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Leading Our Future: Washington College President

Sep 06, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo

Growing up in an orphanage and later in foster care, Kurt Landgraf figured he’d never go to college. Everything changed when he received a baseball scholarship to New York City’s Wagner University, where he earned a B.A. in economics. He recognized that it was a life-changing opportunity and he didn’t waste it. Landgraf eventually parlayed it into a long and successful career as a leader in business and education.

Last year, at a time in life when most of his contemporaries were retiring, the 71-year-old Landgraf took on a big professional challenge: He agreed to become president of Washington College. 

Since then, he’s been working long hours and setting lofty goals. Landgraf wants to boost enrollment by more than 10 percent, redevelop two properties the college owns on the Chester River, and slash debt. Equally important to him is improving the student experience. He plans to focus especially on security and mental health services. 

While Landgraf never worked in academia, he comes to Chestertown with solid education credentials. He served as chairman of the New Jersey Commission of Higher Education and was president of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey.  Before that, Landgraf served as chief financial officer of DuPont and as a board member for Corning and Louisiana-Pacific Corp.

What’s Up? Media recently talked to Landgraf about his hectic schedule, goals for the school, what he does to relax, and his brief stint in professional baseball.

Did you really wonder if you would go to college?

I did. I had no intent of going to college. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in an orphanage. College was never on my radar. I would have never gone to college if I didn’t get an athletic scholarship. I caught a break.

What made you want to take on the tough job of being a college president at age 70?

I was asked by a close friend of mine if I would consider it. I had been the Vice Chairman of the Commission of Higher Education in New Jersey, but I never really thought about being a college president. When I started the processes, I was thinking, “I would be interested, but I am not sure I want to do this.” By the time I finished the interview process—and it was about eight or nine interviews—I got really excited about the place and I really liked Chestertown. I had never been there before. Before that, I tried retirement for one year, and I hated it. I didn’t feel good about myself. I thrive on challenges. This is a difficult job, and it makes me feel better physically, emotionally, and psychologically to have something meaningful to do.

 Why were you so eager to take the job? 

During the interview process, I had a chance to talk to members of the faculty and several students. I asked one student, “What did you learn above all else at Washington?” He said, “I learned the concept of moral courage.” I really bought that answer and I never expected it. Then
I really found out that this college cares about students and teaches them right and wrong. I left that interview extraordinarily excited and hopeful of getting the job. I was really attracted by the concept of teaching our students moral courage.

How do you run a college after being in private business for so long?

Colleges are like a business more than people realize. There is student revenue. There are expenses. We have an endowment. Much of the same criteria for running a business applies to college. Here is the big difference: The sole function is educating young people. We don’t have product lines and all those things you have in business. Running a college is solely and totally focused on giving our students the best possible experience while they are here. We are going to do that.

What are your goals for the college?

What I want to do is maintain our very high retention, graduation, and job-placement rates. I’d like to see us have about 1,700 students. We currently have about 1,500. I would like us to improve in key areas. Environmental sciences is one area. And I would like to see us do more to prepare young people who want to go into the health-care sciences area, pre-med, or the healthcare world. 

What at the college needs the most attention?

The thing I see that needs the most attention is to take care of our students and not just from an academic perspective. I think you are seeing students who are in need of supportive services. That could be mental health services, or it could be about their safety and security. Being a college president, as I describe it to friends, as like being mayor of a city or a minister. We have to ensure our students have a respectful and safe environment.

One of your goals is to continue the priority of the previous President Sheila Bare to reduce student debt?

President Bare had some aggressive programs in that area. The way you reduce student debt is by keeping your costs down and providing appropriate scholarship funding. You have to keep
your tuition increases at a minimum.

What is the status of the property the college owns on the Chester River?

The Hudson boathouse is there. Rowing and sailing are probably among our best sports. Our women’s rowing team has gone several times to the NCAA championships. We also broke ground on a new hall for the Center for Environment and Society. This center is driven by the desire to change the environmental activity in and around the Chesapeake Bay. They are working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other organizations. Another property we own is the Armory. It was built during World War I. We are looking for some people to help revitalize it to make into a vital part of Chestertown. It’s deteriorating. We want to make something of it. We have stressed everything from having a college conference center there to a bed and breakfast.

How will your experience as chairman of New Jersey Commission of Higher Education help you now?

I functioned in an administrative capacity. We accredited programs and schools. We supported colleges in New Jersey. I was on the commission for eight years, and it was a terrific learning experience for me. I had access and meetings with all the public and private school presidents in New Jersey. I also participated in board meetings at some of these institutions. You learn a lot by sitting and listening to all these discussions.  

Right across the river from New Jersey, you played baseball at Wagner. How good a player were you?

I played four years and was pretty good. I was lucky enough to have a tryout in the minor leagues after that with the Phillies in the late 1960s. It was close to a month with Reading Phillies in rookie ball. The major leagues were expanding, a lot of people were getting tryouts. I enjoy seeing the baseball team here. One of the fun things of the year was me throwing out the first pitch in our opener. 

What do you like to do when you are not working?

There isn’t much time away from school. I used to be a marathon runner. I ran 18 marathons, including the New York Marathon once and the Marine Corps three times. I have also run the Frankford, Geneva, and London marathons. When I have free time, I love to ride my bicycle. I have three. I will ride about 18 miles on a Sunday. During the week, I will get out for an hour.
I also really like to watch the news. I’m sort of a political junkie. But I don’t have a whole lot of time during the week. I am working five, six nights a week and all day. I will start doing email about 5:30 in the morning, and I can’t remember the last time I was done with a day before eight o’clock at night.