Alumni, Faculty and Staff Profile: Robert D. Swanson
There is little you can say about Robert D. Swanson without mentioning leadership. After all, he was Alma College’s longest serving president, with 24 years under his kilt.
In the mid-1950s, when Board of Trustees members asked a consultant what to do about the struggling College, they were told to let it die a merciful death. The hiring of Swanson as president was a shocking jolt to the institution’s heart.
From 1956 to 1980, Swanson helped to transform the College into a nationally recognized private liberal arts institution, both in terms of academic reputation and economic stability.
Under his guidance, student enrollment grew from 657 to 1,212 in 1980. The faculty nearly doubled, and the high school grade point average of entering freshman increased from 2.34 to 3.35 in 1979.
The market value of the school’s endowment grew from $375,000 to more than $12 million. Likewise, total college assets increased, from $3.1 million to $33 million.
Numbers and dollars aside, because of Swanson, the academic quality at Alma saw a vast improvement. He established a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors society, on campus.
He wasn’t afraid to take risks, once dismissing one-sixth of the student body for its lack of serious academic interest. He held faculty to that same high standard.
The campus also saw a miraculous facelift. Fourteen new buildings were constructed, including many residence halls, the Dow Science Center, and Eddy Music Building. In addition to this, several facilities were renovated.
The building most recognizable with Swanson, though, is the one named after him and his first wife, Roberta. In 1974, the Swanson Academic Center was opened.
This is hardly the extent of the honors bestowed upon him, however. He received the Order of the Tartan Award in 1974, and June 7, 1980, was recognized as Robert D. Swanson Day in Gratiot County.
What Swanson will always be remembered for, above all, though, was his natural ability to connect with every person who came across his path. Whether it was inviting colleagues to have coffee with him, or inviting freshmen to his home for picnics during orientation week, Swanson’s personable nature is the reason why the College affectionately referred to him as “Swannie.”
Prior to serving Alma College, Swannie was a pastor, and he also served as a Navy Chaplain in World War II before becoming a professor of homiletics, dean and interim president of McCormick Seminary.