Diverse Conversations: Staying for the Long Haul

James Mergiotti, president of Peirce College, says he is “devoted to the concept of servant leadership.”James Mergiotti, president of Peirce College, says he is “devoted to the concept of servant leadership.”

In higher education, things are constantly changing. This is especially true of college administrators, who rarely stay at the same institution for an extended period of time. However, James Mergiotti is the exception to the rule. Mergiottihas been in a leadership role at Peirce College in Philadelphia for more than 16 years and is currently the president ofone of the oldest colleges in America. Previous to his employment with the school, Mergiotti also served as atrusteefrom 1988 to 1998. Recently, I sat down with him to discuss his long-standing commitment to Peirce.

 Q: When did you realize that you wanted to be a college president?

A: My path to a college presidency was quite unusual. The first 23 years of my career were spent in the business world. The connection to higher education occurred during the last ten of those years when I served as a Peirce College trustee. A little more than 16 years ago, my predecessor as Peirce president, Art Lendo, hired me as an administrator.

Through my time as a trustee and administrator, I became immersed in Peirce’s mission and its entrepreneurial approach to higher education. Dr. Lendo recognized that and entrusted me with significant responsibilities as we pursued his vision of bringing the college to the student through on-site and online delivery. When he decided to retire, I knew I wanted to succeed him as president and applied for the position. Thanks to his leadership, I was well prepared when the Board of Trustees selected me for the role after completing a national search.

Q: You’ve been working at Peirce College for 16 years and counting. What is it that has kept you there?

A: Peirce is a unique place. We serve adult students with an average age of 35 years young. Most are low-income, first-generation college students with significant personal, professional and community obligations. Once they earn a college degree, it changes their lives. Most importantly, it creates a multiplier effect whereby subsequent generations in their families also become college graduates.

We consistently hear from students and graduates anecdotally, and in formal surveys, how much they value the Peirce experience. The highly supportive, student-centered culture provides a learning environment conducive to success for adult learners trying to acquire industry relevant skills and earn a college degree, all while juggling work and life responsibilities. What keeps me at Peirce is knowing that if the college did not exist, many of our students would not pursue or earn college degrees and subsequently succeed in sustainable careers.

Q: How long have you held the role of president? What were your roles prior to being named president?

A: I spent three years as a certified public accountant and 20 years working in various leadership positions for a financial services company. Thereafter, I joined Peirce as vice president of administration, and then became executive vice president and chief operating officer. I became Peirce’s president on July 1, 2009.

Q: What is your definition of leadership? What have been your leadership priorities as president of Peirce College?

A: I am devoted to the concept of servant leadership. My style is very participative and focused on developing others to fulfill their potential. Building a strong leadership team and positioning the institution well strategically for the future to fulfill our mission are my top priorities.

Q: As a college president, you must communicate with more constituencies — students, faculty, staff, trustees, church leaders, donors, other college presidents, legislators, the general public, etc. — than, arguably, leaders in any other profession. How do approach this kind of responsibility?

A: I enjoy many aspects of my role as president but none more than this. Interacting with a wide range of constituencies allows me to gain diverse perspectives. Most importantly, it forces me to consider different viewpoints in determining my positions on important matters and shaping the related communications. Ultimately, that results in better decisions and messages that are more effectively conveyed.

On a personal level, I love the challenge of finding ways to connect with different audiences. I’m not always successful but am constantly improving in this area.

Q: What have been the proudest moments of your presidency so far?

A: Every time one of our students or alumni finds career or professional success it makes my day. I often learn of students who have earned competitive scholarships or are honored by professional associations and, frequently, our graduates move on to new careers or assume higher-level positions in existing careers. An ever-increasing number of alumni move on to graduate or professional school. I am extremely proud of each and every one of those success stories.

Q: What are the two or three initiatives that most excite you as you look forward to your future years as Peirce’s president?

A: Since its founding nearly 150 years ago, Peirce has been an innovative institution. Continuing that tradition, we are currently exploring and testing some new delivery methods which have the potential to greatly enhance our ability to fulfill our mission more efficiently and effectively.

Q: What is the most memorable conversation you’ve ever had with a Peirce student?

A: It is difficult to select just one. Most of our students overcome significant obstacles to earn their college degrees. Each year, when members of the graduating class share their stories with me, I am frequently in awe of their grit, determination and resolve. After sixteen years at Peirce, it still moves me emotionally.

Q: Do you have time in your schedule as president to spend informally with students?

A: My favorite time of day is late afternoon when the majority of our students arrive on campus for evening classes. My office is located right at the entrance to College Hall where our classes are held. At least once a week, I stand in the lobby, greet the students as they enter and engage in informal conversations.

Q: What advice would you give someone who has recently been appointed to their first college/university presidency?

A:  First and foremost, count your blessings. You have an extraordinary opportunity to play a key role in positively influencing the lives of many people. Secondly, go all in. College presidencies demand full commitments. Lastly, there are plenty of talented resources around you. Find a way to build them into a bonded community, devoted to fulfilling the institution’s mission.

Q: How about an individual who aspires to become a college/university president one day?

A: My first inclination is to say, call me. Seriously, I would suggest establishing relationships with current and former college presidents, especially those who have been successful. They can provide first-hand accounts of the job requirements. Ideally, the aspiring president will find a mentor among those relationships similar to my experience with Dr. Lendo. There is no better way to prepare.