In the midst of its 85th alumni celebration this spring, so many students at Valley Forge Military Academy & College wore literal and figurative badges of honor. In a special video, a poised Shenika Walker wanted the world to know that she’d learned perseverance and patience at the school. She’s now enrolled at Ball State University.
Looking on, Stacey R. Sauchuk couldn’t have been prouder. “You walk this campus, and it’s just an amazing experience,” says the school’s new president, who took the helm last month. “You don’t get saluted many places anymore.”
Sauchuk calls herself an “out-of-the-box hire.” Talk about an understatement. She is the first female civilian president at a private military academy and college in the country. As it turns out, her education, business experience, skills and leadership style were a spot-on match for the job.
Born and raised outside Baltimore, Sauchuk came to the Main Line to attend Eastern University, where she studied for a career in social work, graduating in 1981. She later served on Eastern’s board of trustees.
Sauchuk eventually gravitated toward sales, and then it was on to graduate school at Temple University. She became a psychologist and returned to social work, managing programs for a child-welfare agency in Philadelphia. More recently, Sauchuk served as COO for ESF Summer Camps in Haverford. She also had a tenure as president and CEO of the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
Sauchuk arrives on VFMA&C’s Wayne campus during a time of declining enrollment and administrative turnover—and she’s poised to make some serious changes. “We have to preserve what’s great and rich about this experience, but we also have to be innovative,” she says. “What’s unique is the military model, but where do we fit in anymore?”
During the job-interview process, the message from the school was loud and clear: Return the focus to the cadet experience, further academic excellence, boost retention, focus on development, and grow enrollment by “fixing the marketing engine.” That means changing the outside perception that VFMA&C is a school for the “bad kids.”
“It’s not,” Sauchuk says.
Other crucial positions at the school remained unfilled until the president was hired. Sauchuk is responsible for hiring a director of development, a commandant and an athletic director. She will live on campus but keep her home in Gladwyne.
At the top of Sauchuk’s to-do list: establishing evening and weekend programs for veterans and regular folks to help fill empty classrooms. She also must ferret out new revenue streams while preserving and utilizing VFMA&C’s prime asset—its 100-acre physical plant.
Other than seeing cadets at parades and other events around Wayne, Sauchuk hadn’t had much exposure to the school. Then, as board chair at Eastern, she was involved in a 20-acre land purchase the university made from VFMA&C in 2010. After being on campus, she walked away with a “wow.”
Perhaps it’s as much of a “wow” as the institution is getting for naming a woman as its president. And she’s nonmilitary, too. “That duo is pretty significant,” says Sauchuk. “But the vast majority of those who’ve reached out have been positive. They’re so excited that Valley Forge has the vision to try something different. There will be naysayers, but that doesn’t bother me. If this hire does anything, it makes a huge statement right out of the gate that it will not be business as usual.”
Her gender wasn’t even discussed among alumni at their spring gathering. And when the announcement was made to faculty and staff in the campus chapel, it was met with a standing ovation. “It wasn’t our intent to make a statement,” says William R. Floyd Jr., a 1963 graduate and chairman of the school’s board of trustees. “Everyone has said that she will make a difference for Valley Forge.”
While the academy remains male-only, the college opened its doors to women in 2006. Among 250 students, 19 females are enrolled at the college. VFMC had been the last all-male junior military college in the country. “We began to realize that we were out of step with history and out of step with the business world,” says retired Marine Col. James J. Doyle, who had served as interim president since last August. “We’ve begun to assimilate, and it’s been a very successful transition. All signs say that we’ll have more women enrolled next year than we ever have. Some of that is having our new president. We’re poised for growth.”
Valley Forge Military Academy & College saw its biggest success (thus far) in the late 1960s, when enrollment peaked at 1,169. Today, it’s just shy of 500. Sauchuk would like to see those numbers come full circle. “We need to get the real Valley Forge story out there,” she says. “We’re not so much a military school as a leadership school.”
Sauchuk is not about to water down the military model, but does say the institution needs to become “kinder, gentler.”
“It’s no longer about scaring 12-year-olds by waking them up to do push-ups,” she says. “The old guard may forever say, ‘When we were here, we had to buff the floors, then shine our shoes.’ But that world has changed.”
Sauchuk speaks of building relationships, a collaborative spirit, feminine intuition and a need to be inclusive to enable staff members. She’s not a dictatorial type. “The smartest [people] are not in this room,” she says. “They’re out on campus, and I want them to know that they can come in and say that they have a great idea. As an administrator, if you’re not listening to what’s happening on the shop floor, you can’t be an effective leader. Once others feel you’re approachable, their creativity opens up.”
Obviously, Sauchuk has a philosophy—but that philosophy has to be practical. She has to make headway in a short amount of time to align the agendas of numerous stakeholders. Floyd describes her as a good listener, pragmatic, highly interpersonal and emotionally intelligent. In the past, Floyd says, VFMA&C has made the assumption that a candidate with a military background could settle in as a successful administrator. “That hasn’t always been the case,” he says. “Drop and give me 50 push-ups doesn’t fly anymore.”
The academy has modified plebeian training to provide a “soft landing”—at least for the first 10 days, when incoming students can meet teachers and enroll in an ESL course, if necessary, among other things.
“This doesn’t mean we’re going to get soft or dilute what we deliver,” says Floyd. “But it does mean we recognize that we’re living in 2013, not 1963.”