Brian Levin-Stankevich's entire academic career has coursed through public universities on both sides of the nation, but this summer it comes full circle to the kind of school where it all began for him: a small private liberal arts college.
Westminster College's trustees on Tuesday announced they were hiring the Wisconsin chancellor to succeed Michael Bassis, the long-serving president who retires July 15.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y. and life-long ice hockey player, Levin-Stankevich studied history at Hamilton College, one of the Little Ivies in his home state's rural heartland. His vision for higher education was shaped by his Hamilton experience, but it will unfold at Westminster, where he hopes to ensure undergraduates are mentored by leading scholars, conduct research and study abroad.
"I've been searching for that environment for my whole career," he said, noting that his Hamilton mentor, foreign policy expert Michael Haltzel, is still his mentor 40 years later.
Since 2006, he has led the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, one of 13 four-year campuses in that state's university system, which has more than 11,000 students, or about four times Westminster's population. All three external finalists for the Westminster post were leading administrators at much larger public universities.
"The college community can be proud that this search attracted so many high quality candidates from across the country," said a prepared statement quoting trustees chairman Bob Frankenberg. "Dr. Levin-Stankevich has an outstanding record of achievement, and is committed to building on the college's reputation as a national leader in education."
Some faculty back in Eau Claire say Utah is fortunate to land their chancellor. Math professor Susan Harrison gave her boss an excellent recommendation to the Westminster search committee, even though in her heart she would have liked to have sabotaged his chances.
"I don't want to see him leave. He has the ability to see big picture and see what needs to be done, he was done to hired to network with the community and legislature and he has done that," said Harrison, a long-time chair of Eau Claire's faculty senate. "He works with all the different groups. He'll summarize and pull together the input. He doesn't give you all the answers and say, 'Go forth and do it.' It's a big loss for Wisconsin."
But given the political climate in her state, Harrison could hardly blame Levin-Stankevich for seeking a new post with a much smaller private college.
"We are getting cut more and more in budgets and yet we are not given the control," Harrison said. "Brian was leading us to do great things with efficiency, but we didn't get the benefit of it. When you're in Madison [Wisconsin's capital] two or three times a week it gets ridiculous. It's tiring and it's taking its toll."
His boss Kevin Reilly, president of the 13-campus system, praised him as a strong leader.
"He worked closely with faculty, staff, and students to advance many key initiatives including the Blugold Commitment, which supports collaborative undergraduate research, international experiences, and student internships, while also providing financial aid to students with need," Reilly said in a prepared statement.
In Utah, Levin-Stankevich, 61, will have a tough act to follow, but it's one he says he's honored to succeed.
During Bassis' 10-year tenure as Westminster president, enrollment at the Salt Lake City college grew by 44 percent and became more diverse, as the institution gained a national reputation for a high-quality undergraduate experience at a relatively low cost. Nine graduate and 19 undergraduate programs were added, along with eight athletic teams. Bassis established seven new academic centers, such as the Great Salt Lake Institute. Last fall, 56 percent of the freshman class came from outside Utah, up from 18 percent when Bassis arrived from Florida Atlantic University. His total compensation package was worth more than $500,000 in 2010, according to federal tax filings, making him one of the state's most well-paid campus administrators outside the University of Utah.
Levin-Stankevich is no stranger to the West. He previously served as provost and interim president at Eastern Washington University. He and his wife Debi have a second home outside Albuquerque.
An avid road bicyclist, he looks forward to the 4,000-foot climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon and weekends in Red Rock country. "We love the mountains and the desert," he said, gesturing out the window of Westminster's new Meldrum Building toward the snow-capped Oquirrh Mountains. "Utah is the most beautiful state in the country."
As an administrator, Levin-Stankevich enjoyed hanging with students, faculty and alumni. A scholar of Russian history with an expertise in Soviet legal systems, he tries to teach one course a year. He has used his social gifts to resolve campus disputes at Eastern Washington and Eau Claire. One concluded with the preservation of an historic oak tree that was standing where officials hoped to build a new student union.
At Eau Claire, he played on the faculty hockey team and played guitar with the jazz ensemble. Levin-Stankevich, who serves on the NCAA Presidents Council, believes athletics plays a critical role in higher education. But most important is an immersive experience where students learn how to learn, and to think creatively and critically.
"I want to work toward promoting real higher learning," he said. "It is more a cumulative process where you are building knowledge upon knowledge. I want graduates who look back on their experience here as formative to their lives as adults."
New Westminster president
Brian Levin-Stankevich was selected to succeed Michael Bassis at Westminster College.
Family status • Married with two adult sons
Age • 61
Education • Doctorate in history from State University of New York, Buffalo; bachelor's degree at Hamilton College
Current post • Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire