Women Leaders at Endicott
Women leaders in the positions of provost, vice president of student affairs, and Board of Trustees chair emerita share their stories to inspire future trailblazers.
Dr. Eleanor Tupper helped start Endicott College in 1939 with her husband Reverend Dr. George Bierkoe because they envisioned a new college that would unleash the tremendous potential of women. Way ahead of her time, Tupper wrote that women “should have the opportunity to rise above housework” and “should be educated for opportunities equal to those of men.” She officially served as President from 1971 to 1980.
If one could ask Tupper what she thought of Endicott today, she would feel great pride in knowing that several leadership positions at the College are occupied by women, and that her vision has grown into countless women teaching, working, and learning on campus. Women leaders are building a better Nest.
Provost with the Most
Take Provost & Professor of Psychology Beth Schwartz, Ph.D., who joined the College in June 2020. At two previous higher education institutions, her career went from full-time faculty member to Assistant Dean of the college, to Chief Academic Officer/Provost, with several stops along the way. A lifelong learner, she completed a leadership program through the Council of Independent Colleges that provided the insights and experience she needed to pursue the role of Provost.
Such career journeys are not without lessons. “I learned to seek out opportunities even when they are not necessarily presented to you, to advocate for oneself,” says Schwartz. She cites the importance of mentors—or a village of those who have come before and with experience; putting personal needs aside in favor of the larger community; and not taking things personally when conflict arises; as critical discoveries.
With only six months under her belt at Endicott, and considering the current circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, the one accomplishment that stands out is her work on the Reimagine Endicott Task Force and with the academic school deans. Together, these groups ensured a safe and healthy return to campus, with many classes seated. “Providing the key elements of an Endicott education, even in the midst of COVID-19, is an accomplishment for all of us,” says Schwartz.
In shaping Endicott’s future, she envisions “a reorganization of academic affairs that ensures effective and efficient use of resources, while providing the needed leadership within the division, so that faculty can be successful in their roles.” Being sure that students receive what they need to successfully complete an undergraduate or graduate degree is a top priority.
Schwartz is living up to her own motto, “make good choices!” She says, “It is important to stop, think through a decision, and make sure it is for the right reason—and at the right time.”
“Never stop seeking learning opportunities; create a network of mentors and colleagues for needed support; and never give up on your career goals.” – Beth M. Schwartz, Ph.D.
The Accidental Education Professional
“Funny enough, education was not my original career path,” says Vice President of Student Affairs Brandi Johnson. “When I was an undergraduate student, I was convinced I was going to be the next Oprah.” After graduating from UMASS Amherst with a journalism and African American studies degree, she interviewed with a Boston-based nonprofit that provided afterschool programs for inner-city youth. From Teacher to Cheerleading Coach to Americorps Teaching Fellow, and then to Director of Community Life at Regis College, Johnson’s career has been fully immersed in education, even if unintentional at first.
On the way to Endicott and now, her personal objective is to be true to herself and always do work of which she is proud. She aims to lead openly, honestly, and sincerely. “It’s okay to be vulnerable; we are all human,” says Johnson. “But, be humble and know when to apologize.”
Johnson calls herself a support system for numerous students throughout her 12 years at Endicott, and equally proud of the culture change that she has been able to facilitate within and through the division of student affairs. “The implementation of an all-gender housing policy, as well as initiating a Climate Survey as a co-chair of the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Task Force are important leadership contributions for me,” says Johnson. “And, I never thought I would add successfully opening residence halls during a pandemic to a list of accomplishments, but here we are.”
Goals for her division include creating a more robust and intentional system for the care of students outside of the classroom, through programmatic curriculum development and policy design that will support, engage, and empower students. Her advice to aspiring young women leaders is, “not everyone will like you, and that’s okay. Know your weaknesses so you can surround yourself with people that compliment your strengths, and live in the present.”
A true community-focused leader, Johnson believes that in work and in life, “you are obligated to leave this world better than you found it.”
First in Finance
Cynthia Merkle ’77 has a career filled with milestones and accolades. She started at Old Stone Bank in Providence, R.I., moved through the ranks to Executive Vice President for Eastern Bank in Boston, where she spent 21 years, to her current role of President & CEO of Union Savings Bank—a $2.2 billion mutual bank headquartered in Danbury, Conn., that operates 25 full-service branches. Her trophy case includes the 2019 New England Women in Banking Leadership award. In a word, impressive.
“Candidly, I never even thought where a ladder would lead and I certainly did not set out to become a bank CEO,” says Merkle. The hard work and dedication she put toward any job eventually got her recognized. “And that recognition led me to the good fortune of working for individuals that would ask me to take on new responsibilities—even in areas where I did not necessarily possess the knowledge that one would expect.” She always said, “yes” to challenges, and gained new skills and leadership traits that positioned her well for her current job.
“Today, I see so many young people that want to move up quickly, and I always encourage them to take the time to learn, as in the long run it will be a big advantage for them,” says Merkle.
A dedicated alumna, Merkle joined the Endicott Board of Trustees in 2011 and became its first woman Chair in 2016; she also serves as the first female Chair of the Connecticut Bankers Association, and Chair of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, among other leadership positions.
Her tenure as Endicott Board Chair came to a close in October. She cites the unexpected passing of President Dr. Richard E. Wylie as one of the most challenging times for the trustees. “However, having a succession plan in place that provided for Interim President Dr. Katie Barnes to take the helm allowed us to conduct a thorough search for a new president,” says Merkle. “Ultimately, this led us to President Dr. DiSalvo, who is doing a wonderful job, and fortunately he arrived prior to this pandemic.” She feels pride in how the board managed through all of these transitions and that the College continues to thrive. “Just look at our students!” she says.
Merkle recently received the 2020 Outstanding Alumni Award. “First off, I am rarely surprised, so when Dr. DiSalvo announced the news at a trustee dinner I really was speechless,” she says. “As I left Endicott in 1977, I never envisioned what the College would become, and that I would reconnect and get involved. I will treasure my time as a trustee and as an alumna.”
For aspiring leaders, especially young women, Merkle says, “Take your time, don’t be in a rush; be sure to support one another and celebrate the successes of your colleague/friend/family member just as you would your own; and find a balance between career and family early on.”
Another “first” for Merkle is community. Her unwavering passion for giving back includes serving as President of the bank’s charitable foundation and creating the Union Savings Bank Teachers’ Closet, which provides free school supplies to teachers in local communities with extreme financial challenges.
Reflecting on her career, Merkle says, “I always try to remember that I have to be able to look myself in the mirror each day and know I was fair, honest, and supportive.”
A provost, a VP, and a board chair—this is what leadership looks like at Endicott.