No one could have predicted where Barbara Mistick’s story would go when she left college shy of a degree four decades ago.
The Bethel Park native’s resume now includes a doctoral degree and stints as an entrepreneur and educator at institutions including Seton Hill University, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh and Wilson College. This fall, she will become president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents more than 1,000 private nonprofit colleges and universities.
Mistick, the mother of three adult daughters and two young grandsons, still has deep ties to Western Pennsylvania. She started two businesses here, went on to earn multiple college degrees, headed Seton Hill’s National Education Center for Women in Business and spent six years as executive director of the venerable Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh.
She decamped to Chambersburg eight years ago to become president of Wilson College, a small liberal arts school that was struggling to remain open with an enrollment of about 700 students.
When she departs at the end of this semester, Mistick will leave a college where enrollment has doubled — even as it slipped at many similar institutions.
Change didn’t come without controversy. Outspoken critics in the Wilson alumni and college community questioned Mistick’s proposals to shore up the institution that was born as a women’s college nearly a century and a half earlier.
But in January 2013, Wilson trustees reduced tuition by $5,000 to $23,745 a year and adopted a program to buy back up to $10,000 in federal loans for students who graduated in four years with grade point averages of 3.5 or higher. They agreed to admit men in the residential college beginning in 2014 and launched several new programs.
Dr. Barbara L. Tenney, Wilson College Board chairwoman, commended Mistick for her work.
“On behalf of the board of trustees, I’d like to thank Dr. Mistick for her deep commitment to our students and to the entire Wilson community. It has been an absolute pleasure working alongside her to bring about positive change to further the college,” Tenney wrote.
Back in 2011, colleagues questioned Mistick’s decision to leave her post at Carnegie Libraries for the struggling college.
But Mistick said she was up for the challenge.
“I’m a firm believer if you stick to your mission and employ the right strategies, you can have great success. It’s been very gratifying working here. I’ve been very humbled by this experience and how people can pull together and support you,” she said.
Mistick may well need that support as she represents higher education in a period when soaring costs and crushing student debt have led some to question the value of college.
Officials at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities last week cited Mistick’s work at Wilson in announcing her appointment to its presidency.
“Barbara brings a deep understanding of private, nonprofit higher education, experience working with state and national elected officials, and a history of leading nonprofit organizations to the NAICU presidency,” said Jo Allen, president of Meredith College in North Carolina, chair of the NAICU board of directors and co-chair of the presidential search committee. “She also brings a perspective familiar to so many of our students today: She was the first in her family to earn a college degree and finished her undergraduate degree after spending several years in the workforce.”
Mistick said she’s anxious to begin this new chapter in her life and is seeking opportunities to collaborate with others to advance her new mission advocating for the private, nonprofit college sector.
Independent colleges, she said, have an important role to play in keeping college accessible and lifting up students.
“The reality here is that the importance of education is so great. It is the American dream, and students want this experience. Access to that dream for all who seek it is critical,” Mistick said. “When we make students advocates for affordability and lift up their success, we strengthen the educational opportunity for every student. It’s a very valuable thing to fight for, and I’m excited about being part of this fight.”