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Dr. John M. Anderson
Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking noted: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor.” Like world-renowned physicists, successful educators push the boundaries of what is possible.
President of Millersville University, Dr. John M. Anderson says he entered the field of education serendipitously. Growing up, he wanted to be a civil engineer. Anderson recalls when his father took him to see the Tappan Zee Bridge being built. (Today, High Steel Structures is building the bridge’s replacement and it’s scheduled for completion in 2018.) A young Anderson was fascinated. There was no question in his mind that he would go to college and study civil engineering.
Anderson enrolled in college to realize his dream; then reality intervened. He recounts a story about his frustrations with the early days of computer programming, spending nights making lots of mistakes on his punch cards and waiting for the big computer to process his codes. Eventually, Anderson decided it wasn’t for him. He switched colleges to major in physics and he was good at it. One summer, while working as an undergrad lab assistant, the chair of the department asked him to teach the lab because the professor had become ill. “I liked it! And the students responded positively.” Anderson eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from The State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport, his master’s degree in physics from SUNY Geneseo and his Ph.D. in education from Cornell. His own college education took him five-and-a-half years to complete. “I changed my major three times. I had no money; I had to stop, work and get money, and then go back to school, so I’m sensitive to that particular struggle some of our students face.”
Anderson’s passion for education drives him to lead the university in creating an environment where students are engaged. He loves to see students develop a sense of identity and be exposed to different cultures and ideas. “It’s the adventure in and out of the classroom, the ‘ah-ha’ moments,” he says, emphasizing Millersville’s high-impact learning experiences like study abroad opportunities and civic engagement projects.
When asked about the shift in education as the result of technology and Internet access, Anderson notes that faculty now spend more time putting content into context, educating students on how to evaluate the validity of information. He admits that technology has made content readily available with access to myriad online courses taught by an assortment of instructors, some of whom are Nobel Laureates. The difference is that professors at Millersville (98% of whom have a Ph.D.) are focused on educating students to understand the concepts and interrelations, the applications and implications for the real world.
Anderson posits it is the role of the president to find resources that enable others to push the boundaries of what is possible in higher education. Faculty, students, staff, and alumni have phenomenal ideas. The president enthusiastically ticks off a list, “We have faculty and students who have partnered with Lancaster Conservancy and Stroud Water Research Center to create watershed educational programs. We have faculty and students involved in the Providence Project, researching the role of Lancaster in the birth of the nation and establishing American values. We have a staff member and students converting a 1970 Volkswagen bus to be powered by electricity. We have an alum, Roy Clair, who assisted us in creating the Entertainment Technology program to meet the needs of expanding opportunities in that field.” Anderson pauses for breath, but he’s clearly not finished.
“When I arrived at Millersville, a faculty member came to me because he’d read about my work with Springbrook, an organization that provides services for persons with developmental differences. The faculty said, ‘I have an idea. I want to start a program for students with intellectual disabilities.’” That idea became a reality—The Career and Life Skills Program—which recently received a $2.36 million grant from the United States Department of Education to replicate the program around the country.
The two-year certificate program is a full-inclusion individualized life plan with life coaches. “We accepted our first student in 2014,” Dr. Anderson says with a smile as he speaks about Daniel. Daniel lives on campus and audits classes. He’s the assistant stage manager in the theatre department and works in food services—hoping to one day work at a dinner theatre. The program accepted eight more students in 2015. Anderson is proud that Millersville is passionate about providing educational opportunities for a diverse population of students.
Anderson’s personal passion is sustainability. “Sustainability impacts all our lives and disproportionately affects those who are disadvantaged. It involves environmental protection, social justice, and economic vitality. These are complex issues that future generations are going to have to resolve,” he says. “We need the brainpower and the compassion, not just the passion, of tomorrow’s world leaders that are in our universities today.” This spring the institution will break ground on a net-zero energy admissions welcome center which will also be a community resource for sustainability education. Flat screen monitors in the facility will allow people can see how energy is being produced and consumed.
When Dr. Anderson considers his own personal endeavor, he likens it to a quest. “I’m always looking for new challenges, both personal and professional. Whether it’s creating opportunities for students, assisting businesses in meeting workforce needs, or educating for a sustainable future…that’s what drives me.”
It has been said that a good educator motivates others to find their passion, discover new phenomena, and become triggers of social change. John Anderson obviously has a passion for doing just that at Millersville University; the paradox is that this educator finds himself motivated and energized by the creative, talented university community who constantly challenge him to push the boundaries of the possible.