When Stephen R. Morgan steps down as president of Westminster College this summer, he will leave a legacy of being a versatile and nontraditional leader.
After serving in a variety of administrative roles for more than 30 years – including vice president for institutional advancement and executive vice president and treasurer- Morgan became Westminster’s 18th president in July 2015.
“It was not a job I sought – not that a college presidency isn’t a sought-after job. In transitioning from our last president to me, our board invited me to serve and I basically committed I would do it for three years,” Morgan recalls about his unorthodox path to the presidency. After all, he had never been a professor and had no doctorate degree. “It doesn’t happen very often,” he admits.
What Morgan had was a versatile leadership style that made him a key asset to the college’s executive team. Prior to becoming president, he had advised six past Westminster presidents on almost every major campus decision since 1981. He is also credited as being instrumental in shaping Westminster into the institution it is today, leading the college’s master plan, as well as the 2004–14 and 2014–19 strategic plans.
Jean Ambruster, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees says Morgan’s leadership, diverse experience and positive outlook will be missed on campus.
“During his tenure, he has found ways to bring out the best of everything that Westminster has to offer,” says Ambruster. “We are very proud of his longtime commitment to the college and wish him the best in his retirement years.”
Others said Morgan’s inherent sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and authenticity made him a natural choice for this role, and he led his team in raising more than $50 million for strategic priorities, including the creation of the Meldrum Science Center and the Campaign for Scholarships. The percentage of alumni giving back to the college doubled during his tenure, and the 2014–15 fiscal year was marked by the highest number of donors to the college in Westminster’s history.
Morgan, a certified public accountant with an accounting degree from the University of Utah, says that he and his wife Sandy will continue to serve in other capacities in their community. His wife and their three children, Amanda, Danny, and Alex – are all Westminster graduates. “We have nine grandchildren and there are things that we also wanted to do. Being a president is a pretty consuming kind of position,” he says. “My three years is up. You have to stick to your life plan. I’ve loved it, but it’s time to try new things.”
Reflecting on the presidency
Looking back over his career, Morgan said the opportunity to advise previous presidents was beneficial once he assumed the role.
“To be able to work closely with the key decision makers at our school for that many years made it easier for me,” he says. “I started fairly early, within a couple of years of my tenure I was made a senior officer of the college. I got to watch six presidents make decisions and interact.”
As executive vice president and treasurer, Morgan managed the college’s finances through a period of deficits to 25 consecutive years of balanced budgets, and he oversaw the growth of the endowment to more than $70 million. He also directed 17 campus construction and renovation projects, including the Giovale Library; the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business; and the Dolores Doré Eccles Health, Wellness, and Athletic Center. Morgan attained significant costs savings for many of these capital projects by initiating the college’s use of public financing for facilities and securing the first investment-grade rating for issuing tax-exempt bonds.
In 2007, Morgan embraced a new career challenge at Westminster by becoming the vice president for institutional advancement, overseeing the college’s fundraising division.
“I knew every building, I knew where the money was, I knew our board and our trustees and I knew our community and so I think it allowed me to focus more strategically on some of the more demanding issues such as trying to increase our diversity efforts,” he says.
By the time Morgan became president, he knew everything there was to know about Westminster.
“It takes time if you’re a brand new president and you’re still trying to figure out how the college runs and the day-to-day operations of the institution. I had a wonderful team that I had been working with as a peer for many years,” he says. “All of a sudden I was leading the team. I knew them well and they knew me well. So it allowed us to focus quickly on some of the needs we had.”
One of the most urgent needs, he felt, was to strengthen the campus culture.
“I wanted to make us a more inclusive, welcoming institution. Salt Lake City and Utah doesn’t have a lot of diversity, so you have to be really intentional about trying to achieve diversity and inclusion,” Morgan says. “When I became president, I made that a real high priority that we wouldn’t just treat it with lip service, we’d be really intentional with specific actions, policies and resources. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do over the past few years in this arena.”
Morgan gives the credit to Westminster. “Our school was ready for this,” he says. “Being the only private liberal arts institution in the state of Utah, we value our diversity and value being a welcoming community for our students from many backgrounds with different interests.”
Changing the culture
The changes started with hiring an associate vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion and a director of student diversity.
“We got very intentional about developing a campus-wide diversity policy statement and backed it up with a diversity strategic plan,” he says. “We have been working on this now for three years. We now have all our diversity initiatives right to the department level, where each department is now developing their own unique plan and how it rolls up into the institution’s plans.”
Under Morgan’s leadership the college has made efforts to make sure it is accessible to a more diverse group of students.
“We retooled the entire financial aid program of our college in the last three years. We’ve tried to gear it toward first-generation students from some of the areas where we don’t typically attract students that certainly would do well at a school like Westminster,” he says.. “We are having tremendous success in attracting more students. Our deposits for next year are up dramatically and interestingly enough from areas of our city that we typically haven’t attracted.
“I think part of that is that the college has worked very intentionally trying to say ‘You can afford to come here. We can show you the way to be able to finish your education here at Westminster,’” said Morgan. “Those are things I think all colleges are struggling with right now…trying to figure out how to be affordable and accessible.”
With amusement, Morgan says he will hand over to the new president a much bigger freshman class.
“I won’t get to take the credit in the fall, but certainly my team and I worked really hard to deliver not only a much bigger class but a more interesting diverse class and more first-generation college-going students,” he says. “I’ll come back in the fall and share it with our new president,” he laughed.
During his tenure, Morgan says that Westminster has faced its share of changes.
“Obviously, managing an enterprise like a college is like running a city,” he says. “As a president, you have to be really agile to the changing times that we’re in. Over the last two or three years, the national politics, the changing demographics, those are things all presidents have to deal with and face.”
Still, he believes colleges play an important role on the frontlines.
We have our students who are about to begin their professional lives and we are meeting them at a time in their lives when they are trying to decide who they want to be and the role they want to play,” he says. “We feel that colleges have an important role to shape and help students develop a meaningful life, good citizenship and skills that will help them turn into lifelong learners.
On the subject of changing enrollment patterns, Morgan says that Salt Lake City is like everywhere else in the country.
“Student interests are different and demographics are different, so you have to continue to be relevant and make sure the value you are providing is appreciated – those have been really important challenges for me,” he adds.
An active member of the Salt Lake community, Morgan serves on the board of Pitney Bowes Bank, the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corporation of Utah, and the Utah Campus Compact. He was featured in Utah Business’ “Forty Under 40” program, and the American Institute of Architects Utah Chapter honored him in 2006 for his role in completing Westminster’s master plan.
An avid runner, he has completed 28 marathons and is a member of the St. George Marathon “20-year club,” after running the race for 20 consecutive years.
Morgan has already passed the torch to Westminster’s new president, Dr. Bethami Dobkin, who was previously the provost at Saint Mary’s College in California.
“We have this nice ceremonial thing- colleges and universities do this transition quite well,” he says. “My advice to her was ‘love the institution and our people’, that’s what made it remarkable for me,” he says, adding that Dobkin comes to the college with an extensive background in higher education.
Morgan says he is not done with Westminster College just yet. He and Dobkin have been talking about Westminster’s future.
“I’m fortunate that the board made me an emeritus president,” he says. “It doesn’t pay well but it does allow me to continue to be an ambassador for Westminster and to help the new president. I really appreciate that opportunity because it eliminates some of these stops and starts that often go with presidencies. You spend a lifetime at a place and then you leave. Why not benefit from all the learning?”
This article appeared in the June 28 issue of Diverse magazine. It is one in a series of articles about retiring college presidents that will run over the next week.