Jeff Abernathy reflects on a decade as president of Alma College
By Tim Rath
With only 13 presidents in its 134-year history, it’s safe to say those in the top leadership role at Alma College are known for their longevity.
Jeff Abernathy is no exception. Since joining Alma College in 2010, following six years spent at Augustana College in Illinois, Abernathy has provided a stable foundation of guidance at Alma, through periods of both unprecedented growth as well as tumult throughout the world.
Thanks in part to a strong sense of partnership with the City of Alma and other stakeholders, Alma College has increased its footprint like never before under Abernathy’s tenure. The renovated Opera House in downtown Alma, the home of a new generation of Scots and retail businesses that serve the local area, is a testament to the sense of community Abernathy spoke of revitalizing during his inaugural address at the turn of the decade.
Abernathy has seen hundreds of graduates march across the stage and into the professional world over the course of 10 years at Alma — classes representing a more culturally, racially and spiritually diverse mix than ever before in the history of the college. So too the offerings of both the athletic and academic departments have grown dramatically as well during Abernathy’s tenure, with new majors for students to choose from and more sports for athletes to play.
To be clear, it hasn’t been easy. Abernathy came to his current role on the heels of the Great Recession, a period of great economic challenges across the globe that threatened a great many higher learning institutions like Alma College at the time. At the time of this publication, he was in the midst of overseeing the college’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — an unusual historic event that is forcing a number of changes to everyday operations at Alma College.
However, Abernathy says, from periods of great challenge come great opportunity. As he looks back on 10 years at the college, through all the highs and lows, he’s not focused on what could have happened or what has happened, but rather, what could be. He’s eager to continue building on the foundation he has developed over the past decade. And we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.
What are your earliest memories of Alma College? What made it intriguing for you from the outset?
I’m a small-town guy — I’ve lived in small towns most of my adult life — so I was immediately charmed by the town. I remember thinking, “What a beautiful downtown,” and started thinking about the things we could do with it. They were very positive impressions.
Then I started thinking about the tradition of this place, its commitment to elite education for students of many backgrounds. When it came time to make a decision, there was no question for me. It was a perfect match of my values with those of the college.
What were your goals when you began at Alma College? Did your vision hold true?
When I look back at the strategic plans we’ve developed — the first, second and now the third — I think about our need to swagger more than we have in the past. I’ve said it before, but I think it still holds true today: it’s not in our DNA to brag about ourselves, but we need to be willing to tell the great story of Alma College. I think we’ve made some strides in that department, but we still have a ways to go.
Along those lines, I’ve talked about the need to broaden our brand awareness, to reach out to students farther afield. In 2010, our student body was 95 percent in-state. We still have about 88 percent of our students coming from Michigan, and we’d like to continue reaching out to broader communities, because that helps spread the word of Alma College.
I’ve talked about growing majors that are a match for today’s students and being willing to grow athletics as well. Growth is always the goal. I still believe we can achieve it, but we need to think about it differently than we have in the past. We’re committed to keeping the values we’ve always held, yet, being willing to be a college different than we’ve ever been.
Our nursing major is a good example of that. It was a challenge to introduce it, in some ways, but we demonstrated the need for liberal arts students to go out and become leaders in the field. Today, it’s one of the most popular majors on campus.
Something interesting that has developed over my time here is the improved relationship between this campus and the community of Alma. Quite frankly, when I came on board, that was not initially identified as one of the major goals I wanted to work toward. But within a matter of months, we saw the terrible fire at the opera house. Over time, that has developed into a key focus for Alma College, but also a point of pride for the city.
It points to the importance of a local relationship. An Alma College education can take you all over the globe, but it starts in Alma. We don’t live in a bubble — we have an obligation to be partners with our neighbors here and to improve the community at-large, as well as the college.
How have the college’s academic offerings evolved in your time here? Is there a theme to these changes? How have modes of learning changed?
I do think there are themes to what we’ve done the past 10 years, as far as programs. One of them is that we’re asking whether these programs are meeting the needs of society today. When I joined Alma in 2010, we had not had a new major in 17 years. We hadn’t added a new sport in 25 years. We said, “We can’t be the college we’ve always been. We have to recognize that society has changed and we have to change with it, even as we maintain our values.”
So, we brought in pre-professional programs like nursing, engineering and new media studies. All of these are great programs for a liberal arts college, where you can blend a liberal arts education with career skills required by new economies. Professionals entering these fields need a liberal arts education. They will be better leaders as a result.
We’ve also created interdisciplinary learning. New media studies is a great example of that — it’s communication, art, computer science and more. It brings faculty together. Faculty should never be in silos, working alone. It’s just not how the world works today. We need to create programs that draw faculty together, and likewise, show our students how the world works when they leave the college.
We’ve experimented with remote learning. I think what we’re seeing with the COVID-19 crisis is that all of our faculty can deliver classes online. It is a learning experience that can be applied to the future for us. Perhaps a lecture can be delivered more effectively in a virtual environment, leaving us time in the classroom for hands-on learning that is the hallmark of an Alma education. We don’t know that for sure, but this crisis is giving us an opportunity to experiment with it.
What has your relationship with the college board of trustees been like since you started here?
The board work is key to me. Some of my most important work here has been in that realm. We’ve always had great boards in our history but what has happened in the past 10 years has been transformative. For example, their spirit of philanthropy has been incredible. We’ve had several $1 million gifts from board members alone, which has been critical in helping us reach the goals of our current fundraising campaign. They have stepped up in a big way.
More importantly, they have also stepped up in what we call generative leadership. They don’t just rubber-stamp things the administration wants to do. They roll up their sleeves, work with us on the strategies necessary for our success and help us solve the hard problems before us. As an example, there was a period over the past 10 years in which we didn’t have a chief financial officer on staff. The board at that time enabled us to secure a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture that has revitalized our campus. That happened because of our board members.
There have been a number of renovations and new construction projects over the past 10 years. What are your personal highlights? Why is it important to continue growing the college and how does that impact the community?
I think it’s critical we invest in our campus and recognize we’re going to be here for many generations to come. We can’t just let our buildings crumble, and we haven’t. This period of investment in our college has been enormous — we’ve transformed the campus.
It’s critical for the broader community as well. We don’t just need to send our students out into the community, we need to bring the community here. If you’ll notice, many buildings on campus were developed as others around the country were in the 1950s and ’60s: facing the inside of campus, like we were navel-gazing. That’s why we’re in the process of rebuilding our library into a glass structure that people can see inside of, so it’s essentially a beacon to Alma and the rest of the world.
We’ve also had some tremendous successes with reaching out into the community through the Wright Leppien Opera House project, the Starbucks and bookstore, the apartments on Wright Avenue and other buildings.
I’m also very excited for our plans to bring Dunning Memorial Chapel into the 21st century. Funding for that project is still ongoing, but when it’s completed, I believe the results will be magnificent. I’ve talked since I got here about the importance of helping students in their spiritual formation, whether they are of faith or not. I think when the chapel project is completed, it will become a valuable and distinctive instrument of spiritual life on campus.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the work of our advancement team, the amazing fundraising campaign they have taken on and the wonderful donors who have contributed to it. Our current campaign aims to raise $120 million by the middle of 2021 to modernize facilities, as well as to enhance the institution’s endowment and strengthen our programs. It’s easily the most ambitious effort in the history of our campus, and I think we won’t only meet, but we’ll exceed that goal.
Although it remains to be seen just how much an impact COVID-19 will have on our campus and world long-term, the pandemic has already been one of the most consequential events of your presidency. How has Alma responded?
I’m heartened and gratified and humbled by the response of this community. The faculty turned ship on a dime and we became a remote learning institution. We never would have envisioned that or sought it, but it was thrust upon us, and our faculty responded in a wonderful way, led by our IT staff.
Our students responded in kind. For seniors, it meant their graduations were postponed, and they turned out in big numbers, while showing incredible spirit, for the virtual commencement event. Students living on campus were forced to move out quickly, and they did so in a very responsible manner. Sports were canceled, projects and performances were moved online, and everyone involved handled it with aplomb. It was remarkable.
Across the campus, everyone has pitched in. There were many nights, working until 3 a.m. some of the time, to get our response right. I think we’ve reacted in a way that keeps the community together and recognizes that we’re all going to have to share burdens. If we do so, we’ll find ourselves thriving.
Overall, what milestones would you say you’re most proud of over your 10 years at the college?
I’m incredibly proud of our efforts to embrace diversity over the past 10 years. We have worked hard to reach out to underserved and underrepresented areas of our state and country in recruiting students to come to Alma College. One example of how we’ve shown that is through the Campbell Scholars program, which is open to students who self-identify as a student of color. In embracing our diversity, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves that we would not have realized otherwise — obviously, that’s a huge benefit to the entire college community.
One of the things we’ve learned is that our efforts at racial equality to date have not been enough. We need to work together, as a community, to ensure that our campus is not just diverse, but also inclusive. Moving forward, it is our responsibility to listen and learn with intent, educate others, and live by the standard exhibited by those seeking peace and justice.
Would you care to share any personal-life highlights that have taken place over the past 10 years? How have those experiences changed the way you view the Alma College community and the world?
My children have largely grown up on this campus. My son, Rohan, is preparing to go off to college and my daughter, Maren, is 11 now. I’ve always seen this work through their eyes — which is often skateboarding across campus, in the case of my son, or going for bike rides, in the case of my daughter. They are my priority, always and forever. Seeing them grow as we’ve grown the campus has kind of melded my personal and professional lives.
My wife Courtney and I were married two years ago. It’s my great, profound joy to have found her. I’m very, very fortunate.
There are a number of staff, faculty and alumni at Alma College who have been involved for many years. How have they specifically helped you as a president?
We have people who have been working here four decades and longer — who have dedicated their lives to Alma College, across many different presidents. Truly, they have made this place what it is and I’m so grateful for all they do. Quite frankly, they help the college punch above its weight class, and I knew that back before I came here.