ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
As new vice president of academics and student development at Tabor College, Lawrence Ressler will work to help his faculty and staff care for the whole student: mind, body and soul.
“We want students who are well-rounded, who are growing intellectually, physically and spiritually,” said Ressler, who came to Tabor July 8 from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y.
“So one of the goals is to find ways to bring together learning, student development and athletics,” he added. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Ressler’s desire to help students develop into healthy, ethical and smart adults stems from years of scholarship in social work.
“I’ve known my area of academic responsibility for nearly 20 years,” he said.
The Ohio native has a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Va., a master’s from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., and a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, all in social work.
Ressler’s wife, Sharon, also just finished a master’s in social work and is looking for a position in the area, he said.
His own teaching career in social work, begun in 1981 at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, while completing his Ph.D., lasted just over two decades.
Ressler first served in an administrative position as executive director of York Street Community Services in Philadelphia, a social service agency sponsored by Franconia Conference of the Mennonite Church.
Most recently, Ressler served two years as academic dean at Roberts Wesleyan.
Previously, he was director of the master of social work program at Roberts Wesleyan and associate dean at the Carver School of Church Social Work at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Ressler’s student development experience comes from serving first as resident assistant, then student activities coordinator at Eastern Mennonite University and resident director at Messiah College, Grantham, Pa.
A friend clued in Ressler to the open VP position at Tabor, formerly held by new Hesston College president Howard Keim.
“Somebody who was familiar with the colleges in the area called and said, ‘You really ought to apply for this position,'” Ressler said.
“And they went to the president and said, ‘Here’s somebody you ought to include in the prospective candidates.'”
Contact began around Christmas time, he said, and led to Ressler officially accepting a few months later.
The visit and subsequent relocation to Hillsboro three weeks ago have been not only Ressler’s farthest move west but his first direct contact with the college.
“I knew of Tabor through the media,” he said. “And I knew the social workers when social work was still a major here.
“But when I decided to come, I discovered lots of connections,” he added. “Again and again people talked about how terrific Tabor is.
“We’ve felt affirmed and encouraged to come here, and we have felt warmly accepted.”
It hasn’t taken Ressler and his wife long to feel welcomed by members of both the Tabor and Hillsboro communities.
“One of the things that the college wants to do is to have a sense of community, and that’s very clear,” Ressler said.
“You feel it immediately when a bunch of people show up to help do things that you need to do,” he added. “So you don’t feel alone very long.”
Still, Ressler has noticed quite a few changes from his previous home on the East Coast, including not only a lack of trees on the plains but a lack of ties on his male coworkers.
“The dress, the pace, the environment is more personal, and it is more at ease,” he said. “I’ve been impressed by how relaxed and how non-stuffy people are.”
Ressler is sure there will be trips back east to see their three children, including two engaged daughters, Daniele and Stephanie, and son Jake, who is heading off to EMU this fall.
“None of them moved with us, because they’re all entrenched in what they’re doing,” he said.
In the meantime, Ressler has been taking advantage of Kansas’s wide open spaces to do quite a bit of golfing, he said.
“The golf course is terrific, a wonderful contribution and benefit to Hillsboro,” he said.
As the weather cools, Ressler will move indoors to play racquetball, his sport of choice, or the dobro, his instrument of choice.
“I have also been in bluegrass bands for a couple decades,” he said. “So I will be looking for some jam sessions here, finding out where the local musicians just kind of get together and play just for the fun of it.”
What has Ressler been doing on campus since making the move? The same thing he will continue to do for the next year, he said.
“Listening, listening, listening,” he said. “For the first six months and throughout the whole year, my primary goal is to learn.
“I’m trying to understand what the issues are, how important they are, what the history of them is, what has been tried and failed, what has tried and worked well and what has not been tried.”
In dealing with what he learns about the institution, Ressler said he will wrestle with the big questions: how to budget, how to prioritize, how to get students here and then how to give them the right kind of education.
“As academic dean your job is to follow all of those to make they’re getting addressed,” he said.
Ressler will work most closely with James Fischer in student development, Don Brubacher in athletics and the division chairpersons of each academic department.
“My job is to connect the mission, goals and objectives of the institution with what they do,” he said, “and to problem solve for each of those areas, when they have problems that need higher institutional attention.”
Ressler said such problem-solving is a bit like social work on a larger scale.
“As a social worker, you’re working with people who have problems-sometimes little problems, sometimes big problems,” he said. “Now I’m a problem-solver for an institution, where in social work you’re a problem-solver for individuals or groups.
“This is like a large family,” he added. “So you have all sorts of relational issues you’re dealing with-how to get maybe 30 or 40 faculty and maybe 100 staff working together.
“The fun part about the job is that there are so many different things going on at the same time, so you really have to be quite flexible,” he said.
Ressler said he has always enjoyed doing social work within the academic environment.
“What has changed is that I have gone from teaching to administration,” he said. “I have gone from helping students learn, to working with the academic systems so that students can learn.
“I’ve just gone from the front lines back to a little bit more indirect student involvement.”
Ressler said he misses some aspects of his teaching career.
“I don’t have as much time to write or to do original academic research,” he said. “Now my research is far more about administrative or management problems.”
Previous research has convinced Ressler, even before coming to Tabor, of the need not just for increased enrollment numbers but for more technology on campus.
“The role of the Internet, I think, just cannot be underestimated in the future,” he said.
“Face-to-face interaction will always be superior to any other form of interaction,” he added. “But the educational strategies are going to increasingly be enriched by technology, which is going to give us access to people, to places, to knowledge that we simply did not have access to before.
“So proximity will become less and less critical as a way to know,” he said. “The Internet just makes the world a smaller place.”
Ressler emphasized that Tabor must learn to prepare its students for the future, to teach them to serve in a rapidly changing world.
“We simply have to figure out how to enrich what we’re doing with technology to make it better, to make the educational experience more relevant,” he said.
“We can’t educate for the past.”
Ressler said Tabor’s small size provides an advantage in this endeavor to stay on the cutting edge of higher education.
“Our size should give us more flexibility,” he said. “We’re not at the front of the pack, and we need to get closer to the front.”
The college has demonstrated its willingness to branch out and diversify its educational tactics, Ressler said, by adding professional, applied, adult and graduate programs to its liberal arts core.
“Tabor’s already shown that it is prepared and it is committed to providing multiple educational strategies,” he said.
“That’s real smart,” he added. “So I think the future of Tabor is going to be a continuation of this.”