Our “Five Minutes With…..” feature journeys to Rhode Island, where Senior Vice President for Finance and Business, and Chief Financial Officer for Providence College, John Sweeney, talks about the uniqueness of the institution, his sixteen years as a Barnes & Noble College partner, and why he believes Lincoln can still bring out the best in all of us.
What was your first job?
I was always interested in education, and when I was in grad school, I had some experience with teaching, but at the time, I was heading into the financial sector. About seven years in, I realized you can actually do some pretty beneficial financial things in the wonderful world of education.
How do you describe your current role at Providence College?
I’m the Senior Vice President of Finance and Business — larger schools might break out those two functions, but I like the opportunity of being able to do both here. It means I can be involved in building things while making sure we can find the money to pay for them.
What are you working on right now?
One of the ongoing challenges is how we can continue to increase the value of a Providence College education and allocate the most effective resources to support that. Through hard work and dedication by a lot of people, we’ve been fortunate with improving enrollments and financial matrices for the past six years running — and a lot of that has to do with increasing the understanding of that value and enhancing the Providence College educational experience. A couple of years ago, I happened to meet Lenny Wilkens, a three-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and a Providence College alumnus — and just hearing his story about his college experience and how it helped change his whole trajectory, despite the challenges he faced, was really a testament to the way this place changes lives. You hear story after story like that, and I get to see it firsthand — every day.
What are some of the major changes you’ve noticed happening in higher education?
There’s been a much greater expectation on the institution to be responsive to the changing needs of students. Delivering on those expectations — whether it means establishing a gluten-free zone in the dining hall, an increase in support or career services, or even improvements to the infrastructure and technology of the campus and facilities — they are all representative of a dramatic change in our students’ thinking. We’re also aware of increasing our student diversity — and that’s a broad-based definition. It’s not just about race, ethnicity or religion, but also diversity in geography and in family economics. We’re continually trying to reach out and improve and expand access at Providence College, but how can you make everyone feel welcome and enriched by the experience is a problem that I think all institutions are facing right now.
In your view, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing education today?
Last year, a report showed only 98 four-year public and private institutions graduate more than 75 percent of their students in four years. Fortunately, we’re one of them — we’re one of the 98. Our retention is over 90 percent, our graduation rates are in the mid-eighties, and the vast majority of our students graduate within four years, which is an important expectation of our students, even if they switch majors. We also have a unique, team-taught, four-semester required program on the Development of Western Civilization — literally from Plato to NATO! It’s designed to show our students how different academic fields are woven together to impact history. It’s certainly a tough program, but it aids critical thinking because the world our students are entering is changing fast. Understanding its complexity, whether the student is an accounting major or chemistry major, is going to be key to their success.
What makes for a great campus partnership in your view?
It has to be mutually beneficial. There has to be a willingness to undertake new ideas, and frankly, even accept a certain amount of risk. For us, it’s important to have a partner that understands what we’re about as an institution, and that understanding creates opportunities for both of us. In that regard, Barnes & Noble College is very identifiable. I’ve been involved with the company for some sixteen years (with two schools) and have personally gotten to know so many of the decision makers there, and for a large company to still have that personal touch enables us to get a lot of things done that really benefit our students.
What’s the story you’d most like to tell about Barnes & Noble College?
We were an early adopter of book rentals, and for our relatively small size, it was remarkable how much it saved our students. I think the other point is convenience, when our students are able to pick up their books, pre-boxed and paid for at the beginning of the year. It really creates that convenience they’re looking for and draws them to the bookstore — and I think that’s key to supporting the students and improving their experience. It just isn’t about sales or commission, but those things will happen when you take care of your customers.
Where do you think the biggest opportunity lies for student success in the future?
Everything you do has to be about student success — so our faculty and staff here, wherever they are in the college and whatever their role — have to be geared to that student success. As the only school sponsored by the Dominican Friars, we’re fortunate here. People come here and find that the experience exceeds their expectations. They leave after four years, but they remain connected. Our alumni are always part of the Friars Forever Family, and that kind of high touch — well, I think that is really a challenge for many institutions.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I like working. I like being surrounded by so many interesting and well-educated people, so maybe I might have been a faculty member — a professor. It’s a challenging profession, but I would love helping students to grow, develop and learn.
Favorite book, or book you’re currently reading?
What I’m re-reading right now is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin — she recently spoke here at Providence College at the Liberal Arts Honors Symposium. It’s a brilliant and fascinating book about how Lincoln put together a team for his cabinet comprised of people, some of whom were his former challengers, and managed to somehow draw out their talent and get them to work together. I think there’s a lot to be learned from it — especially for today.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned working in higher education?
You have to be open to new ideas, to new opportunities and to evolve. It’s easy to be cynical — especially in a Chief Financial Officer’s role — when ideas don’t necessarily turn out as you wanted them to. That’s why I like what I do. It’s an opportunity, every day, to try out new ideas, and to find out what we can do better today than we did yesterday.
Best day at Providence College?
My wife and I got a text from my daughter, who’s a student here, on her birthday, and it said, ‘Mom and Dad, I am so beyond thankful to you for giving me the opportunity to come to Providence College…I just feel this place, with these people, make me the best version of myself, Love Cate.’ You get that, both from the standpoint as a parent and as a part of this institution, and it’s validation in a lot of ways — personally and professionally — of some of the special things that can happen here.