When Madeleine Wing Adler first visited West Chester University in 1992, what she saw reminded her of a St. Bernard puppy: "all this energy running in all directions."
Fifteen years later, West Chester's first female president believes she has harnessed that exuberance in positive ways, and in the process rebuilt the campus and the school's reputation.
Having accomplished those goals, Adler said yesterday, she can now plan her retirement, effective June 30, 2008.
Adler, 66, made the announcement at the university's new performing arts center, one of numerous facilities to take shape during her tenure.
Addressing hundreds of staff members, ranging from department heads to groundskeepers, Adler said she came to West Chester with high expectations that "reality has far surpassed." The response was a standing ovation.
"She's a remarkable people person," said Mike Peich, an English professor and director of the WCU Poetry Center.
Peich described Adler's approach as supportive and encouraging. During her years, West Chester's annual poetry conference has become the largest of its kind and garnered international acclaim, Peich said. The Poetry Center now has headquarters in a charming stone building on the campus.
"That's the kind of facility you would expect to find at a snooty liberal-arts college, not a state-sponsored university," he said. "She gives you the support you need to make exciting things happen."
People outside the university also expressed regret about Adler's departure.
H. Paul Fitzpatrick, president of West Chester Borough Council, said Adler consistently maintained good relations with the borough, even when some students did not.
"She always had an open mind, and if there was a problem, she did what she could," Fitzpatrick said.
Adler's push to get additional dormitories helped alleviate "the roving mob" syndrome that has plagued borough residents who find themselves living beside raucous partiers, Fitzpatrick said. Adler has also instituted student programs to promote community awareness, he said.
When Adler was hired, West Chester Borough Mayor Dick Yoder was a faculty member on the screening committee.
"We saw her abilities right away during the interview process," Yoder said. "She hasn't disappointed a soul. She really took the university to the next level."
Adler said that when she arrived from Framingham (Mass.) State College, where she was academic vice president, she wasn't sure the university or the community was ready for an outsider, let alone a woman. It took time, she said, but "they were ready."
At a time of shrinking state funds, Adler moved from one construction project to another, forging partnerships with alumni, businesses and the community. Annual gift income now exceeds $4 million, according to university records.
Although her successes also include a new science center, a graduate business center, several parking garages, and countless renovations, Adler said she was proudest of programs that focused on leadership and diversity.
"Buildings matter chiefly because of the excellence they support," she said.
Bernard J. Carrozza, a WCU alumnus and chairman of the university's Council of Trustees, recalled introducing Adler after she was hired and telling her, "Tonight, we are making history."
"From that moment on, she has never stopped," he said, calling her impact impossible to overstate.
Adler, who has twice battled breast cancer, said that her health is good and that she wanted to leave on her own terms.
She and her husband, Frederick Lane, a professor of public administration at the City University of New York, plan to continue their commitment to arts and education when they return to Massachusetts.
In fact, besides the people, what she will miss most about the university was "the instant access to intellectual and cultural activities on campus."
"It's been a great ride," she concluded.