The Exit Interview: A Fond Farewell to Purchase College President Thomas J. Schwarz
One of the longest-serving presidents in the SUNY system is stepping down this semester, but this will be one alumnus you can still expect to see around campus.
Photo By Sean Zanni/PMC; Portrait by Professor Emeritus Murray Zimiles
After 18 years — that’s a full college freshman, in matriculating terms — Purchase College President Thomas J. Schwarz is stepping down from his role as leader of the artistically inclined local university.
While he’ll still be sticking around to help shepherd several major campus projects that have been launched under his tenure, we knew we wanted to sit down and conduct our own exit interview with Schwarz to discuss his tenure and the future of Purchase (and to see if we could get him to sign our yearbook.)
When you first came to Purchase College during the 2001-2002 term, the school was in the midst of a financial crisis — endowments were down to about $35 million — and both students and administrators were a bit disenchanted with school operations.
What was it like walking into that situation?
That part didn’t really bother me. I wanted something that I felt my aptitude and history could be useful for. When I became mayor [of Ocean Beach, NY in 1978] I defeated a guy who had been a 22-year incumbent; the village had a lot of issues.
It took me a while to understand what happened, why it had happened, so I sort of cleaned house. We put the normal kind of rules in place... The college had a $5 million deficit and had it been private it would probably have gone through at least a reorganization or bankruptcy. Money was just leaking out.
We only have one job here, which is to educate and graduate our students, and they were graduating roughly 30% in four years. That was because they were leaving [for other bachelor’s/master’s programs elsewhere]. I think probably one of the best things that we did was I said, “Well, why are the 30% staying and who are they?” so we did this very deep analysis.
What we found was they were the typical Purchase students: Whether they wanted to study biology or music they are interested in the arts as well, so we completely revamped our hiring and our admissions program. We went after students who would succeed here, so we’ve effectively almost doubled our graduation rates.
Also, physically, it was a wreck. The mall… the tiles were falling apart — you couldn’t walk without tripping — there was sand, it was all being washed away. It was a mess; the roofs leaked. We’re now one of the more solvent instructions in the system. I think the college has gained the respect of a lot of people. I think we’re looked on as a very well-run institution.
Can you tell us a little about those major renovations and new construction projects you’ve presided over and how they relate to your environmental goals for Purchase?
I was one of the early signers of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which was ultimately to drive us to carbon neutrality. We have one of the most progressive sustainability programs: Tom Kelly runs it and he’s always coming up with new things that we can do to save energy, which saves money.
Now he’s doing something with potential solar over the parking lots, which not only would save money but make money. We put green roofs on a couple of places; we have the composter, which was the students’ idea — we compost all the kitchen waste and we are trying to move toward, as a lot of cities are, composting food waste.
You also initiated several other major new revenue streams for the college, including the Westchester County Airport “ Purchase Park2Fly” service and now your on-campus senior living project, Broadview, where you’ll remain an active board member.
Can you tell us a little about those new revenue streams?
About $250,000 a year [from Purchase Park2Fly — an airport parking service located on the Purchase campus] goes directly to scholarships. In the beginning it sort of drove the guy nuts, in the garage, because we were under-cutting them, but we weren’t really under-cutting the garage, we were under-cutting their distance-parking over in Westchester. I made it clear in the press that we were making $250,000 that was going directly into scholarships … I guess he decided he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of that. [Laughs]
[Broadview] came about because the then-chair of the board, Tom Egan said to me, “…why don’t you look at your land and how it could be used in support of your mission?” I’d like to claim the idea as mine, but it was really an idea that came from two committees that I set up independently — one was of academics and the other was of people on our foundation board — and that was the number-one idea that both committees came back with.
We have a history here: We are one of the biggest colleges in terms of numbers of seniors who audit courses. We talked with students and asked them what it was like to have seniors in their classes and I never heard a negative word.
My wife and I toured around the country going to retirement communities that were affiliated with college campuses and none of them are doing it right. They’ll take the residents to a football game or a concert, but the residents don’t want to enroll in a 15-week course; most people in a retirement community would like a short course. Students want a short course too, for a lot of different reasons, so we’re designing these short courses that are intergenerational with specifically that in mind.
We just started opening in May. Once the community is stabilized — not full occupancy but it might be 85% — [it will] throw off $2 million a year — $1.5 million for scholarships, $500,000 for faculty. We give out about $1.8 million right now in scholarships through our foundation, so it will soon double. Given that the funding of public higher education seems to be going south and tuition seems to be going north, the need for scholarships is going to grow.
In a sense, do you think you’ll ever fully retire from the Purchase community?
People use the word retirement, but I’m not retiring. I felt that it was time for the college to have new leadership and it was time for me to do something else. It’s the next stage in my life. I am still involved. I’m not going to go to Florida to go fly-fishing. Fully retire? No, I can’t imagine that.
What do you think you’ll remember as the defining moments of your career?
I would say, the kids. I got the nicest call a week ago from a kid who had been a student in the EOP (Educational Opportunity) program. He called to say he learned that I was stepping down and he wanted to thank me for helping him. He was out in California, part of our design-tech program, helping to produce movies and TV programs, and as I said to him, he’s the poster child for public education.
If you’re not driven by kids, you shouldn’t be doing this. I think there are college presidents who see it as the highest achievement of an academic but I’m not sure if I would agree with that. The answer is the kids. They’re great kids; they push back in different ways. And it doesn’t mean that some of them haven’t pissed me off some of the time!
When I go to commencement and I see some of these students come across the stage, you know where they came from and you know where they’re going and the difference the college made in their lives. That’s why you do it.
If I could stay here and make an impact in a positive way, that would be great. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. Maybe I’ll devote myself to some institution that serves a good cause and that’s a little screwed up and could use some help…. Or I’ll take too much time off and go out to Fire Island and I’ll sort it out.
Where would you like to see Purchase go after you step down?
When you look at our programs, not just the arts but across the college in arts and sciences, we have superb programs. U.S. News says we’re one of the top-10 public liberal arts colleges in the country. And when you look at who’s in that list, it includes places like Annapolis and West Point. What I would like is to get our reputation more national. I don’t want to forget what we do very well with the EOP students but we’re not just an arts college.
We are the only public arts school in the metropolitan area. When you look at who our competition is — including, in dance, for example, Juilliard — we’ll compete with Pratt in our design program, we’ll compete with NYU and Carnegie Mellon and so on in our theatre program, and our music program competes with Manhattan School of Music.
We can get a kid that Juilliard wants [if] the kid wants a real college experience. I’ll never forget the kid who was an opera singer years ago and Julliard wanted him, we wanted him, and we got him. I said to him, “It’s an interesting choice that you made.” He said, “Well, I’m a pitcher.” He pitched for a few years on our varsity baseball team and sang in the opera program.
Where do you stand on the idea of schools shying away from the SUNY moniker, i.e. “Purchase College” as opposed to “SUNY Purchase”?
I think it helps. If you look at the history of the public [schools] in the Northeast, the publics came after the privates and in New York in particular the privates have enormous power. One of the problems we have in the Northeast and in New York in particular is the Great Recession. It focused people on public education but historically, the rich in New York don’t send their kids to public education here. They go to California, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, where the great public universities are.
Too often you hear the term “access” with respect to public education and I believe that the other form of “access” is a subtle form of racism. It’s “good enough.” We need to hear more focus on quality and not just access. But if you keep cutting our budgets it’s hard to do what you need to do, especially when the cuts result, as they always do, in an increase in the tuition. When the economy is in the doldrums, tuition goes up because they cut state support. We’re seen as discretionary.
If the state cuts support for K through 12, what happens? Property taxes go up. The same thing happens with our community colleges. When jobs are high, when unemployment is low, community college enrollment goes down. When unemployment is high and jobs are less available, community college enrollment goes up, but funding goes down.
I love what I’ve done for the last 18 years; I would do it again if I were 18 years younger. But I do fear that we are not investing enough money in higher education. The fact is that Harvard and Yale don’t need more money and, unfortunately, I think when you see someone give $100 million to Harvard who lives in a community where there is a public institution and he’s not giving or she’s not giving anything to that public institution, well I think they’re making a mistake.
There’s a lot of wealth in Westchester, and they should be supporting this as the four-year college in their region.