Photo: Retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral and President of Norwich University Dr Richard W. Schneider. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut
“Norman Rockwell is alive and well at Norwich!”
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine These were the cheerful words of Retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral and President of Norwich University Dr Richard W Schneider. What he meant — should I dare put words into the mouth of such a distinguished officer — is that the values he believes in passionately, and the ones he tries to live by, are considered unsophisticated in the modern world. But they are the foundations of honorable behavior at Norwich.
What are these values? They represent the best of small-town values — or of Vermont values, really: hard work, perseverance, honesty, resourcefulness, willingness to face a challenge and being a straight-shooter in words and deeds.
In other words, values that seem to come right out of the world that Norman Rockwell painted.
Schneider will be retiring in May after 28 successful years as president of Norwich University, the oldest private independent military college in the US, which just celebrated its 200th year.
Photo: Norwich 50 Legacy March. Courtesy photo.
Captain Alden Partridge (1785-1854), who is buried in Norwich, Vermont, founded the school after he was fired as superintendent of The United States Military Academy at West Point. Why was he fired? It was a controversy over the kind of army this brand new country needed.
Photo: Capt. Alden Partridge, the founder of Norwich University. Courtesy photo.
“President Monroe and he had a big argument,” Schneider explained. “Partridge didn't want a large standing army. President Monroe did. Partridge was afraid of an aristocratic — or elite — army officer corps. The president liked the French National Academy, and he wanted West Point to be that. And Partridge didn't. And they went at it. Partridge also went at it with a guy named Sylvanus Thayer, who was also an officer at West Point. It's a good thing they had outlawed dueling by then, or these guys would have killed themselves in a duel. So Partridge finally left, returned to his home state, Vermont, to Norwich, and created a school that looks just like West Point except it's private. It builds citizen-soldiers.”
These would be male citizen-soldiers. According to Schneider, Partridge tried for years to attract females to his school, but parents would not pay to have their female children educated as soldiers — or anything else for that matter, given that it was 1819.
“It's a shame we lost half the population,” Schneider said.
Because of its devotion to the idea of a “citizen” soldier, Norwich became the home of the first Reserve Officer's Training Corps, or ROTC. To this day it maintains a balance between its students aiming to be professional soldiers — the Corps of Cadets — and its citizen students who are studying the liberal arts.
Norwich, by the way, isn't in Norwich. It may be the oldest of the US's six senior military colleges, but the school moved to Northfield in 1866 after it was leveled by a disastrous fire.
At one time there were 28 schools in America built on the Partridge model, either built by him or his early students. Clemson University, Howard University and Virginia Military Institute are among them.
Two of Partridge's principles are still held dear at Norwich. The first is that whoever leads troops must be educated, and the second is that this education must be practical.
“We are the first to teach agriculture,” Schneider said. “Partridge marched those kids around to keep them tired so they wouldn't get in trouble, but he would also teach them crop rotation, botany, banking, bridge building and hydraulics, all the things the country needed. Remember, that was the start of the industrial revolution. We needed engineers desperately, and we could only get them in two places —West Point and here. The West Point Corps of Engineers built every canal in America. We built almost every railroad. Our academics have always been very applied.”
Photo: Norwich student leaders, called cadre, march their companies. Courtesy photo.
I admit I was a bit concerned about interviewing Schneider. I was afraid I would find a strait-laced, humor-free, macho officer with a chest full of ribbons who was used to controlling and commanding.
Instead, I found a funny, romantic man with a chest full of ribbons who never met a story he didn't enjoy telling. He turned out to be likable, intelligent, passionate and willing to answer any and all questions. And voluble. He's very voluble.
Schneider's tenure at Norwich is history-making. He's not only the longest-serving Vermont college president by, say, about 15 years and one of the longest-serving university presidents in the entire country, but according to the American Council on Education, only 5 percent of college or university presidents serve more than 20 years.
In the entire history of our country, fewer than 120 college presidents have served 27 years of more continuous years at the same institution.
Schneider wears his heart on his sleeve for Norwich.
“Being a college president, especially here, is like being a parson in a parsonage,” Schneider said. “I mean, your whole life is consumed by school, 7 by 24, and, you know, on the weekends. Jaime, my wife, and I go to all the games. I mean, they want to see their president. I want to see them. And they know when you're there and they know when you're not there. This has been a total commitment. But I love it. And that's why I'm here. I believe in what we do. In some ways, I can't believe I'm so lucky that those guys are paying me to do this.”
There is a downside, however. Norwich is training soldiers. Soldiers can be killed in battle. I asked how hard it is when students are hurt or killed in combat.
“It's a terrible thing,” Schneider said. “The only thing worse is losing them to stupid car accidents, usually drunk driving. I've gone to every funeral of every Norwich kid who has died in the line of duty. That would be 13 or 14 during this war on terror. But they died doing something good. They died where they wanted to be. And they died with their buddies, trying to do the nation's bidding. They died doing what they believed in. That's different than getting wasted in a car accident.”
Schneider, who is 73, said he is retiring because he feels that Norwich needs a younger leader.
“As you get older, physically, you just can't keep up with the 18-year-olds,” Schneider said. “So in the beginning, I mean, I could run with them. I've done every Dog River Run since I came, which means we're running the Dog River after a hard day of exercise and stuff. And I'm now running at the rear, not in the front. They need a general and a president who can run with them and exercise with them and lead them. So it's that's the primary reason.”
Schneider told his board of trustees five years ago that he was ready to leave.
“But I wanted to get them through our bicentennial, which was in 2019,” he said. “I wanted to live long enough to see that, and one way you do that is to make sure you keep working. So I got them through the bicentennial, and right now they are searching for our new president.
“But I love it here. I think they still love me. They keep, you know, keeping me on. But I have 15 grandkids that I don't really know as well as I would like to because I have been devoted to this place. ”
“Integrity” is the word used most often to describe Schneider.
“He has the highest integrity. He's deeply principled. He's a great American,” said Tom Leavitt, the president of Northfield Savings Bank.
“He has been an incredible leader. He's a man of incredible integrity. You can always count on him to do the right thing, whether anybody's looking or not,” said Alan DeForest, the chairman of the Norwich University Board of Trustees.
“I would lie down in front of a bus for Rich Schneider and I wouldn't worry,” said Barbara Brittingham, the president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). “I trust him implicitly. I get to know a lot of college and university presidents, and I would put him high up in that category. He's fabulous.”
Brittingham knows Schneider well because he serves as an accreditor for NECHE. This means he has often been part of a committee of higher education managers which visits a college or university to see if it deserves to renew its accreditation.
“He's one of our go-to teachers,” Brittingham said. “He's chaired at least 10 visits. He's done challenging visits. He's done overseas visits. Our effectiveness depends on volunteer members; that's four to eight or nine people who don't know each other or the institution and have to do a great deal of challenging work in a short time. What we look for is people who you want to sit next to at dinner. Rich is a great colleague. He's upbeat, optimistic, and disciplined. He's done a fabulous job at Norwich. He's maintained a distinctive mission for the university. It's a place that does what it's known for very well. Students respect the corps of cadets and the college's focus on student learning. We will miss him greatly.”
Another enthusiastic Schneider supporter is David Wolk, currently the interim superintendent of the Rutland City Public School District. He was president of Castleton University for 16 years, and established friendly football and hockey rivalries with Schneider. He considers him a good friend.
“I love that man,” Wolk said. “No one in America will ever see the seasoned service of Rich Schneider again. He's served for 28 years. Unbelievable. Unheard of. It's testimony to the amazing job he's done at Norwich. The words I would use to describe him are: intelligent, humble, mature, wise, and balanced.”
Schneider's achievements at Norwich are significant.
When he arrived in 1992, the school's total budget was about $30 million; it was also $3 million in the red.
He leaves behind a 70 percent growth in enrollment, five times the amount of the endowment (from $40 million to $214 million), four more-than-successful consecutive capital campaigns (the last, a five-year campaign called “Forging the Future,” set out to raise $100 million, exceeded that goal a year early and had raised $118.8 million by October of 2019), a host of new buildings; over 96 percent of the school's academic space is either completely renovated or brand new.
Academically, Norwich now offers 39 different majors, six of which are degree completion programs offered online.
It's five most popular majors are criminal justice; computer security and information assurance; nursing; mechanical engineering; and management. It has spread out now; its classes are offered in other parts of the US and in Europe as well as online.
Norwich offers nine master's degree programs. Its National Center for the Study of Counter Terrorism and Cyber Crime at Norwich was established by federal statute.
And Norwich students are productive. In 2018, they won the NASA BIG (Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing) Idea Engineering Design Challenge with an inflatable solar array for Mars.
Also in 2017, a team of Norwich students won first place over 43 other teams in a national competition called P2P (peer to peer) sponsored by the US State Department.
They developed a tool to challenge violent extremism and prevent young people from becoming jihadists. Interestingly, the Norwich team consisted of students from Afghanistan, China, India, Connecticut and North Carolina.
“This little tiny school in Vermont is doing world-class stuff,” Schneider said enthusiastically. “For example, we have an architecture department that is working with tiny houses. We're making special ones for veterans who are disabled, so that you can take your tiny little house — after you come back from the war wounded and maybe disabled — and buckle it up to your folks’ house.”
While other independent Vermont colleges are closing at a frightening rate (Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, the College of St Joseph and Marlboro come to mind), Norwich routinely receives 3,000 to 4,000 applications to fill its 800 academic slots. It claims that 70 percent of its students graduated in the top half of their high school class. It has an enrollment of 2,593 (including seven who define themselves as non-binary).
Although it is costly at $54,474 a year, almost 99 percent of its students receive some kind of aid, bringing the cost down to about $26,800. The average amount of debt a Norwich grad leaves with is approximately $39,432, Schneider said.
“I've got world-class faculty members who want to get paid an honorable, decent wage,” Schneider said. “I've got world-class financial aid people and admissions counselors. I'm trying to do my very best to keep them with a good salary to raise their families.
“At the same time, I'm trying not to burden my students with a lot of debt. I think we're running about $34,000 worth of debt on average for a kid, total, when they graduate, which is about the price of a car. I'm very mindful of the cost. But my mission is to produce people who are willing to defend us and who are unbelievably smart.”
The price of a new car might not seem high when it is measured against debt from other schools of higher education, but it's still high for Middle America. And that's where Norwich's students are coming from.
“This is not a wealthy school,” Schneider said. “The kids who serve in our military come from middle to lower America. Wealthy families don't send their sons and daughters to die for us. Joe Biden is an exception. But if you look at the wealthy people, they are not sending their kids into the United States military. So this is an upward opportunity. In fact, we recruit more sailors and soldiers from our own families. So yes, the sticker prices are high. Now, how can I help make up that difference? The endowment helps me.”
Let's look at the numbers.
Schneider is responsible for a $104.7 million yearly budget. Norwich has approximately 650 employees, although some are part-time. It has 176 tenured or tenure-track professors, with another 80 doing part-time teaching. The endowment is $214 million. (“We've had a good couple of years,” Schneider said, with an expression similar to one of a cat licking cream from its paws.)
Schneider has also raised additional millions for buildings and improvements.
Actually, Schneider has been a building whirlwind.
On his watch the school got the Kreitzberg Library and the Kreitzberg Arena, the Wise Campus Center, the Sullivan Museum and History Center, five or six residential halls, the Shaw outdoor center, the CoLaboratory, Haynes Stadium and Sabine Field.
In addition, he added a whole floor to Crawford Hall and used federal money to build the National Guard Regional Training Center on Norwich land.
He also trashed the school’s oil-burning heating system to create a new biomass plant.
“I built a steam plant that burns wood chips,” Schneider said. “I'm saving a million and a half dollars of petrochemicals and fuel oil, which also put a lot of crap in the air. I've gone to zero on crap going out the stack. It's just water and steam. And I'm employing all these loggers in Vermont to make me wood chips so they can send their kids to Norwich. I mean, that's my cycle. I'm trying to keep the money in central Vermont.”
At this point in the interview Schneider was so enthusiastic that he was becoming red in the face. I asked him to calm down before he had a stroke. He just laughed.
“I love this stuff,” Schneider said. “This is what drives me.”
He then laid out some of the school's other environmental achievements.
“We totally made all of our mess halls use biodegradable materials,” he said. “So even the napkin and the plastic forks and knives are all biodegradable. And I totally changed the way we feed. We used to feed family style. That means everybody showed up at the same time. And, say, we were feeding hamburgers and broccoli that day. Most of the kids didn't eat the broccoli. So we threw the broccoli out. We had the best fed pet pigs in Vermont around our campus. And so I said, 'Stop this.' We're going to go to a new way of dining. It's called grazing. I save $70,000 of wasted food a year. The pig farmers were furious with me. The parents loved me. It's simple things, but you got to do those. But here's the problem: I'm running out of smart things to do.”
It is getting harder to figure out how to save money, he said, to complete the mission of producing good citizens and citizen-soldiers.
“That is my mission and I love that mission,” Schneider said. “It is a terrible world now. It is far riskier for America today than it was in 1968, when I was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Coast Guard. We trained to do one thing: to kill our enemy, which was the Soviet Union. It was very simple. We had two superpowers who sat on all these whacko people in the world and squished them down so that they wouldn't cause problems. We had a Cold War, which we eventually won. The wall came down. And then all hell broke loose, because all these little guys could go do whatever they wanted. That's my simple world view and your history lesson for today. So for the young officers that I'm producing now, who have social media, the world is much more complicated. In fact, a young officer can bring great disgrace to our country in ways that you would have never known when it was just letters and newspaper.”
As an example, he pointed to the scandal that erupted when the country learned that American soldiers were torturing Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib prison during George W Bush's Iraqi War.
“How terrible the country felt, how horrible we all felt in our army,” he said. “We need to make sure that soldiers know the difference between lawful orders and unlawful orders. And that they are educated to make and discern these rough decisions, these moral decisions. By the way, any properly trained military person would never do anything to a prisoner. They are our responsibility. Our job is to protect them and to let the courts or the military tribunals deal with them. So training and educating our future military leaders has gotten much more serious than it ever was when I was growing up. The world is in a rough spot. Look at the environmental problems we're having. We teach environmental science here. We teach environmental engineering. So the scientists find the problems and the engineers try to figure out how to help fix it. We are teaching stuff that the country needs to look at.”
Northfield Bank President Leavitt, who has known Schneider for 23 years, said he strengthened the university in a myriad of ways.
“First, he brought a sense of how the college could proceed on a dual track — it has the corps of cadets plus a civilian student body,” Leavitt said. “He's handled that artfully. He's built up the undergraduate and graduate programs and taken them into a 21st Century model with online delivery. Then he's done terrific work with the alumni and all of those who support Norwich, including the business community. He's added a wealth of new facilities to the campus. You can see his hand in the athletic programs, the academic buildings, residential life, the common areas. I've been blessed to be a friend of President Schneider and his wife, Jaime. They have been a great first couple of Northfield. They are approachable, knowledgeable and humble. In short, they're terrific stewards of the community, and that's not always the case with college presidents.”
I asked Chairman of the Board of Trustees DeForest to describe some challenges the school has faced.
“For example, folding Vermont College into the Norwich community and then selling it,” DeForest said. “We had challenges with a female cadet who happened to be Muslim and wanted to wear a hijab. She did not conform to the uniform code. What should we do with that? Rich led the whole decision-making process. We decided she could wear it if it met certain criteria for uniforms. This is one of those adjustments that wouldn't have been thought of 25 years ago. Now cadets can now wear yarmulkes underneath their hats. These are examples of adjustments that had to be made and were made, nicely. And everyone bought in because of Rich's leadership.”
Norwich is a liberal arts school combined with a technical one, DeForest said, which is what the country demands from its military.
“The Department of Defense, for example is two-thirds military and one-third civilian, and that just happens to be the mix we have on campus. A lot of our students are ex-soldiers. My daughter graduated from Norwich, and her first boss in the Air Force was a civilian. So we better prepare our core and our civilian students for life with the mixed lifestyle. A large number of our students go into the Armed Forces, or they go into other offices like the CIA, DIA, FBI, or NSA. This is Rich's vision: to produce well-rounded students who can be good citizens, good soldiers, advance our Republic and serve from the board room to the battlefield. Our students serve the country. This is a core value, but Rich has taken it and owned it and advanced it.”
Schneider was born at Jamaica Hospital in Queens, NY.
“Both my grandparents lived in Richmond Hill, Queens, which is where my parents grew up,” Schneider said. “My parents knew each other in high school. I have one brother five years younger. My father was in the Navy during World War II, and then he worked for the Monroe Calculating Machine Company. When I was growing up, that meant the adding machines and the posting machines for banks. They were all driven by mechanical gears and stuff like that.”
Schneider's mother was a homemaker and “a people person.”
“I'm a lot like my mother,” Schneider said. “My dad was very driven, although most of the time he was home every night. So I had a very stable, normal 1940s, 1950s, Norman Rockwell kind of family life. My dad was a hunter, a very simple guy, but a very hard worker. Both of my parents were hard workers. I mean, my mother's house was immaculate. She was an unbelievable cook. She would do anything for you.”
Schneider's father eventually became a manager.
“He was the kind of guy who liked fixing systems and turning things around, so his company moved him from one failing place to another,” Schneider said. “He was good at encouraging the staff, building the staff out and making the place profitable. Then they'd move him to another one that was failing. And he'd turn it around and make it profitable and then move somewhere else. I was very impressed.”
Because of his father's job, the family moved often.
“We finally ended up in New Jersey,” Schneider said. “And that's where I had seventh and eighth grade and all my high school years. So when people say, 'Where are you from?' I usually say New Jersey. And that's where I met Beth, my first wife. We were high school sweethearts.”
Schneider's grandfather on his mother's side was his greatest influence. He had been a ship's captain in the Merchant Marine and also served in two world wars. Schneider said he had wanted to be in the Coast Guard since he was in the fourth grade.
“I so admired my grandfather, who was a ship captain,” Schneider said. “And the Coast Guard actually saved him — twice! One time, when I was about 11 or 12, he looked at me and said, 'Richard, you wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Coast Guard.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Well, I would have been dead and your mother would never have been born.' Like, oh, my God!”
At the time, his grandfather had been the captain of a merchant ship.
“There was a horrendous storm,” Schneider said. “His ship was breaking apart. And the Coast Guard, actually, got it close enough to the beach that they actually launched their small boats and took the people off, including my grandfather. It's kind of an amazing story. My grandfather's ship was a total loss.”
In World War I, his grandfather was a lieutenant commander. He won a Navy Cross, a high personal decoration, for sinking an early version of a U boat. During the Second World War, Schneider's grandfather was assigned to Scotland, which was his home, to help plan the Normandy invasion.
“He knew all the ports, he knew all the ships in England and that whole area,” Schneider said. “I actually have a picture of my grandfather with a Secretary of the Navy, a guy named Frank Knox, as they're walking around the corner of a building in Scotland, and my grandpa is briefing him just before the Normandy invasion. Then he went back to work for General Motors. And eventually he was responsible for all of the shipping of cars anywhere in the world. So I still have his billy club that he would carry on the wharfs because, you know, it was the Teamsters.”
Schneider was not the only one in the family interested in the sea because of this grandfather. His cousin was inspired, too. It's a nice coincidence that the two cousins ended up on warships that happened to meet during the Vietnam engagement.
“My cousin actually became a ship captain,” Schneider said. “We were in Vietnam at the same time. I was fighting with the Coast Guard and he was giving us ammo off his merchant ship by a line they call a 'high line.' The two ships run parallel to each other and on a platform they move stuff back and forth like milk and meat and bread. It was a total coincidence that we met up that way. I asked my Old Man if I could talk with my cousin with the blinking lights, and he said, 'Sure. Go ahead.' So I went up to the flying bridge and we were doing Morse code back and forth to each other.”
The Coast Guard
Schneider graduated high school with appointments to the Coast Guard Academy and Kings Point, the Merchant Marine Academy. He chose the Coast Guard.
“I love the mission of saving people,” Schneider said. “And the Coast Guard is exactly that.”
After finishing his coursework, Schneider was immediately assigned to a ship. He did a year on a search-and-rescue ship in the North Atlantic, and two years aboard the ship that took him to Vietnam.
That's where he saw action.
“We fired a lot at the Vietcong, but they didn't have anything that could reach us, thank God,” he said. “We're using these huge naval guns that are on the Coast Guard ships. So the range of shot is like 24 miles. They didn't have anything like that to shoot back at us. So we were creaming them, but they couldn't get aboard us.”
Schneider was in jeopardy only because his ship was also responsible for searching small boats in the South China Sea.
“I was a gunnery officer, and we would stop the junks,” Schneider said. “Vietnam is like a triangle where the water touches both east and west coasts. I was mostly on the west coast, and one of our jobs, in addition to indirect gunfire support, was stopping junks coming down out of Cambodia to resupply the enemy. A lot of times they were old American LSTs, which are landing craft, but they were Cambodians or Filipinos or people from other countries. We would board them, and that's the only time I was at risk. I would go with two Coasties. I was armed with a .45.
“Up on the main deck of the Coast Guard ship, they would have their machine guns pointed down at us. By the way, if anything happened, we'd probably get killed by our own guys rather than the VC. But we were worried that the only real risk was them booby-trapping stuff. So we always kept the ship's master right with us. So if I'm losing my leg, his is, too. But I never got hurt, thank God. We would look to see if they were carrying ammo or hospital supplies or weapons. But if they were carrying food, it meant they were just in business. We'd let them go to where they're going. We were just trying to interdict resupplying the Vietcong by sea.”
Schneider did eight years of active duty in the Coast Guard.
Navigating Deep Loss
After Vietnam, Schneider taught officer candidates at the Officer Candidate School at Yorktown, Virginia.
“I had asked for it because I wanted to teach celestial navigation,” he said. “I love navigation. I taught navigation, celestial navigation, piloting, gunnery drill and ceremony. I was a tactics officer. All of those things at one time. But I found out I love to teach.”
Schneider decided he wanted to teach physics at the Coast Guard Academy. So he applied to graduate school. The Coast Guard sent him to Wesleyan University.
“They sent all the chemists, mathematicians and physics majors to Wesleyan,” he said. “So I got a Master of Arts in liberal studies to prepare me to teach physics as an assignment at the Coast Guard Academy. You go back for four years and teach, and then you go back into the fleet. So you're a young officer, so that the kids, the cadets, have role models. And I love that, actually.”
Schneider was still in school when his wife, Beth, became ill. She died at the age of 40, leaving Schneider alone to raise four daughters.
So he resigned from active duty in the Coast Guard as a Rear Admiral in 1998 and took a job as an administrator at the University of Delaware.
“I felt like I could have a lot bigger impact on a lot more students,” Schneider said. “I was at the University of Delaware for 10 years, running the College of Marine studies. Then I went to Drexel University, which is in downtown Philadelphia. I started out as the vice president for research. And I became the treasurer for the year. I was the provost for two years. And then I became the senior vice president.”
Schneider enjoyed the cultural aspects of a big city.
“I was in downtown Philadelphia when I was working at Drexel,” Schneider said. “So there were tons of single people, although I wasn't dating yet. But there was a lot of activity. I mean, I had the orchestra. I had the plays. You could be busy every night, culturally. And I would take my daughters with me to these events. So I was getting them ready for life.”
Then Norwich, looking for a new president, asked Schneider to “candidate.”
“I wasn't looking to move,” he said. “I was very happy there. My kids were in great Christian schools there. We were in the house that Beth decorated. I mean, her presence was everywhere. But they came to me and said, 'Would you please candidate?'”
During one of his job interviews at Norwich, Schneider said, one of the older members of the search committee asked how he could be a college president without a wife.
“That was an illegal question even back in '92,” Schneider said. “But thank God, one of the women on the search committee said, 'Wait a minute, what he needs is a good caterer.' Well, that broke up the tension in the room. And damn it, Norwich offered me the job.”
At that point only Schneider's youngest daughter was still at home.
“She didn't really want to go to Vermont,” Schneider said. “Think of it, it's your high school junior year and all of a sudden your dad is telling you, 'I'm uprooting you from what you've known for the last 10 years.' So we made a deal. She had to give it six months. And if she really didn't like it, I said I would send her home to Delaware for her last year of high school. We had wonderful church friends who would have taken her. She would have been fine. I mean, I would've been heart-ached to let her go, but she was going to go to college a year later anyway. Honestly, about six weeks into this job and being here, she said, 'Dad, I never want to go back. I love it here.' I was so lucky that she found new friends. The faculty here were wonderful to my family.”
One concern Schneider had about moving to Vermont was culture. In Philadelphia he had access to museums, music, art, theatre. What would he find in Vermont?
“Well, it's here,” he said. “You've just got to know where to go. I mean, I was on the Vermont Symphony Orchestra board for 15 years.”
Schneider even found romance in a general store.
“It's hard being single in Vermont,” he said. “Most people are married or connected here. But I met Jaime in The Country Store in Montpelier. And I think I fell in love with her that night.”
Schneider was still in the process of shifting his connection from Drexel to Norwich; he had friends in Philadelphia who loved decaf Green Mountain Coffee, which was not yet available there.
“So it's after six o'clock,” Schneider said. “And I asked my secretary, 'I've got to bring some decaf coffee tomorrow on the plane. Where can I get it in town?' She said, 'No place. You've got to go to The Country Store in Montpelier.' Thank God she told me that. I went up there and here's this girl behind the counter. She's a chef by training, but she was helping out her college roommate. And she's the cutest girl I've ever seen in Vermont. And I checked her hand out. There was no ring. So I'm thinking about her all the way home, you know? And so I called the store. I said, 'Look, you don't know me, but I'm the guy that was buying decaf coffee.' She remembered me. I said, 'Listen, I'm really not an axe murderer. I'm the president of Norwich. And I wondered if you want to grab a cup of coffee or a drink after work, because I'm leaving for 10 days.' And unlike her, she said yes.”
Between that phone call, though, and his arrival back in Montpelier, Jaime had made a few calls. She learned that the president of Norwich had four daughters. She thought he was still married.
“By the time I got back, it was like the refrigerator door was left open, man,” Schneider said. “Once we finally started talking, though, I said, 'I'm widowed.' And then it was fine. So we dated for three and a half years before we got married. We got married in 1999. So we've been married for 20 years. There's a lot more at stake when you get married older. When I married my first wife, we were high school sweethearts. It's just all passion and hormones. And so I've been very, very lucky. I've been loved by two wonderful women, and I'm a very, very fortunate guy.”
The Big Turnaround
At Norwich, Schneider found himself in charge of an academically strong but economically foundering school. That's where the influence of his father's “turnarounds” come in.
“I love the turnaround,” Schneider said. “And I like anything military. And by the way, where else can I go and be a president and have a corps of cadets? So it was the military part that really attracted me.”
He immediately began cutting costs.
Photo: Norwich University cadets. Courtesy photo.
“We had too many majors, so I had to pull them back,” Schneider said. “We had two campuses. We owned Vermont College at the time. That's where the civilian kids lived. And Norwich is where the corps lived. And let me tell you, this was like not the best way to organize things. All the kids wanted to date each other, anyway. And the thing that made me convinced was about, I don't know, my fifth month here, I found out that we paid for a comedian on this campus on Saturday night and we had a comedian at the Vermont College campus Saturday night. And I, like, went ballistic. Are you telling me I'm awash in red ink and we're paying money to two comedians? When the kids want to date, anyway?”
So one of the two biggest decisions Schneider made in his presidency was to move the college students from Vermont College to Norwich.
“I had 300 empty beds here,” he said. “And I moved the adults to Vermont College. And there we actually might have had the first campus that's dedicated to adults, ever. The move changed a lot of things. It certainly improved the social life at school. But it made us also much more efficient. I was able to cut redundant costs out, which helped my financial position. I mean, this was not brain surgery. This was meat-and-potatoes business.”
Upon reflection, Schneider said he only made one mistake during this time.
“The one thing I regret is when I first arrived and started tackling the financial hole in which we found ourselves, I should have cut deeper,” he said. “I should have laid off more faculty and staff and discontinued underproducing academic programs. By not doing so, it probably slowed our recovery by at least a year or two. If I had to do it again, or my advice to new presidents, is cut deeper at first, because it’s very difficult to go back and cut more a year or two later. It’s better to get the pain over with all at one time and then continue to rebuild.”
In under two years, Schneider's budget was breaking even.
“We started building from there,” he said. “We got the corps much more professional. It took me 10 years to do that. And still, I keep my watchful eye on how they behave.”
Hazing was one problem, Schneider said.
“The students were out of control,” he said. “The staff was not doing the things that they should be doing to train the young ones. By the way, colleges still have hazing problems today. But then we had to bring the students up to date. These were things they were doing that you can't do today, or you would end up in Leavenworth. So we made it much more professional. So more kids stayed. That helped me financially, as well. And then we were recruiting better. We had improvements on our campus and we have been growing ever since the second big decision I made, which was to sell Vermont College.”
Montpelier's Vermont College has had a checkered history. It's almost as old as Norwich; it was founded in 1834. It has been a seminary as well as a junior college and a two-year secretarial college.
During its secretarial phase, in fact, one of its most famous graduates was Linda Eastman, who went on to marry Paul McCartney of the Beatles.
In 1972, Vermont College was bought by Norwich and became Vermont College of Norwich University. (It is now the Vermont College of Fine Arts.)
“It took me eight years to make Vermont College profitable,” Schneider said. “They didn't know what was making money and what was losing money. I started growing that campus and I finally got it up to 1,000 students, all adults. One of the best decisions I ever made, sell Vermont College. With all of its students, all of its faculty, everything.”
There were cultural differences at the two schools, Schneider said.
“The two faculty thought differently about the world,” he said. “Vermont College had a very liberal faculty. Norwich is a generally conservative faculty. I'm not talking politically. I'm talking about academically. The campus up at Vermont College was a very much in a John Dewey model, very liberal. Even if you don't go to class, you just have to read books and write papers. Norwich is very didactic. This is the classroom. This is labs. This is very classic, high quality New England academics. These two faculty were at war with each other. I couldn't get anything done because nobody trusted anybody.”
Schneider sold Vermont College to the Union Institute of Cincinnati, Ohio in 2001.
“The president of Union called me and said, 'I hear you're going to put Vermont College up for sale.'” Schneider said. “I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'We're interested in buying it.' I said, 'Awesome.' The two of us got together. That day we struck the deal. We told the lawyers, 'Do this deal. Don't screw it up.' We did it within nine months. And Moody's wrote us up as the way to get rid of something with honor and integrity.”
Schneider declined to name the selling price.
“It was part of the deal that we wouldn't share that information,” he said.
He laid down conditions for the sale: honor the existing contracts of the faculty and staff; stay in Montpelier for at least five years; make the transition seamless for students — for three years they could choose either to receive a NU degree or a Union Institute degree. After that, they all received Union Institute degrees. Another condition was to take care of the faculty. The last was to get decent money for Norwich's 30-years investment, which, he said, he did.
“We met all those requirements within the first two months,” Schneider said. “I will tell you, though, we didn't get all the money right away. We took a bond or a note from them. We had a very good interest rate. And they paid it off meticulously, every time on time. And within a matter of five years, they had met their financial requirements to me.”
The lesson Schneider learned from this was “focus on what you do really well.”
“Don't try to fight on too many fronts,” he said. “By selling Vermont College, it allowed us to put all our attention on this campus, on this mission. It's very clear what business we're in. The sale allowed me to focus on the cadet corps and our civilian students. And we built a school just like the Department of Defense: two in uniform for everyone in civilian clothes, because you can't go to war without your contractor anymore. And you need the Guard, and you need the Reserve, because we don't have enough full-time people to fight for us anymore. In fact, we've never had enough, in the history of this Republic. And our founder was actually afraid of a large standing army. We are the birthplace of ROTC because of this concept.”
Approximately 70 percent of the officers in the Armed Forces come from colleges and universities through ROTC.
“Well, we started 200 years ago with that model,” Schneider said. “You go to college and you learn military things at the same time. Right.”
Schneider estimates that he spends 40 percent of his time fundraising.
Norwich has an international constituency and alumni clubs all over the world. There are clubs located in countries as wide apart as Thailand, Germany and China.
China actually has a long history with Norwich.
“In the early 1800s, before the Soviets took over China, we would have Chinese students here come by square rigger and land in Boston,” Schneider said. “Then they'd take the train and the horse up here to study military.”
Alumni are where the fundraising opportunities can be found. Schneider seems to excel at reaching them.
“My responsibility for potential donors is to paint for them a vision of what is possible,” Schneider explained. “And then I say, 'Listen, if you want to help me with this vision, that would be great. And I need your help. But if you don't want to help me, then don't beat me up about not being able to fulfill the vision of Captain Partridge.' It's all of our jobs to make our motto, 'Norwich Forever,' true. I tell them I need resources. I tell them that vision without resources is hallucination. And it's true.”
Some of the money he raises goes into the endowment. Other money — about $600 million of it — goes into the buildings.
“So you're running two different fundraising campaigns all the time,” Schneider explained. “In fact, our campaigns are made up of multiple parts. So most campaigns for us are seven years long. I'm in the quiet phase, which means we don't tell anybody, but I go to my major donors to raise half the money. Once you get half the money and you're confident you can get to the goal, then you go public. Then you work the next five years on raising the rest.”
Schneider also uses his fundraising skills for academic programing by raising money for Norwich's Center for Civic Engagement.
“I raised a half a million because my students want to help in the Boys and Girls Club and other charities,” he said.
Schneider has an interesting perspective on why small colleges are folding.
“It is a shame that's happening,” he said. “I get no money from the federal government, but the kids do. So the kids have to decide they want to come here. The reason why those other schools are closing is the kids don't want to go there anymore. The schools didn't stay relevant. If you can't get customers to go, you're not going to be in business.”
The key is to remain relevant, flexible and affordable, Schneider said. One way is to offer the majors students want. One of the things they want — and the country needs — is the ability to prevent cyber-attacks.
“It's no longer an infantry threat,” he said. “It's a cyber threat. So my business model — and this is very appropriate for your readers — is that if I train and educate the students today to protect this Republic from the threats today and tomorrow, the Republic will send me their best kids. And I'm only after 800. I am full. I don't have one more bed anywhere. I've taken lounges out and put beds in them for students to sleep in because they want to come here. And that's because we're teaching things that are important to this country.
“So now, you know, we're ranked nationally by the National Security Agency as a school of academic excellence in teaching cyber. That's what kids want.”
They also want neuroscience and construction management, Schneider said.
“All the things that the country needs to build and make,” he said. “I built two dorms in the last 10 years, while other schools have closed. It has nothing to do with any federal money coming here. I get nothing but grief from my government, both state and local, about rules and regulations. They're not giving me any money. I'm earning our money through students. I go to alums and to my friends and say, 'Help me build my endowment, so we can always make sure Norwich stays affordable to a good kid.' It breaks my heart when I have to say to a kid, 'Listen, you've got to pay money to come here. We can't give it away for free. We'd go out of business.' Which is what's happened to those other schools.”
Studying At Norwich
Schneider makes sure his students get an international perspective.
“I want all of my kids studying overseas for a semester,” he said. “In fact, I sent 95 students out this fall. Not only does the army need them to be culturally aware, but if they're working for General Electric, they also have to be culturally aware. The best way to do that is get out of the green hills of Vermont and get out and go see the world.”
Photo: Norwich University orientation August 2019. Courtesy photo.
Studying abroad and studying away are different ways to keep perspective. Even if the students don't go to India, they can go to Denver.
“Why Denver?” Schneider said. “Because that's where the kids are. The kids started moving south and southwest 20 years ago. By the way, this isn't brain surgery. This is looking at the census data. When Phil Scott talks about Vermont dying, this is exactly what he's talking about. People are moving. If you look at the map of the United States and see where the 18-year-olds are, they are not here anymore. New England is suffering the greatest loss of 18-year-olds. The West and the Southwest are growing.
“So 20 years ago, I ordered my admissions staff to get in the plane and start going to California, Texas and Florida. That's where the kids are, and that's where the United States military is.”
Norwich recruiters got on planes. They talked to guidance counselors. They brought materials. They started advertising. They went to college fairs. It helped that Norwich is a known brand in the US military.
“My brand is strong in California, Texas and Florida,” Schneider said. “So now, those three states, which before never showed up here, are in the list of the top 10 states sending me kids.”
Given America's endless wars, it is getting harder to find students interested in the military, Schneider admitted.
“I think one of my biggest challenges is that we could return to the '70s,” Schneider said. “We almost went out of business in the '70s. Nobody would send their kids to military school after Vietnam or during Vietnam. Now, thankfully, we stayed open and we had good kids coming. But there weren't enough of them.”
The Constitution talks about “raising” an army but “maintaining” a navy.
“The founding fathers were very smart,” he said. “It was very easy to raise an army in 1819, when we were founded. Every boy and every man knew how to shoot. We were all killing rabbits, deer and squirrels for protein. The rest of us were candlestick makers and farmers. 'Boys, meet me at the Concord Bridge. The Brits are coming. Get your rifles and I'll meet you there.' But you can't build a navy overnight.”
At one point, Norwich moved to Middletown, Connecticut, to be near the water. That lasted for four years, and then it moved back to Northfield.
Norwich's problem isn't finding students; its problem is finding excellent teachers who want to live in central Vermont.
Photo: Norwich University Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Laurie Grigg with her students outside October 2017. Courtesy photo.
“You have to pick academic programs that you can support, or find high quality family members who are willing to move to Vermont to teach,” Schneider said. “We have the 'trailing spouse' problem. Say I have a wonderful physicist. I want to hire her, she's my number one choice. And her husband is something else. And normally, professional people marry professional people. Well, if there's no job here for him or her, the trailing spouse is not going to happen. They may happen for a year or two. They'll geographically bachelorette it for a while, but it's not going to last. Cyber was one of those things, though, that you could teach remotely. And I have some world-class faculty members who are teaching online to my students, and they are becoming cyber experts. I also have great ones that wanted to move here to. So I've got the best of both worlds. ”
Cyber-attacks are the biggest threat to the country today, Schneider said.
“We think 9/11 was a huge hit?” he said. “If they attack us and we lose confidence in our financial systems and our banking system, or the world's financial system, that is a huge damage to us. It will take us months, if not years to recover. We need to provide people to protect us. The government doesn't have enough of these kids. My granddaughter graduated from Norwich two years ago in cybersecurity and information assurance. She had eight good job offers. And I've got another granddaughter here. The private sector does not have enough people trained in cyber. I mean, Amazon alone could consume all the new bachelor's level cyber people the whole country produces. It is a huge crisis.”
Artificial intelligence is another big contemporary issue. According to Schneider, there's already been a merchant ship that's crossed the Pacific without one person aboard. That's a remarkable feat. Norwich is now teaching A.I. and big data science.
“We have just begun to see another revolution, I think,” Schneider said. “That means I need to make sure my school stays relevant for that revolution. It's all about jobs and debt. I think, unfortunately, parents are talking their kids out of the study of history or English or psych or things like that, and that's a shame. I mean, we need good writers, we need journalists, we need poets as a society. We need the arts to have a full rich life. But there is a shift happening in kids. We have fewer kids, and fewer kids with a propensity to serve.”
Not only are there fewer willing kids, but also fewer willing kids who are in shape to serve.
“You can't have a DUI,” Schneider said. “You can't have a drug problem. You have to be reasonably in shape. We can get you in shape, but look at the obesity problem of 18-year-olds. I'm full, sure. It just means that I'm not getting the applicants that I want. I would like 4,000 applicants to make 800, but I may get 3,000. I still got 800. They're still good kids. But the country doesn't have that many kids who want to serve anymore.”
As the customer base shrinks, the costs keep rising.
“When I went to the Coast Guard Academy, my entire technology budget was $28,” Schneider said. “I bought a K&E slide rule. That was the technology budget of the United States Coast Guard Academy in 1964. By the way, I still have my slide rule and I can still use it. But today the technology budget is $9.5 million.”
Other costs are rising, too. Healthcare increases 8 percent, but Schneider can only push his tuition 2 percent.
“I am constantly trying to figure out how to get the most value from a shrinking pool of revenue and maintain my quality,” he said.
Longevity In Office
There are many pressures on the president of a college or university. Schneider looks at it as having many bosses.
“You've got the alumni, you've got the parents, you've got the kids,” he listed. “You've got the faculty and staff. You've got the government. You've got the Department of Education. There are donors. You've got all kinds of people telling you how to run your school, and you're trying to just hold everything together. Sometimes kids do unbelievably great things. And sometimes you've got kids misbehaving. It's unbelievably exciting and every day is different.”
Speaking of misbehaving, Norwich was recently in the news because four of its football players, including a team captain, were arrested for burglary and assault after a violent attack on another student in a dorm; the issue was a $5 debt.
At this writing, three of the four have had their charges dismissed. Schneider would not discuss the incident further because, “The government doesn't allow me to do that,” but he lamented the bad behavior.
“It's terrible,” he said. “They beat up that kid, if they allegedly did. Or at least one of them did. The four were originally charged by the police. The attorney general released three. They made the kids write an apology; I think. And do some community service. One is still in the court system. So I don't know what the outcome is. But the law doesn't allow me to divulge what our punishments are.”
Is the school kicking out the four students?
“All I can say directly that none of the four were enrolled in the fall,” he said. “Not every kid is perfect, right? I'm living with 2,400 teenagers. Do you expect them all to be perfect? Most parents can't raise two teen years simultaneously without problems. Every kid is going to test the system, right? I think it happens at other schools. But we don't ignore it. We take it seriously.”
Schneider said that one of the reasons for his successful tenure at Norwich has been his longevity in office.
“The revolving door presidencies are terrible,” Schneider said. “The average presidency in America is under five years. I am the most senior president in Vermont at 28. When I retire this May, I think the next one has eight years’ service. But it takes years to build a relationship with a donor.”
Norwich's graduates do not, typically, make a fortune after graduation.
“They're not wealthy guys on my board,” Schneider said. “I had a high school teacher for whom a $500 gift was a sacrificial gift. And I had a few who own their own companies that could give you a couple million bucks. These were all valuable to me. I can get a lot of energy from that. We only have about 24,000 living alums. And my fundraising has always been that vision without resources is hallucination. That's what I tell my donors.”
People give money to people, Schneider said.
“If you can't convince them that you believe in the mission, why the hell should they believe in the mission?” he said. “I think I've been able to convince them that the school deserves it and the country desperately needs it. The country desperately needs more Norwich graduates to lead both in the military and in civilian life. In fact, if I had a second life, I would be like Partridge. I would get on my horse and preach this doctrine going up and down the East Coast. We are doing what the country needs. That's why the country is sending us kids.”
Photo: Norwich University campus in Winter. Courtesy photo.
Over his time in Vermont, Schneider and his family have fallen in love with the state.
“That's why we're staying here,” Schneider said. “We love the fact that there are not a lot of people here. We love the clean air. We love being outdoors. We have great friends here. We're very environmentally conscious and worried about our planet. We'd like that people here are worried about that. And first off, we love the school. We love Norwich. And we love its people. We love its mission.”
He and his wife plan to retire to Lake Dunmore, a little south of Middlebury.
“I promised Jamie that I would do nothing this summer,” Schneider said. “And then we're going to retire at Lake Dunmore. We have a camp there. I've been working on this sucker for the last six years.
It's a money pit. It's an 1844 farmhouse. It's very simple, very elegant — a white clapboard house. But without any insulation, but because, you know, back in 1844, they just burned more wood. So I've kind of disassembled this house from the inside out.”
Schneider leaves Norwich in great shape.
According to DeForest, “He's arguably the best president Norwich has had since Partridge, and some might argue he's the best. We're very proud of who we are today, and in large part it's because of him.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.