A tireless advocate for higher education with vast experience at elite liberal arts institutions, Georgia Nugent was named Illinois Wesleyan’s 20th president in November 2019.
Story by Matt Wing
In her first remarks after being named Illinois Wesleyan University’s 20th president, Georgia Nugent offered a slogan to the standing-room only crowd gathered inside Young Main Lounge on Nov. 14, 2019.
Some of you have heard me say this before, but I want to propose today a new totally unofficial motto for IWU,” Nugent said. “And it’s I With U .”
“It’s a recognition that, to create the community we want and need to be, everyone is important,” she continued. “Everyone is an ‘I,’ everyone contributes to what we do here, and everyone matters.”
In the spirit of the motto, Nugent lauded the contributions of many who made possible the campus event announcing her presidency: the sound technician who set up the public address system, the food services staff for providing refreshments, the physical plant staff who had cleared walkways and parking lots of recent snow and ice.
She also credited her husband, Tom Scherer, for helping her realize her interest in appointment as IWU’s full-time president with just a few words in one of their nightly phone conversations.
“What Tom said was, ‘You really sound happy there,’” Nugent recalled. “And his recognizing how happy I sounded actually influenced me recognizing how happy I felt to be at this university at this time.”
I With U , Nugent said, can be a way of reminding ourselves of our values and common sense of purpose.
“Confronting and overcoming challenge can mean that we emerge stronger and better than ever,” she said. “As I have worked with you over these past few months, I have become more and more confident that we will do just that.
“And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Illinois Wesleyan’s bright future.”
Nugent spoke with Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine after being named president.
How would you describe yourself to the campus community?
I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for liberal arts education. It has enriched my life immeasurably, and I want to do what I can to enable others to have that transformative experience.
What attracted you to Illinois Wesleyan?
It was clear to me that Illinois Wesleyan is the kind of school that really does change lives. The first folks I met were alumni, and their love of the University was palpable. They understood how much they had gained from their education at IWU. As I had the opportunity to meet more faculty and students, I could see that the IWU experience has remained constant over time: the University provides a first-rate and rigorous education, coupled with caring support. It’s a place where lifelong relationships are built and nurtured. It’s a place where values matter and mission guides decision-making. That’s the kind of place where I want to be and where I hope I can make a contribution.
When you were hired as interim president, you requested that you not be considered a candidate for the presidency on a longer-term basis. What changed?
I quickly came to love the campus, its mission, and its people — faculty, students, staff and alumni. I felt that we could work together to build a stronger Illinois Wesleyan University for the future. When it became clear that the Trustees felt the same way and asked me to stay on at the University, I could not have been more pleased and happy to do so.
How do you feel your strengths as a leader fit the needs of the University?
Illinois Wesleyan is proud of its identity as a university grounded in the liberal arts. I believe passionately in the liberal arts and, through my role as Senior Fellow at The Council of Independent Colleges for the past six years, I have become a well-known national spokesperson on behalf of liberal arts colleges and universities. So I think that’s one way in which there’s a great fit. My 11 years as president at two other institutions, as well as experience in four other universities and colleges of national stature, enable me to bring a broad perspective to IWU, which I think is a strength. Additionally, we all know that most universities today face financial challenges, and IWU is no exception. Having had the experience of raising $240 million at another liberal arts college is a plus, I believe.
What are the qualities that a university president needs today?
A president needs to be a person of unimpeachable integrity and honesty who cares deeply about this type of liberal arts institution and education. Someone who is experienced in leading and decision-making, and is action-oriented, not prone to analysis paralysis. Someone who understands that, often in leadership, authentic relationships are more important than raw intelligence, “getting to yes” may be more important than “getting it right,” and a very healthy sense of humor (especially about oneself) is indispensable. Someone who considers that leading and stewardship of the University a sacred trust.
You are the 20th president of Illinois Wesleyan University and its first woman president. What does that mean to you?
First and foremost, I’m focused on serving Illinois Wesleyan as a strong and successful president, without reference to gender. Yet, at the same time, it is particularly meaningful to me to serve as the first woman president. (This will be the third time that’s been the case.)
Throughout my career, in many different ways, I’ve tried to advance women and women’s leadership. Because women have held the presidency in a number of high-profile institutions (Harvard, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, etc.), it may appear that women and men are on equal footing in higher education leadership. They’re not. For more than 20 years, the percentage of female presidents in America has remained stagnant, at about 25%. And most of those presidencies are in two-year, specialized, low- profile institutions. So being selected as a woman president is, in my view, both a particular honor and a position that comes with a particular responsibility, both to model effective leadership and to assist other women in their aspirations.
What’s been your impression of Illinois Wesleyan students, faculty and staff?
My impressions have all been very positive.
IWU students are bright and eager learners. They’re also incredibly friendly and nice. This was so clear on the very first day of move-in this year. It was pouring rain — really miserable weather. Yet, an amazing group of student volunteers were positively gleeful as they helped students and families move into the residence halls. They may have been dripping wet, as they wrestled huge boxes and refrigerators, but they exuded good cheer and a positive, can-do spirit. As a result, our new students and their families were also in a great mood.
Faculty members are deeply devoted to their students. They’re committed to providing the best learning experience. And they also make the effort to get to know their students and help them to succeed. I’ve heard many stories of faculty members remaining close to their students and in contact years after graduation. Faculty members are also dedicated to the University itself. They work in so many ways outside of the classroom to contribute to the vitality and the success of the institution — through faculty governance, development of new learning experiences, carrying out research, mentoring students and more.
Staff are also deeply devoted to the University. We must never forget that, over these almost 200 years, the contribution of staff members has been critical. They keep us up and running. At an institution like IWU, often generations of a family have proudly served the University. Ask almost any staff member, and they will tell you that they love their interaction with students. And students come to know and care about many staff members. Too often, universities are seen as only faculty and students. That’s not the whole picture, and I always try to foreground the significant role of staff members in our whole educational project.
Why is a strong alumni base important to the strength of a university?
To speak in the terms a business might use, alumni are both the “customer” and the “product” of higher education. First, a university isn’t strong if its “customers” (alumni) aren’t satisfied — and more than satisfied — with the education they’ve received. Alumni are your most important and valuable ambassadors. If they are very happy with their experience at the University, they make a tremendous difference to a flourishing future, because by word-of-mouth they let folks know that IWU is a great place to come to. But there’s more. Alumni are also the “product” of the University in the sense that the lives they lead — their accomplishments and success, their values and ethical example, their contributions to their communities — are always sending a message to others about what Illinois Wesleyan stands for and what it instills in graduates. Nothing is more important than that.
Given your leadership experience at elite liberal arts institutions, what is your assessment of the current and future state of higher education?
Well, first, it will be no surprise to learn that I am not of the “gloom and doom” camp. The evidence could not be clearer that higher education is one of the best investments anyone can make in a better future — both on the personal level and for the welfare of our society. But we all know that negative news attracts attention, so that’s mostly the diet that the public receives through national media outlets. The nimbleness, the creativity, the innovation that’s occurring on college campuses is very little known, outside of the campuses. And innovation is what’s needed. Because, while I am very confident about the future of higher education, I am equally certain that we must evolve to meet the needs of changing times. The good news is that higher education has always done this. If that wasn’t true, our curricula would still be only Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and mathematics. There would be no molecular biology, no economics, no graphic design, no modern language study. We continue to evolve today, and this is the project we’re involved in here at Illinois Wesleyan. The population is changing — and so is the IWU student body. The ubiquity of technology has made information accessible anywhere, any time — and so our pedagogy is changing, from providing information to helping students evaluate and work with information to create knowledge. Students’ objectives for their education are changing — and so we’re devoting more attention to clarify how they can put their liberal arts education to use after they graduate.
How is Illinois Wesleyan poised to adapt to this changing landscape?
In my view, Illinois Wesleyan is in a tremendously strong position to succeed, because of our outstanding combination of a strong liberal arts education with the opportunity for pre-professional development — whether that be in nursing, business, music, pre-law, computer science or (more recently) actuarial science, media production and more … This is the ideal education for today and for the future. Yes, skills-training is worthwhile (and it’s especially highly valued by today’s students and families who are concerned about first jobs after graduation). But it is much more valuable when it’s combined with the broad liberal arts education which familiarizes a student with many different subject matters, many different modes of thought, with different cultures and historical periods and products of human creativity. This intellectual breadth is what contributes to the problem-solving, innovative thinking, and continuous learning that employers find so valuable in liberal arts graduates — and that contributes so powerfully not only to long-term career success but to a fulfilling life. In other words, here at IWU, we have exactly the kind of education that students need most to succeed in tomorrow’s world.
What is the aim of the strategic planning process and what steps have been taken so far?
The aim of the strategic planning process is setting a direction for the future and taking the steps necessary to reach aspirational goals. Toward that end, a large group of people on campus — staff, faculty and administrators — have worked very hard over the summer, to identify new possibilities for IWU and to outline the steps we need to take to get there. About 60 people have been involved in these working groups. It’s an amazing effort, and one that makes very clear how much people care about this place and how much they’re willing to contribute to its future.
You’ve written for Inside Higher Ed about the pursuit of innovation among small independent colleges. What opportunities do you see at Illinois Wesleyan?
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to lead workshops around the country (for the Council of Independent Colleges) in which about 500 campus leaders from more than 100 colleges and universities participated. Those meetings provided a window on the many ways in which institutions of our type are changing to meet their changing environment. Among the many stimulating ideas we heard, my colleagues and I identified eight areas where strategic change was most frequently taking place. Those were: athletics, career connections, community engagement, consortial arrangements, cost containment, curricular reform, new academic programs, and new student populations. Frankly, IWU has opportunities in every one of these areas. And we are taking action in each one. Alumni can expect to be hearing more about those individual efforts in the future.
What are you hoping to accomplish in your time at Illinois Wesleyan?
I believe we are at an exciting, pivotal point where we need to capitalize on our strengths and be willing to embrace change with a greater degree of excitement and curiosity — and at a faster pace — in order to realize our full potential. In today’s environment, I believe this is not optional but essential. I hope to provide the leadership and support to enable the campus to move forward with boldness and confidence.