Being BiermanPosted by admin on 11/23/09 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2009
With a sharpness of mind, a sense of humor and fleet feet, Beloit’s 11th president takes charge.
By Shannon Luckey’92
After nearly three decades at Carleton College, Scott Bierman and his wife, Melody, packed up and moved from their home in Northfield, Minn., where they had raised their family. Their moving van rolling down College Street in mid-July signaled that Beloit’s 11th president was officially in the house— the President’s House. And he came ready to tackle the highly publicized challenges of the institution with optimism, enthusiasm—and a plethora of colorful footwear.
“Keep an eye on his socks,” says Bev Nagel, who worked with Bierman during his entire 27-year career at Carleton and succeeded him as dean. “He has a penchant for funny socks. Like plaid Santa Claus socks at the holidays.”
Silly socks aside, Bierman also left Carleton with the love and esteem of his colleagues, having taught economics for 20 years before becoming dean. As dean, he led the college through a curricular review that resulted in new graduation requirements, and he spearheaded an ambitious new initiative to integrate the arts across disciplines.
“He was a very effective leader at a time when Carleton was undertaking a number of challenging initiatives,” says Nagel. “He is not at all officious and really valued all the staff from the custodians on up. Working for him was fun.”
The staff showed their gratitude at a going away party where Bierman received many new pairs of sassy socks.
“It would have been very easy just to stay and play out a wonderful career at Carleton College,” says Bierman, sitting in his office in Middle College on a sweltering August day. “But it was even more exciting to try something brand new, and so far, this has exceeded my expectations.”
Bierman came to Beloit just a year after the College made headlines for cutting nearly 10 percent of its workforce in the face of a $1 million operating deficit. He praised interim president Dick Niemiec’65 for his foresight and courage to make tough decisions.
“If there’s a good thing that has come out of the recession, it is to remind us about what is most important,” says Bierman. “We might have to do less. We’re homing in on what is most important.”
To that end, the faculty has been asked to undertake a curricular review to find specific new ways of engaging students and to bolster the experiential education that has long been a hallmark of Beloit College. “This has always been a strength of a Beloit education—the development of habits of mind—communicating effectively, thinking critically, identifying and using an evidentiary approach, working collaboratively, and bringing a variety of disciplinary perspectives to complex problems,” Bierman elaborates.
Honoring the principles unique to a Beloit education is central to Bierman’s philosophy as he works to move the institution forward. Under his administration, he also hopes to bolster the College’s economic health and promote diversity of all kinds.
“President Bierman has a very clear sense of the role Beloit College can play as a national leader in the liberal arts and in higher education more generally,” says Emily Chamlee-Wright, Elbert H. Neese Professor of Economics at Beloit, and a member of the presidential search committee. “We have been an institution at the forefront of innovative pedagogy and innovative curricular design, and I think he’s excited about making sure that that reputation is sustained and even enhanced.”
“Our very unique, very open selection process was indicative of Beloit’s ethos, and it’s produced a president who I think is embracing that and learning about it every day and is going to take Beloit into new and great places,” adds Tamara Fouche’10, the student representative on the presidential search committee.
Having grown up in the college town of Ithaca, N.Y., Bierman has academia in his blood. His father, Harold Bierman Jr., is the Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Business Administration at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, where he has taught for 53 years. The elder Bierman has authored more than 150 books and articles. One of them, The Capital Budgeting Decision: Economic Analysis of Investment Projects, which he co-authored with fellow Cornell economics professor Seymour Smidt, is a definitive finance text that has been translated into several languages and found a home on the bookshelves of MBA graduates around the globe.
Bierman speaks glowingly of his father’s work and this particular book. “It fully develops a compelling argument for the importance of the concept of ‘present value’ which is really the Rosetta Stone of finance. Since dollars at different points in time are very different things, a means for comparing them across time as a way to inform intelligent decisions is of enormous value. That is what present value calculations do. My father and Professor Smidt did not invent the concept, but they helped generations of business school students make much better financial decisions by explaining its importance.”
When asked about his mother’s career, Bierman smiles. “My mom survived four boys,” he remembers. “I’m trying to recall a time when a ball wasn’t being thrown around the living room. You always had to keep an eye out for some flying object coming at you while doing homework.”
In a household of four boys, athletics was an important part of Bierman’s life and remains so. Many hours were devoted to playing basketball.
“I wasn’t very good at it,” Bierman says with a laugh. “My primary position is at shooting guard, and my passing skills are nonexistent. I see missed shots as passing opportunities.”
While he never reached his dream of playing in the NBA, he has been able to make respectable strides with his running, which he does regularly “for fun.” Bierman runs three to five times a week, posting about 20 miles on average, unless he is training for a marathon, in which case he logs closer to 40 or 50 miles. This past June, he completed a marathon with his younger daughter. “For me it’s therapeutic. I enjoy racing, testing yourself against yourself.”
He also derives pleasure from watching others compete. “One of my guilty pleasures has been watching Survivor,” Bierman admits, adding that he hasn’t watched the show in a couple of years. “The show is all about strategic behavior. It’s amazing the regularity with which textbook game theory is employed. They knew exactly what they were doing,” Bierman says admiringly of the show’s producers. “Using concepts from game theory to guide the rules, the show’s producers can generally predict how the contestants will respond to different incentives.”
While Bierman does indulge in Survivor, he also spends time at home baking and reading books or newspapers with his wife, Melody, a former preschool teacher and native Wisconsinite who also is an avid walker. The two met at Tommy Bartlett’s restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells, where they worked summers while in college during the early 1970s. He was a short order cook. She was a waitress.
The two married after Bierman graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1977. They then headed to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where Bierman received a Ph.D. degree in economics in 1985, after which he landed a job at Carleton College teaching the subject.
During his 27-year career at Carleton, Bierman spent 20 years teaching in the economics department, serving as department chair from 1991-95 and then as faculty president from 1997-2000.
“I loved teaching Carleton students,” he says, “but as time went on, I became increasingly interested in how the sausage was actually made. I spent most of my professional career thinking about how people behave in complex institutions, and colleges are amazingly complex, and the ways in which those places motivate and prompt and create incentives for people to behave in different ways was increasingly interesting to me.”
When Bierman saw the opportunity to become part of the administration, he jumped at it, accepting a post as associate dean in 2003 and becoming the dean of Carleton College in 2005.
While at Carleton, he also co-authored the textbook Game Theory with Economic Applications (now in its second edition), served on numerous external review boards, and chaired the Board of Deans for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. Bierman had been impressed by the “glorious tackiness” of the Wisconsin Dells, which rivaled that of Myrtle Beach, where he vacationed growing up. He and his wife also vacationed in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., while their children were growing up and took trips to Myrtle Beach when visiting the grandparents.
“It was superb fun to find gems among all the fudge and mediocre ice cream and wax statues that permeate Gatlinburg,” he says. “My children have developed an unholy love of miniature golf. We are miniature golf aficionados.”
The Bierman family adventures weren’t limited to exploring tacky tourist havens. They enjoyed theatre, museums, and Civil War battlefields as well. Bierman names Antietam, Gettysburg, and Shiloh among his favorites.
“Since I cared so much about these places, I would go through them in infinite detail,” says Bierman. He even recalled “trekking through the wilderness to find the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm” with his children in tow.
“I should apologize to them for this,” he says with a wry smile.
The Biermans’ children, two daughters, both attended Kenyon College in Ohio. The eldest, Lauren, teaches English literature at Greenwich Country Day school in Connecticut, while the younger daughter, Emily, is starting her second year of graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin, where she studies art history.
According to Bierman, statistics show that his daughters, along with the rest of the workforce, will change careers an average of 11 times. The new president says this is why a liberal arts education is more important than ever.
“Why is there this ridiculous emphasis on the first job after college?—as if that defines you in any kind of way!” Bierman exclaims, adding that the value of a liberal arts education increases over time. “I love the fact that the most popular major by far is undecided. That is exactly as it should be,” he says emphatically.
“It turns out there is a decreasing number of liberal arts colleges that have been able to maintain a true liberal arts philosophy,” he continues. “While it may seem obvious to Beloiters that the liberal arts are critically important, there are many, many pressures coming from outside the college that make delivering the qualities of a Beloit education increasingly challenging. Still, in my opinion, it would be completely wrong to drift away from the centrality of a liberal arts education.”
When weighing the decision to come to Beloit, the new president says the quality of interactions between faculty and students was one of the major draws.
“They both talked in such glowing terms about each other, with an enormous level of respect and a complete lack of cynicism about what happens at this place when bright and engaged students meet up with bright and engaged faculty.”
While he is dedicated to the mission and successful day-to-day operations of the College, Bierman still hopes to get out of Middle College and back into teaching from time to time. When he was dean at Carleton, he took a group of economics students to England, where they studied the Industrial Revolution for four weeks using the University of Cambridge as a base.
While it may be a year or two before he is able to lead such a trip with Beloit students, the president will be traveling around the country to visit with alumni, who will no doubt be as taken with him as his colleagues have been.
“He has a rare and wonderful combination of sharpness of intellect and a sense of humor that is something that goes to the character of this place,” says Chamlee-Wright of the man who enjoys miniature golf and funny socks. “He is comfortable in a role of authority. That’s a hard balance to strike, someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet commands respect and authority in the role of leadership. He seems to strike that balance effortlessly.”
Shannon Luckey’92 is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Sheboygan, Wis.