Devorah Lieberman delivers a new, energetic atmosphere to the University of La Verne.
by Angie Marcos
photography by Christopher Guzman
Devorah Lieberman comes to the University of La Verne at a time of great change and opportunity. Not only is she the 18th president of the University but also the first woman in La Verne’s 120 year history. Adding to the importance, she is taking over a position held by Steve Morgan for 26 years. Steve, a 1968 La Verne College graduate, came into the presidency in 1985. “He is beloved by the entire institution and the community,” says Devorah, who was coincidentally raised in Covina, the same as Steve. “I look forward to having the same dedication to the institution that President Morgan has had. Being a successful president is a remarkable achievement, and I am in awe of President Morgan and what he has achieved in his time here. I want to follow in his footsteps.”
On July 1, Devorah Lieberman officially commenced her new role as the University of La Verne’s president. She says that while her decision to join the ULV community is based on many factors, she does not hesitate in naming just one: The University’s mission statement. “The minute I read the mission of the institution, I said, ‘This is the kind of mission that speaks to my heart. That’s a mission statement I would write.’ This is the kind of institution I would want to go to school myself. I believe this is an institution where many individuals would like to be president because of the mission statement and the potential.” She says being chosen as La Verne’s first female president “communicates to me that the Board of Trustees and the campus are seeking to not follow only in the tradition of having a male president but are seeking to find what they believe to be the best person to meet the needs of the institution, regardless of gender.” Says Steve, “It brings me great satisfaction that she’ll build on what she finds here.”
The dynamic search
Witt/Kieffer, a national firm specializing in executive searches, was hired by the Board of Trustees to assist in finding appropriate candidates following Steve’s February 2010 retirement announcement. Ken Calkins, Board of Trustees member and co-chairman of ULV’s search committee, says it was just as difficult forming a search committee as it was to accumulate the best candidates. After all, it had been 26 years since ULV pulled together a presidential search. A team of 15 individuals took on the task; of the membership, seven were from the Board of Trustees. “Everybody on that committee really cares about La Verne,” Ken says. “We didn’t always agree, but we always listened.” The committee composed a list of key questions as simple as “What is it we’re looking for exactly? What is La Verne?” Adds Ken, “We asked ourselves, ‘What have we been? What are we now? And what do we hope to be in the future?’ We wanted someone who could manage and could lead the University of La Verne. Could they be a visionary? Could they take the University somewhere else?”
Luis Faura, ULV Board of Trustee chair, says, “The most difficult thing was coming to grips with the fact that Steve Morgan was leaving us. I have the utmost respect for him.” After a thorough national search by Witt/Kieffer, the committee was presented with 30 viable candidates. Ten were chosen, and the committee commenced interviewing to see whether “they fit in the climate of La Verne,” says Ken.
“We heard input, but the final responsibility was that of the Board,” says Emmett Terrell, board member and search committee co-chair. It took about 10 months of search deliberations from the day Steve announced his retirement to the day Devorah was announced president-select. “The committee did an outstanding job. I told them this was probably the single most important decision they would make while on the Board,” says Luis. According to Ken Calkins, “[Devorah] by far got the most votes from the Board.” Because the presidential search was secretive, due to candidates not wanting their identities made public, search members signed confidentiality agreements. “We had to comply with many of the applicants’ wishes,” Luis says. Making the names public may have jeopardized many of the candidates’ current job positions. Glenn Gamst, ULV professor of psychology, represented the College of Arts and Sciences on the Committee and says the restrictive search was a good decision because “we were able to identify some top candidates, and some of them may not have been in the pool had we not done it that way. ULV is poised to make a qualitative leap in the very near future, and I look forward to Devorah Lieberman’s guidance as we make this transition.”
“She more than overwhelmingly filled all of the qualifications that we had,” says Luis. “She is very charismatic and very focused on true leadership. I think she is just full of energy and is going to bring a new breath of air to the University.” Says Emmett, “We knew we had somebody with the skills, the aptitude and belief system of the University. Dr. Lieberman is consistent with La Verne’s belief system. We’re proud that the University made its decision based on the best possible candidate. Period.”
When all was said and done, the Board chair visited Devorah at Wagner College. “I wanted to see where she hailed from,” he says. “They are all sad that she is leaving.” Luis commends Richard Guarasci, president of Wagner College, for his support during the search and during the transition. “I can’t thank him enough for the support,” he says. “Devorah has done an outstanding job acclimating herself to the University.”
“There’s just something about her,” Ken says. “That dynamic personality that she has that you just can’t put into words. When you meet her, you know you’ve met someone special.” Adds Luis, “Her personality is contagious. The way she communicated with students and alumni made me proud. She is going to be a great leader for our University.”
The competitive nature of the process was not lost on Devorah. For her, every time she went through a new and different interview, it bolstered her resolve that ULV was the right school for her future. One interview session that sticks with her was conducted with students from both the main campus and the regional campuses. “The passion and the love that they had for the University of La Verne and the appreciation that they had for going to college stood out,” she says. “Some were working full time and still managing to go to school. The one thing they had in common was their love for the University of La Verne.”
Devorah recognizes the importance her new educational leadership role holds. “It was as vice provost that I felt I could make the biggest difference in peoples’ lives,” she says. “Since then, all of the institutions with which I have been associated, whether it be Wagner College or the University of La Verne, I have chosen to be a part of upper administration because that’s where I feel I can make the greatest difference in students’ lives.”
Initiating a new Leopard
“Hold on. I think…did I just pass my exit? I don’t…oh no, I didn’t. Good! So what was your next question?” So went a phone interview with the double booked president while she was driving a New York throughway. “Balancing my responsibilities at Wagner College and at the University of La Verne has been challenging,” Devorah explains. There was a six-month period when Devorah met her provost responsibilities at Wagner College while helping the incoming provost adjust. Simultaneously, she worked with Steve Morgan to make her own transition into the ULV presidential position. Devorah would spend about two hours each day involved in phone meetings with La Verne and visited the campus at least three times a month. “These past months have been unbelievably busy, but it has also been an enjoyable six months of mental, emotional and intellectual transition,” she says.
During one of her March visits to campus, the petite 5 foot 4 inch, blonde curly-haired president-select and I crashed the refreshment table at a meeting in the Campus Center. Moments before her photo was taken for this article, she joked, “How’s my hair? Is it straight?” Devorah may be coming in this fall semester as the new reigning leader of the University of La Verne, but more than an authoritative figure, she is a warm, gentle-hearted woman who wants to not make decisions for students, but with them. Devorah is actively reaching out to students, both current and prospective. “Become one of my Peeps! Follow me on Twitter @PresLieberman,” says the yellow tag with her color picture that was attached to a yellow marshmallow Peep during the campaign’s April 8 start. Yellow buttons with her picture exclaim, “I’m one of President Lieberman’s Peeps.” She says she created the Twitter account solely for the purpose of connecting with students. “I’m always looking for ways to be more accessible to students. Twitter is one more way for students to feel connected to me. For example, the other day I tweeted, is that the correct term? Tweeted? Or is it twittered?” she asks with a laugh. After I acknowledge that the former is correct, she continues, “I tweeted from an NCAA game. A couple of days ago, when I felt overwhelmed by all of the boxes in my house, I tweeted. The students get to see my human side.” But it is not just students with whom she wants to become familiar. Devorah hopes to become well-acquainted with the entire University community. “To be successful,” she says, “an institution has to have these three elements: focus on student learning and success, focus on faculty scholarship and the pursuit of professional passion, and service to the institution and the community.”
Steve Morgan, who is known as a personable speech giver and communicator, shared some advice with his successor. “The advice I give to any person who is moving into a leadership role is to ask a lot of questions, listen to the answers, and get to know the culture and personality of the organization.” He claims to be a strong believer in “walking around the campus and talking to people.” This, says Steve, is how one “gets a real pulse for the University. Get out of the office. When I have lunch at Davenport, I really find out what’s going on around the campus.” He shares the best advice he received upon entering as president: “Someone told me, ‘When you address the faculty, they will have a strong disregard of what you say.’ This taught me that when I was working with the faculty I needed to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes. The faculty determine what the product is, what the curriculum is. The people who have impressed me most are not those who have the answers, but those who ask the right questions.”
Devorah looks ahead
“Move across the country! That’s my first plan,” she laughs. “I want to immediately get involved with the campus at every level—from getting to know the faculty, getting to know the students, visiting the regional campuses, getting to know the deans, having lunch with the students as often as I can, going to athletic events, going to plays, to going to gallery exhibits. My immediate plan is to become a part of the campus community.”
Devorah says moving back to the West Coast was not in her plans. “Never in a million years did I think I would move back to California. Never.” Her second plan, she continues, “is to immediately become a part of the Inland Empire community. I’d like to go see the house I grew up in. Oh, and I’d really like to go to Red Devil Pizza where I used to work when I was in high school.”
“Next,” she says, “I’d like to work with the entire campus for the 2011-2012 year to identify strategically where we want to be in five years in educational excellence, facilities, reputation-building and financial stability. If we work together as a campus, we can identify what our priorities are.” Devorah says she also plans to bring in a new type of program to the University. “In that first year, I’d like to work with the campus to identify a signature program that every student who graduates from the University of La Verne says, ‘I was a part of the La Verne experience.’ It will help to create a national reputation for the University of La Verne. And, of course, everything has to be grounded in the mission statement.” The president-select stresses the importance of the role of the faculty on students’ education. She would like to see faculty incorporate their own personal scholarship and research into their teaching so students can also benefit from their work. Devorah views students, staff and administration working together in strategic planning as key to forming the educational programs from which all can benefit.
Her Oct. 21 inauguration is set to be intertwined with this year’s homecoming weekend as an attempt to bring the entire University community together. “I am delighted that my inauguration will be tied to homecoming. What better way to become a part of homecoming and have the students become a part of the inauguration? It couldn’t have been planned better. I think everyone who attends the inauguration will be proud to be a Leopard and to be associated with the University.”
Helping La Verne expand
In Devorah’s eyes, the University of La Verne deserves more national recognition, and she is bringing it upon herself to make sure this is accomplished during her presidency. “Nationally, not enough organizations and individuals know the quality of this institution. I will work with this institution to further create distinctive programs that make the University of La Verne more distinct than other schools in this region,” she says.
She hopes to continue her personal scholarship as well. “I feel a responsibility to continue to contribute to bodies of knowledge and the literature in higher education,” she says. “Some of my first questions and scholarship will probably be around how we can harmonize the main campus and the regional campuses while maintaining quality of delivery, pedagogy and learning across all campuses. Publishing these results will benefit other institutions who also have a main campus and regional campuses.” Devorah’s most recent publications focus on institutional change, faculty development, leadership and diversity.
“As the president of the University of La Verne, I look forward to having contact with every faculty member, every staff member and every student. The Board of Trustees and the campus have put a lot of trust in me, and I have a tremendous responsibility to the entire campus and community to support this University, its mission and every one of its constituents. I am enthusiastic and proud to be a part of this University and to be a Leopard.”
Dr. Lieberman’s academic 411
Devorah was born in Baltimore; her family moved to Covina when she was 2 years old. She attended Covina High School, then earned her bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from Humboldt State University, her master’s degree in Intercultural Communication from San Diego State University and her Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication and Gerontology from the University of Florida.
Devorah has invested 33 years in higher education. For the past seven years, she has served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. (2004-2011). Prior, she spent 16 years at Portland State University as a Department of Communication Studies faculty member, area and founding director and, in her final four years, served as vice provost and special assistant to the university president (1987-2004). While at Portland State, she was honored as Oregon Professor of the Year (2000) and received the Distinguished Faculty Award (1999). She served as an assistant professor for the University of Southwestern Louisiana in the Department of Speech Communications (1984-1986) and as an instructor at Decree College and the University of Maryland in Athens, Greece (1978-1984). In 2010, Devorah was awarded the American Council on Education “Bringing the World into the Classroom” award for an Intercultural Business Communications class she co-taught online with a professor in Athens, Greece.
10 questions for Devorah
“60 Minutes,” “The Good Wife” and CNN.
Can’t live without?
Her husband and her two daughters.
Can live without?
Gossip, egos and traffic.
Clean, healthy food. No sauces, no red meat and lots of fruits and veggies. “I’m not a big fish fan either.”
“An enormous salad with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, red bell peppers, lots of exotic different vegetables, grilled chicken, no dressing; and for dessert, sliced fruit; preferably berries.”
A workout. “I was a runner for about 30 years. I ran almost every morning at 5:30 a.m., and I loved every minute of it.” She has run in several marathons, but four years ago a serious injury forced her to slow down.
She now devotes most of her time to spinning, yoga or Pilates. “Everyone recommends golf, but that seems so time consuming.”
“Waking up without the alarm, having coffee with my husband, reading the LA Times, going to spin class, then working from home for a few hours. Afternoon, go for an outdoor walk with my husband. Evening, go to a movie or a concert and finish the day with reading.”
High School Alumni?
Devorah and Steve Morgan are fellow Covina High School alumni. “We sang our alma mater together at our first meeting,” Steve says. “As a Covina Colt, I know she’ll be very successful.”
Dodgers or Yankees?
“Oh, not the Yankees, currently the Mets. I will be moving my loyalty to the Dodgers, but my primary support will go to the Leos.” Well said, President Lieberman.
Meet Devorah’s family
“My husband is a saint. He changed his whole lifestyle 10 years ago to move to New York [from Oregon],” says Devorah. “The Board of Trustees made an outstanding decision,” says Roger, who describes his wife as enthusiastic, engaging and dynamic. “I think it was a difficult decision after Steve Morgan had been there for 26 years to choose someone new.” Roger is president of Auerbach Consulting, Inc., a company that aids the federal government for long-term services to older adults and individuals with disabilities. He will continue in this role in California. “The mission of the University is something Devorah holds dearly; I’m looking forward to engaging with the La Verne community. It is a new adventure, especially for my wife.”
“I am very proud of her as my mother, as an academic, as a woman leader and as a person,” Allie, the couple’s 25-year-old daughter, says. Allie claims to have never come across an academic who is as passionate as her mother. “Just by watching her, she’s given me a great example. She will never settle and will always go that extra mile. I’ve seen her live her dream. She’s been a great role model.”
Allie, who grew up in Oregon and currently resides in North Carolina, is a research analyst for RTI International in Raleigh, North Carolina. She earned her bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and her master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I’m just overcome with pride,” Emery says of her mother’s new position as ULV president. “She’s been working toward this position her entire life.” The 19-year-old college student says the passion her mother feels for the University, its mission and its students is obvious. “Even if she’s just talking one-on-one with me or speaking in front of a group of people, I know she really cares about La Verne,” she says. “She told me in applying for colleges or jobs, ‘You can’t reject or accept anything you haven’t applied for. Always put yourself out there.’” One of few students from her graduating 2010 Staten Island Academy class to move far from home (the complete opposite side of the country), she now is a sophomore at Scripps College in Claremont, a mere three miles from her parents. While at first taken aback by the news, she now is fully supportive of her parents’ close proximity. “My friends are more excited than I am about my parents moving here because it means home cooked meals,” she laughs.