First female president of the university looks to ‘break down barriers’
by David Lewellen | Special to Presbyterian News Service
ST. PAUL — Having spent her career at church-affiliated colleges, Cindy Gnadinger is ready for a new challenge as president of Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“We were intrigued by her background, her creativity, and her energy level,” said the Rev. Deborah Block, a Carroll trustee who led the search committee for the Presbyterian-affiliated school. Gnadinger’s work at all levels of education, including beginning her career as an elementary school teacher, gives her “the full picture of the educational world and the many roles that educators play.”
She becomes the first woman to fill the president’s post at the school, which is one of seven Presbyterian-related institutions in covenant with the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.
Of course, a college president has to play many roles, too — educator, fund-raiser, liaison to many different groups. “It’s a rare person who can bring all that together,” Block said. “Cindy is that kind of person — and so was our previous president,” Douglas Hastad, who retired this year at the end of June.
Raised Catholic, Gnadinger has spent most of her career at Catholic and Presbyterian institutions, and two of her sons went to Presbyterian colleges. “The Presbyterian Church is accepting and open, and we try to model that,” she said. Carroll also requires all students to complete an intercultural experience before graduating, and encourages them to get involved in service activities. “They come back talking about it as a life-changing experience, and we hope it changes the world. It starts with us at Carroll, our time with the students.”
Carroll was the first institution of higher education in Wisconsin, and “we always want to be thinking ahead, how to be responsive and remain relevant for the next 170 years,” Gnadinger said. As a small school, “we have a better opportunity to be nimble and flexible,” she said, but the liberal arts remain “how you learn to think critically and synthesize information and debate.” In recent decades, Carroll has added programs and schools in the health sciences, but “those health care programs are grounded in the liberal arts.”
But the school faces the same challenges that exist across higher education: rising costs, competition, increasing reliance on underpaid adjunct faculty. The university is trying to make a deliberate decision about “how big we want to be,” Gnadinger said, which ties into decisions of how to reach the adult market with night or weekend classes, and how far to go in offering online classes. “We love the Carroll family, the Carroll feel, because we are small. We’ll grow carefully and thoughtfully.”
In recent years, the school has raised $120 million for four new buildings and several more renovations, without incurring new debt. The flip side, however, is that the endowment is a relatively small $58 million.
Since starting in July after a year as an executive consultant at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, “every day I learn new things about Carroll,” Gnadinger said. But “sometimes I wake up still and think, ‘How did I get here?’ It’s important to take advantage of opportunities that come your way.”
She credits mentors with helping her, too; when she was a dean, she remembers being surprised and pleased when three separate people told her she’d make a good president someday.
But career advancement for women still cannot be taken for granted. Gnadinger says that attitudes and opportunities have improved, decade by decade, during her time in the workforce. “We can go for it; we can break down barriers. The momentum is there.” Working in the female-dominated field of education, years ago she was still surprised to go to conferences of education deans “and seeing all these dark suits and ties.”
“It’s an important step for Carroll, and very much in its pioneer spirit,” said Block, the search committee chair. But even more relevant, she said, may be that Gnadinger is a parent of college-age students. “That gives a real sense of what we’re doing and why, on a personal level as a professional one.”
“We notice challenges that men don’t have,” Gnadinger said. “I’m honored to be the first woman president of Carroll, not just for myself but for others, to see barriers broken down for them.”
The issue is complicated. Gnadinger remembers that a mentor of hers declined to join an association of women university deans, reasoning that she had to learn to navigate a man’s world.
But such groups do provide valuable networks and relationships — kind of like the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. When Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, Gnadinger reached out to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg to ask how Carroll could support them. “And of course there are other colleges in Florida that were affected, but that’s the one I thought of,” she said. “I love the network that we have with one another.”
David Lewellen is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Wisconsin. He writes frequently for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.
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