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Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy Reflects On Seven Years Leading the University

By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13

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Ask Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy how he would like to be remembered at the University and a wry smile crosses his face.

“It’s a humbling to think that people would remember me at all,” Leahy quips.

His self-effacing comment doesn’t accurately reflect the many accomplishments during his seven-year tenure as president. When Leahy announced that he will leave Wilkes at the end of July 2019 to become president of Monmouth University, a private University on the north Jersey shore, it offered a chance for faculty, staff and alumni to note the many milestones at Wilkes under his leadership.

The timeline on these pages highlights, year by year, achievements reached during the Leahy presidency. They include more than $100 million in campus improvements, the establishment of an honors program, the introduction of 25 new academic majors, the launch of a $1 million faculty research and scholarship fund and the start of Wilkes’ first Ph.D. program in the Passan School of Nursing, Wilkes’ fifth terminal degree. Perhaps the most significant moment came in January 2019, when Wilkes achieved doctoral university status, placing it among the nation’s most prestigious institutions.

Wilkes magazine sat down with Leahy to reflect on his years leading Wilkes.  In the following question-and-answer session, he talks about his fondest memories.

There have been many accomplishments during your tenure at Wilkes. Are there ones of which you’re most proud?

Leahy: I hope during my time that we have accelerated our evolution toward becoming a doctoral university. Wilkes was evolving in this way, and we anticipated the shift was coming and decided we were going to double down on our efforts. To do that, we grew the programming in our master’s and doctoral programs, including the addition of our Ph.D. program in the Passan School of Nursing. We delivered graduate programming to a national audience. In addition, I’d like to think we’ve done more impactful research in the last seven years, as evidenced by the fact that we now have six patents that we have issued to protect ideas that might have commercial application. And, obviously, we have made considerable investments in our campus. We took a school that was continuing to evolve and really focused on developing it into analbeit small, nonetheless, bona fide doctoral university.

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You would appear to have achieved that goal, given the fact that the University’s Carnegie classification was changed to doctoral university. How will that impact Wilkes moving forward?

Leahy: I am extremely proud that we’ve achieved that designation. It more adequately reflects the range of ways that we at this university serve students. Educating undergraduate students remains at the heart of what we do. But, offering master’s and doctoral programs is an extension of our mission of providing worthy students with a first-class private education. And I think receiving doctoral university status is important because I want to be sure that our faculty and staff members are properly recognized for their contributions to the University. Moving forward, the new designation has the potential to impact Wilkes practically because it places us on a list of the greatest universities in the country.

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In addition to seeking doctoral university status for Wilkes, supporting first-generation college students has been another priority since the beginning of your presidency. Why was establishing the Founders Gala so important and why has it been such a success, raising $2.3 million to date ?

Leahy: I felt strongly that, once a year, we ought to have a first-class black tie fundraising event that could re-set the expectations of people both on and off campus to a level of excellence. and demonstrate that Wilkes University can support that kind of a fundraising event. It was all part of trying to Part of the reason it’s been so successful is because of the purpose of the event, which is to raise money for first-generation students. Serving those students was such an important part of our founding and now, 85 years later, it’s still an important part of who we are. Using that event to raise money for first-generation students resonated with so many constituents of the University, and that is why it has been successful.

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In addition to raising the bar related to academic programs, you also provided the impetus for major co-curricular and extra-curricular changes on campus. Under your leadership, Wilkes added seven varsity sports. Why was that important?

Leahy: There are many reasons why I think expanding athletic programs is so important. It really is a strategic move. One reason is that it has allowed us to attract students from a much wider geographic area. For example, you have no choice but to recruit ice hockey players and lacrosse players from a wider area because playing those sports happens outside of this region. Having those sports allowed us to grow our recruiting footprint and to bring more student athletes to campus. And we love having student athletes here at Wilkes because the evidence proves that athletes typically retain and graduate at higher rates than our student body as a whole. Plus it’s just fun to have more athletic competitions and more students representing the University. It also gives us more opportunities to build school spirit.

During your time here, you have often been quoted as saying you cannot have a true university without an enduring commitment to the arts. How has that commitment manifested itself during your presidency?

Leahy: I hope that it is evident in a lot of ways. The most obvious example of our commitment was the multi-pronged strategy around the re-invention of the Sordoni Art Gallery. We made a big investment in a new space and made it more accessible to both the campus and the Wilkes-Barre community. We also began building a permanent exhibition endowment and hired a new director and assistant director for the gallery. But, there are other examples of which I am proud. One is the addition of the only marching band in all of northeast Pennsylvania, an expansion to our musical program. And, over the years we’ve made big investments in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing.  First, we made major renovations of the home of the creative writing program, Cox Hall. Then, we secured a major financial commitment to name the program after the Maslow family.  At Wilkes, emphasis is placed on the liberal arts, even for students in our professional programs. I’ll repeat something now that I stated when I began as president – I believe strongly that even our engineers should read Shakespeare.

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For a moment, let’s switch gears from your professional accomplishments. Your wife Amy and your four children have been a visible presence here during the last seven years. Are there moments at Wilkes that you will remember as a family?

Leahy: The first that I remember was at the family holiday party the year that I became president. Our four kids at the time were 5, 7, 11 and 13. All six of us put balloon hats on and were walking out of the event across campus when somebody snapped a picture of us and said, “Things are going to be a lot different around here, aren’t they?” So, from that point on, I hope the family has been an important part of the University community. Another event that stands out was a few years later – when Vice President (Joe) Biden visited campus. We picked the kids up early from school so that they would have a chance to meet him. My son Brian, who was probably 9 at time, said, “Dad, can we get a selfie with the vice president?” and just as the Secret Service said, “No selfies,” Vice President Biden kindly interrupted him and said, “It’s OK. Let’s let him take a picture.” So I have a priceless picture of my family, the six of us, with Vice President Biden.

What is the biggest lesson you’ll take away from the experience of being Wilkes president?

Leahy: The experience has affirmed something I said when I first became the president of Wilkes: In our line of work, it is always best to put students first. One example that comes to mind is when I traveled to the United Nations for the first time in 2017 to speak at the International Council for Small Business’s Micro-, Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises Summit. When I was introduced on the floor of the United Nations, a roar went up in the audience from more than 30 students that we brought along to experience an insider’s look at the United Nations. It prompted other university presidents who were there to say, “Wow, I didn’t know you could bring your own cheering section.” Here at Wilkes, our first thought when the invitation arrived for me to speak was to consider how many students we could bring.  They said 10, and we brought 30.

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Is there a moment when you were most proud to be the president at Wilkes?

Leahy: There are really three. The first is when the campus community gathered to do the ice bucket challenge in honor of our dear friend and colleague, the late Jim Merryman (professor of anthropology). We put the call out to do the ice bucket challenge, which was a pretty popular thing at the time, and I suspected there might be 20 or 30 people, and there were probably 200 who showed up. We filled up the entire front of the library with people dressed in shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits. We all did the ice bucket challenge to raise money for ALS research in honor of our friend Jim Merryman.

The second time was when we gave Mr. (John) Passan an honorary degree and we recognized him at commencement. He was sitting there on the stage and – without any prompting – each nursing student, went over to Mr. Passan and thanked him for his support of the school of nursing when they crossed the stage. They did it with such genuine appreciation.  Then, a number of non-nursing students stopped to thank him for his support at Wilkes before they came to me to receive their degrees. As president, I found it very moving to have students who understood how important his support was.

And quite honestly, one of the times I felt really proud to be president was when we had commencement in fall 2018. I remembered that one of our graduates had come all the way from Hawaii to receive her degree. It was the first time she’d ever been on campus because she was a graduate nursing student who earned her degree 100 percent online. So on a whim, I said at commencement, “It dawns on me that some of you in our graduating class are visiting Wilkes University and Wilkes-Barre for the very first time. In order to welcome you more formally, I’d like to ask anyone who is here for the first time in our graduating class to please stand. I was amazed at the number of students who stood – it was half of the class.  I turned to (vice president for student affairs) Paul Adams and said, “Now, that’s a 21st century university.”

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