Debra Schwinn has crisscrossed the country for her education and career. A native Midwesterner, she headed to Stanford University in California for medical school. Then, she moved to the East Coast to train in her clinical specialty of anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Next came 20 years at Duke University in North Carolina before moving to Seattle and then Iowa City, where she ultimately served as associate vice president for medical affairs, dean of the Carver College of Medicine, and professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology, and biochemistry at the University of Iowa.
Last year as Schwinn contemplated other positions in health care, she came to a surprising realization.
“God nudged me to think more broadly,” Schwinn recalls. “I felt a clear call to Christian universities.”
Today, May 4, 2020, Debra Schwinn begins her first day as Palm Beach Atlantic University’s ninth President. The story of how this accomplished higher education academic leader, innovator, scientist and physician became the chief executive of an interdenominational Christ-first university hinges on her deep faith and steadfast belief in the value of a liberal arts education.
The realization of God’s unconditional love sparked her to become a Christian as a teen, she says. Throughout her life she learned that “listening to God is an important part of prayer” and that her Christian walk is “ever deepening, ever opening to God” during good times and through challenging moments.
“I learned to jump in with both feet and lean on God as He provides opportunities to grow and learn something,” she says.
In her youth, Schwinn applied only to music conservatories to study the violin. At the last minute, she changed her mind and enrolled instead at a liberal arts college where she continued her music while developing a love for chemistry, leading to her medical career. During her years as an educator, Schwinn became an advocate for the liberal arts, recommending that holistic approach of education to her students.
“Employers today are seeing the value of a liberal arts education in developing creativity and ingenuity in today’s students while they also study the analytical and technological skills needed in today’s workforce,” she says.
With opportunities before her from coast to coast, Schwinn was attracted to Palm Beach Atlantic by its location in a growing part of the country that offered diversity in its population and global connections. The mother of two adult daughters, Schwinn is joined by her husband, Dr. Robert Gerstmyer, a religious scholar who served as an instructor in the Department of Religion at the University of Iowa.
Schwinn succeeds William M. B. Fleming, Jr. who served as Palm Beach Atlantic’s president for eight years prior to his retirement.
“These are challenging times to begin as president, with COVID-19 altering every aspect of life,” she says. “Many of our PBA families have been affected by illness or fiscal uncertainty. The pandemic also accentuates pre-existing fiscal pressures on universities, creating a ‘perfect storm’ for higher education today.
“Yet, as a relatively young institution, PBA is more agile than many older universities. Indeed, ever since God called PBA into existence 51 years ago, innovation has been in our DNA. Hence, I am confident PBA will buffer this storm. With God’s help, together we will move forward and innovate so that PBA not only survives, rather thrives to become our country’s premier Christ-first university.”
Photo 1: Dr. Debra Schwinn begins her tenure as the University's ninth president today.
Photo 2: Dr. Debra Schwinn shared her story in remarks to PBA faculty, staff and students after the announcement of her hiring earlier this year.