DEFIANCE, Ohio – When walking around campus, Mark Gordon, 52, can be easily identified by the faded purple and gold hat with Defiance College’s logo that he wears.
Or you might know he’s approaching by the greetings from students, many of whom call him by one of his nicknames: Prez or PG.
Gordon is in his fourth year as president of the small, private college just north of downtown Defiance.
Since arriving at Defiance, Gordon has gotten to know, through dinners and study tables at his home near the edge of campus, the more than 1,000 students who attend the school.
The one-on-one attention is part of the Imagine Initiative, a program Gordon developed that focuses on delivering personalized education and opportunities in a global economy. In Gordon’s time leading the school, it has begun attracting more than just Ohio natives.
Gordon came to Defiance after serving as dean for the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. He earned his own law degree from Harvard University, graduating a year ahead of President Barack Obama. He attended Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s in political science. He served as now-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s general deputy when Cuomo was assistant secretary of the office of community planning and development during the Clinton Administration before returning to Columbia to teach.
After one year as president, Gordon persuaded his former boss in Detroit, Barbara Schirmer, to join him at Defiance. Schirmer now serves as the college’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. She took the opportunity to work again with Gordon, whom she describes as smart, funny and full of ideas and surrounds himself with staff who can help carry out his ideas.
“I knew what an energetic and visionary person he was,” she said.
When Gordon started at Defiance, 20 percent of students came from other states. Now 41 percent are from out-of-state and even more students, 45 percent, are the first in their families to attend college.
Behind those numbers are actual students, and Gordon makes a concerted effort to get to know each one.
“You’d have to search long and hard to find a president as committed to connecting with students as Mark is,” said Mary Ann Studer, dean of the McMaster School for Advancing Humanity at Defiance. “It helps because he knows the students at a personal level. They’re not just statistics.”
Mariah Brown, who will be a sophomore at Defiance next year, said Gordon played a major role in her college decision. Brown, from Paxton, Ill., which is five to six hours from Defiance, looked briefly at the school when she first began her search.
She quickly got caught up in other possibilities, but a phone call from Gordon personally encouraged her to take a second look at Defiance.
“Everyone was so personable,” Brown said of the staff. “That just made the influence for me to come here even greater.”
Gordon said the college can create a personal experience for students because its enrollment hovers around near 1,000 students, and it has a student-to-faculty ratio of 12 to 1.
“We’re never going to get so big that we stop being who we are,” Gordon said of keeping the college a close-knit one.
Student-to-faculty ratios vary by college and type. IPFW – a public, four-year college – has a ratio of 17 to 1, whereas Franklin College, which is similar in size to Defiance, has a ratio of 12 to 1.
Defiance Female Seminary was founded in 1860 but became known as Defiance College in 1903.
The school maintains its religious ties and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Students pay about $27,500 a year in tuition and fees to attend Defiance College, according to its website. The school reported a fund balance or net assets of $39.5 million in 2011, according to its latest tax form filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
The college’s prospective students and their parents meet with Gordon as part of their college visit, Studer said. Many parents and students are unsure how to take Gordon’s interest.
“It would be hard to imagine they’re not a little bit taken aback,” Studer said, but insists that Gordon doesn’t have ulterior motives. “He doesn’t put on a show; he’s genuine. People have a hard time believing that. He cares about people and individuals and connecting them in a positive way.”
For Wayne Kelly, a sophomore this fall and Fort Wayne native, Gordon made himself available as a tutor on weekends to help him prepare for midterms.
“He’s been instrumental in my studies here,” Kelly said.
Gordon said students, like Kelly, need to feel comfortable asking for help when they have problems, and it’s important that the accessibility starts at the top.
That’s why at orientation, all students receive a coupon for a home-cooked meal from Gordon’s wife, Anne, and Gordon’s cellphone number.
Providing a personal phone number to students caused some concern among faculty, but Gordon helps students understand that he isn’t the person to contact when they can’t remember what time their final is or other questions they should be asking their professors, Studer said.
The McMaster’s program at the school immerses students in projects that include a trip to a community, usually internationally, to put into action what they’ve learned. Studer said the program is hard for some to understand, until they’ve done it.
Gordon made a one-year commitment to be involved in a project that included a trip to Belize. Studer said his presence benefited the students and faculty.
“He has a talent for languages,” Studer said of Gordon who speaks German and Spanish. “He opened many, many doors for us.”
Gordon still travels with the student groups and in May traveled to Tanzania with the program.
After seeing what students gain from the trips, Gordon developed the directive that all students would take at least one trip, domestic or international, by the time they graduate.
The international travel at little to no cost for students is the centerpiece of Gordon’s Imagine Initiative, Schirmer said.
“We all need to be able to understand other cultures,” she said. “This is a way to bring our students to the world.”
Gordon said the money for the trips is raised by the college through a mix of donations and from operating funds, and students are only required to pay for their own passports and trip insurance.
In his first year, Gordon said he had many conversations with students who were struggling financially. Many of the students had never even been on a plane, he said.
“I realized growing up that I had a lot of opportunities that they didn’t, and I wanted to give them those opportunities,” he said.
The focus behind the initiative is to provide the closeness of a small college along with opportunities not available to most students living in the small town.
“We are really trying to create a distinct model for undergraduate education,” Gordon said.
Gordon has experience in providing big opportunities for his students. As dean of the Law School at University of Detroit Mercy, Gordon’s students landed positions at prestigious, East Coast firms through a 60-member advisory board Gordon established to improve the third-year curriculum at the school, according to a May 2007 story about Gordon in the Wall Street Journal.
Gordon is implementing advisory boards for study areas at Defiance to help graduates get into the best graduate programs and land jobs when they finish.
He’s working to recruit professionals from all over the country, saying that technology allows the school to work with anyone no matter their location.
“He felt when he came that it was important to always connect students with the real world,” Schirmer said.
Emma Starks, who graduated in May, said the school and Gordon afforded her experiences that helped get her a spot in the master’s program at Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Science. Case Western Reserve is ranked in the top 10 best graduate schools for social work by the U.S. News & World Report.
“(Defiance) has provided me with so many opportunities,” she said.
Starks is among the first class of graduates that Gordon got to know as freshmen who have graduated from Defiance.
“You know what they’re like when they start, and they’re very different by the end,” Gordon said. “All in good ways.”