During her inauguration Friday, President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn formally shared her vision for the University, which includes doubling enrollment, expanding programs and reimagining the West Palm Beach campus for the future.
PBA remains committed to its transformative, whole-person approach to education, Schwinn said. Her colleagues and friends described her leadership of Palm Beach Atlantic thus far as defined by humility, purpose, prayer, passion and boundless energy.
Timothy Sotos, chairman of the Board of Trustees, installed Schwinn as the University’s ninth president. The crowd of onlookers nearly filled the sanctuary of Family Church Downtown, previously known as First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach. Dr. Jess Moody, the church’s former head pastor, was PBA’s founding president. Schwinn, the first female president in the University’s 53-year history, was sworn in using Moody’s Bible.
Dr. James H. Scroggins IV, lead pastor of Family Church and a PBA trustee, opened with prayer. Student Government Association President Abbigaile Michaeli followed with a reading of Deuteronomy 7:9: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.”
The University’s Board of Trustees selected Schwinn, a medical doctor, as PBA’s president in January 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schwinn assumed the presidency on May 4, 2020; her inauguration was postponed due to the pandemic.
Dr. John Patrick, president and professor of the History of Science, Medicine and Faith at Augustine College, gave a charge to the president. He elaborated on the role of education from a Christian point of view. He and his wife have lived or worked in Jamaica, Rwanda and communist Cuba, teaching on Christian medical ethics.
“God needs to be in your life, but if you don’t give Him an opportunity, it won’t happen,” Patrick said. “That’s what universities should teach.”
Board Chair Sotos led the investiture of the president and swore her into office. Mami Kisner, a PBA trustee and the first lady of the Historic Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, prayed for Schwinn while other trustees laid hands on her and the audience extended hands as a show of solidarity.
‘Serving with a joyful heart’
Afterward, Dr. Carmen Green gave a touching description of her friend and mentor.
“Let me begin with a fact, and that fact is that I love Deb Schwinn,” Green said. “She has been more than friendly. She’s been my friend. She has been more than caring. She’s cared.”
Green, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, is incoming dean of the CUNY School of Medicine at the City College of New York. But when Green met Schwinn, Green was a junior faculty member at the University of Michigan. Schwinn was a visiting professor from Duke University, where Schwinn spent most of her career.
“To many women, she was considered to be a role model as a mother, a wife and a physician,” Green said.
Schwinn, a member of the National Academy of Medicine, went on to become one of the first female chairs of one of the best anesthesiology programs in the country at the University of Washington, Green said. Schwinn left that post to become dean of the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa, where she was associate vice president for medical affairs and professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology and biochemistry. Her talent was recognized and she was exceeding expectations, Green said.
When Green checked in with her old friend some time later, she found that Schwinn had faced difficult circumstances that left her humbled.
“It was during that time that Deb learned that it’s not just about how smart you are or how much you care; it’s about serving with a joyful heart,” Green said.
Schwinn learned resilience as she persevered. She sought spiritual guidance and prepared for the birth of her first grandchild, Luke.
“With a deeper sense of humility, purpose, passion and gratitude, she began to realize that it wasn’t just about the job; it was about the calling and choosing God’s plan for her life,” Green said.
It was then that God led Schwinn and her husband, religious scholar Dr. Bob Gerstmyer, to Palm Beach Atlantic. She turned down other job offers to make a difference in the lives of young people, Green said.
“She began walking toward Palm Beach Atlantic with joy, with passion, with purpose,” Green said.
A vision for the future
Purpose, people and possibilities frame Schwinn’s strategic vision for Palm Beach Atlantic in the coming years. She led her remarks with a story from the operating room, when she instructed a senior cardiac surgery trainee to flick a patient’s heart to make it keep beating and prevent death.
“Our intention here at Palm Beach Atlantic University is to awaken hearts — awaken the hearts of our students to their highest destiny, awaken hearts to God in this generation and awaken PBA anew to its divine purpose,” she said.
PBA’s founders commissioned the University to create servant leaders who positively influence the world. Students graduate with “a biblical worldview and ethical perspective that can withstand the tides of this age and bring people together,” Schwinn said.
Over the last four years, PBA has produced eight Fulbright recipients, in no small part due to the mentoring they receive from faculty, Schwinn said. Eighty-seven percent have a terminal degree. Many spend early mornings and evenings joining students for prayer and Bible study and cheer on student athletes at athletic events. Schwinn praised the work of PBA staff, who keep the University running.
PBA plans to double the number of students on campus in the next five to seven years and simultaneously grow online programs, Schwinn said. The University has launched new degrees, including Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in cinema, dance, graphic design and theatre, a master’s degree in computer science and the University’s first Ph.D., in practical theology. PBA is preparing to launch a Physician Assistant program.
The University has been developing a master plan for a “campus of the future” that supports PBA as the heart and soul of the Palm Beaches to impact the nation and the world, Schwinn said. Growth is planned with fiscal sustainability in mind.
“Palm Beach Atlantic University is rising to its destined moment,” Schwinn said. “We will enlighten minds, we will enrich souls and we will extend hands of mercy.”