Catalyst for Change

It was 2005, and Alvernia — then Alvernia College — was a hidden gem. Known for providing students with an education steeped in the values and ethics practiced by its founders, the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters, the small school had a great regional reputation in Berks County but was nearly unheard of beyond its borders.

A decade later, the “little school on the hill” has given rise to a fast-growing, nationally recognized university that has built a reputation as a true community partner to the City of Reading and the Berks County region. Its programs, both on campus and online, now attract strong interest at the graduate and undergraduate levels. They draw students from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond who leave campus as educated leaders prepared to “do well” and “do good,” and ideally positioned to take businesses and nonprofit organizations to the next level.

Today, with nearly 3,000 students, 100-plus faculty and regional centers in Philadelphia and Schuylkill County to complement the 121-acre main campus in Reading, Alvernia is a success story and the envy of more than a few institutions that have not fared as well during the difficult economic times of the recent past.

Its transformation has been shepherded by a group of highly involved and committed board members, comprised of business and community leaders who have guided the university’s leadership and strategy. Most recent board leaders point to one common denominator for Alvernia’s progress over the last decade: its visionary leadership, guided principally by President Thomas F. Flynn.

Flynn, who came to Reading in 2005 fresh from a key role with the Council of Independent Colleges and prior to that, president of Milliken University in Decatur, Ill., was quick to organize a strategic plan and process that has guided Alvernia to become the institution it is today. Kathleen Herbein ’95, a visible community leader who was then an active trustee and later served as board chair from 2008 to 2010, led the presidential search that brought Flynn to Reading.

“He epitomizes Alvernia’s commitment to providing affordable quality education and preparing learners for personal achievement, social responsibility and moral leadership,” she said. “We couldn’t have found a better match for our school at the time.”

The right choice

Today several of Flynn’s attributes make it clear that he was the right choice for president, Herbein says, such as his commitment to building connections to the community, his belief in transparency, the importance of building an effective team to drive changes and the significance of the school’s Franciscan values.

“The guiding principle has been adhering to the sacred trust placed in us by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters,” Herbein says.

At his inauguration in April 2006, Flynn announced formation of two “centers for excellence” that would become the Holleran Center for Community Engagement and the O’Pake Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Public Service. In hindsight, it was a critical early move that has paid enormous dividends and led to the university being recognized nationally by the Carnegie Foundation and President’s Commission on Education for interfaith initiatives and community service excellence.

Herbein says Flynn’s prowess at envisioning the role Alvernia can play in the big picture of higher education on a national scale, as well as its essential role to form partnerships throughout the area that contribute to the vitality of the region, has raised the university’s profile and earned the respect of many.

Joanne Judge, co-chair of the Health Care Department at the law firm Stevens & Lee, and chair of the Alvernia board from 2011 to 2015, says Flynn’s arrival served as a catalyst for revitalization.

“I think he brought a freshness and drive to Alvernia that we needed,” Judge says. “No one person changes an organization, but an organization’s character flows from the top.

“Much of the progress Alvernia has seen in the last decade was driven by a comprehensive strategic plan first produced in 2007 and subsequently updated in 2011,” she says. According to Judge, the document resulted from a visioning process that involved all parts of the campus and included recommendations for updating buildings, improving student services, reducing the college’s impact on the environment and enhancing the academic experience.

“It began with a good look at where we were and where we could be,” says Judge, “and then evolved to address market conditions and emerging institutional opportunities.”

One change that stemmed from this process was creation of the campus quad, today a key green space on campus that emerged from what used to be a large macadam parking lot. James Boscov, vice chairman & CEO of Boscov’s Department Stores and Alvernia board chair from 2006 to 2008, sees important symbolism in this transformation. “A central parking lot makes sense for a college built around the needs of commuter students. But a sprawling green better fits a university where a growing number of students live and learn on campus and contributes to a better overall experience,” he says.

“Attending college is one of those seminal experiences that has a profound impact on your life. Living on or near campus creates opportunities for an immersive experience in which students can more easily make friends from all backgrounds and find their roles in a distinct community,” Boscov says. “Today, Alvernia’s campus is one that we can all be proud of and that is attracting growing interest from top students.”

Becoming a university

In 2008, the brand-new quad became a fitting backdrop for a major announcement: Alvernia College would be called Alvernia University from that point forward. The move to university status helped propel the institution’s profile and sent a message to the world that Alvernia would expand its presence as a source of scholarly work and research.

“There’s an implication that universities create knowledge through research,” explains Kevin St. Cyr, senior vice president for the enterprise segment of CommScope Inc., Richardson, Texas, who assumed his role of chair of the board of trustees last summer. “We wanted to be a university with a solid foundation for research, but at the same time maintain a size and scope that enable our students to have close relationships with top faculty who want to teach and do scholarly work.”

Colleges need a critical mass of graduate programs to advance to university status. Alvernia’s first master’s degree programs began in 1999. Today, the university offers eight and counting, including very competitive programs in business, education and community counseling. The first doctoral program, a Doctor of Philosophy in Leadership, debuted in 2006. Today it has nearly 100 students working toward their doctoral degrees. Two additional doctoral programs were recently added, one in physical therapy and another in nursing practice. Both are attracting strong interest.

Adapting a great college into a distinctive university requires nimble faculty and staff, bold plans, leaps of faith and the finances to pay for it, says St. Cyr.

The effort to secure many of the needed financial resources began in 2007 with the launch of the Values & Vision capital campaign. This project was aimed at generating resources for new buildings such as the Campus Commons, expanding faculty research, increasing scholarships and bolstering Alvernia’s endowment.

The campaign’s initial goal of $27 million seemed tremendous, especially with the coming of the Great Recession the following year. But the campaign succeeded in raising nearly $32 million before closing in 2013. “That has allowed us to do so many of these ambitious projects. That and the fact that we’ve had so much confidence in the institution,” St. Cyr says.

He and his predecessors say this confidence, plus an institutional profile that continues to rise, and a resolute commitment to the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters’ core values, has been key to Alvernia’s success and will continue to be in the future.

“The best thing about Alvernia is, it lives its mission,” Boscov says. “It’s easy to state your mission, but here’s an organization that lives its mission in everything that it does. That is what makes this a truly distinctive Franciscan university.”