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The Adler Advantage

WCU’s first female president looks back on an astonishing legacy of growth.

By J.F. Pirro
The Adler Advantage

“When I came, I thought West Chester University was like a Saint Bernard puppy,” says the school’s president, Madeleine Wing Adler. “It had potential, but it would pull every which way on the leash.”

Sixteen years later, there’s little question that WCU has benefited from Adler’s firm guidance. During her tenure, the institution has become one of the country’s best comprehensive public universities. You can examine every number, and each turns up in her favor—and in the favor of the school’s faculty, staff and students. As a community, West Chester has also benefited from her stay, which ends with the 67-year-old administrator’s retirement on June 30.

Under Adler, enrollment at WCU increased by 12 percent, from 11,806 in 1992 to 13,223. The number of freshman applicants nearly doubled, from 6,542 to more than 12,237, for 1,964 spots. Even as the school’s state funding was cut by more than half, the university’s annual economic impact on the region grew more than four-fold, from $60 million in 1993 to $256 million in 2006. When Adler arrived, the university employed three in its advancement office. Now there are 38.

She has presided over two successful capital campaigns. “Windows to the Future” raised $13.8 million toward a $12 million goal. “Campaign for Excellence” has been so successful that its original $25 million goal was upped to $35 million, of which $30 million has already come in.

You’d think, then, that it would’ve made numerical sense for Adler to leave and become another university’s president. And she had offers—one for three times the money. “I always knew I wasn’t going to go,” Adler says. “I coached myself and asked about my values and what was important. It wasn’t the money because I chose to stay.”

In fact, Adler had another offer to become president at Sonoma State University in California the same day WCU offered her the job. “I didn’t flip a coin,” Adler says. “I knew this was the best place for me—and it has been.”

Adler is the 13th president of WCU and the first woman to hold the office. She leaves as the longest-serving current university president in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

“What [WCU] needed was leadership—distributive leadership,” says Adler. “We changed the culture, and that’s benefited everyone, especially our students.”

Distributive leadership is more of a philosophy. A phrase Adler coined, it’s Quaker-like in its essence, focusing on the experience and expertise of everyone—students included. It’s empowerment, but it’s not a free-for-all. Accountability averts the potential chaos. In the mix, the college president is anything but an autocratic CEO. “It’s liberating when you share [responsibility and decision-making],” Adler says. “I’ve been able to be more creative and motivated to do things to move the institution forward.”

Academia is typically insular on discipline and conservatively risk-adverse, so Adler’s approach—which also has civility, ethics and trust at its core—has been particularly eye opening. “We (in academia) tend to be blamers,” she says. “That’s what I found when I came here.”

Adler first noted that mankind prefers scapegoats when she was inaccurately diagnosed with—and underwent surgery for—ovarian cancer 26 years ago. From her hospital bed, Adler told doctors they were asking the wrong question. “It’s not who [made the mistake],” she says, re-creating the scene. “It’s why. Why did it happen, and how can we fix it?”

A scholar of urban politics, Adler has helped the university find its place in the community at large. In 2005, she created the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement to oversee an extensive student leadership development program. Last year, West Chester students volunteered 186,000 community service hours, and many have used Adler as their model—for good reason. She has served on numerous civic boards and committees, including Chester County Fund for Women and Girls, the Chester County Historical Society and the National Endowment for the Arts American Canvas.

In 1998, Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry named Adler its Citizen of the Year, and she was also the county’s March of Dimes’ Woman of Achievement. Philadelphia Business Journal named her a “Woman of Distinction” in 2002. A year later, Adler won the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Citizen Award. She was awarded the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Boy Scouts of America’s Chester County Council in 2005.

Currently, Adler heads the Chester County Community Foundation’s board of directors and is a member of the board of directors of Willow Financial Bank. She also serves on the advisory board of Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Madeleine Wing Adler learned at her father’s knee. Once the mayor of her central Ohio hometown, Worthington, nine miles north of Columbus, George Wing was an impassioned community activist until a year before his death at 92.

“He taught me that we’re born with lots of gifts, so we have to return them,” she says. “I always went with Daddy to council meetings, or when he was holding court. But I always figured I’d rather study political scientists than be one.”

Everyone else went to Ohio State. Adler’s father urged his daughter to cast a wider net. She earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Northwestern University and master’s and doctorate degrees in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Adler predated the pinnacle of the women’s movement by almost a decade. She was at Northwestern in the early 1960s. She studied anthropology. She took Russian. She was the only female in most of her classes. At Wisconsin-Madison, the lone female faculty member there wouldn’t allow her in the graduate program for public administration.

“She figured she’d be wasting her time because all I would do is get married and have children,” Adler says. “I could never understand why women weren’t helping women, but that’s changing. I see it here on campus.”

She began her teaching career at American University in Washington, D.C., where her first husband was president of the Democratic National Committee. Then she spent the bulk of her professorial days as the only woman on the faculty at Queens College in New York. When she first looked to enter the administrative ranks, the president there—a friend—told her he wasn’t about to be the first to hire a female administrator.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you be my assistant,’” Adler says. “I said, ‘Because I’m not about to get your coffee and carry your coat.’ I had grit. I was never a Cinderella. I had to work for it.”

Eventually, she became an assistant dean of faculty her last three years before leaving to become academic vice president at Framingham (Mass.) State College from 1986 to 1992. Then West Chester beckoned. There, she helped launch more than two dozen innovative academic programs during her presidency, and the university continues to graduate more teachers than any other in the state system.

Improvements in campus facilities also have marked the Adler years, with major renovations to more than 15 campus buildings, the addition of new residence halls, a state-of-the-art science center, a music building, a visual and performing arts center, a graduate business center, and several parking garages on the 402-acre campus.

This past academic year marked the continuation of fundraising for an undergraduate business center and the renovation of 25 University Ave. for the mathematics, computer science and information assurance programs. The university also moved ahead with construction of a new student recreation center and another parking structure. It completed plans for a comprehensive replacement of university student housing, a three-phase, $350-million project that will begin construction next May.

Adler has done all of this while overcoming tremendous personal adversity. Twice a breast cancer survivor, she also endured the death of her only child, J. Peter Adler. On Memorial Day in 1995, just after finishing his MFA at the University of Texas, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver at age 26. In 2004, WCU dedicated the J. Peter Adler Studio Theatre in the E.O. Bull Center in his honor. A stage director in New York, he volunteered time at his mother’s university.

“I was always interested in promoting the arts,” Adler says. “With J. Peter’s death came the resolve to see the potential for West Chester University to be the cultural center of Chester County.”

As a result, the university now attracts more than 60,000 people to campus cultural arts events annually, and the West Chester University Poetry Conference has become the largest of its kind. “We’re not only attracting our own, but also the outside world,” Adler says.

Adler herself has been caught up in the fervor. She actually began at Northwestern as a vocal music major, and her mother was a music professor at Ohio State. Re-inspired by husband Dr. Frederick Lane’s 65th birthday, she paid for three months of private singing lessons on campus. Then, accompanied by a university jazz pianist, she sang him three songs: “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Took a Trip on a Train” and “I May Be Wrong, but I Think You’re Wonderful.”

Adler didn’t think Fred, a professor of public administration in Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York, would ever retire. When she made her decision, she prepared a candlelight dinner and broke the news. His response: “Great. I’ll retire, too.”

At WCU, until a new president is named, Linda Lamwers, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, will serve as interim president. She’s announced that she isn’t a candidate for the position.

In retirement, Adler will work as a consultant, handling executive coaching for women in higher education. Her focus is on finding a balance between work and play.

The academic couple will retire to Adler’s ancestral seaport town of Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, where, in 1637, the Wings first settled. John Wing was a minister in the Church of England. As a reformer, he left, then soon died. His wife, Deborah, her four sons and father then set sail.

“The sons were all under 12, so I tell everyone it’s really a feminist story,” Adler says. “It was Deborah Wing.”

In Sandwich, Adler has promised a neighbor that she will help reinstitute arts funding in the public schools. She’s also planning to get involved with the Cape Cod Community Foundation.

The original Wing home is now a house-museum, the Wing Fort House. The Wings, the first English Quakers in the New World, were rejected in Boston but then succeeded on the Cape.

“For me, it’s sort of a complete circle,” Adler says.