Fall 2012Impact

Breadth of experience informs new president’s approach

Robert Manuel was planning to follow in his father’s footsteps as an attorney when life took a different turn.

“It wasn’t really until I had graduated from college, was accepted to a law school, and then couldn’t defend my reasons for wanting to be a lawyer that I said, ‘I think I’ll take some time off to figure this out,’” he says. “I got lucky and got a job in admissions and found that this was more than just a stopover—I realized that there was a future in administering higher education.”

Thus began a fast-rising career marked by innovative industry partnerships, the use of data to inform decision making, and a belief in the mission of preparing students to be lifelong contributors to their communities. After his initial work in admissions, Manuel held a series of positions at New York University and its School of Continuing and Professional Studies, including chief information and technology officer and later assistant dean and clinical associate professor.

His past six years were spent at Georgetown University as associate provost and dean of the School of Continuing Studies. While there he reorganized and rebranded the school, centralized its key administrative functions, designed a number of new degree programs, and increased annual revenue from $14 million to $39 million.

“It was at Georgetown that I developed a new way to design educational experiences,” he says. “I was charged with creating programs that were grounded in our mission but tethered to the problems various professions faced. Industry leaders were concerned about the long-term preparations their employees received as part of their education. They were very interested in working with us to address those shortcomings.”

Portico caught up with Manuel in August to talk about the experience and the insights he brings to his new position as president of the University of Indianapolis.

You’ve spoken of the need for higher education to demonstrate relevance. What do you mean by that?

The criticism, right or wrong, of higher education is that we’re kind of disconnected, right? The term “academic” has become somewhat negative, and many public entities are questioning whether our programming is worth the tuition we charge. Being able to show the value we have in the devel-opment of our students’ lives and  opportunities, and their ability to be meaningful citizens and employees, is the core of making higher ed relevant. To me, it’s critical that higher education take some responsibility for addressing our country’s economic and workforce development questions. And while it is vital that we think about the liberal arts as the core to that, it’s also vital that we figure out how to attach what we learn in the liberal arts—critical thinking, synthesis, writing, reasoning, ethics—to how we would act as citizens, and how we would engage in the problems that the industries have out there.

The current conversation about the role of higher education sets up as an either/or proposition, with institutions pushed to define themselves as either liberal arts or professionally oriented. I think the “and” is the better model. How do you connect the traditional liberal arts with problems-based education and problems-based learning? That’s the answer to relevance. I keep coming back to a fundamental sense that UIndy can engage this question better than anyone. We’re a comprehensive institution, and we understand and value both theoretical learning and research and practical application. We embrace all of these qualities. We present students with opportunities along the entire spectrum, and so we have the opportunity to lead the conversation on a state and national level.

Does that address the concerns about the cost of college & higher ed’s return on investment?

Our economy is increasingly complex and diversified. Some researchers believe higher education will underperform the needs of our developing economy over the next 10 to 15 years. This suggests that, as a sector, we will not be able to produce enough graduates, or the type of graduates, needed to support the nation’s economic growth. This is a scary thought, and I believe higher education has the imperative to address those questions as we conceive what we will become in the future. The challenge is to make these adjustments and connect them to the core traditions that have animated our University for more than 100 years. Building new opportunities from our core mission will ensure that we preserve the traits that make our experience truly unique.

Do you have an initial vision for UIndy?

I fundamentally don’t think it’s right for one person to unilaterally define a vision for an institution. It is my job to come in and ask the questions, put the people at the table who can answer them, and then triangulate the responses in a way that shows direction and vision. But the vision is communally created; it’s not individually created. It is my job to create the conditions and processes necessary to have our community develop our vision for the University. That said, there are areas of focus that will
guide my work over these first six months. The first set of questions revolves around our understanding of the intellectual life at the University. We must understand what our educational experiences should be, how they should transform our students, and what we expect of our graduates. That conversation includes topics like faculty teaching loads, inclusion of our mission in our academic experi-ences, student-faculty research collaborations, industry engagement and funding, research opportunities. The other areas I think we need to discuss as a community are, first, communications; second, technology and online education; and third, connecting budget and University planning.

How will you approach those areas?

My first task is simply to be present in the conversations around campus—understanding our history, traditions, and the other elements that must be part of our work in the future. That said, many actions will be required as I take office. I hope to make those decisions by keeping in mind our mission and by creating an inclusive, engaged community that values questioning our approach to our work.Any transition provides a community with a moment to step back and say, “What is it that we’ve become? How does that align to the mission we’ve pursued for 100 years, and then, what do we want to do to engage our mission in our contemporary context?” I’m not coming in with a full slate of what I expect to do. I think the right course of action, for a place that’s been successful, is to take stock of where it is, define what success looks like, and then figure out how you get there.

So what is the mission of a university in the 21st century?

The way I think about education is that we have students for four or five years, but they’re really influenced by us two years before they come and 30 years after they leave. So we have to think of the whole spectrum of their lives. They’re not just learning skills that will go away in a week; they’re learning something that’s going to stay with them for their entire lives. In various places I’ve worked throughout my career, I have seen “missions” infused into educational programming in different ways. Le Moyne College was a Jesuit school. Georgetown was a Jesuit school. They both had this rudder of making sure their education impacted the men and women so they would feel compelled to be of service to others. This was embedded in all they did, from who they hired to how they developed staff as professionals, to the students who were recruited, to the expectations of those students, even to the delivery of the courses themselves.

At NYU, the mission was more about access and equity and getting out into the community. At some point I said, “I would like to work in an institution that combines both a strong faith tradition that compels service and a devotion to making sure theory and practice are combined.” UIndy is that place, and I am very excited to see what is possible.

How do our ‘Education for Service’ motto & connection with the United Methodist Church fit that picture?

The conversations at Georgetown centered on understanding the role that a faith-based tradition has in students’ lives. There’s a concept called the “secularization thesis,” which basically argues that, as society progresses and becomes more technically complex, the relevance of a church-based or church-affiliated institution decreases. I never fully bought that argument. I thought the institutions that best understood their faith traditions, and were able to use them to fuel any reinvention of academic programming, were much more able to engage their communities to solve difficult issues and talk about them and create new opportunities. My background exposed me to those various philosophies and approaches, and the thing I like about UIndy is that they all exist in one place.

What’s your key message for alumni?

“I need your input.” The way we will understand whether our programs are meaningful, relevant, and tied to our mission is by deeply engaging our alumni, who can help construct that bridge between the University and the professions, and help us answer the questions being asked by the public. We need our alumni to be the ears of the community, the people who help us hear what’s really needed in the workplace. And that’s the comprehensive institution’s job, right? We can prepare people to get PhDs in theoretical learning. We also can prepare people to go right into the workforce. We don’t have to choose; we can be both. And we have to have our alumni involved in that.

Have you had any surprises since arriving at UIndy?

In July I went to the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. There were 50 of us representing all kinds of schools: community colleges, major research institutions, elite private institutions, comprehensive institutions. Many of them  said they had a lot of surprises about what the institution was really like when they got there. The universities they were serving were, to varying degrees, different from what they learned in the interview process. In my four weeks, I have not experienced those moments. This University is remarkable in that its presentation was consistent with reality.

UIndy is collaborative, interested in engaging change within our community, looking for ways to value the work that’s done to develop our students, to make sure that our faculty and our students are having the best experience that we can give them, and staying true to our mission. That, plus the hospitality component that everybody talks about Indiana having—it’s actually very true. They all stick out as not having any difference, from my very first conversation with the search committee in a hotel, to this conversation we’re having right now.

Not that you have much free time, but how do you like to spend yours?

Well, I love photography. Most of our life revolves around our kids, so photography was a way to document their lives, but then it turned into something else. My father’s a lawyer, but he’s an artist as well. I think I grew up equally valuing the logical and the aesthetic, and that’s never gone away. So when photography presented itself, it seemed like a quick technical medium that I could grasp.

Also, I used to play in a band, and I still love to play music and listen to it. So if there’s any other down time, I spend it doing that. I’ve played piano my whole life, and clarinet and bass, and now I’m picking up guitar and banjo. I’m a big fan of bluegrass music—love Bela Fleck and music like that. And I also really enjoy classic jazz, artists like Oscar Peterson.

What about sports?

I am an avid sports fan, and I’ve always worked at institutions that made me split my loyalties. I went to school at Syracuse but then I worked at Georgetown. I worked for 12 years in New York City, but I loved Boston baseball. Now I suddenly have all new Greyhound teams to root for, and I love that they are not in conflict with any other loyalties. I will become fans of the Colts and Pacers, but I look forward to getting involved with all the teams at UIndy.

—Scott Hall

Robert L. Manuel, PhD
Age: 44

Hometown: North Adams, Mass.

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in history and political science, Allegheny College. Master’s degree in higher education administration, Syracuse University. Doctorate in higher education administration, New York University

Previous position: Associate Provost, Dean of the School of Continuing Studies, Georgetown University

Family: Wife, Wilmara; daughters Sophia, 11; Alexandra (“Mimi”), 8; Margaux, 5

Hobbies & interests: Music, photography, triathlons

Follow President Manuel: twitter.com/uindyprez or facebook.com/UIndyPrez.

the authorMarty