Full Steam Ahead

A life well lived

by Will Lindner

norwich0819Norwich University’s President Richard W. Schneider (also a doctor, a general, and an admiral) has made that Northfield institution shipshape, starting with his first days in 1992.

From his aerie in Jackman Hall, Norwich University President Richard W. Schneider surveys Vermont’s higher-education landscape with concern and compassion. Schneider’s concern is for the future of his own institution, though he will be retiring in 2020 and leaving it well grounded; his compassion is for Vermont colleges that are struggling to keep their doors open, attract students, and shore up the republic through an educated, involved citizenry.

His office is not far from where Northfield transformed a wooded hilltop into a military-style parade ground to lure the university, after a fire destroyed its original campus in Norwich in 1866.

Schneider talks a lot about the republic, and our collective duties toward it. For he is not only “President Schneider,” but Admiral Schneider, a military man for a predominantly, though not totally, military campus.

In fact, even more titles apply, says Philip Susmann, the university’s vice president for strategic partnerships. “You could call him President-Doctor-General-Admiral Schneider,” he says with admiration for a leader he has worked with since 1994.

Susmann doubles as president of the Norwich University Applied Research Institutes. NUARI evolved from the university’s prescient (2001) exploration into cyber security. It now provides advanced intelligence-related services to federal agencies and the U.S. financial sector.

While others share in the credit, NUARI reflects Schneider’s commitment to ensuring that Norwich remains relevant in a technologically dependent society. Relevance, Schneider insists, is key to the survival of colleges and universities in an era when social and economic factors are stacked against schools in New England and Vermont.

“We’ve been undergoing, as an industry sector, more changes in the last four years than in my first 40 in higher ed,” says Schneider. “We are going to be seeing a shaking out like, I think, the mortgage market did.”

He blames demographics (“People stopped having babies after the financial crisis in 2008.”), job flight from New England to the South and Southwest, and the fact, he says, that students at all but the most elite institutions usually chose a college or university within 350 miles of their homes.

And stagnant family incomes. “If their incomes stay roughly the same,” he asks, “how do you cover your cost increases? Higher ed is expensive.”

In some respects that’s exacerbated at Norwich because of policy choices Schneider has made and has no intention of reversing.

“We have about 16 students for every faculty member,” he says, “and our largest class is probably about 22 students. This is not a state higher-education institution which will put 200 students in a big lecture hall.”

Furthermore, Norwich employs predominantly tenured or tenure-track faculty. Adjunct instructors come cheaper, but Norwich is essentially a community — a learning community; sustaining that atmosphere requires that teachers be present and participatory. Schneider caps adjunct faculty at 20 percent.

Then there are other demands on a school intent on staying competitive and, indeed, excelling, in the 21st century. Schneider attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, graduating in 1968. “I covered my entire technology budget myself,” he recalls. “I think it was $28. I bought a K&E slide rule.”

By contrast, he says, “The budget at Norwich is over $8.5 million for technology. Every student is issued an iPad. We have tech-enabled classrooms so faculty members can throw you any kind of visual. We just finished constructing Mack Hall — $25 million for one academic building, of which about $5 million was for technology.”

Yet, he points out, Norwich students come solidly from middle America. Wealthy families seldom send their youngsters to military, or military-infused, colleges. Of the 2,400-student enrollment, about 1,600 are in the Corps of Cadets, and 800 on the civilian side.

The presence of cadets in this 200-year-old institution, however, which proudly proclaims itself the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), does provide a financial advantage. The federal government pays the tuition (not housing or expenses) for students in the Corps of Cadets who are on a commissioning track, which is about 400 cadets.

Another way to look at it is that they are among the 99 percent of Norwich students who receive some kind of financial aid. For some it’s from the university itself, so Schneider and his board are forever seeking ways to generate revenue. (A Schneider maxim: “Vision without resources is hallucination!”) Forward-looking programs like NUARI, and the university’s emerging leadership in preparing for circumstances created by climate change, are among these efforts.

Another is what Schneider calls “study away, study abroad.”

“I want multi-cultural awareness for these students,” he says. “But I also want the beds.” By instituting Norwich programs at rented sites in Europe, in Denver, and in Washington, D.C., the school can collect additional tuition without adding dorms and dining halls in Northfield.

Schneider also turns for support to appreciative alumni who value Norwich’s vision — first enunciated by its founder, U.S. Army Capt. Alden Partridge, 200 years ago — of developing “citizen soldiers” able to help lead the nation in times of both peace and war.

While the university’s challenges may have a different composition now — the costs of technology; Vermont’s demographic disadvantages — financial struggles for Norwich are nothing new. Two weeks after Schneider arrived in June 1992, having left Drexel University in Philadelphia where, over seven years, he had ascended to a senior vice presidency, the treasurer entered his office, Schneider recalls, and said, “Mr. President, you cannot make the August payroll.”

Schneider immediately phoned the university’s banker, introduced himself, and audaciously requested, and received, an unsecured $4 million line of credit. It was the beginning of a multi-year financial reorientation and reinvention for Norwich. Reductions in force were followed by detailed planning and strategic investments in forward-looking programs. Schneider delicately extricated Norwich from a financially draining, philosophically troubled relationship with Vermont College in Montpelier, selling the ”asset” to Union Institute of Cincinnati in 2001.

As Schneider enters the final academic year of his presidency, Norwich extols his accomplishments: he increased enrollment by more than 70 percent; grew the endowment from $40 million to $217 million; renovated or constructed 96 percent of the school’s academic space; established online master’s and bachelor’s degree and certificate programs for adult learners; and exceeded the goals of four consecutive fund-raising campaigns, the most recent called “Forging the Future.”

One would not say that President-Doctor-General-Admiral Schneider is self-effacing, but he does present a simplified view of himself that contrasts with those extensive achievements. All he ever wanted, he says, was a career in the U.S. Coast Guard, and to this day, “I’m a life-saver at heart. But if I can’t be pulling people out of burning ships anymore, what I can do is get officers ready to be life-savers — or to save this republic!”

As a youth in northern New Jersey, Schneider idolized his maternal grandfather, a Scotsman who went to sea as a lad and later served the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander in both World Wars. It’s why Schneider attended the Coast Guard Academy. He served a year in Vietnam, then taught navigation at officer’s candidate school — his first foray into teaching.

But the trajectory of Schneider’s life altered tragically when his wife, Beth, became sick and died in the late 1970s, leaving him with four small daughters. Schneider decided to change his career path, knowing he couldn’t ship out to sea as a single parent. With support from the Coast Guard he earned a master’s degree in liberal studies from Wesleyan University and a doctorate in public policy from the University of Delaware. He held administrative posts at Delaware and at Drexel.

Yet he remained a reservist, dedicating at least a weekend every month to the Coast Guard. He eventually commanded the reserve units in Philadelphia and the Port of New York — all while serving as president of Norwich University. He “made flag” (rear admiral) in 1994.

In 1999 Schneider married Jaime, a chef in training whom he had met in Montpelier. As he heads toward retirement, she is already there. They live on campus, but are fixing up a summer home at Lake Dunsmore with the intention of settling there after next May. They are frequently joined there by his daughters, Christine, Kimberley, Amy, and Dawn, who, among them, have given Schneider 15 grandchildren.

Phil Susmann, the Norwich VP and NUARI president, is already taking the measure of what will be Schneider’s legacy. He begins with Schneider’s crucial first accomplishment: “stabilization.” Norwich was foundering before the former seaman righted the ship.

“Then,” Susmann continues, “an imagining of what we could be. Then the execution of that. And the growth of the institution. And the empowerment of multiple people to be able to do all that.”

Tom Leavitt also has an informed perspective on Schneider’s contributions to the university and the community of Northfield. As president and CEO of the Northfield Savings Bank, he has a particular interest in, and serves on the board of, the Northfield University Applied Research Institutes.

“One of the key applications NUARI provides,” the banker points out, “is cyber-security resiliency to the financial services sector.”

Leavitt credits Schneider with a “rarified set of leadership skills. I think President Schneider has taken the concept of the citizen-soldier and allowed the university to thrive. People come from all over the country and get a high-quality education while getting a sense of the mission and history of a place that’s unique.”

Meanwhile, there’s no letting up. Susmann encounters Schneider leading meetings and creating new initiatives. If the last 10 months of the president’s Norwich career are like a dash to the finish line, Susmann predicts, “He’s going to be running through that tape.” •