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Nancy Leffert at Home at the Helm of Antioch University Santa Barbara

With a background as a researcher, teacher and administrator, the position of president seemed a natural next step

Nancy Leffert is part maverick, part cheerleader and part explorer, as her position as president of Antioch University Santa Barbara requires a unique balance of tradition and innovation. Working in a host of research, teaching and administration positions before coming on board, Leffert has clearly found her calling.

Born and raised in Pasadena, Leffert earned both a bachelor’s degree in social welfare and a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University. Ahead of the times, her mother held master’s degrees in education and zoology and taught biology at her high school, so Leffert knew the merits of becoming an educator.

Leffert recalls that she was always interested in what made people tick.

“I was fascinated by people and also really wanted to do something to help the human condition,” she said.

With that in mind, she took a position as a social worker through a United Way agency. She was later tapped to take a leadership role on the administrative side, which she willingly accepted.

She returned to the University of Minnesota in 1991 for a Ph.D. in child psychology from the Institute of Child Development and focused the next chapter of her career on adolescent development.

As a researcher, she and her colleagues formulated a list of factors that predictably produce well-adjusted, emotionally healthy children. This approach varied from the traditional model of trying to find what went wrong with disturbed children. Their list of 40 development assets included positive internal and external factors that built self-esteem and helped create educated and informed members of society. The model is widely used by child psychologists today.

Once her children were grown, Leffert and her husband moved to Santa Barbara so she could take a position with Fielding Graduate University. After nine years, Leffert received a call from Antioch to be the provost. After the sitting president left, she was promoted to the position, first temporarily, then permanently in July.

Leffert said she accepted the position with Antioch, a private institution, because the school’s mission of social justice and civic engagement closely aligns with her values.

“This was my chance to really shape a program and make a difference by integrating this institution with the local community,” she said.

She also notes some telling facts about the university: It was one of the first to admit women, one of the first to give female professors tenure and one of the first to eliminate race as a factor in admission. In fact, it began recruiting black students in the 1940s and refused to bend to government concern about faculty and students who were rumored to support communism in the ‘50s.

Horace Mann, the school’s first president, founded Antioch University in 1852 in Keane, N.H. He was a renowned educator, architect of the American public school system, a social reformer and an abolitionist. The school later branched out to Yellow Springs, Ohio, Seattle and Los Angeles. Each campus had a unique focus inspired by the local community, with 4,000 students across the five campuses.

The Santa Barbara campus opened downtown in 1976 as a satellite campus to Los Angeles and eventually came into its full status in 2007. The Santa Barbara campus has 400 students — a number Leffert said she plans to significantly grow in the years to come. It has a new team dedicated to admissions, recruitment, marketing and alumni relations to attract more students. Leffert said inquiries are up significantly, which indicates interest in its offerings.

To address the demographics of the Santa Barbara population, the local campus offers a master’s degree in clinical psychology with a concentration in Latino mental health. Starting in May, it also will offer an MBA in sustainability partnership (with the New England campus). The Santa Barbara campus’ degree will have a concentration in social entrepreneurship starting in January 2012.

Leffert said the university’s small class sizes and individual attention are the main reasons students choose Antioch. The school also considers work and life experience toward the degree of those coming to finish their undergraduate degree.

“We insist our students have internships, and life experience is just that, so we take it into consideration when tallying credits for incoming transfer students,” she said, adding that Antioch also has a strong relationship with SBCC, so many students finish their degree with Antioch.

As part of its efforts to connect with the community and alumni, Antioch will hold mixers in the coming year, and it recently created pages on Facebook and Twitter.

Click here for more information about offerings and class schedules.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to see more of her work. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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