been lucky to be in roles where I have a view of the whole institution, and so I try to connect others to the institutional goals.
One of the roles I have played often is that of a translator and educator between constituents. By having the institutional view, I can see commonalities in what we are trying to do, and I enjoy the process of bringing us together around those shared goals.
We’re getting to know President Stuebner, but we’re getting to know Sue Stuebner, too. Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up in Deephaven, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. It was a great place to grow up. I’m the youngest of four — we’re spread out over 15 years — and my parents are committed to education and the arts. They’re 84 now.
My mother went back to school for her master’s degree when I was in second grade, and then she went on to have a career as an elementary school social worker. She’s always been an amazing role model, and I’m proud she pursued what she wanted to do.
And your father?
He has Alzheimer’s, but music is still one thing that kind of gets through. He used to sing. He went to Dartmouth, too, and was a real estate developer. He had a passion for creating; it was always neat to see projects go from ground zero to buildings that served the community well.
Both my parents were great about letting me focus on sports, which was a huge passion, but we all had to play an instrument.
What was yours?
My mom plays the piano and has perfect pitch, and she would always correct me when I played instruments that had real notes. I ended up playing percussion.
A percussionist drives the rhythm and keeps everyone moving forward together. Seems fitting for a future college president.
My mom likes to say that from the moment I was born, she knew I had administrative potential because of how wide my shoulders were.
What were you like as a child?
Independent. And curious. I could always figure out what my Christmas presents were; it drove my parents crazy.
And I loved writing. I was convinced I was going to be a great novelist.
I was also always incredibly tall — I’m 6'2" — so when I found sports, it was kind of a magical thing. I probably felt most secure playing sports, and I played a whole bunch of them until high school when I had to pick just three.
As for school, I was a hard worker, but it was more of a transaction than a passion. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized what it feels like to connect with the subject matter and study something for its own sake, not just for class.
You married in May. Could you introduce your family?
Absolutely. My wife, Amanda, grew up in Fryeburg, Maine, and she was also a three-sport athlete and a strong student. Like me, she loves the New England Patriots, even though she’s been in Ohio for almost 20 years. Her son, Tyler, just turned 20; her daughter, Gabrielle, is 17 and will be a high school senior this year. They’re great kids and grew up in Cleveland, but we’ll introduce them to all that New England has to offer. Similar to the Galligans’ transition, Amanda will join me in New London full time after Gabrielle finishes high school.
Where did your road to the presidency begin?
When I went to college, I thought I would go into business when I graduated. I liked writing, so I started as an English major. One of my mentors was my class dean, and his advice was to major in what I enjoyed studying most and trust that those skills would take me where I needed to go. When I took Psychology of Learning with Professor Chris Jernstedt as a junior, I fell in love with learning and changed my major to psychology. I had no idea then where it might lead in terms of a career.
For three years at Dartmouth, my work-study job was in the admissions office at the Tuck School of Business. Mostly I did basic things like stuffing applications or filing, but there were two deans of admissions during my time there who were great mentors. They encouraged me to look at the comments the counselors made on applications and talked to me about the business of enrolling students. They were the ones who introduced me to higher education as a career path. My first full-time position after college was at Albright College, another private institution, where I was head basketball coach and an admissions counselor. I saw the contrast between their resources and Dartmouth’s, but they were trying to offer the same qualities of a liberal arts education. Working closely with students, I saw firsthand how much they grew during their time in that setting. But I also saw the dichotomy between an institution not having enough resources and having to make decisions based on finances versus what’s best for the student or the core mission. So, I applied to graduate school because I wanted to understand better how we could preserve the model of liberal arts for institutions that don’t have the most resources and for families who don’t have the ability to pay full price. My professional passion has always centered on the question of how to preserve the liberal arts approach based on how much potential it has for transforming students’ lives.
In a lot of ways, though, I feel like I’ve just been in the right places at the right moments.
Tell me more about this power of transformation you just mentioned. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, right?
Right. I experienced it myself in college. To see how much a liberal arts education transforms lives and helps students find their stride is tremendous. Students might arrive with one or two majors in mind, but by working closely with faculty and being introduced to the liberal arts, they discover they can pursue a whole array of things. And outside the classroom, you see students become leaders on campus. The progression from first to senior year is just phenomenal.
One of the things I think is so exciting about Colby-Sawyer is the power of what’s happening in the classroom and outside the classroom here to impact students’ lives and to give them new choices. So those are the things that get me really excited. You know, they give me goosebumps. I’m getting goosebumps right now.
I can see them — they’re a manifestation of your passion for this work.
I feel extraordinarily lucky to be in this place. I care very much about what I do, and I hope people see that and feel that. Even just walking in this morning and breathing the New Hampshire air and seeing the campus and then getting a chance to meet with people … in many ways, Colby-Sawyer already feels like a wonderful home, and I look forward to the year ahead and beyond.