A Tribute to Dr. Varsalona

The Vice Presidents of Wilmington University offer expressions of gratitude to the former President. 

Dr. Erin J. DiMarco, Senior Vice President

“My earliest observation of Dr. Jack Varsalona’s leadership was watching him initiate a two-year study on the impact of taking then Wilmington College to the designation of Wilmington University. He wanted to conduct research and understand the impact to constituents and the higher education community. He determined that since Wilmington College met much of the criteria to be considered a university, including having multiple campuses, programs of study ranging from associate to doctoral degrees and more than 11,500 students, assuming University status would allow us to compete on a global scale. What impressed me most was the way he reminded everyone, both internally and externally, that a university status would not change our culture and that we would always be a student-centered institution that offered affordable tuition and quality programs at convenient locations. That was 2007, and those characteristics remain the hallmark of what drives us. He had a unique vision that allowed him to overcome obstacles to advance our institution, embrace change and never become complacent.

At every graduation ceremony, he said that we had the best faculty and deans because they are futurists in their fields; the best communicators and teachers; and people who care genuinely about students. He called the faculty the brains and heart of the institution; and the WilmU staff the masters of student services who offer a level of caring that’s second to none. This is all true, but it’s because of Jack’s leadership. He’s one of the most kindhearted people I know. He wanted all who sought education to have the chance to obtain it. He provided opportunities by challenging his administration, faculty and staff to create relevant programs and deliver outstanding customer service. He reminded us that students had enough to do inside the classroom, so it was our job to make their student service experiences as smooth as possible.

His accomplishments are too numerous to mention and his success speaks for itself. WilmU has grown from 10,000 students to 21,000. Under his leadership, it became a major player, competing with many other Mid-Atlantic institutions. He raised awareness of students’ issues and concerns. He worked to eliminate roadblocks that deterred students — they already had enough hurdles to climb balancing family, work and school. He visited many classrooms to get direct student feedback and suggestions for improvement. He instructed vice presidents to create new and innovative practices so that WilmU’s image would always be fresh; one that remained progressive and attracted students. He may have held the highest position at the University, but he gained a following because of the person he was (and is), not the title he had.

He was always impeccably dressed and greeted everyone with a smile. He lost no time taking command of his audiences at University meetings — thanks to his witty, often impromptu, remarks. His self-deprecating humor made him relatable. Jack constantly thanked employees for all they did, and always took a moment to remember those who had passed.  He is compassionate and caring, and always had our best interests in mind while making decisions not just for the University, but also for all who worked there.

I thank him sincerely for his devotion and hard work. He’s had a huge impact on the University, and it has matured considerably under his direction. He had the foresight to recognize an untapped need by partnering with community colleges in New Jersey and Maryland, which afforded more students the opportunity to obtain advanced degrees.

I can’t thank him enough for sharing his wisdom and guidance, and for helping me develop profession-
ally. He trusted me. He gave me opportunities to offer recommendations to improve processes. Thanks to that, I have a newfound confidence in the way I do my job. It’s a debt I can never repay, but I plan to honor him by emulating his high standards. He’s always given credit where credit was due. He’s been a valued mentor and trusted friend, and through his guidance, I became a more effective leader. He gave me the foundation on which to carve my path.

Saying goodbye to him as our President was difficult. But I wish for him all the best in his next chapter. He deserves it! I want him to enjoy his retirement, but to always keep his cell nearby. I may need to call.”

 


 

Heather O’Connell, Senior Vice President & CFO

“My most vivid memory of Jack was watching him at the end of each graduation ceremony. Tearing up and clearly emotional, he told the graduates — at every ceremony, every time — that they were forever part of the Wilmington University family. Even when I knew it was coming, I find myself completely undone. The fact that a leader could be vulnerable and express his heartfelt emotions in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 always impressed me.

“His commitment to widening access and opportunity for students with few resources has enabled thousands to achieve their dreams and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.”

For years, Jack has been an indefatigable champion of low-cost, high-quality higher education for nontraditional students. His commitment to widening access and opportunity for students with few resources has enabled thousands to achieve their dreams and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.”

 

 

 


 

Dr. Peter (Pete) Bailey, Vice President for External and International Affairs

“Dr. Varsalona has a unique ability to make everyone feel like they’re appreciated and special. I remember in the summer of 2001, when I ran into Dr. Varsalona and (former Board of Trustees chair) Mr. Irénée du Pont Jr., in the hallway. Jack asked my opinion about keeping one of the academic programs, and I let him know my thoughts. It was at that moment that I knew he valued every staff and faculty member — and our opinions — and that we all had a voice when it came to the future of the University.

He influenced higher education by making the unique mission of Wilmington University — including low tuition and open enrollment — even more accessible to new students in New Jersey, Maryland and online.

He’s always been honest with me, whether to tell me the good or bad news. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated that.

I want to tell Jack that his University family will miss him. Under his leadership, we experienced enormous growth in both enrollment and programs, and he has put in place new ideas that will sustain the University. I thank him for making Wilmington University an institution for which I’m proud to be a part.”

 

 

 


 

Dr. Eileen Donnelly, Vice President of Enrollment Management

Dr. Varsalona is a brilliant visionary who was deeply committed to Wilmington University’s students, faculty, alumni and staff. He continually looked for ways to demonstrate his gratitude for the commitment and skill of those serving and educating students. He has been an extraordinary leader who built and developed a university culture that those external to the University marveled at and those who worked for treasured.

Dr. Varsalona influenced higher education by focusing on our University mission and sharing how we maintain affordable tuition while increasing enrollment and innovation. He knew that we were and are a unique institution, and he was happy to share the successes of the University he led. He cared about higher education in the state and the country.

One of his dominant traits is his humility. A wise and successful leader, he was quick to recognize the efforts of others and deflect the limelight. He always demonstrated his appreciation for our contributions.

Dr. Varsalona gave his heart and mind to Wilmington University. We have all benefited from his exemplary leadership. I wish him continued happiness and great health as he begins the next chapter of his life. We will miss him very much.”

 

 


 

Carole Pitcher, University Vice President 

“When I first met Jack more than 25 years ago, I immediately noticed his great intelligence and infectious enthusiasm for the mission of what was then Wilmington College. Over time, I learned that he inspired others with his loyalty, integrity and compassion. Jack taught me to look at problems as challenges, to always give credit to others when things go right, and to take personal responsibility when things go wrong.

He never forgot that our
students are the reason our University exists. We are here to create opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. By supporting our students in every way possible — without compromising our academic integrity — he set an example for the entire University. While Jack kept in touch with staff and students by what he terms “managing by walking around,” he was also a visionary who successfully created a university from what was once a small college.

John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” If Adams was right, then Jack is one of the greatest leaders I have ever known. Although I’m sad that he’s retiring, he is leaving a great legacy. I believe that students, faculty and staff have become better people through knowing Jack — I know I have. And I can’t wait to see what Jack Varsalona does next.”

 

 

 


 

Christian (Chris) Trowbridge, Vice President for Administrative and Legal Affairs

“When Jack first asked me to manage the legal work for the University, it was a surprise to me. I have since learned that he had an uncanny knack to spot a need and find a solution. The timing of his offer was perfectly matched to the need. Like hundreds of people before and after me, Jack offered me a chance to help best contribute to the success of our students and the University. I can’t thank him enough for identifying my potential to help and extending the opportunity.

I have spoken with many colleagues at other universities, and few have a president as approachable to students, staff and faculty as Dr. Varsalona was. His availability and sincere commitment to students were the hallmarks of his positive influence on higher education. Jack’s longtime message, which expresses that students are customers who deserve the absolute best service we can provide both in and out of the classroom, is now commonplace in higher education.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Dr. James (Jim) Wilson, Vice President for Academic Affairs

Having worked only a few months in higher education and at Wilmington University, I was confronted with a significant personnel matter that had risen to the level of our then provost/vice president for Academic Affairs: Dr. Varsalona. I remember commenting to my wife how this was a first for me, and would essentially be a test of the level of support I would have at the University. It quickly became very apparent that Dr. Varsalona fully supported the position I had taken because the position was, quite simply, in the best interest of our students. What a relief it was to report this to my wife later that day. That was nearly two decades ago.

Dr. Varsalona’ s support continued throughout my career. Over the years he said to me privately that he wanted me to have a long and successful tenure at the University, and has accordingly offered advice, encouragement and at times, challenge. One example was at a time when my family went through a season of significant, major and even life-threatening challenges. Throughout this period, Dr. Varsalona made it quite evident, through words and deeds, of his and the University’s support for my entire family. For this, I shall always be grateful.

His support of others extended well beyond my personal story, and there are myriad examples of his generous support of faculty, staff, students and the community. Under his presidential leadership, the reputation of Wilmington University’s level of care for individuals, handed to him from former President Doberstein, will extend far into the future. Of particular note are the many scholarships he personally awarded to students. I’m aware of several friends who had received such scholarships without my knowledge. Each of these individuals would not have begun, no less completed, a college degree without such generosity.

As Jack — he always wanted to be called by his first name — moves into his retirement, may he draw much satisfaction, encouragement and gratification from the influence he has had on me, my family and so many others that will extend through many generations.” WU