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Meet FLC Interim President Steve Schwartz
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Meet FLC Interim President Steve Schwartz

Born and raised in the far west suburbs of Chicago, Steven Schwartz, 65, worked as a tool and die maker and spent about 10 years as a journeyman before moving to North Carolina, where he enrolled in college to attain an associate's degree.

It was during a visit to Durango for a mountain biking trip that he fell in love with the area and gave up a full-ride scholarship in North Carolina to transfer to Fort Lewis College.

“I didn't really know much about FLC (Fort Lewis College) at the time, but I came to Durango because of the mountain biking, the kayaking, the rock climbing, the backcountry skiing, all the things that I love to do.” 

It was a transformative experience, he said.

“Fort Lewis College and the professors here, really, literally, changed my life. I can distinctly remember sitting in an office and having a professor say to me: “You really seem to enjoy education. Have you ever thought about teaching, getting your PhD and being a professor?” I had not. It was that encouragement, the confidence boost I needed.”

Schwartz, who graduated from FLC at 33 years old and became the college’s Vice President of Finance & Administration at 43, was recently selected by the FLC Board of Trustees to lead the College as Interim President.

He sat down to discuss his time at FLC and his plans for the next year.

You’ve worked under five permanent presidents and two interim presidents. What are some qualities that make a good leader?

The ability to recognize that as a leader you don't have all the answers, but you also know that in the scope of the whole institution, the answers are available. And if you have a willingness to listen, truly listen and not be defensive, you can find a path forward. You will never please everybody. I understand that. But the best leaders that I've worked for have been those who have been willing to listen to the faculty, the staff, and to the students and to incorporate what has been said into their decision-making process.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

When I was finishing my apprenticeship program to become a journeyman tool and die maker, one of the students asked the teacher: “How do you know when it's time to move on to another job?” And the teacher said: “When you stop learning, when it is no longer a challenge and you're no longer learning.” The best piece of advice. Never stop learning. Continue to push yourself.

And that's why I've been at FLC for 27 years: Every day is a learning experience. Every day, I get pushed out of my comfort zone, learn new things, and am shown different perspectives. Every day, I wake up thinking, all right, what's today going to be?

You’ve been in your position for a long time. What motivated you to step up and become the interim president?

We all go through different stages of life, right? I was a tool and die maker. I was a college student. I worked in the private sector as a business analyst. Then I became a budget director. Then I became a vice president. And so on.

Every time you experience those changes, there is an opportunity to grow. What excites me is that I have the chance to reinvent myself at this stage in my career.

I’m introverted by nature, so being in the spotlight will be a challenge for me, but I see it as an opportunity to grow and challenge myself, and I'm very excited about it.

We have a really strong and dedicated leadership team and a really strong board of trustees, so I know that I have those people backing me up. The faculty and staff have been very supportive, saying “thank you for stepping up - whatever you need, let me know.” Meeting with the other vice presidents, and Cabinet, I just know that we have a mission-aligned team.

It’s important to remember that it's not about me; it’s about the mission. Someone told me I'm kind of the palate cleanser, the year of transition, so that the next president can be successful and build on the successes that we've had in the last six years.

I like that idea.

What are your goals as interim president?

One of my goals is to maintain and enhance transparency and shared governance. We think and act better together. We don't always agree, but we do always have to listen to each other. That's really important to me.

Another goal is figuring out ways to get to ‘yes.’ When an opportunity comes up, to try to find a way to harness that opportunity rather than say, ‘no, we can't do it.’

Also, I want to maintain the momentum that we’ve gained over the last six years. We will continue to innovate and take smart risks, while keeping student success at the forefront of what we do.

As an employee at FLC, what have been some of your best and worst moments?

My worst moments are budget cuts. Nothing that we do at Fort Lewis College is superfluous. We operate on a small budget, and everything we do makes a difference to our students. So anytime that you have to cut, you know that you're not only potentially impacting people's lives, but you're also impacting programs that are of benefit to the students.  

The best times are too many to count. Fort Lewis College, to me, feels like home.

My favorite moments are when I’m discussing an idea with students, with faculty, or with staff about an issue that I’ve never thought about before or in a way I have never thought before.

In that discussion, I realize that as a human being, I’ve shifted my way of thinking and become, in my mind, a better person…that’s what I love about FLC and what I love about higher education. You are not static. You get to reinvent yourself. Those are the moments that I think back on and look forward to.

And, of course, a recent “best moment” was this year when the Colorado Joint Budget Committee and Legislature agreed to fund our request to increase funding for the State’s rural institutions. We put an immense amount of effort into making our case for additional funding and so many advocates came forward to support our request. It was a really gratifying moment.

How has FLC changed since you attended as a student?

I think the biggest changes are physical infrastructure—what our campus looks like. We’ve made great improvements in that regard. The other change I see is that we're a much more diverse student population. When I was a student here, we were less than 10% Native American students. And so that has changed significantly. That's something we can all be really proud of.

And since becoming an employee at FLC, I've also seen a change in culture. We've had times when morale has been low and times when it’s been high. Right now, we have a good foundation that has been built over the last six years and I’m eager to expand on that momentum. We have amazing students, faculty, and staff and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together.

What does diversity, as a college president, mean to you?

Diversity encompasses recognizing and celebrating the uniqueness in all of us, whether that's race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability, or diversity of thought. It's bringing all that diversity under an umbrella, which is Fort Lewis College, to create paths that improve people's lives and help them do things beyond what they thought they were able to do.

What projects have you been involved in at FLC of which you are the proudest?

On the finance side, we have worked to develop a budget and a process that ensures our financial stability. I know that sometimes it doesn't feel like we're financially sound—especially when we are cutting budgets, and a position in a department is not being refilled. But from a strictly technical standpoint, the fact is we have a solid reserves policy, we do five-year forecasting, and we have robust financial modeling. That was not the case when I started here.

Related to capital construction, I’m very proud of some of the larger projects where we have identified a need and worked with those involved to develop a process, identify the funding, and find a solution - always keeping in mind: How is this going to help students? Is it adding to the richness of what we have to offer?

A good example is the Schlessman Family Hall. We knew we needed more space for our health sciences because it is a growing field. We developed a program and got faculty together to discuss and create a vision. Then, with that vision, we went to the State to get that prioritized, working with the FLC Foundation to raise funds and build the building. It's just a really, really fun process.

Most people see the building, and they don't know all of the work behind the scenes—from the work faculty put in, to the president going to the legislature, debating these issues, and the donors who invested. That’scertainly something I'm proud of.

What challenges do you see for FLC in the future?

Enrollment is something that many institutions are thinking about right now, and certainly institutions that are not flagships. At FLC, we need to continue to leverage our place to find students who want to be in Durango and expand our reach within and outside of the Four Corners area to address the needs of non-traditional students.

We will also continue to amplify a compelling value proposition that articulates what it is that makes us different enough for somebody who wouldn't have considered coming to FLC to come here. Finally, once a student chooses FLC, we must create communities to ensure those students are successful.

Also, the Colorado funding environment is very restrictive in terms of its ability to fund higher education. A few years ago, we were at the very bottom of the nation's states regarding higher education funding. The legislature has done incredible work to reverse that ranking, and they deserve credit for increasing the amount of money going to higher education. While we’ve moved up in the national rankings, we still have a long way to go to get just to average.

At a national level, we are challenged by increasing dissatisfaction and distrust of higher education and by the increasing use of higher education as a political tool to score points, which is concerning.

While higher education tends to be very competitive among institutions, something that FLC has done well is finding ways to collaborate. Our nursing program with CU Anschutz is a notable example of this. Rather than attempting to start our own program, we asked ourselves how can we create a program that combines our strengths for the benefit of our students and region?.  

Finally, artificial intelligence is an issue that we'll continue to see. How are we going to utilize its advantages while also minimizing its challenges, not the least of which is false information?

What are your thoughts on freedom of speech?

Free speech is vital for democracy and individual autonomy. It supports intellectual freedom, enables the exchange of ideas, challenges authority, and forces us to examine our own biases and change for the better.

The challenge is balancing the virtue of free speech with creating a safe environment for students, faculty, and staff. That delicate balancing act is what we're seeing right now in colleges across the country. Violence should never be acceptable in whatever form it takes. Fort Lewis College, as a community, must vigorously uphold the right of free debate and free speech within the parameters that violence is unacceptable.

How about academic freedom?

Academic freedom and shared governance go hand in hand as cornerstones of the academic enterprise. Academic freedom, in my mind, is the unassailable right of faculty to research, write about, and teach what they believe - even though it may make us uncomfortable - and not be under threat of punishment or losing their job. I fundamentally believe in that. That right goes hand in hand with shared governance. Shared governance is also the obligation of administration, and I believe it's a commitment to really hear what our faculty are telling us, to be challenged, and to be willing to change.

Are there any programs or opportunities that get you excited as interim president?

We’re looking into several opportunities. I’m excited for FLC to be a leader in water and energy issues in the Four Corners region. We’ve been working with many community partners to develop some programming, but I think we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in those areas that are so key to FLC’s mission—student-centered, hands-on learning, and community impact. I'm really excited about the possibilities that we have coming up.

Do you think we’re replacing liberal arts with sciences?

No. I see the liberal arts as part and parcel, as well as the foundation of everything that we do at FLC. Liberal arts give you the tools you need for critical thinking, for communication, for adaptability, for innovation, and to think in other realms.

Learning how to read and write, articulate your thoughts, and think deeply and critically about important problems is what will position our nursing students, business students, engineers, and chemists and help them move forward in their careers and advance societal needs and goals.

Guilty pleasure?

Ice cream. Cream Bean Berry Mixed Berry Crisp!

Favorite band?

I don't necessarily have a favorite band. I like Green Day—I saw them in Glasgow, Scotland! I like John Prine, The Violent Femmes, and whatever I listened to last. I like a lot of stuff.

Favorite book?

Again, a lot of books. Have you heard of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande?

A movie that you watch over and over again?

The Princess Bride. That was the movie that my wife Kim and I actually bonded over. We realized that we both loved the Princess Bride, and it was the theme of our wedding. And then I would say, personally, any one of The Bourne movies, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy. I can watch those again and again.

And the worst movie you've ever watched?

Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies.

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