University’s First Woman Leader Looks Past ‘Millennials’ Boom

By Jane M. Von Bergen
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the amazing Julie E. Wollman, the first woman to lead Widener University, which began as an all-male college preparatory high school in 1821.


The rising tide of millennials now rushing into the nation’s workplaces means an accompanying ebb tide on the nation’s campuses, where the last of this 75.4-million-member generation is heading into sophomore year.

And that drop poses a problem for people like Julie E. Wollman, 56, who in January became the 10th president of Widener University in suburban Philadelphia.

Using the Pew Research Center’s definition, the youngest millennials, born in 1997, turned 18 in 2015. High school graduating classes are shrinking, and with them, the pool from which colleges can draw to fill classrooms. “The competition is increasingly aggressive,” Wollman said.

She is the first woman to lead Widener, which began as an all-male college preparatory high school in 1821, gaining collegiate status in 1892, when it was known as the Pennsylvania Military College.

These days, Widener competes with 101 colleges and universities in an 11-county region, Wollman said.

Q: What’s Widener’s marketing strategy?

A: Part of it is constantly getting the message out about what students do after they graduate. So successful alumni are huge, but they can’t be people who are 80 years old and retired. That’s all good, but students want to see somebody who graduated two years ago. Parents want to know there are jobs out there that their kids are going to get.

Q: Particularly with the college debt situation.

A: The national discourse about student debt is overblown. It focuses on the extreme stories of students who owe $100,000 when they graduate. The average is about $30,000, $32,000 after four years of college. Widener is a little bit below that. We also have a very low default rate on repayment of those loans, because the students get very good jobs. We’re in the top 20 percent of salaries that students earn in their careers.
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If you come out and you get a good job and you can pay it back, then it’s worth the debt.

Q: What about Rosemont College (also in the Philly area) cutting its tuition from $32,620 to $18,500?

A: It doesn’t work long term. You get a lot of attention and usually enrollment goes up some. Rosemont also noted that their enrollment of lower-income students went down. So they didn’t create more access. It works for a year and then the cost starts to go up again. And you can’t give as much scholarship money. The actual cost that people pay isn’t really different. So it’s a marketing tool.

Q: You want every Widener student to graduate with a leadership credential. Can leadership be taught?

A: Yes. It starts with developing self-awareness, which allows one to be an authentic, principled leader. You can also teach leadership through recognizing individuals’ strengths and giving them leadership opportunities in those areas. Self-reflection, learning from your experiences, can also be taught. Not everyone will be a “Big L” leader, but everyone can learn to be a leader in their work and community by being a model of integrity and empathy and courage.

Q: Is a leadership credential meaningful to employers?

A: Employers tell us that our graduates are self-aware, confident, courageous, self-reflective, and articulate. These are qualities developed and nurtured in our leadership programs.

Q: Your desk is very neat.

A: It’s actually a mess for me. It’s important for me to keep things in an orderly fashion, so you can focus on thinking. It’s important to have a little time during the day to think, so I try not to be scheduled completely back-to-back.

Q: What about emails?

A: I’ll look at everything in my inbox before I go to bed. Most things will be answered or get filed into my email files. When I see people’s email and they have hundreds of emails in their inbox and some aren’t even opened, it makes me feel anxious.

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