Three-Thousand Grads Later, WCMS Marks Its 50th

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CLAREMONT, Calif.-A sizeable crowd will gather this week to honor the 50th graduating class from Western CUNA Management School, the alma mater of any number of influential credit union leaders in its 52 years of operations.

The school first opened on the UCLA campus in 1960 with 42 students. Today, it is based at Pomona College and is open to credit union employees affiliated with leagues in 13 western states. It has during its existence produced more than 3,500 graduates.

On July 20 and 21, WCMS will welcome CUNA President and CEO Bill Cheney as the 50th graduating class commencement speaker, while Google's VP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, will be featured as the conference keynote speaker.

Dr. James Likens is the Morris B. and Gladys S. Pendleton Professor of Economics at Pomona College, but he is much more well-known in credit union circles for his association with Western CUNA Management School since 1972. The program's long-term success, said Likens, is because the curriculum appeals to students from a variety of backgrounds.

"It works for people who have never gone to college but are moving up through the ranks to management positions," he said. "It also works for people who have gone to law school. It works for people who are from big and small credit unions. The quality of teaching at this school is comparable to the teaching at Pomona College, which is one of the premier liberal arts schools. One CEO told me he sends people here because they have a chance to learn about the entire credit union, not just their area of specialty."

'Head & Heart'

Michael Steinberger, who recently took over as dean of WCMS when Likens became president of the school, noted that to become a graduate requires significant work over the program's three years. Each July for two weeks students get classroom instruction for several hours a day, and then are responsible for two "giant" projects, one between first and second year and the other between second and third year.

"We are trying to teach people everything they need to run a credit union, from finance to law to HR to communication," Steinberger said. "The projects ask them to gain exposure in each of the areas and use this information in their own credit union. The second project builds on the first and incorporates two years of information."

Both Steinberger and Likens said Western CUNA Management School places an emphasis on the combination of head and heart. Steinberger said while the aim is to work closely with the students on the development of their knowledge, and there is an effort to have "the best faculty we can possibly get," he added, "we talk about how credit unions are member-focused. We rejoice in our mission."

Likens, the 2005 Herb Wegner Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award winner, said people ask him all the time, "Who owns Western CUNA Management School?"

"Which is a little like asking, 'Who owns Princeton?'" he quipped. "Our students think they own it, the alumni think they own it, the 13 league presidents think it is theirs, and I know it is mine. There is magic here, and the proof is in the alumni. We care about these people and they know it."

According to Likens, WCMS students also develop professional networks while they are enrolled, and the classes stay close to each other later on in their careers.

'Changed Their Life'

"(California/Nevada league president) Diana Dykstra was in middle management when she came here, and since has said she found her voice," said Likens. "Diana is the prototype, but many students have told me the school changed their life. I think this school has had a big impact on the quality of credit union management over the years. The credit union movement has changed dramatically, and I think we have stayed ahead of the curve."

Steinberger said approximately 150 alumni will be present this week, with CO-OP Financial Services the official sponsor of the 50th anniversary celebration.

"(CO-OP CEO) Stan Hollen has always been a supporter of the school," he said. "The people who are coming to celebrate the graduates from the school during this significant moment in our history is a testament to the value of the school."

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