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From a college visit to the presidency, Lori Varlotta’s relationship with Hiram has come full circle
Lori Varlotta was introduced to Hiram College the same way a lot of high school students are: She made a campus visit.
It wasn’t her own visit, but Hiram still left an impression on her.
“It was the spring of 1980 when I first learned of Hiram,” Varlotta says. “I grew up in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and a classmate was considering the college. Though I was not a prospective student, I accompanied that friend on a campus trip and really liked what I saw. I had no idea what a ‘quintessential liberal arts college’ looked like; still, I remember wondering if all good schools had an intimate campus like Hiram’s, with friendly students who greeted strangers.”
Varlotta couldn’t have known then that nearly 35 years later, she’d be president of Hiram. But as an accomplished academic administrator who has made a career out of looking at the bigger picture, she found the best possible fit when she was approached to apply for the presidency in 2013.
The big picture
After Varlotta’s 1980 Hiram visit, she earned a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. As a freshman aspiring to be a veterinarian, she enrolled in pre-med science courses but soon found a passion for philosophy and switched majors her sophomore year.
“I fell in love with my very first philosophy class,” she says. “It was much to the chagrin of my parents, who didn’t know what I’d do with a philosophy degree, but even as a 19-year-old, I knew it would be the right path for me.”
After completing her undergraduate work, Varlotta earned a master’s degree in the philosophy and sociology of education and a Ph.D. in educational leadership, women’s studies and feminist philosophy. While not the most common path to a college presidency, she says she would not have had it any other way.
This appreciation for interdisciplinary studies drew her to Hiram College. While most graduate students become more specialized in their studies, Varlotta went the other way.
“I fixated on the broadest and most fundamental educational questions, such as, ‘What does it mean to learn, and how can teaching and learning serve, improve and sustain the greater community?’” she says. “Posing questions like these made it immediately apparent that I would need to draw from multiple disciplines to formulate any viable response.”
Varlotta was impressed that Hiram College prompts its undergraduate students to ask and answer similar questions. She knew that in both the asking and the answering, these students, too, would need to pull from various disciplines and learning experiences, both in the classroom and beyond.
The Hiram Plan — a unique and effective way to structure courses — fuels this sophisticated inquiry. Students take three or four courses during the first 12 weeks of the term, and during the last three weeks choose a single class to explore. Many undertake a research project, participate in a study abroad or study away program, complete an internship or pursue another type of experiential learning opportunity.
“The Hiram Plan ensures that students combine their classroom learning with hands-on, applied learning, and that really sets Hiram apart as an academic institution,” Varlotta says.
The Hiram Plan, with its seamless integration of in-class and out-of-classroom learning, is not the only thing that differentiates Hiram from other liberal arts colleges.
“We have several Centers of Distinction that promote interdisciplinary practice and analysis,” Varlotta says. “Hiram’s Centers of Distinction offer co-curricular programs that complement the content of many academic courses. Moreover, students who engage in their programs gain a well-rounded view of world issues as they examine the topic through the lenses of different academic disciplines.”
The student success factor
Varlotta, who was elected president by the Board of Trustees in February and assumed office July 1, arrived at Hiram after 11 years at California State University, Sacramento. In her roles there, she played an integral part in creating infrastructures and programs to support student recruitment, retention and success, things that Hiram has pursued, as well. The College’s demonstrated commitment to student success was another factor that attracted Varlotta to the Hiram presidency.
“At Sacramento State, I was hired to the campus as the associate vice president for campus life,” she says. “One year later, I became the divisional vice president for student affairs. By the time I left, I had been promoted to senior vice president for planning, enrollment management and student affairs.”
In her time there, she helped bring in some of the university’s largest and most diverse classes and helped launch dozens of programs, such as a comprehensive assessment program, a veteran success center, a parents’ council and an integrated student-athlete support office. She also helped oversee the construction and opening of state-of-the-art facilities, including a 600-bed living learning complex for upper-class students and a 158,000-square-foot integrated wellness center.
Varlotta sees the same commitment to student success at Hiram.
“Every member of the college community is passionate about making this a great place to learn, study and play,” she says. “I started a listening and learning tour the day I arrived, visiting every department in their own work space. My first visit was with the facilities staff. I walked into their modest office, and painted on the white cinderblock wall was the single most important question all of us should ask: ‘What did YOU do today to help a student graduate?’ I love it. That’s why I am here.”