Edward Nicholson is a life-long academic. He has seen the inner workings of numerous college institutions across the country and has held positions ranging from professor to dean. In 1989 Nicholson found himself in Pittsburgh as president of Robert Morris University and helped transform the institution into what it is today.
“At the time, Robert Morris was a focused institution in business,” says Nicholson, who retired as president of the institution in 2005.
Robert Morris also had a large number of students enrolled in two-year associate degree programs, but Nicholson realized it would be hard to compete on price with the public community colleges.
“Many of the private and some of the public universities were starting undergraduate programs in business, which was sort of our bread and butter,” Nicholson says. “We were competitively under a great deal of pressure.”
Nicholson decided Robert Morris needed to become a broader-based university and offer programs in the humanities such as teacher education, engineering, health care and medical sciences.
“To do that and to grow fairly rapidly, we decided to get out of the business of offering associate degrees and focus our growth on the campus in Moon Township,” he says. “Our strategy was to leverage our one big competitive advantage, and that was to expand our Division I athletic programs. The first thing I did was start a football program.”
Over the years, Robert Morris introduced enough new Division I athletic programs — 23 — to have more than the University of Pittsburgh, which boasted 21. As a consequence, the new programs in engineering, health care and social sciences grew and easily made up for the students who were no longer around seeking associate degrees.
“We didn’t see any rapid growth in the number of students we were serving, but what we did see was pretty rapid growth in the number seeking bachelor degrees,” he says.
In 2003, Nicholson furthered the institution’s strategy surrounding Division I athletics by purchasing recreational facilities on Neville Island. The facilities included a golf dome for winter golf and indoor soccer, an indoor and outdoor ice rink for hockey and outdoor fields for lacrosse.
With the addition of this asset, Robert Morris was able to bring the NCAA Division I Ice Hockey tournament, the Frozen Four, to Pittsburgh in 2013.
“That facility was sort of the culmination of our strategy of using our Division I prominence to build new programs and recruit students,” Nicholson says.
Despite all the successes that Nicholson had while serving as president of Robert Morris, his toughest challenge remained convincing people that the institution was more than a good business school.
“When you have such a successful reputation over the past 60 years and have built your brand and your identity, it is a challenge to change that brand successfully,” he says. “Today, I think we have changed that brand successfully.”
While the business school is still the largest component of the institution, Robert Morris has a school of nursing, a school of engineering, a school of education and has been able to build credibility in all of those academic fields. It now competes on a broad basis in the marketplace with the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Grove City College and Slippery Rock University. ●
How to reach: Robert Morris University, (800) 762-0097 or www.rmu.edu
2013 PACESETTER CLASS:
(Click below to read their profile.)
- Winner - Troy Gregory, president and CEO, System One Holdings LLC
- Honoree - Dennis Oates, president and CEO, Universal Stainless & Alloy Products Inc.
- Winner - Ken Zeff, founder and CEO, Crazy Mocha
- Honoree - Thomas Mattei, associate dean of professional programs, Duquesne University Mylan School of Pharmacy
- Honoree - H. Rochelle Stachel, founder and CEO, HRV Conformance Verification Associates Inc.
- Honoree - Mark Brennan, president and CEO, Clearview Federal Credit Union
- Winner - Debra Mortillaro, co-owner, Dreadnought Wines
- Honoree - Charley Kennedy, managing principal, Fiducia Group
- Honoree - Darrin Grove, CEO, TrueFit