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.
Bergman said the question surprised her and “sat inside” her for a while. “It was not on my dream list,” she said of the job. “It is now.”
The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she said the presidency is a “call to serve,” an opportunity to provide a liberal arts foundation and inspire students with the core Gustavus values of excellence, community, justice, service and faith, Bergman said.
Bergman has a chemical engineering degree from Princeton University and studied in a doctorate program in chemical engineering and material science at the University of Minnesota.
For Bergman, the job will be a geographic adjustment; she’ll live in St. Peter on weekdays.
Her husband, Thomas, is a Duluth native, chief of neurosurgery at Hennepin County Medical Center and part of the University of Minnesota faculty.
The couple have four children ranging in age from 21 to 28. The two younger children are at home and all are supportive, she said.
The family lives in North Oaks, where the Bergmans are able to walk out their front door and enjoy hiking, biking and skiing trails. Bergman said she enjoys bird hunting with her husband, playing Bach on the piano and reading, most recently the novel “Finn” by Jon Clinch (she said she mixes classics with modern fiction and nonfiction). Weekends mean time with family in Duluth, Pennsylvania or at the couple’s cabin north of Hinckley.
The Bergmans hunt with their black Labrador retriever, Mia. They also have two cats, Tucker and Bella.
“Everyone’s smiling in my household, and that means a lot to me,” she said of her new role.