Students arrived on the University of La Verne campus Monday toting backpacks and hot coffee, some still sleepy-eyed from months of summer relaxation and others raring to go for the first day of t...
Steve Morgan is a tough act to follow, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Devorah Lieberman, the university’s new president is just the right person for the job.
When Devorah Lieberman first read the University of La Verne’s mission statement, she immediately noticed a common thread: Everything about the institution is focused on student success.
Lieberman, a nationally recognized academic leader and award-winning educator, knew the values that were first instilled in her growing up in Covina and honed in her 33-year career in higher education were consistent with those of the university.
Described as an engaging and passionate leader, Lieberman has the distinction of being the first female president in the University of La Verne’s 119-year history. She succeeds Stephen C. Morgan, who retired after 26 years as president and who has described Lieberman as “the kind of person who lights up a room when she walks in.”
Lieberman said she admires what La Verne stands for and commends the institution’s commitment to diversity, quality of life for students, faculty and staff, engagement, community service and empowerment of first-generation college students.
“Here is an institution that speaks to my heart, that values what I value,” she said.
When Lieberman read the mission statement and learned more about La Verne, she knew it was a good fit. For her, students always come first.
“It felt to me when I went through this process that they were choosing me as their next president and I was choosing them,” she said. “It was an institution and an individual choosing each other.”
The Board of Trustees picked Lieberman after an intensive, 10-month national search. She has been recognized for promoting national initiatives including institutional transformation, balancing graduate and liberal education, student and faculty development, internationalization and diversity.
Board Chair Luis Faura said Lieberman’s selection was a significant achievement for the university.
“Throughout her career she has fostered personal learning experiences for students, promoted expanded multicultural and diversity education opportunities, pioneered programs designed to support faculty development and research, and advanced the scholarship of civic engagement,” Faura said.
Lieberman recently left her role as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wagner College, a private comprehensive liberal arts institution in Staten Island, N.Y.
At Wagner, Lieberman administered all academic, curricular and student-related elements.
Under her direction, ethnic diversity of entering students at Wagner rose sharply, the overall student enrollment changed from featuring primarily in-state residents to having the majority of students come from outside New York state, and the student retention rate between the freshman and sophomore years increased to nearly 90 percent. All of this occurred while financial support for faculty research and scholarship increased dramatically.
Prior to her time at Wagner, Lieberman spent more than 16 years at Portland State University in Oregon as both a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies and an administrator. During her final four years she was vice provost and special assistant to the university president. In 2000, she was honored as Oregon Professor of the Year, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She also received the 1999 Distinguished Faculty Award from the Portland State Alumni Association.
While at Portland State, Lieberman extended the Oregon Leadership Institute to become a statewide mentoring program for Latino students, helping them to successfully graduate from high school and enroll in college.
She was part of a transformation team that created an innovative education program that earned the university national recognition. That led her to Wagner College, where she expanded upon and deepened elements of a curriculum that unites focused learning and practical application.
At La Verne, there is an opportunity to create what Lieberman calls the “La Verne Experience,” an interdisciplinary curriculum that will be threaded through all programs and campuses of the institution and will include components of reflection and giving back to the community.
“I think this will be a remarkable model that campuses around the country can look at and say, ‘We can learn from this and we can adapt a “La Verne Experience”’ and I think that will give the institution national distinction,” she said. It is her dream, she said, to have that begin incrementally in fall of 2012 with that freshman class.
Lieberman returned to La Verne several times since her presidency was announced. She spent a week on the campus in March during Morgan Auditorium dedication week, attending each one of the celebrations.
“I got such an understanding of the community, the faculty, the staff, the students and the love for this institution,” she said. She also was impressed by the faculty’s dedication to their own scholarship and to their students. And she commended Morgan for his guidance, adding that many presidents as they transition out don’t take the time, energy and care to counsel the incoming president.
“His mentoring since Dec. 8 — and I’m sure after I take office — symbolizes the same values that ground this institution,” she said.
Lieberman already has left a distinct impression on those she has met.
“I think she is really amazing,” said junior Michael Phillips, who dined with Lieberman during one of her campus visits. “I felt like she was very student-centered and she really cared about what we thought. She was interested in our lives as well. She wanted to help better our education here and make La Verne more recognized for the great things it does. I thought that was very important. I really liked her. I think she’s going to be great for the university.”
Daniel Loera, Multicultural Affairs Director, described Lieberman as a person with “contagious vitality.”
“She is going to create a lot more excitement into the work we undertake here,” Loera said, adding that Lieberman has a lot of passion, focus and vision. “She brings a lot of heart, I think.”
Lieberman’s focus and passion have been shaped by her experiences.
During her undergraduate years, Lieberman spent about 18 months doing experiential learning while living in Israel and Europe.
“I became very aware of how important it was to be a global citizen, even though at the time I didn’t know the phrase ‘global citizen,’” she said. What she did know, however, was what she wanted to study. She earned her bachelor’s degree and then began a master’s program in intercultural communication.
While working on her master’s degree, Lieberman decided she wanted to live in a French-speaking country in Europe. She contacted the Swiss Embassy, which gave her a list of every school in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. She wrote to every school and was hired to teach courses in English to students from around the world. It was one classroom, with students ranging from first grade to eighth grade.
“It was exhilarating and exhausting,” she said.
After a year in Switzerland, Lieberman moved to Greece and applied for two jobs. She was offered both. She stayed there for five years, teaching a variety of subjects.
She returned to the U.S., earned a Ph.D. in Intercultural Communication/Gerontology from the University of Florida and taught for many years. She then became an administrator but has continued to teach. She said she takes pride in being a scholar.
Lieberman said La Verne’s values capture exactly what she thinks institutions of higher learning should be doing. She is impressed by the university’s breadth of courses and programs, diversity of its students and commitment to lifelong learning, among other things.
Lieberman would like to take the first academic year to put together a strategic plan to take the university to the next level and plans on working closely with the campus community and the Board of Trustees.
Lieberman said La Verne alumni should be very proud to have graduated from the university because they received a quality education. She anticipates spending a lot of time with them locally and nationally and said she would like alumni to get connected or strengthen their connection because they are a tremendous resource to the institution and to students.
She said it’s important to reflect on significant experiences and think about people who helped shape values and choices, professionally or personally. It’s also important to let those people know the impact they had, she said.
“We often only experience the present and look to the future without letting those along our paths know the influence they had,” Lieberman said. “I hope that the La Verne alumni stay in contact with those La Verne faculty and staff who served as these pivotal and influential individuals.”
Lieberman and her husband, Roger Auerbach — who was a senior policy adviser to former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts and who is now the principal of Auerbach Consulting — have two daughters.
Allie Lieberman-Auerbach is a research analyst for RTI International in Raleigh, N.C. Emery Lieberman-Auerbach will be a sophomore at Scripps College in Claremont – 3.9 miles away from the University of La Verne.
Emery, who had been thinking about staying on the East Coast to attend college, jokingly told her mother that in choosing Scripps, she thought she was going be 3,000 miles away from home. It was all meant to be, Lieberman said.
“We both laughed and realized it was really a blessing in disguise,” Lieberman said of her daughter’s college choice. “Now three quarters of the family is in Southern California.”