Georgia Nugent said she came to love Illinois Wesleyan University so much in her brief time on campus, she wanted to be more than just its interim president.
Chairman of IWU’s Board of Trustees Tim Szerlong announced Thursday the university has named Nugent the university’s 20th president. Nugent also becomes the first woman to serve as the university’s president.
“It was certainly not in my mind when I arrived,” Nugent admitted. “I was amazed at how much I felt a part of that place.”
Nugent was installed as interim president in August, following Eric Jensen’s retirement in May. The former president of Kenyon College in Ohio from 2003 to 2013 and former interim president of The College of Wooster from 2015 to 2016 had planned to serve at IWU for one year during the university’s presidential search.
Nugent was the first woman president at each of those institutions.
Szerlong said the board made diversity a focus in the hiring process.
“We had a strong bias for finding a woman as our next president or a diverse candidate,” he explained. “(It’s) time for that in today’s world. As we all know, the world has moved slowly in that regard.”
Szerlong said the university has made some progress in improving diversity among the faculty and student populations.
Nugent, who was in the first women class at Princeton University, shied away from the term role model, but said she hoped to set an example that younger women would want to follow.
“I think it does make a difference when you can see that someone like you, in some respect, can accomplish unusual things,” Nugent said.
Nugent had served most recently as a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, where she helped develop marketing campaigns to advocate for the value of a liberal arts education. She said that experience reinforced how to sell the liberal arts to a younger population that’s become increasingly steered toward STEM fields.
“I think there’s often a sense in the public that we are very staid, we’ve been doing the same thing for decades and centuries and in fact the opposite is the case,” Nugent said. “It’s often easier for the small institutions to be more flexible.
Nugent takes over the presidency at a time when many colleges and universities in Illinois are struggling to maintain enrollments due in part to rising tuition costs and a shrinking college age population in the state.
The university earlier this year offered early retirement incentives as part of a wide-ranging plan to save $1.1 million. Nugent said she hopes the university can emerge from that better positioned for growth.
“It’s not our intention to shut down and say we are just going to hunker down and wait,” Nugent said. “What we are trying to do is think more carefully about our investments and how to build the strongest organization for the future."
She added the university is working to implement its strategic plan, boost fundraising efforts and possibly add new academic programs.
Chair of IWU’s philosophy department Mary Coleman, who served on the presidential search committee, said she has been following Nugent’s career path, as a graduate of Kenyon College where Nugent had served as president.
Coleman explained how Nugent guided the small, private liberal arts college through a tumultuous time during the 2008 recession.
“She kept the spirits and the optimism of the students, the faculty and the staff blazing forward during a very difficult time,” Coleman told a gathering at IWU’s Memorial Center. “She helped improve Kenyon’s already strong national reputation and as someone with a degree from that institution, I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”
IWU sophomore nursing member Wah Cook served on the presidential search committee. She said Nugent quickly made connections with the students.
“We had some great conversations on how she plans to immerse herself in our campus life and I can’t wait to see those come to life,” Chook said.
You can also listen to our full interview with Nugent:
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