Gustavus chooses Medtronic executive as next president

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 11:09 PM

Rebecca Bergman, who will become the 17th president, is a top Medtronic executive.

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Rebecca Bergman has been named president of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Photo: McGrath, Dennis, Provided by Gustavus Adolphus College

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Gustavus Adolphus College on Friday tapped a senior executive from Medtronic with an engineering background to become the 17th president and first woman to lead the college.

Rebecca Bergman, who is 57 and goes by Becky, is the vice president of research, technology and therapy delivery systems for Medtronic’s Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management business. The native of Allentown, Pa., has degrees in chemical engineering and a 26-year career at Medtronic.

Given such a background, she might appear to be an unusual choice to lead the traditionally Swedish, Lutheran liberal arts college in St. Peter.

But Bergman believes the Medtronic career meshes beautifully with her new direction. “My job there has been to create future products and strategies,” she said. “At heart, I’m a futurist.”

That means setting a direction, leading through challenge and moving the college forward, she said. Bergman described Fridley-based Medtronic and Gustavus as two “mission-driven” organizations filled with “people who believe in what they do.”

The new president will come to a campus ready to be led out from under the tenure of President Jack Ohle, whose leadership had drawn critical scrutiny. About a year ago, the Gustavus faculty senate sent a letter to alumni blaming Ohle’s poor financial management and unilateral leadership style for “plummeting morale” at the school. He stepped down from the presidency a year ahead of schedule, saying he wanted to retire.

In contrast, Bergman’s hiring was met with enthusiasm, if not outright exuberance. Her warm welcome is significant in part because people on the 2,500-student campus already know her as a member of the board of trustees since 2007.

Known as a listener

Her involvement at Gustavus began when the oldest of her four children went to the school; a second followed him a few years later. And Bergman has come to know many faculty members as chairwoman of the board’s Academic Affairs Committee.

Among those who know her from board work is Max Hailperin, chairman of the faculty senate and a mathematics and computer science professor. He called Bergman “extremely intelligent,” but also a great listener with good people skills.

“She doesn’t let her own ego get in the way of hearing what other people say and synthesizing it all,” he said.

Bergman has the ability to make both qualitative and quantitative decisions, and has led a life of leadership and service, he said, adding, “I consider us fortunate.”

Michele Koomen, an education professor, said the change feels like a positive “turning point.”

She noted that Bergman has led large teams at Medtronic in a role that is not unlike the role of a college president. “The biggest question is — is she able to make this transition [to academia]?” Koomen said. “I feel that she can do that.”

Eric Dugdale, classics professor and faculty senate vice chairman, praised her “intellectual acumen,” poise and collaborative style. “The critical thinking and leadership skills that she has demonstrated in heading up research and development at a Fortune 500 company will serve Gustavus well as she takes the helm,” he said. “Her sense of vocation as a servant leader is very much in keeping with the college’s mission as a student-centered institution.”

Greg Kaster, professor of history, gender, women’s studies and sexuality, said there’s a sense of hope with the fresh start under a new leader. “I’m most excited we have a woman president; it’s long overdue,” he said. “That alone is worthwhile.”

A ‘call to serve’

Bergman said she didn’t consider pursuing the presidency until last summer, when a board colleague asked her to consider it.

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