When Otterbein University students return to campus this August, they'll encounter a friendly new face wandering the sidewalks of the university, and he'll probably be wearing a suit and tie.

John Comerford, who officially began his tenure as Otterbein's president in July, has been spending his spare time getting to know his surroundings.

"It's just understanding the lay of the land and getting to know people's names and buildings' names and all that stuff," he said.

In April, Comerford was named the successor to Kathy Krendl, whose retirement became official July 1.

He comes to Otterbein from Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, and has experience at Westminster College in Missouri, Missouri Western State College and Ball State University. He has a doctorate degree in higher education from the University of Kansas to go along with a master's in student personnel administration and a bachelor's in political science.

In the opening days of his tenure, Comerford said, his strategy has been to focus on listening. He said he's still trying to learn everything that goes on at Otterbein, which he said is a significant step up in size from his previous job at Blackburn.

"I came in knowing that the beginning would be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose," he said. "There is just so much going on here -- so many programs, so many people to meet, so much important work happening. As I expected, it's been a lot of just trying to understand who works where and what they do and how it all fits together.

"Everyone has been very kind and patient as the new guy asks dumb questions," he said.

Kristi Robbins, Comerford's chief of staff, served in the same position under Krendl.

She said Comerford has been gracious and open since arriving on campus, and his "deeply held values around access, diversity and inclusion" make him "a great fit" at Otterbein.

"In working with president Comerford over the last few weeks, we have found him to be highly engaging, collaborative and authentic," she said. "His thoughtful approach to getting to know the Otterbein community as well as Westerville and the central Ohio area is being very well received."

At Otterbein, Comerford sees both differences and similarities to his previous jobs, he said.

He said he's used to the liberal-arts environment, but there's significantly more "intricacy" at Otterbein.

"At the heart of it, this feels very similar to me," he said. "This is a place that prides itself on working with students one-on-one and changing the course of their lives and believing that faculty-student contact is what really makes the difference."

In his new position, Comerford isn't walking into any major problems and isn't rushing to put out any fires.

While he said that doesn't make the job any "better or worse," it does give him the ability to be thoughtful of any changes or new directions, which he prefers. He said he sees his role as "adding to the momentum" created during Krendl's tenure.

"There are lots of places in higher institution that are in crisis right now ... and here's a place where there's lots of important work to be done, but you have the time and space and resources to be able to think a little more creatively, a little more proactively than reactively," he said.

But that doesn't mean Comerford doesn't think there's anything to do.

He said he's "worried about the trajectory of American higher education," and wants to be "a national role model" in trying to make it possible for more people to have access to college.

"There is a trend toward increasing cost, increasing merit aid -- aid that goes disproportionately to students with higher test scores that are correlated with higher income," he said.

"So we're blocking out of the higher education system students without family money. That strikes at the heart of what the American democratic experiment is supposed to be about," he said.

"It's supposed to be that if you're smart enough and driven enough, there's no way you can't achieve your goals. But if you can't get to college because your family doesn't have any money, that's really problematic," he said.

Comerford sees Otterbein as a larger platform to spread that message.

He said he hopes the university can be "a national role model," and the school's role will be to "stand up and say, 'There's a different way to do this.' "

And for him, the exciting part about his job is he can be the one sending that message.

"I get to be the chief storyteller, which is a fun thing," he said. "So the more I can do to get out -- locally and nationwide -- to tell that story, the more we'll get on the radar as an institution really doing some innovative things."

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