Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Union Institute's call was answered

President came back to academia

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Judith A. Sturnick
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Judith A. Sturnick had a dream job in Washington and was finished being a university president. “I was never going to do that again,” she said. But Saturday, she was inaugurated as the fourth president of the Union Institute, the innovative global university based in Walnut Hills.

        “The hook was that this was such a different place,” she said.

        Her challenge?

        “How do we keep that fresh experimental vision?”

        A university without walls, the Union Institute was founded in 1964 to serve creative, mature students who design flexible individual B.A., B.S. or Ph.D programs and fulfill the academic requirements where they live and work.

        The absence of brick-and-mortar does not mean these are “quick and dirty” degrees, or that the Union Institute is satisfied with students looking for “the gentleman's C,” Dr. Sturnick said.

        She succeeds the late Robert T. Conley, who was president for 17 years.

        Dr. Sturnick, 61, won her degrees the old way, marching lockstep through standard curricula and jumping through predictable hoops held by professors of English at North Dakota, Miami and Ohio State universities.

        She has also run conventional campuses with their predictable issues and responses as president of the University of Maine at Farmington and New Hampshire's Keene State College.

        “I really got tired of that,” she said.

        So she spent much of the past decade as an educational/leadership consultant until the “dream job” came along: In 1998, she became vice president for the Office of Women in Higher Education at the American Council on Education.

        Less than two years later, a headhunter tempted her with the “co-creation of the learning process” embraced by the Union Institute's faculty and students, and she was hooked.

        Conversations with faculty, grads and students reeled her in and Dr. Sturnick decided the Union Institute was the place to invest her energies.

        Five-year contract in hand, she and her three large dogs settled in Turpin Hills last July. She took over, asking, “How do we refresh what we do?”

        Answers included replacing the orthodox top-down hierarchy for a “change management council” that includes graduate and undergraduate deans, the vice president for social responsibility, the assistant vice president for academic affairs, and chief fiscal officer.

        It's an evolving management style that council members are learning while they're using it to run the school. “This is about leadership development,” Dr. Sturnick said. “The president must do more than raise money.”

        Reinventing management meant departures, promotions and new hires, albeit at a price.

        “When this happens, a shudder goes through the whole organization,” she said, so she has put a lot of effort into persuading faculty to “reinvest” in the school.

        The Union Institute has 690 undergrads, 1,122 doctoral candidates and 7,700 alumni in 50 states and 17 countries.

        It has 40 full-time undergraduate faculty spread among centers in Cincinnati, Sacramento, Calif., Los Angeles and North Miami Beach, Fla.

        Over the next 18 months, Dr. Sturnick said, her top priorities will be assuring academic quality, reshaping the culture of the organization and creating an aggressive marketing campaign.

        “We've been here a long time and we are not known,” she said, and an early step may add “University” to Union Institute to emphasize its identity without losing the value of its brand.

        Decisive and at ease with authority, Dr. Sturnick does not exempt herself from questioning. She starts each day at home with an hour of meditation during which “I ask myself a lot of probing questions about the state of my soul.”


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