William Atwell, P’08, takes over the helm

by Alistair Highet

Bill Atwell, P’08, who assumed the chairmanship of Fairfield University’s Board of Trustees this October, is a very engaging guy to talk to.

Warm, easy-going — a man clearly at ease explaining what he thinks about the world — he spent an hour recently talking to Fairfield University Magazine about his reasons for taking on the daunting challenge of the chairmanship, as well as his passion for education, and vision for the University’s future.

After graduating from C. W. Post College, and receiving his MBA from Long Island University, where he met his wife, Peggy, Atwell went on to a successful career in financial services, eventually serving as the president of Cigna International from 2008 until May of this year. Cigna is a health and insurance giant licensed in 30 countries, with a global workforce of 1,600 and revenues of over $3.1 billion. (He is currently the managing director at Atwell Partners LLC). He has also served at Cigna as senior vice president, and as president of Charles Schwab & Co., and in various capacities with Citicorp, where he led their retail business in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, as well as other positions with Citigroup and as a private consultant.

He joined Fairfield University’s Board in 2006, not long after his son Chris came to Fairfield as a student.

In casual conversation, he turns to his passion for skiing — snow conditions in the American West, as compared to the Alps — and to a bicycle tour that he and Peggy took through Tuscany. Nova Scotia may be the couple’s next touring destination, he says.

Often, members of the Board of Trustees are alumni, but you are a parent of a graduate. How did you get involved?

I’ve always been interested in education. When we lived in Brussels, I was on the board of St. John’s International School, an international English language school, and when I was in Chicago I was on the board of DePaul University. When my son Chris [Attwell ’08]came to Fairfield he played lacrosse, so we got involved. There was a very active parents group; I got a chance to meet a lot of people in the Fairfield community, and so Fr. von Arx and Paul Huston ’82, the chairman, asked me to join the Board. I came on the Board in 2006, and now I’ve been asked to be chairman, and I’m happy to do it.

With all the things that demand your time and attention, why devote so much energy to Fairfield?

It is a matter of giving back. Both my wife Peggy and I benefited from other people’s generosity. My wife and I were the recipients of scholarships and assistantships and student loans. So Peggy and I are very grateful for the help we were given and feel very committed to education. I was the first person in my family to get a college degree, and that changed my life. That’s what you hope you are doing when you are on the Board, particularly at a place like Fairfield that is committed to changing people’s lives.

I think that is so important. I see that transformation in my son. He had a broad education at Fairfield, and I see how he benefited, how he emerged as a responsible adult. He benefited so much from the study of the core curriculum. He was a business major, but I asked him one time: “What were your favorite courses?” He said it was a class in religious studies, and one in jazz! I was amazed when I got into his car one time and he was playing Tony Bennett on his iPod. He asked me if I knew who Tony Bennett was!

So we broaden people. I’ve seen it with all the graduates from Chris’s class. These are lifelong friends. We got to know them and they are amazing young people. You can really see how people change.

That’s interesting. What you are talking about — that a Fairfield education is deeply transformative — is our core message…

Right, it is transformative — and it is the depth of the engagement of the students with the faculty in a residential, living and learning environment that creates that transformation.

So that’s our message. But it is very difficult to accurately describe or communicate in words and brochures. That is one of the reasons that we need to concentrate on making sure that we have the right facilities. That’s why it is important to maintain an attractive campus. We want to draw prospective students to come and visit. We need to bring people here and then we can show them what we are talking about. They won’t get it from going on to a Web site or reading brochures.

We need to make sure that we attract people to the campus so that they can talk to the faculty, talk to students, so they can make their decision on where they want to go to school.

Most of us are very removed from the world of the Board of Trustees. What would you want to tell the Fairfield community about the “life” of a trustee?

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