Alvernia University will add three engineering programs in a move to supply graduates who can fill the needs of the local workforce, officials announced a news conference in downtown Reading. Beginning in fall 2021, students will be able to begin earning bachelor of science degrees in electrical, mechanical and industrial engineering.
“The Alvernia advantage and our student-centered approach is in full swing,” said John Loyack, Alvernia president.
The announcement was made at the site of Alvernia’s CollegeTowne building at 401 Penn Street. The five-story building, which formerly housed I-LEAD Charter School, will serve as the centerpiece for CollegeTowne, an initiative to spur economic development in Reading and Berks County. The engineering programs, along with several other majors, will operate from that location.
The downtown center, on which construction is expected to begin in early 2021, also will include classrooms and labs, loft-style student housing, retail outlets and restaurants. It will be home to a student-centered business incubator to be run by the university’s O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.
Initiated only six months ago, the business incubator already has partnerships with 31 businesses.
The engineering tracks were added following consultation between the university and area business leaders, said Dr. Glynis Fitzgerald, Alvernia’s senior vice president and provost. The university plans to partner with area business and industry to produce job-ready graduates. In exchange, businesses will share their knowledge and expertise with students who serve as interns or otherwise partner with them.
“We will use this building to train students in careers that will shape the future,” Fitzgerald said.
Peter Rye, president and CEO of Brentwood Industries, a Reading-based plastic fabrication company, welcomed Alvernia’s efforts to build the local economy through entrepreneurship and community partnerships.
“For Alvernia now to launch this program in the City of Reading is really an extraordinary thing,” Rye said. “We need engineering talent here in our community, and businesses are willing to share their space and knowledge with Alvernia students. We’re seeing the revitalization of Reading starting right here at CollegeTowne.”
Reading Mayor Eddie Moran said economic development cannot occur without the backing of education. He thanked Alvernia for its ongoing presence in the city, citing the university’s South Reading Youth Initiative, an after-school program that helps first and second graders at two city schools, and the Reading Collegiate Scholar’s Program, which provides four-year scholarships for qualifying Reading High School students.
“These are the kinds of partnerships we need,” Moran said. “We cannot talk about economic development without discussing the important role education plays in developing future professionals to sustain that growth.”
County Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach agreed, saying the programs Alvernia will offer in downtown Reading are needed for the city and the county to prosper.
“The real power of education occurs when we tie theory to reality,” he said.
Leinbach gave assurance that he and commissioners Kevin S. Barnhardt and Michael S. Rivera stand with the university in its CollegeTowne efforts.
“We are here to do what we can do,” Leinbach said. “This is a very bright light in the City of Reading, in the heart of Berks County.”
University officials spoke of the speed with which the CollegeTowne program is advancing, and thanked city and county officials for their cooperation and assistance.
“I can’t believe it was only 15 short, but long COVID months that we set out on this journey that is CollegeTowne,” said Dr. Rodney Ridley, associate provost and vice president and chief executive officer for the O’Pake Institute. “We are moving quickly in our effort to build a better downtown Reading and Berks County.”
Alvernia, which weeks ago welcomed its largest-ever group of incoming freshmen, made its Collegetowne plans public in December.
“Reading CollegeTowne is moving ahead at a rate we could have never dreamed of,” Loyack added.
After five months of talks, Alvernia University and I-LEAD, Inc. have signed a purchase and sale agreement that will allow university to take over a building at 401 Penn Street in downtown Reading.
Currently, I-LEAD Inc., a Philadelphia-based educational management company, owns the building and operates the I-LEAD charter school from the location.
Reading’s Alvernia will use the building as a key part of the downtown campus it is developing, known as the CollegeTowne Initiative. The initiative aims to engage Alvernia students with the downtown Reading community and drive economic development in the city.
Completing the purchase is the final step before ownership of the building, which Alvernia plans to assume in June. One of the first programs to move into the building’s first-floor will be the student-centered business incubator named the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship. The building is named after the late Berks County state Sen. Michael O’Pake.
“Reading CollegeTowne will be the focal point of Alvernia’s expansion and growth for the next decade,” said John R. Loyack, president of Alvernia University. “We are ready and eager to begin the next phase in Alvernia’s future.”
If you talk to Dr. Rodney Ridley, vice president and COO of Reading’s O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship, the city of Reading is poised for an economic turnaround.
According to Ridley, the newly re-launched O’Pake Institute, run by Reading’s Alvernia University, will help fuel the city’s rebirth. The Institute, a business incubator, will bring local entrepreneurs and Alvernia students together. The students, chosen by their professors, will provide services to area businesses such as marketing plans, website development, and product prototypes.
“It’s an entrepreneurial lab,” said Ridley, “that can help change the economic outlook of the region. Already, Alvernia’s downtown campus has become an economic anchor for the community.”
The lab will benefit students and companies, Ridley said.
“A student … might be able to list 14 companies on his or her resume after just one semester working at O’Pake,” he said.
The students will be paid for their work through the university’s work-study program, and the businesses will pay a fee based on the services the receive, said Ridley. Some services will be free of charge.
“For our faculty, this is exciting,” said Ridley. “Here’s a chance to show what it is that your department is capable of. If we are successful, I’m going to need a continual pipeline of top students, because students will always be graduating and moving on.”
Ridley is no novice to business incubator models. A PhD in engineering with years of experience in the private sector, Ridley was recruited by Alvernia President John Loyack because of his work at the Allan B. Kirby Center for Free Enterprise at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. Loyack wanted to build something similar to the Kirby Center at Alvernia in Reading.
“‘Reading is ready,’” he said to me,” Ridley said. “I thought, ‘This might actually work. He’s hitting on something big here.’”
Ridley, who started as the head of O’Pake in January, said Loyack told him he was “built for this.”
“And he was right,” he said. “At the end of the day, my job is to create outstanding students, with the result being increased economic development for greater Reading.”
John Loyack graduated from college in the “greed is good” era of the mid 1980s. He quickly climbed the corporate ladder, reaching a succession of chief executive positions. Driven to achieve, he enjoyed his fast-paced career, but began to think about slowing down as he reached his 50s.
Just when he was about to retire, a new opportunity came knocking, one that would transform his plans to slow down.
Still, Loyack was intrigued. The chance to do good for something close to his heart called to him. He opened the door, stepped outside and never looked back.
In 2012, he accepted a position as executive vice president of business and administrative affairs of the then-struggling King’s College, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college in Wilkes-Barre, the very same institution that had granted him his undergraduate degree in 1985.
Loyack worked to save the college, making changes from the ground up, and over the course of his seven years there, King’s College became a thriving institution.
When the chance to become president of Alvernia University, the Franciscan Roman Catholic University in Reading, was offered to him, Loyack saw a similar opportunity to the one he had at King’s.
And this July, in the midst of a summer heat wave, Loyack began his role as president of Alvernia, eager to serve and immersing himself in the university’s life.
LVB: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about the road that led you here to your position as the president of Alvernia University.
Loyack: My career for most of my life was largely corporate. I graduated from King’s College in the mid 80s as an accounting major. I started working at Price Waterhouse in Philadelphia. I worked for Lutron in the Lehigh Valley, and Union Pacific when it was headquartered in Martin Tower.
It was sad, as someone who worked at Martin Tower, to see it demolished. It was a lovely place to work. I was travelling and staying in a hotel on the day of the implosion, and I watched it on Facebook from my hotel room. It truly made me sad. I have fond memories of the building.
My first executive job was as senior vice president and CFO for PNM Resources, which was the PPL equivalent in the southwest. I ran CPG International, and ran a business once owned by Bill Gates called Optim Energy, and built that up and sold it.
Around the time I had been considering retiring, I began having conversations with the president at King’s College and it was clear that the school was having significant issues. I agreed to come and help turn the college around.
When I got to King’s, things were so bad that they had just laid off a bunch of people from the college for the first time in its history. We were literally holding invoices to make payroll.
In six and a half years, we grew enrollment, added 12 new programs and turned the institution around from the inside out. As we grew, we used a college town model, which means we didn’t construct new expensive buildings. We bought older buildings that were no longer in use, that were relatively inexpensive, and we refurbished them. We turned them into labs for engineering programs, utilizing redevelopment grants. We restored these old buildings, and brought people back to the downtown to study.
I would like to bring that college town model here to downtown Reading and put our stake in the ground.
LVB: Reading still has somewhat of a reputation as a forgotten mill town, and there are those who consider the city an undesirable place to live. What do you think about that?
Loyack: Those things can get overplayed. Reading is a tier 3 (medium-sized) city and all tier 3 cities in the U.S. are generally struggling. Reading is no different. For a university, that offers an advantage. Because there is not a lot going on economically, property is relatively cheap, and that gives us the opportunity to grow in an efficient, inexpensive way.
There is a fair amount of new economic development downtown and we can be and are a part of that, part of pushing that economic recovery.
LVB: How else is Alvernia benefitting the city of Reading?
Loyack: We are in the 18th ward in the city of Reading, so everything we do here has an impact. All of our employees are in the city limits. We are an anchor institution, meaning that we go out of our way to do business with businesses in the region. The college town model is the next step in the process of integrating into the city and being part of its recovery.
LVB: What are your plans for the next five years for Alvernia?
Loyack: We’ve grown a lot. But our technology hasn’t always kept pace, so we will put things in place to further growth and utilize technology better.
We have been financially stable and are growing, this is good. We will continue to push growth in downtown Reading, and to add more athletics. We are looking at esports right now as that begins to be a major player in sports.
Today you really need to be able to provide the full experience. A prospective student may love the accounting program but he or she won’t come if they want to play a sport that we don’t offer.
We will continue to offer new and exciting programs. We currently have a comprehensive suite of health science programs, and our students have great outcomes. We have a wonderful business school, a doctoral program in leadership and branches that come out of that.
LVB: Today, less and less people go to church or even believe in God. As a Catholic institution, how important is religion to the university and its students and where do you see Catholicism’s role in the institution going forward?
Loyack: I think the Bernadine Franciscan value system that Alvernia subscribes to is transferable regardless of your religious beliefs. Things like service and collegiality are part of the human experience. I’m a Catholic, a big C Catholic, and that’s part of what drew me to the institution, but we are a multifaith, multicultural institution.
The core values and the quality of a Catholic education are things that don’t change over time.
As part of those values, we teach community service. You have to complete community service as a requirement to graduate.
Alvernia creates a special kind of person that is able to go out into the world and be tomorrow’s leader. Putting leaders out who are great thinkers and see the world from a service perspective is a special transformation that happens here.
LVB: Tell me more about what it was like for you to switch from working in the corporate arena to academia.
Loyack: Well, I went to King’s because that is where I got my start and I didn’t want to see it fail. Not all academic institutions are going to make it over the next decade and King’s was on track to be one of those that didn’t make it. I wanted to ensure that that didn’t happen.
I honestly thought I would go back and do something in the corporate world after I got King’s back up on its feet. But I so fell in love with being part of the transformational experience and the students and connected to all of that. It’s what brought me here.
At this point in my life and career, it’s more about personal mission than it is about career. Coming here and building on what I did at King’s is something I just couldn’t say no to.
LVB: What advice would you give someone in their 50s who is looking to change career direction?
Loyack: My personal advice would be to do something from the heart. When you have been working with a primary focus on making a living and become successful at it, at some point just making a living becomes less important. The connection to the mission, whatever that is, becomes important.
For me connecting with the students and seeing them grow, and the next great things they do, has been my mission. There’s nothing like it. You can’t help but look back and say, I had a part in that. I created a campus environment that nurtured their success and here they are going out and doing their great thing.
How people connect with their heart in their next career is going to be different for them. If you can spend the end quarter of your career doing something that connects with your heart, it makes it a very special time for you.
I am so engaged here; it will be a great way to end a career.
LVB: Today people over 50 experience less unemployment than any other age group. While in the past an application might be overlooked if the job-seeker was over 50, today, that same application might receive multiple offers. Have you seen this in your life?
Loyack: Absolutely. I’ve had a sea of opportunities in my 50s. I’ve been asked to do so much career-wise in my 50s. That has allowed me to be more selective in what I choose to do. If you are really good at what you are doing at my age, you will have more opportunities, and you can think more about your personal mission.
The first time I was CFO, CEO and president, the first time I rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, those were all wonderful things, but it doesn’t compare to the personal satisfaction I experienced from the transformational process at King’s.
LVB: Outside of your career, what motivates you?
Loyack: I have three great children who are all out doing great things. They age from 22 to 28, and it has been wonderful watching them grow and become young professionals. When I’m not doing this, I’m out with them somewhere.
We just went away together for a few weeks. We did a lot of nothing and just bonded. It was a little sad because we don’t have the chance to get together as much now with our active careers.
LVB: How do you keep your family close when you are all doing your own thing?
Loyack: I am always in contact with my children wherever they are. I’m on the phone with them every day. We connect however we can.
I can see how my weekends in the future will be. Fly here to see my daughter. Fly there to see my son. My family and I are having new beginnings. It’s a special time in my life.
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