A career in higher education was not on Dr. Donald Wortham’s radar when he enrolled in his undergraduate studies. Believing his calling to be in ministry, he went on to discover a new passion, and with the help of his professors, Wortham found his calling in education. Pursuing opportunities and gaining valuable experience along the way, Wortham is preparing for his greatest professional role to date – serving as the new president of Hodges University.
During his middle and high school years, Wortham grew up on a rural cotton and soybean farm in west Tennessee with his parents, brother and sister. When it was time to go to college, his desire to leave the farm led him to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “I originally considered becoming a doctor but began contemplating the idea of becoming a minister, so I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree in religious studies,” he said.
This interest in the spiritual aspects of life led him to enroll at the University of Chicago to pursue a Master of Divinity. After a year of study, and through the encouragement and support of his professors, he found himself on a path leading to a career in higher education.
“I was grateful to have professors who challenged me to explore both who I was as a person and what I wanted to do with my life. These same professors helped to take the pressure off the future career aspects, and instead, allowed me to think about what it was that I enjoyed and could commit to as a potential career,” said Wortham.
In 1993, this exploration led him to leave Chicago and enroll in the Ph.D. program in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was during this time that Wortham pursued a unique opportunity, providing him with his first experience working in higher education. Taking a sabbatical from graduate school, he accepted a position with UNext, an educational startup company dedicated to online learning, saying, “UNext was at the forefront of the first Internet revolution that incorporated digital courses online.”
Serving as the company’s executive director for three years, he helped co-develop a problem-based learning MBA curriculum with Stanford, Columbia and the University of Chicago. Due to circumstances beyond the company’s control, Wortham returned to finish his doctorate.
Envisioning his career in higher education would lead him to become a faculty member and researcher, he admits to being drawn toward the administrative aspects of the field. “When I was pursuing my Ph.D. in educational psychology, I knew I wanted to enter the academic job market; however, I found that I was more interested in higher education administration,” he added.
Since graduating with his doctorate in 2009 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wortham has spent the last seven years at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, which serves 4,400 students, many of who are enrolled in online courses. At Scholastica, he previously held a dean-level appointment and most recently served as vice president for strategic initiatives.
Experienced and knowledgeable in for-profit higher education, private and public university administrative roles, as well as online educational startups, Wortham is encouraged and excited to move into the position of president at Hodges, saying, “In my search, I was looking for an institution that has opportunity to grow and prosper. I was incredibly impressed by the intellect and passion of people here at Hodges.” During his interview, the number of students who attended the presidential search meeting surprised Wortham, remarking, “It really shows just how this community takes responsibility for this institution.”
This is the type of responsibility Wortham appreciates when working with students, especially adult students. Looking to redefine the meaning of “adult,” Wortham believes maturity level serves as a more viable identifier than age. “Based on his/her maturity level, an adult is really someone who is willing to take responsibility for his/her own outcomes. It can be someone who is 18, 25, 30 or 50 years old,” he explained.
Due to the economic environment and ever-changing world of higher education, Wortham has noticed a change in what students want out of an education, and it is the type of education that Hodges can provide.
“Students nowadays are focused on outcomes. Hodges is the type of institution that works for students who are ready to give serious thought to what they want to do in life, as well as those who have already decided but need the extra help,” he said.
With higher education facing many difficult issues at this time, Wortham identified two in which all institutions must address: the value equation and the changing world and economy.
“Higher education’s mission is to help students become the people they are intended to be; to achieve their purpose in life. For many students, this may mean a new career or a better job. For others, it may be a new understanding about who they are and who they will become. This is the core value proposition of colleges and universities. Too often today, higher education is transactional, but students are demanding more; they deserve a transformational experience,” he explained. “Historically, this has occurred within a two- or four-year window, when students would put their lives on hold and go to college. However, the world and the economy have changed, and many, if not most, students simply cannot afford this path. We must look at ways that Hodges can provide opportunities to those in the working world and help them to make that transformational change.”
In regards to Hodges’ role in the Southwest Florida community, Wortham considers the university to be a viable option for students looking for an affordable education with programs that link to the “world of work,” as well as an institution that is a product of the community and is cared for by the people of Southwest Florida. Hodges is also economically, racially and culturally diverse. “Hodges truly mirrors the world, and you can tell the people in this area are committed to its success,” he added.
As he prepares to take Hodges to the next level, his early goals for the university include three things: evaluating Hodges’ programs to ensure they are meeting the needs of the region; making sure the students achieve transformational outcomes; and establishing a clearer vision for the institution to communicate to the community.
Although the first year of his presidency will consist of meetings, establishing connections and identifying objectives, Wortham and his wife, Lizabeth, plan to enjoy what Southwest Florida offers, including kayaking and cycling. While three of their four children ages 17-22 are no longer living at home, Wortham’s pride for his family is evident through his smile. “I think my wife would agree that one of our greatest rewards is watching these four humans develop and witnessing how each of them has taken responsibility for their own lives.”