Pizza is Barbara Snyder’s secret weapon.
It’s her enticement to get groups of Case Western Reserve University students around a table and talk about university life — what they like, what they don’t like, and where their futures may lead.
They choose pepperoni and do most of the talking. Snyder opts for cottage cheese with fruit and takes mental notes.
“It’s listening, yes, then engaging people to come together to help us reach our potential,” says Snyder of her regular chats with students, faculty, alumni and civic leaders.
Snyder isn’t just a sounding board in those meetings. She’s also building support for the strategic plan the university launched soon after she assumed the presidency in 2007. The plan, which runs through 2013, sets high goals for CWRU’s future — greater selectivity in admissions, more interdisciplinary cooperation, more focus on international student and faculty exchanges and a $1 billion capital campaign to fund scholarships, research and new faculty hires.
“What I have as the president of CWRU is the power of persuasion,” Snyder says. “Our success depends on our ability and my ability to persuade people that the work is important and that the university is worth their investment.”
The plan is a vision for the future, but it’s also a roadmap to CWRU’s recovery. Snyder arrived five years ago at a university in crisis, where she was the sixth president (including interims) to serve in less than a decade.
“We had 10 years of wandering in the wilderness,” says CWRU board chairman Bud Koch. “With so much turnover, it was hard to get anything done.”
Ed Hundert, Snyder’s predecessor, had embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the university, but it had backfired. The university’s budget was $20 million in the red, its “rebranding” efforts had alienated alumni donors, and a demoralized arts and sciences faculty’s vote of no-confidence had pushed Hundert to resign.
Snyder’s arrival represented a fresh start.
“When you have a new leader, there’s a new sense of hope and possibility,” says Chris Sheridan, CWRU communications vice president and adviser to Snyder. “She conveyed a sense that this is a collective effort, and she wanted to work together. Everyone really responded.”
Faculty and staff collectively tightened their belts, which helped a three-year balanced-budget plan reach its goal within one. Philanthropy is up 85 percent since 2007, and the school has quietly raised $663 million in the lead-up to the public launch of the $1 billion capital campaign in October. Applications are up 83 percent, while the acceptance rate has gone from 75 percent to a more selective 51 percent.
To repair the university’s fractured relationships, Snyder launched a 30-city tour visiting alumni and supporters. “She had a lot of fences to mend, from an alumni and philanthropic standpoint, and really, from a Cleveland standpoint,” says Koch. “She’s done a fabulous job of turning things around.”
Snyder shies away from such proclamations.
“It’s not right to say that I did this, because I didn’t,” she says. “Our community came together to make it happen.”
Snyder’s aversion to self-promotion is actually one of her strengths as a leader, says Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University. “That’s one of the reasons she’s been so successful,” says Gee, who promoted Snyder, a former law professor, into administration at OSU more than a decade ago. “She’s ambitious for the institution but not for herself.”
Others describe Snyder as energetic, sincere, personable, confident and optimistic — all traits that tend to inspire confidence in leaders and their institutions.
“She has a wonderful ability to set high aspirations and support [her staff] to achieve that aspiration,” says Baiju Shah, president and CEO of BioEnterprise, where Snyder chairs the board. “She’s a great example of someone who uses her power for greater good.”
Snyder has begun to extend her influence beyond campus, as a voice for CWRU in the local biomedical industry.
“I think she’s really viewed not just as an academic leader, but a business leader, given that Case is a main engine of growth, not just for the city and region, but the whole state,” says Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. “I certainly would pick up the phone and call her first if I had a big problem to solve.”
Closer to home, Snyder is an active participant in University Circle initiatives such as the forthcoming Uptown retail-residential complex.
“It’s a welcome change to have a university president who sees the university as part of a larger community,” says Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. “She’s broken down the barriers between town and gown.”