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Thomas J. Schwarz looks back on his time as president of SUNY Purchase

“We’re in business here,” Thomas J. Schwarz, president of SUNY Purchase, told the Business Journal as his July 31 retirement from the position he’s held since 2003 was rapidly approaching. He said the business is one of educating students, “and everything we do, whether it’s fiscal, physical, academic, is to educate our students.” In 2018, student enrollment at Purchase was 4,264.

Positioning SUNY Purchase as an education business also happens to position the entire State University of New York system as a gigantic business because it has 64 campuses, serves more than 1.3 million students with more than 424,000 of them enrolled in degree programs, about 200,000 more taking credit courses and more than 700,000 in continuing education and community outreach programs. An analysis of state documents for the 2020 budget shows an estimated payroll of $3.8 billion, with SUNY having 46,092 employees, and a total recommended operating budget of $11.1 billion.

Thomas J. Schwarz SUNY Purchase
Thomas J. Schwarz Photo by Peter Katz

Business at SUNY Purchase wasn’t good in January 2002 when Schwarz left his position as a partner in the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom where he was the national practice leader of the litigation department and assumed the role of acting president at SUNY Purchase. He was named the fifth president of the school in 2003. “We were basically bankrupt. When I got there, the state had stepped in. There were people up in Albany who were supposed to be overseeing what had been done down here and I don’t know what they were doing, but the music stopped. We were $5 million in the hole. The state lent us money, we repaid that money and now we’re one of the more solvent institutions in the system,” he said.

Schwarz’s attention to finances at Purchase College was highlighted on May 8 during a celebration of his tenure at a dinner held at the Performing Arts Center on campus, which was attended by 200. He was praised for increasing the college’s endowment from approximately $35 million to more than $90 million and creating new revenue streams to support the mission of the college. Of particular note was his leadership in creating Broadview, a senior living community being developed for the campus.

Improving the physical plant and upgrading aesthetics on the 500-acre campus at 735 Anderson Hill Road was an important initiative for Schwarz. “The mall was falling apart. You couldn’t walk on it. The trees died in November and in December this looked like the environment that Dr. Kevorkian would like to operate in. Very depressing. Now we’ve rebuilt the mall. We have green all year around and physically that’s very uplifting to people.”

Numerous renovation projects were undertaken and a new Center for Media, Film and Theatre is slated to open in the fall. Another project will create a new focal point for people entering the campus. “We’re finally going to have an entry to the campus, which will be off the major parking lot. People didn’t know where do you go, so that will make it clear where the Performing Arts Center is, where the Neuberger Museum is.”

Schwarz said the precision required in law and litigation was helpful in making the transition to the responsibilities of college president.

“Nobody ever calls a litigator when things are good. They call corporate lawyers or real estate lawyers and they want to plan an estate or something, but they call litigators when something bad has happened, so I was used to conflict and I’m not conflict-shy. I don’t like it, but I don’t run away from it,” he said. ”What helped me more was being mayor of a community for nine years because you know, you can be a mayor but if you don’t bring your board of legislators you don’t get anywhere and here, effectively, your board of legislators is your faculty and you need to figure out how to bring them along.” Schwarz had been mayor of the Suffolk County community of Ocean Beach.

Schwarz said being politically knowledgeable has been fundamental to the job of Purchase College president. “You have to get along with the legislators in Albany and the governor’s office and you also have to represent your campus. There have been items where there have been tremendous tensions between elected officials and what I see as my role to protect the college and protect the staff of the college, not in a personal way, but in a professional way. Lawyers are well-trained to disagree and not personalize it,” he said.

Schwarz said one thing he has missed seeing on campus during his tenure was political activism of the kind he experienced during the Vietnam War. “I’m dismayed that there isn’t more political activism on this and other campuses,” he said. “I think the disconnect with what goes on in Washington, the turmoil that this president has created, is not good. And it went on before (Donald) Trump was president.” He said changes to the primary educational system could do something about it. “I think the lack of civic education in (grades) K through 12 is very damaging to democracy,” he said. “Leave aside that people just end up teaching for the test. There are no arts. There’s nothing in there particularly inspiring with respect to responsibility in a democracy.”

Purchase College wasn’t touched by the national scandal concerning bribery in college admissions. “It wasn’t unnoticed, but at the same time it wasn’t surprising. There are all sorts of ways that the wealthy have advantages and this one was a criminal way,” Schwarz said.

Promoting science education also has been important for Schwarz. “One of the things I did was to start a science award with the Westchester County Association, Bill Mooney, because I wanted people to know we had a great liberal arts college,” he said. “We send a lot of kids to graduate school in the sciences and I want people to know we’re not just an arts school.”

Schwarz expressed pride in the students who attend SUNY Purchase and are graduating in greater numbers than before. “I think our greatest accomplishment in my time was to almost double our graduation rates.”

His immediate plans after leaving office include spending a couple of months relaxing at his house on Fire Island and, perhaps, “I’d like to help an institution that has a good purpose and needs some help and direction, something similar to what I did here, although I don’t want to go through another 17- or 18-year stint.”


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