It’s a Great Day To Be a Beloiter
While Scott Bierman officially served as Beloit’s 11th college president from 2009-2023, his title and successful tenure don’t begin to tell the story of his love for Beloit College and its people.
The walls in outgoing College President Scott Bierman’s office are covered with 27 tidily arranged photographs of people from Beloit’s past. The framed portraits range from John Pfeffer, the college’s first janitor and a student confidante who was wildly generous to Beloit — to Sammy Ransom, a multi-sport alumni athlete from the class of 1908, believed to be America’s first Black collegiate basketball player.
Bierman knows many stories about these long-ago Beloiters, and he relishes telling them.
He explains, for instance, that Ransom became a professional athlete and prominent civil rights advocate who once said he might have been a greater athlete if he had gone to the University of Chicago. (He was heavily recruited by a legendary Chicago coach.) Bierman beams as he finishes Ransom’s quote, from memory: “But by going to Beloit, I was a better man.”
About five years after he arrived on campus, Beloit’s 11th president removed the oil paintings of coastal scenes he found hanging in his Middle College office and replaced them with this curated pantheon of Beloiters. Working with College Archivist Emeritus Fred Burwell’86, he chose individuals who uniquely spoke to Beloit’s spirit.
“It occurred to me that there was a set of people whose stories were inspiration for things I was saying or doing or whose names came up often with alumni or who captured my attention,” Bierman says. “I thought, I’m going to surround myself in my office with all my Beloit friends. They ground me in the history of the college, which is critical for thinking about the future of the college.”
Bierman may be retiring after 14 years as the college’s president, but his work to instill pride in Beloit’s past and demonstrate its relevance to the future will live on, and so will the actual portraits of Beloiters in the President’s Office. He plans to leave them behind for posterity and for 12th College President Eric Boynton, until Boynton leaves his own mark on these walls.
The past informing the future
Bierman’s tenure has far too many achievements to cover in one magazine article. He has led with both his head and his heart, setting high standards, empowering shared decision making, and demonstrating empathetic leadership during pivotal moments.
He led Beloit through a global pandemic, brought the college community together during a time of righteous outrage over racial injustice, and steered the college’s financial ship through the end of the Great Recession. During his tenure, the college increased fundraising, revived a culture of philanthropy, and made major improvements to the college’s historic campus. Many would say his most tangible legacy is the Powerhouse, the former coal-fired power plant transformed into an award-winning student union and recreation center. But a key focus of his presidency often goes unsung. It rises to the top of his list when he looks back on what he’s accomplished.
“Something that goes the entire arc of my presidency is connecting the conceptual glory of the Beloit Plan with the college’s current curriculum,” he reflects. “The glory of the Beloit Plan was understanding the educational importance of connecting what happens in the classroom with what can happen if you’re smart about it outside the classroom.”
From his first days on campus, Bierman heard the passion in faculty members’ voices as they talked about connecting their teaching with opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom — the central premise of the Beloit Plan. Launched in 1964, the nationally lauded Plan lasted into the late 1970s, when it no longer worked as a financial model.
Bierman recognized that Beloit Plan values remained very much alive and had anchored themselves into Beloit’s culture through the faculty. He also saw how faculty did this work with little support from college administrators, who were necessarily focused on getting the school’s financial house in order.
“Faculty understood the importance of this pedagogical approach because they lived it,” Bierman says. “By hook or by crook, they would find ways to help students put their education into practice.”
In Ann Davies, Bierman’s provost in his early years, and faculty leaders, including now-Interim Provost Donna Oliver and sociology professor Charles Westerberg’94, he found capable partners to reignite the Beloit Plan’s educational concepts. First called the “Liberal Arts in Practice,” this strategic focus took shape in a new curriculum and programs such as the Beloit Project and Career Channels. The creation of Impact Beloit, perhaps its most robust iteration, is a hub for student experiences with a focus on regional partnerships, both for-profit and non-profit. It will be housed in a restored Morse Library, a $10 million project getting underway this summer.
Dick Niemiec’65, who chairs Beloit’s Board of Trustees, notes the emphasis Bierman placed on reinvigorating this crucial part of the college’s mission. “There has been a constant focus on students and their careers without giving up the liberal arts part of Beloit,” he says of Bierman’s tenure.
Shared decision making
A spirit of collective decision making, also known as “shared governance,” is something Bierman championed to its highest level, though truth be told, it was built into Beloit’s structure when he arrived. Not every college has a faculty member serving on its senior leadership team, for instance, nor do most schools invite elected students to serve on powerful governing bodies, such as Academic Senate. Bierman took these existing structures and bolstered them, making a practice of getting the best people in the room, giving them a specific charge, and letting them do their work. Beloit is rife with evidence that better ideas come from having more minds engaged in problem-solving.
Dan Schooff, Bierman’s chief of staff for a decade who rejoined the college last fall as vice president for advancement, cites the Powerhouse as one important example. First, he confirms that the origin story is true: Alone on a morning run, Bierman went past the mothballed power plant and envisioned it as a recreation center that could replace the old Field House. What Bierman did not see at the time was its potential as a student union. That came about after Bierman charged a group of staff, faculty, and students with examining whether there was support for converting the plant into a rec center.
The committee, led by former Dean of Students Christina Pape Klawitter’98, determined that the project indeed had support, but also strongly suggested that a student union be integrated into the project. Beloit had lacked a genuine student union since the days of the Smith Building. “The magic of the Powerhouse is that these two things were intertwined with high-quality design in a historic building,” says Schooff. “The magic is the program. Shared governance made the Powerhouse better in the long term.”
During Covid, the shared governance principle again came into play. This time, Bierman issued a charge to a task force to figure out how to safely bring people back to campus without a heavy-handed, top-down approach. Task force members, complemented by a group of committed students, were guided in part by something Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood said early on: “Better to be six feet apart than to be 600 miles apart.” And it worked. The task force followed the science and helped orchestrate a return to campus without a single major outbreak. And it would not have happened without students who were empowered to carve out their own rules and set behavioral expectations that reduced the spread of the virus. Both the quick decision-making on returning to campus and the student involvement earned the college widespread praise and national media attention.
A student-centric atmosphere
Though a serious student of Beloit’s history, Bierman has existed very much in the present at the college, contributing new traditions and serving as the ringleader in creating a campus atmosphere that’s friendly, open, and fun.
At a farewell dinner for the Biermans in May, Oceana R. Gilliam’17, a stellar student and now a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, recalled her transition to Beloit from South Central Los Angeles. The first in her family to attend college, Gilliam faced a dramatic adjustment to a new venue and culture as a Beloit student. One day as she walked past Middle College, she wondered about the college president. She walked up to his second-floor office, hoping she might meet him, and much to her surprise, Bierman cleared his calendar to chat. Afterward, she hurried back to her room and made a phone call. “I was elated to share with my mother, Rosie Mae Weathersby, my exciting conversation with President Bierman,” she says. From that moment, she says she had a great feeling about Beloit.
“Scott has always had an open-door policy,” says Erica Daniels, Beloit’s chief of staff, who has worked alongside Bierman in several capacities since she joined the college in 2012. “That’s one of the first things I learned coming into this office: If a student comes in, Scott wants to find time to meet with them. We should always prioritize students.”
Niemiec credits the Biermans with setting a welcoming tone and putting students first. He says Melody Bierman played an essential role in making the President’s House a center of activity. The Biermans often hosted small groups of students in their home for dinners, cookie-baking afternoons, even a Champagne toast to kick off their senior year. In the evenings, the Biermans would often stroll on the residential side of campus to meet and greet students.
“They are just genuine people who make you feel welcome,” Niemiec says. “I think Scott and Melody have used the President’s House splendidly to entertain, whether it’s students or the board, or members of the community. At a small campus, I think the more you can know each other, the better everything goes.”
Students have given their president the moniker “Scotty B,” and likewise, he knows most students by name, and even remembers many of their birthdays, says Niemiec. Bierman is expressive about how much he loves getting to know and learning from students, and he gleefully anticipates what they’ll do in the world after they graduate. He is a funny and exceedingly cheerful cheerleader, who is also prone to waxing philosophical, saying things like “students are a tonic for the soul,” and lamenting their absence when the calendar reaches mid-July.
Bierman’s personal diplomacy and friendship with students often started even before they enrolled. He regularly met one-on-one with prospective students, especially those selected to receive the Presidential Scholarship.
He gets misty eyed as he talks about a prospective Presidential Scholar he met recently. The student’s family was displaced by the war in Ukraine where her father still serves in the military. Bierman explains that Beloit found the funding to make it possible for this student to enroll, then she visited, and fell in love with Beloit. When asked what he’ll miss most, Bierman says: “I’m not going to be here when that student graduates from Beloit College, and I won’t be a part of her life for those four years. I could add another eight students I’ve talked to in the last two weeks that fall into that same category.”
As college president, Scott Bierman had a number of favorite expressions and coined a few memorable phrases, too. These are some of our favorites:
- It’s a great day to be a Beloiter!
- Turtles all the way down
- The glory of [fill in anything Beloit College-related]
- Spectacular [fill in the blank]
- Beloiters: The most interesting people in the room
- From here at Chapin’s desk
- Time for another shot (a squirt of hand sanitizer)
- Secret sauce
Joy of education
Looking back to 2009, Bierman’s inauguration festivities foreshadowed his unconventional style. His inaugural address in Eaton Chapel surprised everyone when it unfolded with a focus on turtles, their characteristics, and their uncanny ability to represent Beloit as the college’s unofficial mascot. His staccato delivery and the sly subject matter signaled a new presidential era that was already curiously in sync with Beloit’s character — showing a sense of humor and a healthy appreciation for irreverence.
Political science professor and Associate Provost Ron Watson recalls his surprise when he attended his first Beloit Commencement and heard Bierman congratulate parents for “the incredible graduates they have spawned.” Watson said Bierman, whose high-energy Commencement speeches seemed to bubble up from his sneaker-clad tip toes, shattered every image Watson had of what a college president should be.
“I think I’m going to love it here,” Watson remembers thinking at the time.
Despite the challenges Bierman faced as college president, he never lost his sense of humor and unmitigated joy. Joyfulness and humor also were hallmarks of his Carleton College tenure, where he taught economics for 25 years and later served as provost before coming to Beloit.
“One of the things we did at my inauguration was a 5K run/walk,” Bierman says. “I thought it would signal to the community that we’re going to take fun seriously at the school. It’s going to provide space for us to be able to talk about the thorniest of issues. You need to develop camaraderie, develop trust and friendship. Paying attention to enjoying each other’s company is a critical part of the success of all the serious business that happens at the college.”
Later, at a faculty-staff picnic, Bierman paid $1.75 to have his caricature drawn. The Biermans surreptitiously placed the drawing in a fancy frame, then sneaked inside the Presidents Lounge in Chapin Hall to hang it above the fireplace among the formal oil paintings depicting former college presidents. They giggled and expected the drawing would be removed immediately. It wasn’t.
“I love the caricature,” Bierman says. “No one is going to hurt my feelings if what’s hanging in the portrait gallery is a caricature of me. That’s completely fine if my great-great grandchildren can come and have a smile looking at it, too.”
Along with his well-known and sometimes silly sense of humor, Bierman has a reputation for kindness and sincerity. People talk about his integrity, listening skills, and ability to build consensus.
Chief of Staff Daniels admires Bierman’s ability to see the big picture, to seek counsel, and not to make snap decisions. “He’s thoughtful about his approach, and he’s a very good listener. He listens to the team and takes suggestions. It doesn’t have to be his way or no way,” she says. “I truly appreciate that about him.”
Former Chief of Staff Schooff describes Bierman as “honorable and ethical” and known for his high expectations for people’s work. “He had high standards, and it proved to me that two things can coexist: You can ask a lot of people who work for you, yet you can treat them with respect and understand what they need as a human.”
Susan Kasten is editor emerita of Beloit College Magazine.
Bierman Presidency Highlights
- Focused fundraising for Strong Stadium improvements results in an eight-lane, all-weather track, artificial turf field, and scoreboard.
- New curriculum debuts, emphasizing the Beloit Plan-era focus on field experiences.
- Lacrosse team opens first Div. III season.
- Renewing the Historic Core fundraising, spearheaded by parents, restores the World Affairs Center, Middle College, and Richardson Auditorium.
- Historic “Relays” track and field event returns to newly renovated Strong Stadium.
- Emerson Hall reopens to students for the first time since 1977 after Beloit reclaims a long-term lease and lead donors make possible a complete restoration of the 55-room residence hall.
- Brannon and 609 Emerson residence halls reopen after extensive renovations.
- Key senior staff hires include former provost, now 12th College President-Elect Eric Boynton, and Vice President for Enrollment Leslie Davidson.
- Be All In fundraising campaign launches, a five-year, $50 million effort to raise funds for financial aid and budget relief.
- New strategic plan launches, explicitly connecting students’ learning to their future lives and careers.
- Grand opening of the Powerhouse, a one-of-a-kind 120,000 square-foot fully integrated student union and recreation center.
- Beloit Action Plan unveiled, an innovative plan to address Covid challenges and reconvene in-person learning on campus.
- Beloit College places No. 5 on U.S. News & World Report’s “Most Innovative Colleges” list.
- Career Accelerator debuts for students in January.
- Updated Beloit Action Plan launched, strengthening support for students to create successful career paths.