Westchester's Greatest Leaders and Bosses: Thomas Schwarz, President of Purchase College, SUNY

“To lead, you must have a vision for an institution, then have other people adopt that vision as if it were their own,” declares Thomas Schwarz, 67-year-old president of Purchase College, SUNY. When Schwarz assumed the presidency 10 years ago, vision was exactly what the college lacked.

There was little clarity among students, faculty, and administration as to Purchase’s strengths. Students often came to the college only to transfer upon realizing that, for example, there was no business program. Teacher Ed? Wrong—go to another SUNY. “We needed a lot of direction in terms of our core mission,” says Dennis Craig, vice president and associate provost of enrollment management. “[Schwarz] saw that there was confusion in terms of where we were in the educational marketplace, and he saw how it played itself out in terms of students not being well suited here or mismatched.”  

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“People need to understand who we are and who we are not,” Schwarz says. So he asked Craig to lead “the charge for a major brand-marketing study that looked at who are the successful students and what are the common threads.” The result was a branding campaign that clarified what Purchase was really all about: fine arts and the liberal arts. Efforts following the study made sure that the message was consistent from the moment students started to consider Purchase to the time they enrolled—pamphlets, website content, tour guides, and admissions letters shout the college’s purpose. Student retention rates have shot past 50 percent from a low of 27 percent eight years ago.

While Schwarz was able to provide the vision for the school, he’s also open to input and ideas from others. Wendy Morosoff, director of career development, says that when she was hired, Schwarz “was helpful in empowering me to be creative and to bring in resources and programs that could help the students.” Today, she has all kinds of tricks to help students: artist alumni who mentor undergrads, etiquette lessons so students eat appropriately while socializing in professional environments, self-marketing workshops—the list goes on.

Schwarz also embarked on a bold plan to integrate Purchase with the surrounding community. “How do you get an audience for young actors in training?” asks Schwarz. He found the answer on Purchase’s campus itself: You create a built-in audience. That’s the idea behind using the on-site public land—Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation to allow it—as a location for a new senior citizens’ community. That means built-in theater audiences, gallery-goers, donors, etc., living right on campus. “If you look at the demographics,” says Schwarz, referring to the aging population, “it’s a natural.” If that kind of clever thinking isn’t leadership, what is?

Photo by Toshi Tasaki

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