Flip that coin and you get a man who loves to fly-fish and ride horses, enjoys campus and town events like the Destination Blues Festival … and what about those pushups he did after Husky touchdowns in Redman Stadium?
David Soltz laughs at the memory of that last one.
“Those were great fun, a way to get out of the president’s box and interact with the crowd,” Soltz says. “And the students thought it was pretty cool. But I’ve had four shoulder surgeries, so between my wife and the orthopedic surgeon telling me that I’d need another surgery if I kept doing those pushups … I had to stop.”
Now, another ending looms: His retirement in June, which will bring to a close his 9 ½ year tenure as president of Bloomsburg University, and to a 43-year career in higher education.
“I have mixed feelings,” Soltz says, not surprisingly. “Being president has been the highlight of a long and good career. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. And while I’m looking forward to retirement, it’s a little scary. I’ll miss the feel of the campus and being around all these smart people. And I’ll miss the students. I’m in it for them, the excitement these young people bring.”
Those who’ve worked closely with Soltz make it clear, that he, too, will be missed.
Brenda Cromley has no trouble remembering when she first met Soltz during an open forum in the Schweiker Room at Andruss Library when he was interviewing for the position.
“He was in a dark blue suit, answering questions, and I remember thinking, ‘This gentleman really did his homework’,” says Cromley, the deputy to the president who has worked with Soltz since he started in January 2008. “In notes I found a few years ago, I had written, ‘This candidate is presidential.’ I thought that when he interviewed and I think that to this day.”
Some describe Soltz as rational and methodical, perhaps befitting of a man of science — he has a Ph.D. in environmental biology. But again, flip that coin and you get “approachable,” “easy to talk to,” “sincere,” and the one that comes up most, “great sense of humor.”
“It’s nice to have someone at the top who rose through the ranks,” adds Mark Tapsak, professor of chemistry and biochemisty, who reported directly to Soltz in his role as co-chair of the Strategic Planning and Resource Council. “This isn’t someone who went to business school to run an organization but has no idea of the business of higher education. I like that.”
Soltz joined the faculty of California State University at Los Angeles in 1974, eventually serving as dean of its College of Natural and Social Sciences. Later he served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Central Washington University from 2001
Bloomsburg University, he says, had everything he was looking for: a rural setting near a world-class city, and a position that would be a good culmination to his career. “I also saw Bloomsburg as a good university that could become better and nationally known,” Soltz adds.
Asked about the first major challenge he faced as president, Soltz doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, immediately the challenge of the recession on the national and local economies,” he says. “The significant reductions in state funding signaled difficult economic times.”
Through prudent management, belt-tightening, and record fundraising, the university avoided layoffs and has remained on solid financial ground to this day. Soltz also surrounded himself with a top-notch team of faculty, administrators, fundraisers and students who answered his call to make a good thing even better.
That ability to inspire others to action was on full display in 2011 when Hurricane Lee flooded 25 percent of the town. Soltz convened a crisis management team to coordinate a response that included students, faculty, administrators and staff helping residents remove water-logged belongings from their homes, staffing the phone bank at the emergency operations center, and pitching in as needed at the Red Cross.
“It is readily apparent to anyone who spends time at Bloomsburg University that Dr. Soltz’s impact on the institution’s future is real, significant, and lasting,” says Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Chancellor Frank T. Brogan. “At the same time, his influence goes well beyond the campus walls through his selfless contribution of time and talent to help improve our State System. I have appreciated his counsel and have admired his tireless efforts on behalf of his university and the entire university system. He has been a true leader, and a good friend.”
What’s clear to everyone who knows and has worked with Soltz is that all that tireless energy ultimately is focused on one goal: To help students succeed.
“Everything President Soltz has done during his presidency has been focused on increasing educational opportunities for students,” says Ira Blake, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “His visionary approach to education is a model for other universities around the country. From MyCore to Professional U to accelerated graduate programs at Center City, Philadelphia — all were done to help our students develop and succeed.”
Soltz’s emphasis on student success also sparked the creation of the President’s Strategic Planning Grants, which fueled a broad array of innovative projects. The grants provided more than $650,000 in seed money to more than two dozen projects, including the Center for Visual & Performing Arts and the STEM Magnet High School Program, which gives high school juniors and seniors a head start on a college career in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Those are just a few in a long list of impressive accomplishments Soltz leaves behind. The list also includes:
• A strategic plan, Impact 2017, that has guided the establishment of numerous academic programs and initiatives such as MyCore, Professional U, the McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support, and the Zeigler Institute for Professional Development.
• Almost $250 million in construction and renovations to campus buildings.
• The university’s first named college, the Terry and JoAnn Zeigler College of Business.
• First endowed professorship in nursing named by alums Edward and Julianne (Miller) Breiner ’77 in support of an exceptional teacher, mentor and leader.
• Record philanthropic support, including the $50-million-and-counting It’s Personal Campaign, the largest capital project in Bloomsburg’s history.
“By developing a team of donors to fund different endeavors, he has allowed us to build on what we have instead of struggling,” says Katherine Mullen, ’17, who has worked with Soltz as a student trustee.
And Duane Greenly, ’72, chair of It’s Personal, says that Soltz has been key to the campaign’s success. “Dave got involved,” Greenly says. “Every major gift we got has his fingerprints on it.”
Greenly, a Bloomsburg native, provided the leadership gift that funded the downtown center that bears his name and is another feather in Soltz’s cap. The $8.25 million, multipurpose building on Main Street has helped improve town-gown relations that have at times been a little tense. “The reaction from the town has been excellent,” Greenly says. “We took a run-down, vacant property and turned it into a showcase for the Town of Bloomsburg.”
But it’s another accomplishment that Soltz mentions first when asked to reflect on his time as president. “I’ve brought in an excellent group of diverse administrators, and have helped diversify our leadership and student body,” he says.
Soltz explains that he had a beard for more than 25 years, but his first granddaughter hated it. “She’d touch it and recoil,” Soltz remembers. So, he shaved it off. Now that he’s about to retire and his granddaughter is OK with it, the beard is back, a symbolic token of the major life change that’s coming.
So, what’s next? There’s the horse ranch in northcentral Washington state that Soltz and his wife, Robbie, bought a few years back. Then there’s the anticipation of seeing more of his three children and seven grandkids. International travel is also on the docket, including Australia and New Zealand. “And I’m a biologist, so I have to go to the Galapagos,” he adds with a laugh.
But even that’s not quite enough for a man of his energy. While he plans to lay low for the second half of 2017, Soltz is already thinking ahead to the possibility of consulting work next year. “I want to stay in the game,” he says. “I think I have a lot to contribute.”
As he prepares to say goodbye, Soltz is rightfully secure knowing he leaves behind some significant contributions. “I started as president at the start of a recession. Now, we’re financially stable and enrollment is good,” Soltz says. “There’s a lot that a new president can be positive about.”
Echoing his own goal from nearly 10 years ago, Soltz adds, “I hope the next president takes a good place and makes it even better.”
If so, Bloomsburg will be in a very good place indeed. •
Willie Colón is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.