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?
Well, first of all I’m blessed with a very experienced Board, and I’m fortunate to be inheriting a strong Board thanks to [outgoing chairman] Paul Huston. That’s the legacy he leaves to me after ten years as chair. The Board he is leaving me is very committed and enthusiastic, and that was one reason that I decided to take on the chairmanship. And I’d like to say thanks as well to those outgoing members of the Board — Stephen Bepler, David Chafey ’76, William Lisecky, Michael McGuinness ’82, P’09, ’16, and Stephen Lessing ’76 — all of whom gave so much of their time and energy to the work.
A lot of people don’t know what trustees do. One of the things that I can say with my six years on the Board is that it’s not just attending quarterly meetings. These are people who are giving a lot of their time. They are involved in the governance and fiduciary oversight of the University. They are very involved in the life of the University. For instance, there were trustees who worked with Dean of Enrollment Karen Pellegrino and the staff on the enrollment committee, using data to help us fine-tune our recruiting. Karen and her staff did an excellent job in using a data-driven approach to focus on our applicants — and — lo and behold — it resulted in the largest recruitment class in our history.
So, now we need to fine-tune the profile of the class. We need to be sure we are getting the students that we want in terms of background, diversity, and geographic spread, and the trustees will be turning their attention to that.
And there’s more to it than that?
Yes. In addition to the time that the trustees give, they are also generous with their money, and also making the outreach to the broader community. They work together and with the University to encourage others to give generously to the work of the University as well.
What do you think are the critical challenges facing higher education right now?
Oh, it’s affordability. There is a dynamic change going on in the economics of higher education that universities have to respond to. In the past, the solution to the rising cost of education was raising tuition. We cannot continue to raise tuition because we are pricing ourselves out of the middle class market. Whatever increases we make in tuition, we have to give that back — and more — in scholarships and aid, so that strategy doesn’t work anymore. We need to work together with the administration and the faculty to keep the cost of education affordable, and at the same time keep looking for new opportunities to expand our educational offerings so that we continue to grow.
The University has identified three key areas for the future — increased financial aid and endowed faculty, expansion of the health science facilities, and enhancements to athletic facilities. What is your perspective on these priorities?
Well, again, the first one speaks to the question of affordability. We need to build the endowment so we can increase financial aid. This is critical. And ensuring we have the best faculty to meet our goals is also critical to maintaining our standards. What makes Fairfield different is the engagement that faculty have with the students and the quality of those interactions, so we have to keep investing in that.
Where the health sciences are concerned — this is one of the fastest growing areas of the economy. We have great potential in this area. We have a great School of Nursing. We have a great School of Business. How can we build on that? How can we bring our areas of strength together to prepare students for the future? So, we can look at our current programs and build on a firm foundation in this area.
As to the facilities, we have to make sure that all of our facilities — recreational and athletics included — are appropriate and attractive, as I mentioned above, because that will attract the students we want, and they can then have the educational experience we want for them.
What message would you like to send to the University community and the alumni in particular?
That they have a stake in the success of the University going forward. They are graduates of the University, and they should continue to be involved in the University over their lifetimes. We have generations of graduates who are deeply involved and we want to build that alumni network to be a national network and, over time, a global network. Get involved! There are many different ways of being involved — helping graduates obtain jobs is one way. There is a strong history of that at Fairfield. The University is a community and there is strength in that community.