Q&A: James Mergiotti, President of Center City’s Peirce College

He talks about heading up a small college in a city with such large educational institutions and 151 years of serving the 99 percent.

James J. Mergiotti, Pierce College president

Photos via Peirce College

During Villanova’s run to the national championship this year, there was much commotion about the team not being a “city school.” It’s true, of course: Villanova is in Radnor Township.

At some point, I tweeted about how I only root for Peirce College, the school located on the 1400 block of Pine Street in Center City Philadelphia. (“Go Fighting Misspellings!” I wrote.) Somehow, that led to me interviewing the president of Peirce College a few weeks later.

A little backstory: Peirce College was founded by Thomas May Peirce in 1865. He found there was no adequate business training facility for veterans returning from the Civil War. He started the Union Business College to help educate Civil War vets and get them started on business careers. He started with nine students on a Saturday morning at Eighth and Spring Garden, and had 550 enrolled by the end of the first year.

The school was eventually re-named Peirce, and moved to its location at 1420 Pine Street in 1915. A member of the Peirce family was president of the school until 1981, when Dr. Raymond C. Lewin became took the role. Current Peirce president James J. Mergiotti, a longtime veteran of the banking industry, is the third non-family member to be president of the college. The school still has a focus on educating people for the professional world, offering degrees in areas like business, IT and healthcare administration.

I sat down with Mergiotti to talk about Philadelphia’s tiny, little-known college, one that sits in the shadows of all the large institutions in the city. This interview has been condensed.

How did you end up at Peirce?

It’s a real non-traditional story. I came out of college and became a CPA first, and then I was in banking for 20 years. While I was at the bank, I became a board member of Peirce. Actually, back in 1988. So quite some time ago. And that’s a pretty interesting story, too. I was reporting to the president of the bank at the time. He met with the president of Peirce, who asked him to join the board. And he, of course, didn’t have the time to do it. And I think I was the first person in his office when he came back from lunch. He said to me, go over there and interview for a trustee-ship because they need board members over there. So I did so, and I was accepted onto the board in 1988. Never in a million years thought [that] in 2016 I’d be sitting here in the president’s office.

I was at CoreStates for 20 years, I came here in 1998 working for my predecessor, who was president then, Art Lendo. He was just looking to add some bandwidth to his leadership team. He was, at that time, on the crest of launching online delivery. And he was looking for somebody to help him with that transition. We actually thought it was going to be a 3 or 4 year gig, to tell you the truth. And, again, here I am, 18 years later. And he’s seven years now, retired. So I threw my hat in the ring when he retired and succeeded him as president. That’s my track to this position. You won’t hear that from too many college presidents. It’s a little different.

What attracted you to this college in the first place, other than your boss saying, “Hey, go interview for this board job?”

I just got taken by what we used to call non-traditional students — we now call opportunity students. Folks who don’t usually go the traditional path in terms of getting a degree, and have had some fits and stops in many cases. But have found the need for a degree because their career trajectory just isn’t where it needs to be. But they fortunately have been able to find a place like Peirce, which is a place that finds ways to deliver to them innovative-ly, which allows convenience, which allows flexibility. Which allows them to fit their lifestyle, to fit a college degree pursuit into the personal and professional obligations that they have. It has the workforce relevant curriculum — in terms of the career-orientation that we’ve had for 151 years here — so it’s easy for the student to connect not only with what might be in the workplace today but what might be in the workplace tomorrow.

And also, you know, there’s a warmth and a friendliness in this environment. And there always has been from the time I became affiliated with the institution. And I think that’s so important for our students. Is that they find themselves here, they’re recognized. Everybody’s accessible. Everybody’s approachable. Everybody’s here for them, everybody’s here to support them, and they get that message day in and day out. Even if they’re at a distance, there’s just so much interaction and so much support that they get that just makes this place different than any other higher ed institution that I’ve been affiliated with — either as a student or in other ways. I had a couple of other opportunities.

How do you keep that curriculum fresh?

We have, right now, about 40 relationships on an admissions level with companies. And we have about a half-dozen others where we’re actually inside the company doing more strategic work. We’re really trying to take a much more strategic approach than others in terms of trying to find out the work force issues that a company like a Comcast or a Vanguard or Penn Medicine is dealing with. Those are three entities where we’ve managed to penetrate in terms of getting strategic relationships going. We’re trying to solve a business problem with them around people, around human capital. Understanding what they need to build pipelines — particularly into their entry-level positions or their intermediate level positions. We’re not graduating the CFO. But we’re graduating the first-level accountant or we’re graduating the first-level IT person. Or somebody with a paralegal degree that may work in their contract administration area in entry-level. That’s our sweet spot.

Often, they’re some of the hardest positions that they have to fill. They’re entry-level positions. They’re prone to turnover because people only want to stay in those positions a few years. So they’re constantly looking for a pipeline, particularly if they’re looking for IT positions and customer service positions, it’s just such a wide, vast part of their operation. It’s also something where they use those positions as kind of a window on the organization for people to take other career paths. They’re always looking to build pipelines. We see ourselves as really being able to be a source there. But also, we’re educating people from this region. We’re educating Philadelphians, who live here, work here, go to school here. We’re not importing students from other states. Again, talking about the Big 5 or the City Six, they have their share of people coming in from New York and Massachusetts and other parts of the country. We don’t have that. We’re a commuter campus, and we have folks who live here and work here and they get educated here and then they take jobs with companies that are here.

How do you keep the school attractive to students?

One important thing comes back to innovation. Having the delivery model, the delivery mechanism, that fits the needs of the student. And this goes all the way back to 1865. If you look at Thomas May Peirce, who was our great 27-year-old founder back at the post-Civil War point. Peirce was delivering customized schedules to students when he first opened Peirce. He was educating returning Civil War veterans. He was one of those folks that was talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent back in 1865. And he knew the 1 percent was having access but the other 99 percent wasn’t and that other 99 percent wasn’t always eligible for workplace opportunities. So he found ways to customize schedules to make it appealing.

I always marvel at the fact that the first class that was taught at Peirce was taught at a Saturday morning. It wasn’t taught Monday through Friday. He taught it on a beautiful Saturday morning over at Eighth and Spring Garden streets with nine students in it that grew to 500 by the end of the first year. Going all the way back to 1865 and that influence, we’ve always been concerned with making sure that we met the student where they are.

And we do that today. We do that with those innovative delivery mechanisms that we put together. People are astounded at how much of an early adopter we were to online delivery. We’ve had the whole curriculum in both online and on-campus delivery for almost 16 years. We’ve allowed students go to back and forth intra-program for that period in time. So they could choose from course to course which platform they wanted to use, again, to fit into their lifestyle and fit into their schedule. Now we’re merging those two platforms, starting in September of 2016, where every course will be delivered in this new model called Peirce FIT. So every time a class meets, a student can decide whether they want to attend a class either on campus or online and they can do that in a moment.

Then there’s competency-based education. And we’re a very early adopter there. So competency-based education recognizes competencies that you’ve mastered in other forms of life — either personal life, professional life, volunteer life. It gives you credit for those competencies. So there’s no redundancy in asking you what you’ve learned to get a degree. So, again, it’s a more efficient path both time-wise and financially to get where you are today to the completion of a degree.

Could you give me an example of how the competency thing works?

I always think back to my own career, I was on the project team for the first automated teller machine that CoreStates ever developed. That was called the MAC network. So, I had that life experience. My big thing there was I was the controls guy. I had an accounting background, an auditing background, so I was there to make sure that there were appropriate internal controls, so I was there to make sure people couldn’t get away with getting cash when they didn’t deserve to get it. So we had the appropriate checks and balances internally, we had a whole new system of distribution there.

So I worked on that project. And I learned a lot of things that I didn’t learn before I was on the project. I learned a lot of things about the way automated teller machines worked, and the way that those delivery mechanisms interacted with the other systems in the institution and how we integrated what we called demand accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts. So I would get the opportunity, if I were going to the competency-based program, I could do a presentation on it. I could say, listen to me talk about this. Here’s a powerpoint slide presentation that i’ve done on this topic because I’m an experienced ATM network person. And then there’s obviously a faculty member and also a coach who works alongside that student to guide them basically around what the key competencies are, what the key subject matter is, and directs them towards extracting from their experience as much as they can, to get as much credit as they possibly can.

And then, after that work is done, there still will be needs for that student to take some coursework. But they can then take the coursework at their own pace, given our delivery systems. If they sign up for an 8-week course, and they have mastered half the competencies in that course, they can make it through the course in four weeks. Because the coach and the faculty member are there to say, “Hey, you just need to do these pieces, you don’t need these other pieces. We’re going to focus you here.” We’re going to basically customize this to fit just what you need in terms of completing this course with a combination of what you’ve mastered previously and what you’re learning through the course process.

What challenges are Peirce facing now?

Peirce, a big challenge that we face right now is that we’re in the shadows of a lot of these large institutions that cast a big shadow on us. We’re this little engine that could. We’re this little, innovative institution that’s been doing this work for 151 years. We’ve had a significant impact on hundreds of thousands of families over 150 years of our evolution. But we’re small. We’re this little enterprise, that’s 92,000-square foot enterprise with 2,500 students — most of which are part-time. And we don’t generate the kinds of jobs that Penn does or Drexel does where they’ve got a crane every 25 feet it seems.

It’s trying to get our brand position inside of all that megastructure of higher ed that’s out there. So that’s probably our biggest challenge, to get recognition for the great institution and the great history that exists here. If you were to ask me what keeps me up most at night, it’s probably around that.

There’s obviously other things, too. Just like anybody else, there’s a lot of criticism for higher ed right now around debt loads for students, around tuition pricing, around “is the model really efficient?” — is there a real value proposition there where people can get an ROI for what they can do. And we’re responding to that. All those innovations that I’ve talked to you about, they’re all in response to these. We’re saying: Hey, we hear you, consumer, and we’re going to change because we believe that we need to demonstrate better value. Even though we’ve been doing it for 150 years, we have to continue to change our game.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.