Students drive Wilkes President Patrick Leahy’s passion for higher education
By Vicki Mayk
Freshman Emily Absalom decided that Wilkes’ new president, Patrick Leahy, would be the perfect subject for her First Year Foundations class paper about leadership. What she didn’t expect was that her interview with him would become a two-way conversation about student life at Wilkes.
“He was very genuine,” recalls Absalom, a resident of Bangor, Pa., majoring in political science and psychology. “I noticed how many times he used my name in our conversation and how often he laughed. It’s very indicative of his personality. He really relates to people. At the end of the interview, he asked me how I felt at Wilkes, how the semester was going for me. I said Wilkes has a very homey feel and it’s a tight-knit community. He was very pleased about that.”
Such conversations are a priority for Leahy since becoming Wilkes’ sixth president in July 2012. Noting that the Henry Student Center, where students congregate, is his favorite place on campus – “I love the energy there” – Leahy calls students his number-one constituency.
“Presidents work with so many constituencies: faculty, staff, alumni, donors, government officials. But in the end, all of those constituencies exist because we’re in the business of educating students,” Leahy says. “The heart of the matter is what happens in the classroom, in labs and on the playing fields.”
He stops students on the greenway to solicit feedback, attends student government meetings (“I can’t think of a more important meeting.”) and eagerly accepted an invitation in the fall semester to speak with Associate Professor Marcia Farrell’s Introduction to Literature class about his lifelong love of literature. That love affair began as an English major at Georgetown University. “He seems at home in the class room with our kids,” Farrell says.
Hillary Harris, a sophomore pharmacy student from Wilkes-Barre who was in Farrell’s class, concurs. “He interacted with us like he was on the same level,” Harris recalls. “I liked hearing the story about how he went to school majoring in business and switched to English literature. I really liked the experience of getting to know and meet him.”
Many of his student interactions have a purpose, says Student Government President Kris Rivers, a pharmacy major from Emmaus, Pa. “He knows what to ask to benefit the University,” Rivers says. “For example, he came to student government right after the Hurricane Sandy storms. He asked about the emergency notification process. He wanted to know how we felt it was working, if it’s doing the job.”
His focus on students drives his decision-making process. Terese Wignot, interim provost and associateprofessor of chemistry, notes, “Any conversation that we have about strategy, Pat will always bring back to ‘what’s the best decision for our students?’ ”
Leahy joins Wilkes at a challenging time for the institution and for higher education. Institutions – especially tuition-driven ones like Wilkes – are under pressure to control costs and keep education affordable. With a greater emphasis on distance learning and new modes of delivering classes, colleges and universities must innovate and create new programs and reach new markets. At Wilkes, add to those challenges campus imperatives to improve communications and shared governance. Leahy, who describes his management style as highly engaged and genuinely collaborative, welcomes his charge to strengthen the Wilkes community.
“I just believe you are fundamentally better off with more input around key decisions,” Leahy says. “If you give people a say about the direction we’re going, it’s going to be more meaningful. They’re going to feel more invested if we’re all in this together.” He pauses and adds, “I hope I’ll always be the kind of person who listens more than I speak.”
Faculty and other members of the administration are responding favorably to his collaborative leadership style. Interim Provost Wignot says, “We may not always agree, but he certainly listens.”
Jack Miller ’68, chair of Wilkes board of trustees, also cites the new president’s relationship-building skills among his greatest strengths. “Pat’s a people-person. He has a very easy and likable personality that translates into an ability to relate to people.”
Justin Matus, associate professor in the Sidhu School of Business and Leadership and chair of the Faculty Advisory Council, also praises Leahy’s emphasis on soliciting opinions and cultivating relationships. “He met with me on his first day on the job, for over an hour, one on one. There’s symbolism in that and symbolism is important,” Matus explains. “It speaks to Pat’s heightened awareness of what’s important.“
The new president’s understanding of the value of perceptions led to some good decisions in the first weeks of his presidency, Matus says. One was the appointment of Wignot – a 24-year veteran Wilkes faculty member – as interim provost. Others include a planned move of the president and vice presidents in 2013 to Weckesser Hall, close to the heart of campus, and the addition of the academic deans to his cabinet. “The quality of his decisions – and the decision-making process – have been outstanding,” trustee Miller says.
His actions also make it clear that all members of the campus community are important to him — like joining members of the facilities crew for breakfast at 6:30 a.m., right when the overnight shift came off duty. “He wants to know everyone at the institution,” Wignot says.
Tom Ralston ’80, president of the alumni association, says that includes alumni. “Wilkes University’s heritage, its alumni and current students, were first and foremost on his mind as he planned how to move the University forward. He has shown his dedication to the alumni constituency by traveling the country to meet and visit with us, as well as spending his time with alumni in the greater Wilkes-Barre area whenever asked. Pat has shown great interest in interacting and participating with the alumni association, and the board of directors.”
His style also draws praise from outside the University community. State Sen. John Yudichak has known Leahy for several years. “His family, faith and values are the foundation of a man with immense talent,” Yudichak says. “Great leaders have to possess more than talent. They must be driven by something greater than themselves to achieve the greater good. Pat Leahy has that spark of greatness in him.”
Path to Presidency
Leahy honed his collaborative, student-centered approach through work with two early mentors. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he took a poetry class with, the late Rev. Timothy S. Healy, the university’s president. “He introduced literature to me: not just its beauty, but its relevance in my life…What he also modeled for me is the importance of a university president getting back in class and interacting with students.” Following that example, Leahy plans to teach a class at Wilkes in the future, likely in the Sidhu School of Business and Leadership. At the University of Scranton, Leahy taught in the business honors program. Knowing Healy also sparked Leahy’s interest in a career in higher education. “He told me how meaningful that career could be, that higher education could be a noble calling.”
Graduating from Georgetown, Leahy did not immediately follow that career path. The youngest boy among six children – four brothers and one sister – he grew up in Baltimore, Md., in a family whose members favored business careers. Although he broke with family tradition by majoring in English, “there was no question that I would go into a management career,” Leahy says. He spent a year working in fundraising at his alma mater before moving into finance and investments. He earned dual master’s degrees in business administration and labor relations from Cornell University and co-founded The Business Affairs Forum, a 15,000-member distance learning community based in Ithaca, N.Y. Leahy says his experience in business is valuable preparation for a college president. He made the transition to higher education after visiting another early mentor, the Rev. Scott Pilarz, then president of the University of Scranton.
He first met Pilarz as a high school student at Loyola Blakefield, the Jesuit high school in the Baltimore area, which Pilarz recalled when he gave the keynote speech at Leahy’s presidential installation. Pilarz recruited him to join the team at Scranton, where Leahy spent eight years, most recently as executive vice president, before coming to Wilkes. Leahy set records in enrollment and fundraising – and received more mentoring from Pilarz in his higher education career. Pilarz set the example of placing students first. “I never met a college president in my life more committed to students than Father Pilarz,” Leahy says.
He says he has two jobs as Wilkes president. The first is creating an environment on campus where students, faculty and staff can excel. In order to do that, he has to do well in what he calls job number two: “Promote the place like crazy to potential donors, local officials, prospective parents and prospective students. Part of creating the right environment means making sure people have the resources for learning and doing their jobs.”
Evenings find Leahy traveling the 11 miles home to Bear Creek Village. He and his wife, Amy, (see accompanying story page 8) decided to forego living in the president’s house on South River Street. The house still is used to entertain. At a reception there, Leahy explains their choice to guests: “Can you imagine what my two boys would do here?” He’s referring to the youngest of his four children — Brian, 6, and Jack, 8, –whose vigorous play would clearly threaten the Tiffany lamp that adorns a table in the house. He also has two daughters: Grace, 14, and Molly, 12. Although the family doesn’t live on campus, they are frequently there for plays and sporting events, such as the annual Wilkes-King’s College Mayor’s Cup football game. “I like the idea of integrating work and family life,” Leahy says. “Working at the University allows me to do that.”
Outside of his job as president, family is his overriding priority. “A close friend once told me that, generally speaking, you only can do two things really well. So I’ve picked two. I want to be one of the best university presidents in the country and be the best husband and father to my family.” It means spending less time golfing – a favorite hobby – to drive his children to school at Wyoming Seminary and attend their soccer games and activities.
“Many days, when I leave the office, I know that the toughest two to three hours of the day are ahead. I’ll be getting the boys in their bath and reading to them,” he says, adding ruefully, “When I lie down with them to help them fall asleep, guess who falls asleep first?”
There’s no time for rest in Leahy’s busy days. His administrative assistant, Susan DiBonifazio, pulls up his schedule on the computer to make an appointment and scans line after line of commitments, searching for an opening. “He’s double-booked,” she says, shaking her head. Yet Leahy says working side-by-side with the University president at Scranton prepared him for the demands of the job. He’s kept a promise to meet with every department at Wilkes, steadily working his way through both the academic and administrative sides of the house.
He’s also been quick to set his first priorities during his initial months in office. “I’ve said very publicly that as university president I’m totally focused on enrollment. Shame on me, as president of a tuition-dependent university like this one, if I am not focused on that in this hyper-competitive market.” He’s working with admissions counselors to identify ways to reach enrollment goals, including expanding marketing, recruiting from a wider geographic area, taking a fresh look at athletics and evaluating the possibility of starting an honors program.
Enrollment is not his sole focus, he adds. “I have a continued focus on improving quality,” he states. “Students and parents are demanding a high-quality education for their money and I want to position us as one of the highest value options in our competitive market.” He speaks of “burnishing Wilkes’ reputation as one of the best small universities in the country” while renewing its commitment to the liberal arts. Maintaining community involvement and supporting the city of Wilkes-Barre also rank high.
When speaking of marketing and competition, Leahy could be any CEO planning for growth, but moments later, he’s also talking about enhancing the culture at the University to promote the family feeling that’s always been a hallmark at Wilkes. “People care deeply about this place,” he says. “For the people who work here, it’s not just a job. It’s a vocation. That’s an enviable position to be in for a president of an institution.”
Long-time faculty and staff seem to feel that Leahy is the right one to head the Wilkes family. English faculty member Farrell says, “Having Pat here, I feel more energized as a faculty member to be more creative.“ She notes that he’s dropped in at Kirby Hall just to say hello. “He’s a good fit for us. It feels like he’s one of us.”
Terese Wignot says, “When I started here 24 years ago, it was an open, supportive, mentoring atmosphere. We’ve lost some of that over the years. He’s demonstrated that’s what he wants for the institution. He was speaking in a faculty meeting, and as he left, I heard someone behind me say, ‘That was a breath of fresh air.’ That’s Pat: He’s that breath of fresh air who’s going to build trust within our community.”
Amy Leahy Brings Energy as Wilkes’ First Lady
Amy Leahy says she’s still humming the tunes from Wilkes University Theatre’s production of the musical Godspell.
“We went to see the production of Godspell on campus a month ago. We took the girls,” she says. “It was spectacular. “
Although she frequently is hostess at University functions as the president’s wife, she’s just as often at campus events with her four children, ages 6 through 14, in tow. Being mom is a full-time job she relishes. She started her career as a museum educator after earning a master’s degree in museum studies at George Washington University and an undergraduate degree in American Studies from Georgetown University. She interned and worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Later she worked at Boston’s Paul Revere House and was researcher for an American architectural historian at Cornell while Pat pursued his master’s degree there.
Pat Leahy says he first “took note” of Amy Morello in a freshman philosophy class at Georgetown. They both love telling the story about the time they each spent studying abroad in Scotland, Amy at the University of Edinburgh, Pat at the University of St. Andrews. Amy and a Georgetown friend decided to look up Pat and his Georgetown roommate one day. Meanwhile, Pat and his roommate were knocking on Amy’s door in Edinburgh. They both remember the notes they found from their future spouse on their return.
The pair didn’t start dating until their senior year. He remembers the date and place: Feb. 5, 1990, at the Saloon in Georgetown. They wouldn’t marry for another five years after graduation. That was 17 years, four children, a few moves and job changes, his doctoral degree and a college presidency ago. Patrick Leahy sums it all up with a simple sentence: “Thank God for my wife.”
The oldest of three daughters of a Westchester County, N.Y., physician, Amy Leahy says she wasn’t surprised when her husband followed a career path in higher education after a start in business. “I could have told you when we were in college that was the thing Pat wanted to do,” Amy says. Consistently supportive, she admits, with great candor, about being nervous when moving to Scranton, Pa., to begin Pat’s career in university work. “I had two little girls and was pregnant with my third,” she explains. Now she loves her northeast Pennsylvania home and her children’s education and involvement at Wyoming Seminary. She praises her husband’s ability to handle both work and family commitments.
“He’s really good about balancing his time and dialing back so we can have time with him,” she says.
Frequently asked if she plans to have her own projects at Wilkes, Amy says she’s still assessing her role. Library Dean John Stachacz has discussed tapping her museum experience for some library special collections. She works with University event planners on occasions like the University’s holiday party and also is interested in supporting charitable events, like Wilkes’ recent Empty Bowls fundraiser for community food banks.
“The reality is, with four kids and their commitments, and with Pat and all of his commitments, our days – and sometimes nights –- are pretty crazy. I love all of it though and plan to continue supporting my family and the Wilkes community in every way I can. “