Retiring Penn State Abington chancellor leaves lasting impact

Campus community shares memories of departing leader in book, 'Karen Wiley Sandler taught me ...'
Karen Sandler

Abington Chancellor Karen Wiley Sandler maintains she isn't retiring, she's graduating. "I'm the Class of 2016," she said.

Credit: Penn State

The memories and tributes to retiring Chancellor Karen Wiley Sandler float and swirl like leaves along the paths at Penn State Abington. Many of these stories made their way into a book, "Karen Wiley Sandler Taught Me ..." that was created for her as she departs this summer after more than two decades leading Penn State Abington.

Let's begin at the beginning with Moylan Mills, professor emeritus of integrative arts, who vividly recalls his first encounter with Sandler:

"Spring 1994. I was on a selection committee for the new Penn State Abington chief executive officer, and we had one more candidate to interview: Karen Wiley Sandler. Well, Karen walked into the room and instantly put everyone at ease. She exuded confidence and warmth. She exhibited intelligence, strength, and understanding of the tough job for which she was applying."

Sandler snapped up the CEO position and within three years she transformed the campus into Abington College, a four-year baccalaureate institution, and earning the titles of inaugural dean and eventually chancellor.

Dustin Kology

Sandler, left, is known for her personal warmth and genuine interest in others. Abington baseball player Dustin Kology and two teammates missed commencement due to a tournament, so Sandler and Assistant Dean Samir Ouzomgi invited the men and their families to her office for photos a few days later.

Credit: Pamela Brobst

From day one, Sandler prioritized offering improved and unlimited opportunities in a diverse, welcoming environment. And she succeeded, according to Maria Narodetsky, Class of 2013 and current staffer:

"As a student, Dr. Sandler always found ways to connect with us and make us feel important to the success of the college. She created a community at Abington that many staff, faculty, students, and alumni call home."

Sandler staunchly supported lifelong learning, and Abington staffer Jean Moffatt benefitted:

"Dr. Sandler inspired me to pursue higher education. Although 48 years have passed since my high school graduation, I graduated in December with my bachelor's degree. Her example was the driving force."

Sandler with mandala

The internationalization and diversity of Penn State Abington stand are among Dr. Sandler's legacies. She worked to build the population of international students, supported visiting scholars including a residency by a Tibetan monk and artist. She also encouraged the development of more courses with required travel components. 

Credit: Pam Brobst

Sandler fostered leadership skills, especially among women. Ethel O'Dea, from the campus Career Development Center, remembers:

"She always demonstrated the importance of developing women into leaders. Karen strongly encourages women to look at education as a means to develop those capabilities. She has been a model and devoted her years here to creating a campus of exceptional students, faculty, and staff."

Harry Seesholtz

Sandler's longtime friendship with faculty member Mel Seesholtz included his beloved companion, Harry. When it came time to say goodbye to the terminally ill dog, she comforted them and stayed until the end. Seesholtz called it "a real bonding day ... and it says a lot about Karen as a person."

Credit: Penn State

Perhaps Sandler's greatest legacy at Abington — care for others — can best be summed up by longtime faculty member Mel Seesholtz and his beloved dog, Harry:

"Harry's cancer was in its final stage. It was time. Karen offered to accompany us on that dreaded trip to the vet. Karen sat on the floor at the vet with us as we said our goodbyes. Her presence brought peace to us both. I'll never forget her kindness and compassion, and I'll never be able to thank her enough for what she gave Harry and me that day."

Mills, who opened this story, summed up Sandler's impact on the campus and the local community:

"Karen fulfilled admirably the hopes and faith placed upon her that afternoon so long ago. Her wisdom, tenacity, and gentle decency have been evident through the years."

Quintara Tucker

Quintara Tucker accepts her degree and a hug from Abington Chancellor Karen Wiley Sandler.

Credit: Maria Narodetsky

Penn State Abington: The Sandler Years

Sandler plans to write, teach and volunteer as a literacy tutor after she retires this summer. Among the accomplishments under her leadership:

  • Transformed Abington into a four-year baccalaureate degree institution.
  • Construction of the first University-sponsored residence hall at Abington to open for fall 2017.
  • With a $50,000 seed grant from Invent Penn State, fast-tracked the development of the first co-working space, innovation and idea hub in Montgomery County. Penn State Abington LaunchBox debuted in March 2016.
  • Enrollment growth during the last 10 years while maintaining high admissions standards.
  • Added degree programs, currently totaling 18 with others in development.
  • Established a thriving undergraduate research program, known as Abington Undergraduate Research Activities or ACURA.
  • Membership in NCAA Division III athletics.
  • Developed an initiative for the multimillion-dollar renovation and shared use of the Abington School District's Memorial Field athletic complex, opening new opportunities for students and the Abington community.
  • First recipient of an endowed Chancellor's Chair at Penn State (the Albert and Suzanne Lord Chancellor).
  • Serves on the board of the Eastern Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce (EMCCC) and the Abington Township Economic Development Committee.
  • Founding member of the Business Resources Information Center, an economic development partnership between the township, the campus and EMCCC.
  • Member of the Executive Advisory Committee for the EASTERN Center for Arts and Technology, the Montgomery County Workforce Investment Board, and the Abington Township Steering Committee for the Old York Road re-vitalization project. 

Sander initially targeted December 2015 to retire, but she stayed to ensure a smooth transition for her successor, Damian Fernandez, who arrives on July 5.