Many in the corporate world believe it takes up to six months to “onboard” a new leader. Dr. William Bisset, the new president at Lourdes University, hasn’t had that luxury. He arrived as universities nationwide face rising costs, shrinking enrollment, and greater “competition” from alternative career paths that bypass post-high school education.
Since assuming the top job in March at our hometown institution of higher education, Dr. Bisset has brought energy, experience, and focus to the position. He’s gotten input from dozens of local leaders, fellow presidents, and the campus community. In his first 18 days on the job, he was out at meetings every night.
While he says it is almost impossible for a new president to form his own long-term vision for Lourdes after just six months, he admits, “There are certainly some areas that immediately require my daily attention that will have a huge impact on where we find ourselves five and ten years from now.”
“One thing that I am already leaning toward as a goal is better name recognition—not just in markets outside of Northwest Ohio, but also here in Sylvania,” he told me. “People say that Lourdes is the best kept secret in the region. I know this is meant as a compliment, but it frustrates me that we have this beautiful campus, a place that is doing transformative things on a day-to-day basis, and people don’t know about us.”
Dr. Bisset believes this lack of name recognition has had a negative impact on student recruitment.“In our own back yard, there is a lot of unsolicited interest in Lourdes University. The upside is tremendous when it comes to enrollment from the local market. We need to figure out how to take advantage of this interest and will be introducing a strategic enrollment growth plan soon that is based on both data and experience.”
The enrollment number is critical because Lourdes is as highly tuition-dependent as any college or university in the country, Dr. Bisset points out. Like many Catholic institutions nationally, it does not have an endowment that can help meet the full demand for student aid. Financially, Lourdes exists largely off of tuition dollars.
“I’m looking for marketable programs that we can add that would have immediate impact on our enrollment goal,” he says. “From a primary market perspective: what is resonating and what isn’t … are we offering some programs that there really isn’t a great market for? In the short term, it is highly unlikely that you will see the elimination of programs at Lourdes. But it is very likely that you will see the addition of academic programs.”
For example, two weeks ago Dr. Bisset announced the revival of its Master of Organizational Leadership program starting next spring. The highly popular program was discontinued a number of years ago—despite the fact that it prepared some 430 alumni dating back to its introduction in 2003.
In announcing the return of the MOL program, he added, “We recognize the profound impact this program has had on countless individuals since its inception. It’s return signifies our dedication to providing valuable education that transforms lives and uplifts the broader community.”
This is Dr. Bisset’s fifth position in a 36-year career spent entirely in Catholic higher education. He’s held vice presidential positions for more than 20 years, and most recently he served as VP for enrollment management and student affairs at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.
He says he never seriously considered being a college president—that the hard work in education was being done in the trenches. But “something resonated” when he met with Lourdes board chair William Carroll and the search committee earlier this year, then visited campus. “I understood that it was not about being a college president, but about being a president at the right place.”
“I’ve lived on the east coast pretty much from the cradle until now … done my share of travelling but this is the first time I can call the Midwest home,” he explains. “I love the people and the different pace. There is such a genuine, sincere feeling of collaboration and partnership in this area, and I’ve never experienced that before. Beyond the wonderful opportunity that I have here at Lourdes, living in this part of the country at this time in my life is awesome.”
Dr. Bisset says, “Local leaders tell me that this community needs Lourdes to be successful. When I hear that I become even more committed to making Lourdes ‘Sylvania’s university.’ To start, we really need to take advantage of things that connect our campus with downtown Sylvania … to me, it has that idyllic small-town college feel. We will be working hard to create that connection.”
“Truth be told, a year ago I didn’t know where Sylvania was. Now, I can’t picture myself anywhere else. I don’t believe in coincidences in life, but every day I’m at Lourdes I am more and more convinced that I’m here for a reason.”