Colby-Sawyer’s New President Hopes to Find Financial Balance

  • Susan Stuebner greets student Chris Peirce on Oct. 6, 2016, while having her photograph taken. Stuebner is the new president at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Susan Stuebner during an interview on Oct. 6, 2016, Stuebner is the new president at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Susan Stuebner is the new president at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2016 10:00:19 PM
Modified: 10/11/2016 3:12:11 PM

Susan Stuebner, Colby-Sawyer College’s new president, found her passion for small, private liberal arts schools in her first full-time job after graduating from Dartmouth College.

While wearing several hats — admissions counselor, head women’s basketball coach and academic support person — at Albright College in Reading, Pa. in the mid-1990s, Stuebner, now 45, saw the way students “who maybe hadn’t found their full stride yet” could benefit from the small class sizes and extra attention available at a small regional college.

But she also discovered that these colleges face a perennial struggle. Albright had declared financial exigency — a projected shortfall in revenues severe enough to threaten an institution’s viability — and Stuebner was intrigued by the way such schools make decisions in response to difficult financial straits. The school, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, withstood its financial challenges and is still in operation.

Stuebner’s primary interest is: “How do we make this whole model of private institutions based in the liberal arts possible for more than just the institutions with the most money or the families with the most money?” she said in an interview in her office in New London last week.

Though Stuebner is a Dartmouth graduate, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she has built her career at small, private tuition-dependent schools with endowments at or below $200 million.

Colby-Sawyer has an endowment of $38.9 million. For comparison, Dartmouth’s endowment is about $4.5 billion.

Her Harvard dissertation was titled, “Context matters: Understanding presidential power and decision-making at three private, regional liberal arts colleges.” Though she did not include Colby-Sawyer in her dissertation, she came across it in the course of her research, she said.

Her long-standing commitment to small schools, her wide-ranging experience in college administration, her rapport with colleagues and students and her familiarity with and affinity for New England, helped her stand out from the 99 other applicants for the Colby-Sawyer job.

She will be invested as the school’s ninth president in a formal ceremony on campus on Friday afternoon.

Stuebner is “the right person at the right time,” said Tom Hoyt, a member of the board of trustees who sat on the search committee. Hoyt is public relations and social media coordinator for Mascoma Savings Bank.

In addition to Stuebner’s familiarity with the region and her professional background, the committee was glad to find a woman to fill the role, Hoyt said. The student body, which is still about 70 percent female, told the search committee they wanted a woman president, he said.

While Colby-Sawyer is not experiencing a financial crisis, the school did end the 2014-2015 school year — the most recent year for which information is available — with a $2.3 million deficit. That year, the school reported revenues of $70.1 million and expenditures of $72.4 million.

The school has a discount rate of about 60 percent, meaning students pay an average of 40 percent of the tuition price of $38,610 per year, not including room and board, which costs another $13,000.

Of the $49.2 million in tuition Colby-Sawyer collected in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, the school gave out $36.1 million in scholarships.

During Stuebner’s tenure she aims to find the school’s “ideal size,” a sustainable balance between the number of students and the amount of scholarship offered to each of them.

“That’s kind of goal one ... get that defined so that as an institution we can have some predictability knowing where we’re going to land each fall,” she said.

Second, Stuebner plans to evaluate the success of Colby-Sawyer’s programs, particularly some initiatives begun by her predecessor Thomas C. Galligan Jr., including a new master’s degree in nursing, online courses, a three-year bachelor’s degree program and strategic partnerships with other institutions.

She will also focus on raising money by cultivating relationships with donors, in part by improving the way the school talks about itself. She described herself as the school’s “chief storyteller.” The school is currently $27.1 million into a $60 million capital campaign, “The Power of Infinity,” which was launched in April 2015, according to the campaign’s website.

Colby-Sawyer’s history speaks to its ability to adapt as times change, she said.

“I knew it had been a nimble small college,” Stuebner said.

Founded in 1837 as a coeducational academy, Colby-Sawyer became a women’s junior college in 1928, according to a history of the school on its website. It transitioned to a four-year women’s college in the late 1970s and began admitting men in 1989.

Stuebner is well qualified to lead the school into the future, said the board’s chairman, Peter Volanakis, of Hanover. She has worked in all aspects of college governance, including financial management, human resources, student affairs, financial aid and alumni affairs, said Volanakis, who also served as chairman of the search committee.

“She is just very, very skilled,” he said. “The complete package.”

Volanakis, a Dartmouth College and Tuck School of Business graduate and former chief operating officer of Corning, declined to divulge Stuebner’s salary. Galligan earned $290,513, according to the college’s 990, an annual tax document filed by nonprofits, for the 2014-2015 school year.

Prior to beginning her five-year contract at Colby-Sawyer on July 1, Stuebner served as executive vice president and chief operating officer at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Before arriving at Allegheny in 2013, she served in a variety of roles at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., ending with vice president for administration and planning.

James Douthat, president of Lycoming until his retirement in 2013, said Stuebner was a helpful person to have on staff because she was able to cultivate trust among members of the school community.

“Sue is a truth-teller,” Douthat said, in a phone interview. “She has a very genuine rapport with students and faculty and others.”

She is a warm person and interested in other people, he said. Because members of the school community trusted her, she was able to explain the administration’s decisions in an effective way.

“It functions more smoothly if people believe that the ones in a sense working for them are honest brokers and people who have the interest of the institution at heart,” he said.

Douthat, who plans to attend Stuebner’s investiture this week, said he’s “going to lead the applause.”

“It’s a well-deserved opportunity for her.”

As Colby-Sawyer will turn 180 next year, Volanakis said the board has asked Stuebner to focus on the school’s next 180 years. He noted that the school faces a variety of challenges outside of its control, such as declining enrollment in the region’s high schools — most of Colby-Sawyer’s students come from New England — and the shortage of families able to afford the school’s tuition without significant subsidies.

Under Stuebner’s leadership, Volanakis said he hopes the school will build on its strengths. Successful programs include nursing and business and positive partnerships include that with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, he said.

All of the 33 students who graduated from Colby-Sawyer with nursing degrees in the spring passed their licensing exam and 27 of them stayed to work in New Hampshire, Stuebner said.

The school is good at providing students with opportunities for experiential learning, Volanakis said. All students participate in at least one internship during the course of their studies. They also develop close relationships with their professors and fellow students, he said.

“Students who come there really find out who they are,” he said.

Stacey Watts, an assistant professor in exercise and sports sciences, who has worked at several institutions around New England, said she has stayed at Colby-Sawyer for going on 10 years because of the community.

“I just love coming to work every day,” she said.

The students are engaged and the combination of the liberal arts and experiential learning gives them the chance to think critically and then apply their skills, she said.

Student body president Kevin Richardson, a native of Ghana who came to New London via northern England, said he has found the combination of business and liberal arts courses he sought in his studies at Colby-Sawyer.

“My goal is to become a better informed individual,” Richardson said. To “come at issues from multiple angles” and to become a “better thinker.”

The school is a good place for students who are academically driven and show an interest in learning, he said. They might not necessarily be the best students, he added, but those who want to take advantage of the school’s resources to become better.

Under Stuebner’s leadership, Richardson said he hopes the school will expand its recruitment efforts in inner cities through a program called Progressive Scholars, which partners with high schools in Boston and Chicago to bring students to Colby-Sawyer.

Stuebner has been up front with faculty and staff about the challenge the school faces in balancing enrollment and scholarships, said Watts.

The new president is working with the admissions office to develop strategies to find the right mix of students for the future, said Watts, who is a faculty representative to the board.

“Yes, there’s challenges,” Watts said. “We’ll get through it.”

So far, sophomore William Hyland, who is president of his class, has been impressed with Stuebner’s management style. He was helping with freshman orientation when she invited the new students to the president’s house, which sits just across the street from campus.

“She greeted us at the door,” said Hyland, who, in addition to being his class president, is vice president of a Bible study group on campus. “I thought that was a tremendous gesture.”

She has open office hours and can be found at barbecues on campus and even in the cafeteria, he said.

The small community — 1,110 students this year — felt familiar to Hyland, who comes from a small town in Maine. He was drawn to the classic beauty of the campus’ red brick buildings. A good-sized scholarship also helped.

“To be able to get that education for a good price was a real buying point,” he said.

Given the school’s presence in northern New England, it is surprisingly diverse, said Hyland. At lunch one day last week, he heard Arabic, Spanish and “I think it was French” being spoken in the cafeteria, he said. Chinese and Vietnamese are also common, he said.

Galligan, who served the college for 10 years until July, made recruiting from abroad a priority. Last year, international students, representing 34 countries, made up 8 percent of the student body. Also during Galligan’s tenure, the school’s minority enrollment grew from 3 percent to 18 percent.

Stuebner aims to continue to recruit from abroad, but in order to continue to bring in students from developing countries, the school will have to attract students from wealthier places as well, she said.

Stuebner is glad to be back in New England, a place the Minnesota native refers to as her “heart home,” she said. She is a New England Patriots fan.

She had an immediate affinity for the region when she studied at Dartmouth, she said. During her time in Hanover, Stuebner — who is 6-feet, 2-inches tall — played basketball, serving as captain of the team for a year. She was a member of the Casque & Gauntlet, an exclusive, non-secret, co-ed senior society designed to foster fellowship among members, according to the group’s website.

She initially focused her course work in English, but switched her major to psychology after taking a course titled “Psychology of Learning” with Chris Jernstedt, now professor emeritus of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. She credits the course with inspiring her love of learning.

She later served as an academic counselor at Dartmouth as she pursued graduate studies at Harvard. She commuted back and forth to Hanover from Boston on Dartmouth Coach, passing the New London exits on Interstate 89, she said.

Her wife, Amanda Stuebner, who is originally from Fryeburg, Maine, will join Stuebner full time in New London once Amanda Stuebner’s daughter, Gabrielle Wine, graduates from high school in the spring.

Wine plans to study nursing at Ursuline College a women’s college in Pepper Pike, Ohio. She has accepted a scholarship to play volleyball at the Division II school. Her older brother, Tyler Wine, is taking some time away from college. He works full-time at a Lowe’s in Cleveland.

Amanda Stuebner works for the U.S. Department of Labor, but plans to leave her job when she joins her wife in New Hampshire.

“She’s looking forward to kind of pausing and figuring out what she might want to do for a second career,” Sue Stuebner said. “We’re psyched that she has that chance.”

Stuebner’s investiture is free and open to the public and scheduled to take place on Friday at 3 p.m. on the quad at Colby-Sawyer in New London. It will be followed by a reception in the Marian Graves Mugar Art Gallery.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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