by Martha I. Fernandez
photography by Amy M. Boyle

Revealing the University president who can kick up his feet and even crack a smile, Dr. Stephen Morgan lounges in his backyard among his rosebushes and orchids. He confesses that working in his garden and puttering around are activities that allow him to think about the week's agenda. / photo by Amy M. Boyle

Revealing the University president who can kick up his feet and even crack a smile, Dr. Stephen Morgan lounges in his backyard among his rosebushes and orchids. He confesses that working in his garden and puttering around are activities that allow him to think about the week’s agenda. / photo by Amy M. Boyle

Ask University of La Verne President Stephen Morgan to describe his day, and he reaches into the breast pocket of his crisp, white dress shirt. In his palm, he holds a 3 x 5 index card smudged with letters and numbers that decipher his day’s schedule.

“It is an absolute necessity, or I would forget what I had to do next,” he says about his daily companion. “Everyday is so different that I wouldn’t remember what my appointments were if I didn’t write them down.”

Although it may seem frustrating to live your day from the demands of a card, Dr. Morgan knew it was a sacrifice he was going to have to make.

After working as assistant to the president in the past, he knew that one of the requirements of the executive position would be to “not lose control of your schedule.” “Each day when I leave here, I take a schedule for the day on a 3 x 5 card so I know what I am going to do,” he says.

Among the listings on today’s card are a meeting with representatives from the LeRoy Haynes Center, which will honor Dr. Morgan as the “Humanitarian of the Year” at a weekend event, and his University 100 class. He has been a co-facilitator in the freshmen seminar program for the past two years, a practice he began in order to interact more with students. “It is helpful for me to have a student perspective,” Dr. Morgan says.

Also on his list are meetings with the President’s Dinner Committee, Jan Snow, assistant dean of the School of Continuing Education (SCE); Dr. Loretta Rahmani, dean of student affairs; and the Space Committee. The latter was the last scheduled appointment for the day. “There are always space needs, and this committee was formed to help make decisions about priorities in terms of space requests,” says Dr. Morgan, who chairs the Committee and has taken a special interest in the expansion of the University. “I think in my lifetime, if La Verne could just double the size of its campus that would at least allow us more parking,” he says with a chuckle, “and buildings.”

Dr. Morgan leaves his office daily around “5:45 to 6:30. It depends on how much I have on my desk. “I will go home. The first thing I’ll do is get the mail and thumb through it to see if there is something that is really important. It is probably not my turn tonight to fix dinner. Then, we [Dr. Morgan and his wife Ann] will clean up dinner. “I think I have some bills to pay tonight,” he remembers.

Although most of Dr. Morgan’s time is occupied by the duties of being a University President, it is the time not listed on the index card that he lives for. “What really gives meaning to my life, I think, are the contacts with family and friends,” he confesses. “Family time is important to me, and when Kesley was young, and she had dance recitals or some kind of a show…that was a top priority to me.”

However, the times of attending his daughter’s school functions have been over since last fall, when Kesley left for the University of Denver to major in vocal performance. In addition to his daughter leaving out of state for college, his wife Ann is in her second year at a doctoral program at the California School of Professional Psychology. “She is really working hard, and I’m really pleased to see that she is doing something she really wants to do,” he says.

Dr. Morgan and his wife were married while she was still an undergraduate in college. She worked as a public school teacher for 15 years. When Dr. Morgan became University president, she left teaching to spearhead beautification projects for the University. “She certainly sacrificed and made some moves so I could pursue my career, so now I have the opportunity to support her in what she wants to do,” he says. “In terms of changing my life, it just means I have to do more grocery shopping, and I fix dinner more often.”

Although it is being with family and friends that Dr. Morgan values, his duties as University president are what receive most of his time. “I guess in an ideal world I’d work four days a week and have three days off each week. As it is, I pretty much work six days a week because there are usually events that I am a part of,” he says.

In addition to University involvements, Dr. Morgan serves on other organizations’ boards. Ask Dr. Morgan on how many boards he serves, and he opens his left hand and counts out loud as he touches the tip of each finger. Soon, all five fingers of one hand are extended. He stops, smiles and then counts one more on his other hand. “Six. I think six. Yes,” he says, convincing himself.

Dr. Morgan is on the board for the Mt. Baldy United Way, McKinley Children Center, Inter-Valley Health Plan Board, Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center Board, Executive Committee of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, and is the chair of the Western College Association. “I think that it is very important to the local boards for La Verne to have a presence in the community,” he explains. “We are a regional institution, and we recruit our students from the region, and we solicit funds from this region, so I think it is important for me to have a high profile.

“People say La Verne is a well kept secret, and I would really like for that not to be the case,” says Dr. Morgan about his participation on academic boards. He believes that part of the reason the University is unknown is because “it is a regional institution in a fairly invisible community.”

Being visible is one of the reasons Dr. Morgan’s schedule is so hectic. He runs the University and makes an effort to be active in the community. Wherever he goes, he is a representative of an organization. Due to his affiliations, Dr. Morgan emphasizes his presentation and appearance.

“I do a lot of fundraising, and my theory has always been that a fundraiser ought to really have a fairly neutral appearance because when I walk in to talk to someone about giving money, I don’t want them to think his hair is a little long or his shoes aren’t shined.

“I’ve always kind of dressed like a banker. I think that gives people, sometimes if they don’t know me, the idea that I am stuffy and formal and very stiff. I don’t view myself that way,” he says. “I think people think I sleep in a suit.”

Ring the doorbell at his home, and one may find Dr. Morgan has shed his pin striped suit and replaced it with a green and white striped polo shirt and a pair of cream colored shorts. It is in shorts and not in dress pants that Dr. Morgan works in his garden and mentally reviews the week’s problems. “I do a lot of thinking when I’m gardening,” he says. “It is very therapeutic, I think. No one bothers me when I’m gardening-no telephone, no visitors.”

His backyard is abundant with rose bushes and season flowers, but it is in his hot house with a buzzing humidifier where Dr. Morgan’s favorite blossoms grow. “I’ve been growing orchids since I was 12 years old. Right now, these orchids enjoy their environment, so they’ve been doing very well.

“I’ve always liked growing things and this challenge of finding and creating an environment for the orchids to grow,” he says about his obsession with the flower.

The challenge of creating a growing environment is not exclusive to Dr. Morgan’s backyard. “I’m interested in creating an environment where we can make learning challenging, fun and stimulating and also provide an environment for students to grow personally,” he says, about his University vision.

“To me, life is a big buffet table of experiences, and for me, I like to take as many samples as I can,” he explains. “I’d like to provide as many samples as we possibly can and experiences for our students here.”

In creating this environment and offering students with a sample of experiences, Dr. Morgan believes the University needs to be running “perfectly. And, we’re a long way from it.”

He describes his “dream for nirvana at La Verne” as whenever someone in the University is “dealing with a client or staff member, they would treat that person like that person was the most important person in their life at that time. If we are going to be a personalized institution like we want to be, and that it is what we are, then we need to be as user friendly as we can be.” Essentially, Dr. Morgan “would like to see the University of La Verne achieve being the Nordstrom of higher education.”

So, what is it about Nordstrom that attracts Dr. Morgan?

“I think the level of service at Nordstrom is higher,” says Dr. Morgan, who confesses that he would pay more to escape anonymity. “Nordstrom has got a new standard for being user friendly, expensive but user friendly.” Although Dr. Morgan claims that he would like the University to inherit the user friendly trait, and not the expensive characteristic, he says it is difficult for the University to achieve this feat. “I think we in higher education can do a lot better at- and faculty don’t like to hear this- treating our students as customers. You’re paying a lot of money, and if we don’t have you as students, none of us would have jobs.”

Even if the University would achieve the standards of service radiated at Nordstrom, it still would not be good enough for Dr. Morgan. “I’m never satisfied with anything. That’s one of my traits. I’m always interested in how we can make things better,” he reveals. “I think an effective leader always has to have a vision for an organization that is just a little bit beyond their grasp.”

Leadership is an area of study that Dr. Morgan has taken a special interest in. It is this trait that lured him to pursue a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Southern California and a doctorate degree in educational management from the University of Northern Colorado. He lists leadership qualities: “I think a leader does have to have the ability to create a vision, so he has to have some imagination of what could this place be or his organization could be in the future.

“I think he has to be able to communicate well because he has to help communicate his vision and relate to people.

“I think a manager has to have integrity; that’s important. I think the most effective managers are honest people who openly communicate and honestly communicate.

“I think that effective leaders have a sense of humor. They cannot take themselves too seriously or others too seriously,” he says about his qualifications for a leader.

Ask Dr. Morgan whether he is an effective leader, and he will say “nothing is ever perfected. Life is a continuing process of maturation and experiences.”

Dr. Morgan looks forward to experience and lives for it. “I guess as you get older, you start to think I’d like to have the physical abilities of a 20 year-old, but I wouldn’t want to go back to that stage of not knowing all the experiences that I’ve had in life. “This is a pretty good time. I’m still young enough to be physically capable and able. I’m not anxious of ‘will I achieve my goals,’ ” he says. “When I give up having goals and dreams, then I’m probably past my peak by far.”

Dr. Morgan still has goals for himself and the University. He not only would like to see the campus double its physical size, but add 200-500 undergraduates to the student population. It seems that as one goal is met, another appears. Dr. Morgan may not be satisfied, but he is not unhappy.

“I’m content in the sense that I still have an agenda to fulfill, and I still think I have the ability here at La Verne, at least, to lead us toward the next plateaus of excellence,” he says.

As long as the next plateau is within reach, Dr. Morgan will continue to fill 3 x 5 index cards and reach into his dress shirt breast pocket to begin the next day.