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Posted On: Oct. 29, 1997 12:00 AM CST

Reviewing a decade of gains at The College of Insurance, President Ellen Thrower gives much of the credit to the College's board of trustees, board leaders and industry supporters.

Still, Ms. Thrower has presided over a remarkable renaissance at the College since joining it in 1988, a renaissance that has seen the school bring a huge debt burden under control, attract new corporate support, increase enrollment and expand academic programs.

Getting her to take the job wasn't easy: Then a professor and director of the Insurance Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Ms. Thrower says she had no interest in becoming a college president and no desire to move to New York City.

A search committee of insurance brokers finally convinced her otherwise -- "In some ways, I think I got broked," she says -- and Ms. Thrower, 50, has never looked back.

She discussed some of the hurdles the College of about 730 students has overcome and some of the challenges it still faces in an interview with Senior Editor Douglas McLeod.

Why was the College of Insurance formed? Why was it necessary, and what impact has it had?

The College was formed almost 100 years ago, in 1901, as a learned society. It was founded by insurance leaders who really came to passionately believe that there was a need for a good source of insurance education.

Over the years, the Insurance Society of New York evolved into a school of insurance, and then in 1962 we became a fully accredited college. So we are very close to our centennial, and we have been a fully accredited college for 35 years, offering an undergraduate baccalaureate degree that is firmly grounded in liberal arts as well as graduate level programs -- an MBA and very soon a master of science in risk management.

What does the College offer in insurance education that differs from what other liberal arts colleges have to offer?

We're similar in our strong grounding in liberal arts. But our students select majors that are either in insurance or risk management or actuarial science or finance. Our students also have an extensive range of opportunities to blend theory and practice, such as through their cooperative work experience, where they learn things in the classroom and then apply them in their internships.

Our undergraduate and graduate students have terrific opportunities to meet today's industry leaders. They also have multiple job offers. Ninety-five percent of our students have jobs within 30 days of graduation. There are more job opportunities now than we have students graduating.

One of the things we've done is develop a partnership with nearby Pace University to give our students access to their liberal arts courses. By doing that we have significantly increased the richness of their liberal arts opportunities and at the same time have been able to focus significant resources on our area of core competency and what differentiates us, which is risk management, insurance and actuarial science.

We now have 10 full-time risk management, insurance and actuarial faculty. We'll be hiring two more full-time faculty next year, and we still have three endowed chairs, two $1.5 million chairs and a $1 million chair, that we expect to fill in the next 18 to 24 months. I believe at that time we would have one of the largest and finest risk management and insurance faculties anywhere.

We also, because of the significant enrichment of our faculty, have been able to do some very exciting things in the curriculum area. We have developed over the past year a new M.S., the master's of science in risk management and insurance, that I think is very cutting edge in many ways. There will be courses in alternative risk finance, financial risk management, derivatives, securitization -- an awful lot of them current and emerging issues.

Have any companies told you how their College of Insurance graduates have performed vs. those from other schools?

We have heard from a number of companies that the students they hired with insurance majors from The College of Insurance generally advance faster and the retention is significantly better. The reason for advancing higher is I think they are better prepared. When they graduate, they don't really need the same level of education and skills-building that students who don't know anything about the industry do.

The retention of students with that background, we are told by companies, is far greater. They may lose some of these students that they hire, but if they do, it's typically to competitors vs. to a manufacturing group or something else.

Is it a good thing that they're losing them to competitors instead of to other industries?

You know, it's an interesting thing. While they hate to lose good young people that they have hired, they really believe that ultimately the industry is better off because these people are in the industry. As we have fewer amateurs and more professionals, the industry overall is better.

What kind of impact have College of Insurance students had in the industry?

It's tough to answer. First of all, if you look at our 97-year history, we have really provided education to literally tens of thousands of individuals. Many leaders of today have taken certificate programs, courses, special seminars at The College of Insurance and even earlier at the School of Insurance. And if you look at the leaders today who have studied at the College in a variety of areas, it is significant.

In addition, we've always had a special emphasis on opportunities for students at the economic margin. And so I think it's also providing a lot of educational opportunities to first-generation college students, sons and daughters of immigrants, students from all over the world. A third of our students now are minorities, and so I think we have played an important role in attracting a lot of very bright young people who would otherwise either not have come to this industry or would not have had the opportunity for a college degree and a good professional career.

There's another area where I believe we've had an impact: Through a significant range of professional education courses and programs, we have been accessible to a lot of employees working full time who would like to become better or improve knowledge and skills. We have been a good source of what everyone is referring to now as lifelong learning.

One last area: Our library has the oldest and most extensive insurance collection in the world. It was also formed at the turn of the century and is endowed by Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis. Our library is a repository of historical and current information about insurance and financial services that I believe is second to none.

In getting to where the College is now, what are the toughest hurdles it has had to overcome?

We have a beautiful campus; it's one of our greatest assets. When I arrived in 1988, it was one of our greatest liabilities.

There was a significant amount of outstanding debt that was taking so much time and attention, it really did not enable the College to pay attention to an awful lot of areas that it needed to. So probably the most pressing issue was finding ways to begin resolving a terrific debt problem. I can say with the help of the C.V. Starr Foundation and Hank Greenberg, who's been a trustee of our College for 25 years, a challenge gift program was established, designed to pay off the debt. And we are at a point where we're very close.

Has the College faced other challenges?

Developing relationships and partnerships with insurance companies, insurance groups, realizing -- and I think we did this early on -- that they are customers of ours, just like our students and their parents. They make investments in this institution and they hire our students, and we need to meet their needs.

Also, to really reach out to our alums. The president of the alumni association now is automatically a member of our board of trustees. When I arrived here 10 years ago, we didn't know who our alums were. And they're some of the strongest evidence of the value of our education.

And I think the last challenge when I arrived 10 years ago was to deal with a fragmented board of trustees and begin building and developing and enriching the board. I think today the board of trustees is one of our finest, most important resources.

What was fragmenting the board of trustees?

I think there was a lot of attention on the building debt. I think we had a number of trustees who were on the board because they were told to be, because it was an assignment by their company, so they didn't really understand the College. I think today if you look at our board of trustees, they're here because they care about the College, they really are investing in our vision of becoming a world leader in insurance and risk management education.

Is the College where you would like it to be today, or do you see other problems or challenges you need to work on?

I think the College is progressing, but we have a ways to go. We need to continue to enrich our intellectual resources. We need to be far more influential in the research area in terms of identifying research issues that are really important, whether they involve company policy issues in the insurance industry or problems and challenges that companies and various industry groups are facing or will face. Our faculty intends to be a major player in this area.

One of my biggest challenges I think is to work with the board to identify ways to increase our endowment and to really generate long-term investments in the College by the industry.

It's rare to see a private, non-profit college or university operate well without a reasonably significant endowment. The nature of colleges and universities is such that tuition doesn't provide 100% of the costs. It never does. And through annual support -- which is really the lifeblood of any institution -- and significant endowments, we are able to provide scholarships, additional faculty support, which could be through chairs, distinguished lectureships. And increasingly the big need is in the information technology area. This is a universal challenge right now: There's very little extra money or venture capital to invest in the technology that we really have to be invested in.

Have you seen a change in that? Have more companies been willing to support the College?

It's significantly increased. I can't guess the magnitude. . .it's well above 1988, when there were fewer than 50 companies that were providing financial support to the College. In our last campaign, we had more than 300. We now provide educational programs not only in New York but through a variety of partnerships with groups. We offer programs in the Midwest, on the West Coast and in a number of countries. We have several programs that are under way throughout the year in Bermuda. As we expand our ability to really be a resource to the industry, not only throughout North America but beyond, we will continue to see companies hopefully interested in investing in our college.

Another challenge -- and it sort of ties in with the endowment -- is that we see this incredible wave of mergers and acquisitions.

So often, mergers involve companies that are supporting the College. When we see mergers and acquisitions, inevitably there are fewer employees that are going to be taking courses, and there is an impact on the financial investments and support of individual companies. That has really added pressure to our need to establish a permanent, reliable source of support for scholarships, for growth with this institution.

Do you see the College playing any significantly different role in the future than it has up until now?

While our focus is always going to be on insurance, we are far more focused in terms of our curriculum and our educational focus on risk management, risk financing and what we see as the changing world of insurance and financial services.