This week marks the end of Lisa Marsh Ryerson’s tenure as president of Wells College. A Wells grad, she held a number of posts at the college before becoming its president for 18 years. Ryerson’s tenure has seen major changes at the small liberal arts college in southern Cayuga County. While some might question some of the decisions that were made during her tenure, no one could doubt her love for her alma mater and the community it resides in.
For the record, I do have a bias. Not only was my mother a WILL woman (Women In Life Long Learning), graduating from Wells in 1995, but my wife is also a Wells grad and I consider Ryerson a great friend. But that does not color the view that while Wells has and will have financial challenges – many small colleges across the nation are facing the same situation – she stepped up to the plate to implement changes that, while some have criticized them, likely staved off the closure of Wells and, in the long term, improved not only Aurora, but economically benefited Cayuga County and its taxpayers.
One of the two most controversial issues to come up during her nearly two decades as the school's leader was the collaboration between the college and alumna Pleasant Rowland, who founded American Girl, turning it into a multimillion-dollar company. Her investments were seen not only on campus, but the upgrades to what were the rustic Aurora Inn, as well as the beloved watering hole, The Fargo, and other properties. The changes totaled many millions of dollars and created new tourism and retail establishments and helped restructure MacKenzie-Childs to the extent that millions of dollars are spent there annually, and has grown the company, in employment, lines of merchandise and operations in several locations in the southern part of the county.
The other decision, one that still has some alumni angry, was the financial move to let males into what was one of the last sole bastions of women’s education in the nation. The decision was not taken lightly by those who were part of the planning. As president, Ryerson took the brunt of the criticism at the time and since. But in the end, there are some who feel that without that decision, there would be no Wells today. As one alum put it, “I would rather have a school that is co-ed and exists that I can point to, even if it is co-ed, than an empty closed campus, devoid of activity, because of a tradition that couldn’t be sustained without changes.” Many schools, including Cazenovia College, made similar decisions two or more decades ago and it has given them financial stability.
President Ryerson was a catalyst for change not only for Wells but for Aurora and Cayuga County. Without her willingness to take risks, as a leader, there is little doubt that Wells might no longer exist and the landscape of southern Cayuga County would be the worse for it. As she moves onto the next phase of her professional career, one can only hope that Cayuga County continues to benefit from this agent of change.