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President Passes the Baton

Honoring Thomas J. Schwarz

President Schwarz posing with his presidential portrait painted by Professor Emeritus Murray Zimiles during the celebration of his tenure... President Schwarz posing with his presidential portrait painted by Professor Emeritus Murray Zimiles during the celebration of his tenure at The Performing Arts Center on May 8, 2019. (Photo by Sean Zanni/PMC)President Thomas J. Schwarz sits behind his desk in the office he’s occupied on the third floor of the Student Services Building since it opened in 2006, surrounded by student artwork that he collected over the years. 

On his shelf are myriad awards, photos with alumni, and other memorabilia gathered over his 17-year tenure as president. As he reflects on his time at Purchase, which drew to a close on July 31, 2019, he reveals he’ll miss the kids the most.

“I’ll miss a lot of things, but when a kid comes into your office and says ‘thank you for how much you helped me,’ and you know you did, it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Regarding his legacy, he’s most proud of the increase in the four-year graduation rate. It reached a high of 57% (the national average for public colleges is 33%) and he’s convinced it will hit 60% soon. To reach this point, he raised expectations, made tough decisions, and implemented many changes, some more welcome than others. Yet every action he took was a strategic move in support of a single goal: to elevate the success of students.

President Schwarz at his inauguration in 2003

Bleak State

President Schwarz stepped onto campus as interim president in 2002 facing a $5 million budget deficit, a graduation rate of 31%, crumbling infrastructure, and low morale. Since his inauguration as the fifth president in 2003, the graduation rate has nearly doubled, new policies and procedures have brought financial stability, collaboration among academic programs is the norm, and many campus structures have been renovated, including the complete overhaul of the mall. 

“We’re not running an antique store here. We’re running an institution that’s supposed to educate students and move them out into the real world. If this school is solvent and physically attractive and the academics are great, but the students graduate at 31%, then you haven’t done much. Everything else that you do is the predicate to increase graduation rates.” 

Formidable Advocate

From his arrival in January 2002 as interim, Schwarz prioritized his role as staunch advocate for students–academically, socially, and personally. He listened to their needs and demanded changes to bolster their academic success, ease their ability to navigate systems on campus, encourage their personal growth, and improve their quality of life. Only then could graduation rates be expected to improve.  

Schwarz was well known for his distinguished career as senior litigator at the international law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He had also served his alma mater, Hamilton College, on its board of trustees beginning in 1987 and as acting president in 1999. “The traits of an exceptional lawyer make for an exceptional college president,” says lawyer Glen Parker ’04 (philosophy, anthropology minor), who was PSGA president in 2003-04. “You’re balancing the concern for your client with a degree of empathy, to relate to and understand what’s important to them, but then to have a sharp mind to advocate and execute on the best course of action.”

Schwarz’s first directive was relocating the Office of the President from the distant Admissions Building. “I’m not going to spend my time over there,” he recalls telling administrators before he even arrived on campus. “I’d never see a student, except a high school student.” He chose a space in the Social Sciences Building where “people could walk by and see me there.”

Interim Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Patricia Bice ’85 (dance) returned to Purchase in 2002 as registrar. “Tom was committed to being visible and being there for students.” She was immediately impressed with his resolve to implement whatever systems were needed to improve student success. Most importantly, though, he changed the culture. “He made it clear that student success is everyone’s responsibility. I don’t think that can be overestimated.”

Schwarz recognized the students’ feelings of isolation as a result of the school’s location and its lack of a gathering space just for students. He instituted The Loop, the free regular bus service to White Plains and Port Chester. He also enthusiastically approved the PSGA’s plan to take over the Butler Building to create a student center, The Stood, which remains central to campus life today. “Within a year we were playing Ping Pong and holding meetings there. It was incredible that he allowed us to have this feeling of accomplishment,” says Parker. 

President Schwarz pictured with the PSGA crew who created the Stood in 2003.

Empowering students to find and own their solutions exemplifies the president’s approach to learning–it’s never limited to the classroom. Schwarz pushed to emphasize study abroad and leadership opportunities, internships, service learning experiences, and wellness initiatives to develop the whole student. 

But he also paid serious attention to academic support, or the lack thereof. Both the Advising Center and the Learning Center were established soon after his arrival. And difficult but necessary changes to the scheduling grid eliminated course conflicts that had previously prevented students from taking required courses. Says Associate Professor of Theatre Design/Technology Dan Hanessian MFA ’90 (theatre design/technology), “That act alone, in my opinion, changed our graduation rates at this institution drastically. It allowed students to do what they’re here to do, to take those classes and learn.” And of course, graduate. 

President Schwarz speaks with a student at the annual Natural and Social Sciences Symposium

Creative Collaborator

President Schwarz recalls attending a student performance early on and discovering in the playbill, to his dismay, that production professionals were hired from the outside even though their disciplines were taught on campus. Unsatisfied with the faculty response “but that’s taught in another conservatory,” he implemented a systematic breakdown of the walls separating academic programs to encourage a culture of collaboration. He essentially charged the faculty with working together to create meaningful opportunities for students here on campus.

“When I came here I didn’t recognize this as one college. It was eight institutions, all independent silos.” He restructured leadership in the conservatories and the School of Art+Design under a new School of the Arts umbrella to create synergy. He reduced the number of deans on campus from eight to two, merged the Schools of Natural Science and Social Science into one, and then created the School of Film and Media Studies to better align and articulate the film BFA with other majors related to film and media that had been dispersed among the Schools of Natural and Social Sciences and Humanities.

Schwarz believed the Neuberger Museum of Art and The Performing Arts Center (PAC) shouldn’t simply be “located on the campus of” Purchase College, but instead should be an integral part of the student experience. He hired an art historian who could teach from the Neuberger’s collection, creating a new joint faculty appointment to serve half-time as professor and half-time as curator. The PAC now routinely weaves students into its productions, and students create and perform work regularly at the Neuberger inspired by its exhibitions.

Good Steward

When Chief Financial Officer Judy Nolan first came to Purchase as controller in 2002, she recalls Schwarz pointing to an abstract painting hanging in his office and claiming it represented the college’s books and records. She laughed, but he didn’t. “He made it very clear that his highest and first priority was to stabilize the finances and implement policies, procedures, and controls. And it needed to be done in one way: through an open and transparent process,” she says.

Lobby of the Humanities Building “From my experience at Hamilton, I knew how a well-run liberal arts campus should function,” says Schwarz. He laser-focused on sustainability in all forms–fiscal, environmental, structural, and technological. The fiscal policies he put into place brought the college from red to black within a few short years. Donors responded and the endowment has grown from $35 million to $95 million.

After decades of deferred maintenance, he faced the decaying infrastructure head on and oversaw $400 million in rehabilitation and new construction projects, which also addressed issues of ADA-inaccessibility. New residences opened including Alumni Village, Fort Awesome, and Wayback; the Humanities Building was gutted and completely renovated; and the new Center for Media, Film, and Theatre (CMFT) opened this fall.

Then and Now

For those who remember it as nothing more than a brick dystopia, the mall is now replete with tables, benches, grassy areas to hang out, and plenty of healthy evergreen plants. The Henry Moore sculpture was moved to the front of campus to make room for the Student Services Building. Opened in 2006, the building brings together in a single location the offices students need most: the registrar, financial aid, career services, disability resources, and more. The Library’s entrance was moved to face the Student Services Building; the area between is dotted with umbrella-covered tables. A large green clock standing between the two is now a landmark spot for gathering. While there’s still plenty of brick, the space better accommodates humans. And the planted areas help control runoff to mitigate the mall’s environmental impact.

View of the Student Services Building from the Great Lawn

Climate Conscious

In 2007, Schwarz was an original signatory on the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, promising to move Purchase toward carbon neutrality by 2025. He hired the college’s first employee charged with overseeing environmental sustainability. All new construction on campus must meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver standards at a minimum. The renovated Humanities Building and the new CMFT are both certified LEED Gold. From green rooftops on the Visual Arts Building to electric service vehicles to LED lighting to the new bioswale in the West 1 parking lot, Purchase is often cited as one of the greenest colleges nationwide. 

Thomas J. Schwarz cuts the ribbon opening the Rocket Launcher composter with Anna Palmer '15 and Associate Professor of Sociology Matthew...

Change Agent

Always progressive and experimental, at times to a fault, Purchase needed to undergo some basic marketing exercises in order to repair and restore its reputation and define its unique place in the SUNY system and beyond. Under Schwarz’s watch, the college underwent its first studies to bolster recruitment, hoping to identify precisely why the 31% of students who did graduate persisted.

Think Wide Open in blue
As a result, the college adopted its first-ever tagline, Think Wide Open, and used the data to recruit the right students for Purchase, targeting those most likely to succeed here: the culturally aware, artistically inclined, independent thinkers in all majors.

“These kids [who choose Purchase] are creative and they’re different from the standard liberal arts college [student]. That’s why they come here. Whether they’re biology students or dancers, they come here because there’s something about this place that attracts them, which means there’s something about them,” says Schwarz. 

The Clocktower on the Mall Enduring Legacy

In a note to alumni in the Fall 2003 Purchase Passages newsletter (the predecessor to PURCHASE magazine), Schwarz wrote, “Working together, we can help Purchase be the finest public liberal arts and arts college in the country.” In the 2019 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, Purchase is ranked as one of the Top Ten Public Liberal Arts Colleges nationwide. 

This bodes well for Schwarz’s legacy, which is sure to endure in many forms: Through the countless faculty and staff hires he approved. Through the culture of collaboration and accountability. Through the dedication to full sustainability. Through the elevation of the college’s reputation. And through the success of every graduate who leaves here and makes a difference in the world.

Visionary Leadership

From the moment Schwarz first stepped on campus, he began to consider innovative ways to generate revenue. “I encouraged him from the very beginning—you’re sitting on 500 acres and the campus uses only about 75 of them. For the right opportunity, it could be very beneficial for the finances of the college,” says Tom Egan, former Chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees who placed Schwarz at Purchase.

The first idea implemented utilized the massive, largely unused West 1 parking lot for Park 2 Fly, the valet parking and shuttle service to Westchester County Airport. Using the tagline “Your travel supports their journey,” Park 2 Fly now generates about $250,000 a year for scholarships. 

Rendering of Broadview

But it’s the Broadview Senior Living Community that could be Schwarz’s greatest legacy. Purchase College routinely has one of the highest numbers of senior auditors taking classes in the SUNY system as well as vibrant continuing education programs. A natural expansion of lifelong learning at Purchase, Broadview will be a vigorous intergenerational learning community for residents 62 years and older whose values are consistent with those of the college. 

After years of working with the New York State legislature to pass the law necessary to make Broadview possible, groundbreaking is expected in 2021 and residents are currently signing commitments. When it reaches 85% occupancy, Broadview should generate about $2 million in revenue; $500,000 will support faculty and $1.5 million will fund student scholarships, nearly doubling the amount we currently offer. “The senior learning community will fundamentally change the future of this institution, fiscally and dynamically,” says Dan Hanessian, associate professor of Theatre Design/Technology.

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