Taking the Lead - Dr. Todd Pfannestiel becomes Utica's Tenth President
“In every respect, he is the ideal person to take on this tremendous responsibility.”
Dr. Todd Pfannestiel knows a lot of people, including, it seems, Mother Nature herself. Her attendance at the Friday, September 29 proceedings was evident as she called off the rain and opened the clouds to reveal a sky of blue and beams of warm sunlight just in time for the start for the historic moment at hand.
Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, Dr. Todd Pfannestiel officially took the reins as Utica University’s Tenth President. Hundreds filled Charles Gaetano Stadium in support of a new chapter in the University's more than 75 year history as the former Provost became President and marked the opening day of Homecoming - Alumni and Family Weekend.
As the ceremony got underway, the procession of administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and delegates from fellow institutions processed across the football field led by Professor Thomas Rossi, carrying and later presenting to Dr. Pfannestiel the mace - a symbol of the unique mission of Utica University, which is to provide a higher education that is accessible to all, liberal and humanizing, practical and purposeful. A gift from the Class of 1989, the mace was designed and made by Doctor James Caron, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, with the collaboration of Professors Randall Huta, Edward Jones, Stephen Peek, Ralph Fimmano, and David Moore. It was adopted in 1990 as Utica began its transition toward an independent institution.
Retired Ninth President Laura Casamento presented her successor with the Presidential Medallion - an emblem of office worn on official occasions of the University. It is hung on a chain, which is placed around the President’s neck and bears the institution’s original name Utica College. The Medallion was a gift to the University from former Board Chairperson Larry Bull ’74.
Past Chairperson of the Board of Trustees Robert Brvenik ‘77 presented Dr. Pfannestiel with the Institutional Charter, which officially establishes Utica University as an independent institution, with its own administrative structure, Board of Trustees, and President. It is the charter that grants the University permission to award academic degrees.
Family was close by his side as Dr. Pfannestiel’s wife Dr. Aimee Zellers, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Interim Associate Provost of Carlow University, provided the ceremony’s Benediction.
“May Todd’s presidency be marked by innovation, inclusivity, and a dedication to fostering an environment of academic excellence, diversity, and social responsibility,” Dr. Zellers said.
A native of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Dr. Pfannestiel has 25 years of experience in higher education, as a faculty member, school dean, and senior administrator. Through the course of his tenure as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Utica, he has led and collaborated closely with faculty on a variety of initiatives to raise the academic profile of the University and further its mission. Chief among these achievements was the recently implemented redesign of the University’s general education curriculum, as well as the launch of a number of innovative academic programs designed to address emerging workforce and societal needs.
Drawing on his own experience as a first-generation college student at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Pfannestiel possesses a deep and abiding appreciation for the transformative power of higher education.
“When I first came to then-Utica College in 2021, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Todd in his role as our Provost,” said Student Government Association President Kathi Jabe ‘25. “It quickly became apparent that he possessed a genuine care and attentiveness to the needs of students. He was, and still is, someone who is always willing to lend an ear, to sit down with any and every student, to answer their questions, address their concerns, and alleviate their worries. Now, in his new capacity as President, he continues to exemplify these qualities.”
“Like his predecessors, Dr Pfannestiel will lead Utica University with great care and extraordinary vision, committing his talents and abilities to the fulfillment of our mission and the realization of our full potential as an institution,” said Utica Board of Trustees President Jeremy Thurston. “In every respect, he is the ideal person to take on this tremendous responsibility.”
Thurston explained that the Presidential Search Committee’s rigorous and comprehensive national search produced a slate of highly-qualified candidates, all of whom had a great deal to offer the institution and the families it serves. “But by virtue of his unique capabilities, his deep knowledge of the University, and his proven track record as a leader, Dr. Pfannestiel quickly emerged from this very strong field as the best candidate to fulfill the demands of the Presidency.”
At Utica, Dr. Pfannestiel’s tenure as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs saw a variety of initiatives that significantly raised the profile of the University and furthered its mission. As a key member of the University’s emergency response team, Dr. Pfannestiel worked closely with President Casamento and his fellow cabinet members to steer the University through many institutional challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. He took a leadership role in protecting the health and safety of the campus community while working with faculty and staff to keep the learning enterprise on track - accomplished through an innovative program of hybrid instruction that leveraged Utica’s long experience as a center of online learning. Thanks in large measure to Dr. Pfannestiel’s efforts, the University earned broad recognition as a model of academic progress and resilience in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Most importantly, Dr. Pfannestiel embodies the spirit and values of Utica University in profound ways,” Thurston says. “His life experience reflects that of the many first-generation University students this institution has served since its founding. He has built strong relationships with our students, played an active role in campus life fat beyond the traditional scope of his administrative role, and has a deep and abiding commitment to our mission and our shared vision of the transformative power of higher learning. In short, he is a true Pioneer in every sense of the word. We are extremely fortunate to have leadership of his caliber as we move forward in pursuit of our destiny.”
Prior to joining Utica University, Dr. Pfannestiel served on the faculty of Clarion University of Pennsylvania for 20 years, earning the rank of Professor of History. During his time at Clarion, he also served as Dean of the College of Arts, Education, and Sciences, Interim Provost, and Acting President.
“What I envision for Utica University is neither novel nor surprising,” said the man of the hour himself, Dr. Pfannestiel. “We will be an excellent, relevant, innovative institution that contributes to the betterment of society. Through partnerships with other universities, we will capitalize on our strengths, mitigate our weaknesses, and fulfill the promises we have made to you and to future students: to empower you as learners to achieve your career and life goals.
Dr. Pfannestiel earned his Ph.D. in History from the College of William and Mary, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fellow in the Humanities; completed post-graduate studies at Duke University as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in Economics, and completed his B.A. in History and Economics at the University of Arkansas as a Fulbright College Scholar summa cum laude. But today, his heart belongs to Utica.
“In the months ahead we will begin in earnest our next strategic planning process to define that path. And everyone will play a part,” Dr. Pfannestiel explains. “Imagine a puzzle with over 4,000 pieces—much like the more than 4,000 individuals who comprise this university community, not to mention the thousands of alumni and friends. It would be near impossible to piece together that puzzle if we didn’t have the picture on the box to guide us. But we have that picture—we know where we are going because we know who we are. Or to borrow from one of my favorite Beatles songs (Beatles…you knew it was coming!): “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together.” I am who I am because of you—my students and my colleagues. And Utica University is what it is because of collectively who we are.”
Following the ceremony, the many facets of “Dr. Todd’s” robust personality and passions were on full display with Beatles songs performed by the band Showtime and a myriad of food offerings paying homage to the Fab Four’s repertoire, including a Strawberry Fields Forever salad, Here Comes the Bun bread offerings, And Your Bird Can Sing carved turkey, and desserts such as She’s So Heavy cookie dough, Oreos and brownie batter, Marshmallow Pies, and a creamy custard with caramel sauce titled Nowhere Flan.