Joanne Glasser

President, Bradley University

As the tenth and first woman president of Bradley University, Joanne Glasser has quickly proven her leadership, not only on campus, but in the community as well. A Baltimore native and former president of Eastern Kentucky University, Glasser received a warm welcome to the Midwest and soon felt at home in Peoria. With a focus on making Bradley an institution of national distinction, Glasser devotes much time and attention to the university’s students, faculty, staff, friends and alumni, always striving to serve each group and individual with the utmost care and respect.

Tell us about your background, education and growing up in Baltimore.

I grew up in a pretty diverse Baltimore neighborhood. There were friends and neighbors of different cultures, religions and backgrounds. When I think back to my youth, I have fond memories of walking to the neighborhood public school with my friends, playing outside in church parking lots and parks, and waiting for the Good Humor ice cream truck to drive down our street. I’d get a nickel from my mom to buy a popsicle, and on really good days, she’d give me a dime for a chocolate ice cream bar. Maybe that’s where I developed my love of chocolate.

My dad was a dentist in Baltimore. I loved going with him to Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles play baseball and the Colts play football. I remember seeing Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas play—those were great teams, and great times to be a child in Baltimore. Those days left me with a love of sports that I carry with me today.

Back in those days, girls didn’t have too many opportunities to be in athletics, so I became a cheerleader. I enjoyed that, but I wonder today what I would have done if I had been born 10 or 20 years later and had more opportunities. So I am especially supportive of women’s sports today because of the benefits—camaraderie, discipline, teamwork— they offer.

In high school, I was president of my freshman class and voted most likely to succeed as a senior. I’m not sure why, but my classmates must have seen something in me.

My parents instilled in me a love of education and a desire to dream big dreams. I have carried those lessons with me and now I see myself passing them along to my students, who I view as my extended family. I believe that, through education, students can turn their dreams into reality.

I did my undergraduate work in political science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and then went to law school at the University of Maryland. In those days there weren’t many women going to law school, but my parents encouraged me to pursue my dream. I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in grade school. I connected with the character Scout and saw the law as a way of helping others. I still believe the law is a noble calling.

Going to law school was a very valuable time for me. It helped form the way I approach problems. From law school I learned to seek out information from all sides before making conclusions or final decisions.

You took an early interest in the fields of politics, law and journalism. Explain how your career path led you to the field of higher education.

During high school, I worked for the Baltimore News American, a newspaper with a history of more than 200 years. Sadly, it stopped publishing in 1986. Working at the News American was a tremendous learning and growing experience. I have enormous respect for journalists because they have a difficult job, but a very important one. Keeping the public informed is critical to our republic.

After law school I went to work as an assistant county attorney. Eventually I began to concentrate on labor issues and became labor commissioner of Baltimore County. It was an appointed position responsible for representing the County Executive in labor negotiations, conducting grievance hearings and advising the county on employment issues.

After taking some time off to raise my family and care for my husband, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, I went to work for Towson University in Baltimore as an executive assistant to the university president and the school’s affirmative action officer. I realized there were more ways to help people than through the law. Eventually I became executive vice president for institutional advancement, directing the university’s first major capital fundraising campaign and a university-wide marketing initiative.

I found I loved working in an academic setting, and especially being around students and faculty. I discovered soon after going to Towson that higher education is my calling. That feeling was reinforced during the six years I was president at Eastern Kentucky University before coming to Bradley.

What were your initial impressions of Peoria? Tell about your first few months in town.

I have been very impressed with Peoria and all of central Illinois. First, the people are so warm and welcoming. They have taken me in as if I have lived here all of my life. It is a very comfortable place to be.

Second, Peoria has tremendous attributes, both natural and professional. The Illinois River is a real jewel, the kind of aesthetic and economic resource that so few communities have. It gives the community a different feel because of its beauty, the vistas from Grand View Drive and the gorgeous wooded bluffs that surround the river valley. And the river has been the economic engine for the region for hundreds of years.

Then there is Caterpillar Inc. Few communities this size are fortunate to host a Fortune 50 company. Caterpillar sets Peoria apart because of its employment, its investment, the public service done by its employees and the company’s significant contributions to the community’s well-being. And with Cat being a global company, Peoria has a more cosmopolitan feel because so many of its workers have lived all across the world, yet call Peoria home.

Finally, Peoria is fortunate to have Bradley here. And, I would add, Bradley is fortunate to be here in Peoria. I don’t believe the successes of the University or the community would be as great without the other. It’s an outstanding partnership. Bradley is an anchor for the West Bluff, indeed for much of the region. I think having neighbors nearby adds a positive atmosphere to the campus.

Bradley attracts students from across the Midwest and throughout the nation. They come to school, and in many cases, like the area. Many get jobs here, settle in central Illinois, raise their families and contribute to the vitality of the community, in large part because they attended Bradley.

Bradley’s academic strengths in engineering, the medical field, the arts, business and education feed the needs of the community. Many of our programs emphasize applied learning, taking existing research and knowledge and finding opportunities to use that information in better, more effective and efficient ways. Our focus on real-world learning and real-world experiences are part of the reason we are such a good fit with Caterpillar. In addition, Bradley has many outreach programs that assist development and the local economy, such as the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship, the International Trade Center and the NAFTA Opportunity Center. Bradley also helps facilitate other agencies like the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center.

We have also been successful in encouraging collaboration of seemingly diverse disciplines. So, on our campus, students studying art and communications work with those from engineering and business, and vice versa. In today’s economy, businesses look for employees who are multifaceted and who understand different disciplines. At our campaign gala dinner, we demonstrated how multimedia, the arts, sciences and engineering can all work together to bring excellence to a product.

Your readers may be familiar with some of Bradley’s other strengths. Last year 96 percent of our graduates either found jobs or went on to graduate school. Our speech team is a national power and has been for 30 years. Over that time we’ve won more championships than any other university in the nation. And, of course, Bradley basketball—indeed, all of our sports, theater, music and extracurricular events—get great support from the community. We add to the quality of life in central Illinois and make the Peoria area more distinctive.

How did your previous university experiences prepare you for your current role?

From being at two other institutions I learned that higher education is a different environment. Universities are built on a foundation of shared governance between the faculty and the administration. In that way, it is very different from business, or even government. As president, I listen to many constituencies—faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, donors, neighbors and, of course, students—in formulat- ing both short-term and long-term decisions. A university must have broad support from its many constituencies to move forward.

The decision-making process can be cumbersome at times, but I also find the environment very exciting. I feel I am surrounded by brilliance. Where else can you have daily discussions with professors who are researching subjects that ultimately can help make this a better world. The students are so eager to learn. Their entire lives are before them, and they believe anything is possible. That thinking is energizing.

Sometimes I think of myself as being mayor of a little city, because a university not only deals with education, but with safety, food service, housing, parking—all aspects of living. And no two days are the same for me. That is exciting too.

Finally, from both Towson and Eastern Kentucky I was exposed to university fundraising. Private support provides the lifeblood of universities, especially private universities, and that helps make them distinctively different from public schools. We need those outside dollars to offer the kinds of programs and initiatives that our students and faculty both desire and deserve.

In your short time at Bradley, you have already dealt with a number of tragedies. What is the role of president in such cases?

The most important thing a president can do in times of tragedies is provide hope. My first day on campus was the funeral of Danny Dahlquist. It was a day I will remember for the rest of my life. The Dahlquist family and the Bradley community were devastated by that horrible incident, and understandably so.

The best I could offer was hope: hope that tomorrow would be better, hope that everyone involved will get through that tragedy, hope that life will go on. It was a terribly difficult day, but I learned that the Bradley and Peoria communities are strong, resilient and compassionate. I hope that I was of some small comfort to all of those who were hurting so much.

You are very involved with the students, often travelling out of state to support them in various endeavors. How important is this “hands-on” element of your leadership style?

It is an important part of my job to be the face of the University. That means I have to be—I want to be—where the students are. So this year I saw every play, went to many of the concerts, spent some time at students’ activities. A president has to know the students—as well as faculty and staff—to understand the culture of the campus. It was vitally important for me to begin to learn the Bradley experience. I think I’ve begun to digest that, but there is much more I need to know.

Coupled with being involved in on-campus events, I see one of my responsibilities as being the University’s ambassador to alumni and friends across the country. So far, I have traveled to both coasts and made many stops in between. The purpose isn’t so much to raise funds— though that is a part of the journeys, too—but to raise friends for Bradley. I want to reconnect the University with those who have a natural affinity for Bradley. I want to tell them all the great things that are happening on campus, and explain my vision for making Bradley a university of national distinction.

What has been the most challenging issue you’ve faced so far?

The most vexing issue to date has been alcohol-related problems that have contributed to the loss of life. Yes, alcohol is a problem at nearly every university in the country, and we are not the only school to have experienced tragedies, but we could not stand by and fail to act in the face of this challenge. It would be irresponsible not to take additional steps to educate students about the choices they make and the risks they take regarding alcohol use.

So, in February I appointed a special committee of faculty, staff and students to develop a Comprehensive Alcohol Action Plan. The University needed to put greater emphasis on alcohol education and prevention, and provide students with alcohol-free alternatives. It was clear to me that Bradley needed to expand its efforts to address the use and misuse of alcohol on our campus.

Our goal is to provide a safe living and learning environment for students. We want to change the culture on campus, while recognizing we have to develop practical solutions. We cannot stop alcohol use among college students and we won’t make the campus dry. Instead, the plan offers a multifaceted approach that deals with the issue on many levels. Its highlights include new and expanded alcohol education programs, alcohol-free late-night activities and entertainment, and additional sanctions for those who break the law and university policies.

This plan is intended to make a meaningful difference at Bradley and make the University a national leader in combating the misuse of alcohol.

Tell about the “last lecture” you gave dressed as Lydia Moss Bradley. As Bradley’s first female president, do you feel a special obligation to live up to her legacy?

I was invited by Bradley Hillel [the multi-denominational Jewish community on campus] to give either my last speech upon retiring from Bradley or my first upon coming to campus. This is a somewhat theatrical device that has been tremendously popular at other universities in developing thought-provoking discussions. Since this was the first time this was attempted at Bradley, I wanted to make it really special.

I chose to give my last speech 25 years in the future, imagining I was retiring from Bradley after a quarter century. At that time I would be 80 years old, the same age Lydia Moss Bradley was when she began to create the University. I thought the juxtaposition of the end of my career at the same age our founder started Bradley was an interesting platform for the speech.

To emphasize that point, I dressed in a period costume, grayed my hair and walked on stage with a cane. The audience loved it, but more importantly they understood the linkage I was trying to make with Mrs. Bradley.

The speech was part vision, part reality and part fantasy—from competing with Ivy League schools for students to having one of our alumni serving as Vice President of the United States to creating a totally walkable campus with students, faculty and staff living in neighborhoods surrounding the University. I laid out many of my hopes and dreams to make Bradley a university of national distinction. Obviously, some of the concepts were far-fetched, but I wanted to set a very high bar. I don’t want to sell Bradley or Peoria short because I do believe great things can happen here if we have the ability to dream big dreams and the willpower and tenacity to pursue them. Certainly the high-quality faculty and student body are here to take Bradley from being a very good university to a great one. That is the vision I intend to pursue.

Read iBi interviews with two former Bradley presidents:

I have to admit, I was initially uncertain about doing this performance, but it was really fun and, ultimately, well received. I do feel a connection with Mrs. Bradley since I am the first woman president here. And I certainly feel a special obligation to fulfill her legacy to provide a first-rate educational experience for students. That is my foremost passion.

What is new or in the works for the 2008-09 school year at Bradley?

When I came to Bradley, the Board of Trustees and I agreed to initially focus on four priorities: kicking off the Renaissance Campaign, beginning a branding/marketing effort to better promote the University, expanding the geographic diversity of our student body and growing our graduate enrollment and offerings.

We’ve gotten started on each of those priorities. We will continue raising funds and telling Bradley’s story this year, and I intend to visit with Bradley’s friends and alumni across the country to spread our message. I think the Bradley community and campus visitors will see a more robust effort to beautify the campus and find our niche in the higher education marketplace. We are working to attract more students from the East Coast, but that will be a multi-year project. I expect to see some results in the next school year. And plans are in the works to attract more graduate students.

As for brick-and-mortar projects, the Markin Family Student Recreation Center and the nearby parking deck will soon be open. Both will make a significant impact for our students. Construction has begun on the Athletic Performance Center and the Puterbaugh Men’s Basketball Practice Facility on the site of the Robertson Memorial Field House.

What is your vision for Bradley University in the next year, five years or 10 years?

I truly believe Bradley is on the cusp of great things. I believe we can be a nationally recognized university. Our Bradley Renaissance is critical to that future. It will provide the resources for facilities that will serve our students and faculty for many generations. The Center for Engineering and Business Convergence is a cutting-edge concept that will encourage innovation and collaboration. It makes so much sense to bring the best of those two disciplines together. Indeed, more important than a new building, we will educate students who are much better prepared—and much more marketable—for the economy of the 21st century.

I also believe the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service is an idea that is critically needed in this country. The Peoria area has a tremendous history of public servants, from Everett Dirksen to Robert Michel to Ray LaHood, and they provide the examples we need to go forward. I expect the Institute will be a national leader in promoting bipartisanship and civility in the years ahead.

There are many other initiatives underway that can put Bradley on the national scene, including groundbreaking research into cures for ovarian cancer, research into making concrete stronger and more resistant to earthquakes, examination of a curriculum for sports broadcasting (building on another one of our strengths) and expansion of our health science offerings, including our first doctoral degree in physical therapy.

To take Bradley to the next level, we will need the assistance of faculty, students, staff and the community. Bradley needs the support of the entire Peoria area to attract the best and brightest students and faculty so we can become a university of national distinction.

I believe there are phenomenal things underway at Bradley. My job is to help provide the leadership and resources to make those great initiatives possible.

Tell about your family and what you like to do in your spare time—if you have any!

I have a son who is a graphic artist in Baltimore and a daughter who recently graduated from Duke University. I hope they will both spend more time in Peoria. They’ve been here and like it very much.

Spare time is a valuable commodity for me. And you are correct, there is very little of that. I’m a big fan of sports, theater and music, so I’ve really enjoyed attending all the Bradley athletic games, and plays and student concerts on campus.

When I have time off campus, I like to dine in local restaurants— I’ve discovered Peoria has many fine places to eat; visit with friends—I’ve made some very close friendships already in Peoria; and shop—there are never enough stores for me. I am a huge contributor in that respect to the local economy.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I am very proud of all that is being done at Bradley and excited about the University’s exceptionally bright future. I believe there are fantastic things on the horizon in the years ahead. I am so excited about being a part of the central Illinois community. And I am honored and humbled to be able to serve this outstanding institution. iBi

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