Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
Steve Morgan enters his final year as the University of La Verne’s longest-serving president after leading his alma mater to unprecedented fiscal security and academic excellence for 25 years.
A series of announcements got fall semester off to a memorable start at the University of La Verne this year.
The largest incoming class in school history expanded undergraduate enrollment to an all-time high of more than 1,900 students.
U.S. News & World Report magazine’s annual America’s Best Colleges issue listed La Verne tied for 136th in the National Universities category, its highest ranking ever in that nationally recognized survey.
And the previous fiscal year ended with a budget surplus.
For alumnus Steve Morgan (’68), it was a fine way to begin his 26th and final year as university president. In announcing the previous February his decision to retire in summer 2011, he put a number to his being the longest serving president in La Verne’s 119-year history.
The positive news proved most welcome, considering the impact the recent economic downturn has had on La Verne and other institutions of higher education. Tight budgets coupled with high competition for both prospective students and donors had many nervous.
Such conditions are familiar territory for Steve and his wife, Ann (’71, ’74, ’96), having experienced many ups and downs through the years.
When named La Verne’s 17th president in February 1985, Steve Morgan stepped into a difficult situation. Some believed the university, founded in 1891, was more likely to close its doors than survive to celebrate its centennial.
Working against the university were national issues such as a shrinking pool of traditional-age students, escalating federal regulations and limited financial aid resources. Internally, La Verne faced a high debt load, drab facilities and an apprehensive campus community.
Morgan, at age 39, was one of the nation’s youngest university presidents. Ahead lay a herculean task, with critical changes needed in methods, management and morale. His biggest advantage lay in his personal history with the school.
Preceded by his mother, Ruth (Miller) Morgan (’36), and grandmother, Grace (Hileman) Miller (’14), Morgan is a third-generation alumnus. He and Ann are both proud to add that their daughter, Kesley (Morgan) Johnston (’00), is a fourth-generation Leopard.
Morgan points to La Verne presidents Harold Fasnacht and Leland Newcomer as being role models and mentors. He credits both with helping him sculpt his professional vision and ethics.
“I used to watch Dr. Fasnacht and think what an interesting and articulate guy. That’s when I first started thinking of what it would be like to be a college president,” Morgan said. “Lee Newcomer really gave me a lot of opportunities at a very young age to work with him and to better understand what a college president does and how they do it.”
La Verne also played a key role in Morgan’s personal life. It is where he and Ann met, and, despite a less-than-promising beginning, fell in love.
They first met when he was a graduate student at USC working in La Verne’s development office. While in the dining hall, a friend dared Morgan to introduce himself to student Ann McMurray. Although the introduction went well, both agree the resulting date did not.
“However awful could be defined, that was our first date,” she said. “I believe we went to a dance and … it was a disaster. We didn’t connect at all.”
A chance meeting led to a second date. Today, after nearly 41 years of marriage, they have become acutely attuned to each other’s likes, tastes and strengths.
“We have a lot in common. We enjoy doing the same kinds of things and I think that’s been helpful,” he said. “I have always appreciated Ann’s independence, her drive, and her compassion. I really appreciate her values. Fortunately, they’ve been similar to mine. I’ve grown a lot because of her and she pushes me in different directions, new directions, and that’s good.”
As its new president, Morgan knew it would take tough measures and a deliberate approach to get La Verne back on a solid footing. Faced with a number of administrative vacancies, he hired individuals with reputations for finding money instead of spending it. The budget had to be brought under control. Debt needed to be reduced, fund raising increased and revenue enhancements determined.
It wasn’t easy and many of the early decisions, such as freezing salaries and reducing expenditures, were not popular. Responsible management was the order of the day, and within two years the university had a balanced budget. By 1988 there was a positive cash flow, and by 1989 financial stability had been achieved.
A major capital campaign was also launched. In Morgan’s first year, donations increased 27 percent and cash contributions 20 percent from the previous year. By fall 1989, the “Partnership ’91” Centennial Campaign was approaching the initial $8.8 million goal, prompting the Board of Trustees to increase the target amount to $11 million.
Along with financial stability, the university needed to enhance its visual image to buoy spirits and help improve student recruitment. Morgan’s first campus development priority involved creating an infrastructure to oversee improvements. The Facilities And Beautification (FAB) Committee was established, and he called on someone who shared his vision and passion to lead it. Ann Morgan accepted the unpaid position, found a desk and went to work.
“One of the things we tried to do was improve the ambiance and the environment,” she said. “Steve and I both believe that when you walk onto campus, that look makes the first impression. We felt it was really important that the campus and the buildings reflect the quality of the education the students will receive, and when we first arrived back at La Verne that just wasn’t the case.”
She saw to it that the campus’ green spaces were actually green again. Landscaping, maintenance, and attention to basic aesthetics made a major difference.
Later, when Wilson Library was remodeled and the Landis Academic Center designed, she helped coordinate that effort and made sure the new facilities would offer more than just newness.
“I remember going to Mills College, which had just completed its new library,” Ann Morgan said. “One of the things we learned was that they never expected the library to become such a desired place to be. The library was a completely different space than what it had previously been. We had a wonderful architect. I love the openness, the different floors and just the way it all looks and came together.”
During his presidency, Steve Morgan has also been involved in many facility projects, including renovations to Miller Hall, Founders Hall, Woody Hall and Ortmayer Stadium; the expansion of Wilson Library and creation of the Landis Academic Center; creation of the College of Law campus in Ontario; construction of The Oaks Residence Hall; acquisition and creation of the Barkley Building and the Arts & Communications Building; purchase of more than 50 acres within a half-mile of the main campus, land earmarked for future expansion; renovation of the Sports Science & Athletics Pavilion; and last year’s completion of the 40,000-square-foot Campus Center.
La Verne’s reputation has also grown. The College of Law, which earned provisional approval from the American Bar Association in 2006, is one of several programs to receive national accreditation. And many faculty members have been recognized for their published works, their research and their achievements.
The university now has seven regional campuses, two military base centers, and numerous off-campus and online programs. It has upgraded its science and technology infrastructure, enhanced the overall curriculum and promoted academic research. The five-year, $42 million “Building on Excellence” campaign that successfully concluded in 2009 was the largest in school history.
“Relatively, La Verne is a much healthier institution than it was 25 years ago. That’s not just because of me; it’s because we all worked together to create some goals and visions and we’ve all moved together toward those,” Morgan said. “It has raised La Verne to a higher level of reputation, to a stronger financial base, to being a stronger institution. I don’t take credit for that except that I hope I played some role in moving us together toward those goals. I never wanted to change the course of La Verne.”
Morgan says the ultimate measure of any university is the people it serves. He celebrates the diversity on campus, diversity that mirrors Southern California and the global community. Such a learning environment prepares students for the world they will contribute to, professionally and personally, throughout their lives.
He says he is pleased with where La Verne is now and is optimistic about the future.
“It has been a high privilege for me to serve as president, to work with many outstanding individuals to strengthen La Verne, and to fulfill its mission for the students we serve,” Morgan said. “I know there are many new challenges ahead for this university. I am confident that the search process will identify the right person, someone with the capabilities and vision needed to meet those challenges while maintaining La Verne’s educational mission and retaining its core values.”
On Friday, Nov. 5, Ann and Steve Morgan will be honored for their years of vision, leadership and dedication when they are recognized as 2010 Alumni of the Year during the Homecoming Banquet at the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel & Conference Center in Pomona. It is the beginning of a year-long series of celebrations highlighting the Morgans’ contributions to La Verne.
For details on the banquet, contact the Alumni Relations Office at (909) 593-3511 ext. 4665 or 4683 or register online at http://www.laverne.edu/homecoming-registration. To learn more about other events honoring the Morgans, call the University Advancement Special Events hotline at (909) 593-3511 ext. 4670 or visit the Web page at http://laverne.edu/advancement/special-events/morgan-retirement.