Distler family pledges $2 million for music center

Stephen Distler, A74, has his mind on education and his eye on the future.

As a businessman, he sits on the board of three companies that are taking innovative approaches to the integration of education and private enterprise.

Dr. Roxanne Kendall and Stephen Distler © Frank Wojciechowski

As a parent, he's helped to fund an economics program at his children's public high school.

As a Tufts alumnus, he's endowed a course at the Experimental College called "Innovation in the Workplace."

Now, he's taken this commitment one step further. Distler and his wife, Dr. Roxanne Kendall, J75, have pledged $2 million toward the construction of Tufts' new music center, and the facility's performance hall will bear the Distler family name.

To Distler, this generous gift for the music center is about a lot more than bricks and mortar. It's a statement of faith about the future of Tufts, especially under the leadership of President Lawrence S. Bacow.

"President Bacow is one of the most impressive educators whom I have ever met. I think his arrival is just what Tufts needs to further its evolution into one of the premier educational institutions in the country," Distler said.

Filling a need
In discussing the university's needs with Bacow, Distler learned that construction of a new music center is a top university priority. The current facilities in the bottom floor of the Aidekman Arts Center are cramped—the music program needs more classroom space, practice rooms and teaching studios. And the existing facilities are lagging in other ways—rooms are not properly sound-proofed, and instruments are aging faster than they should because of inadequate climate control.

With more than 1,500 students participating in music classes every year, enhanced teaching and performance space will touch the lives of many in the university community. The new facility also will house Tufts' extensive music library.

The campaign for the music center gained ground when a donor promised $4 million for the project, provided the university could raise $2 million in matching funds by July 1999. With that goal met, the university has now raised $10.5 million toward the facility. It will be constructed at the corner of Packard Avenue and Professors Row on the Medford/Somerville campus, across from Gifford House, the president's residence. A ground-breaking will take place once fund-raising has surpassed the $13 million mark.

Phase II will require an additional $3 million to complete the building, for a total of $16 million. The university is also seeking several million dollars more to create an endowment to support the operation and maintenance of the new center.

"I'm trying to help the new president and the university as best I can," Distler said. "The message has got to get through. Now is the time to step up. We have a great opportunity with a great leader."

Bolstering the university's endowment is a challenge that needs active involvement from alumni, Distler said. "To stand back there and hope that the school does better isn't going to get it done. People ought to meet Larry Bacow and see what they can do to help."

Connection to the Ex College
A native of Long Island, N.Y., Distler came to Tufts in 1971. He started his academic career at the School of Engineering, and then switched his major to economics. He finished his degree in three years. "I always felt I owed the university, because I paid for three years and got four years of high-quality education," he said.

As an undergraduate, Distler was a devoted bridge player, and during his third year at Tufts, he and his roommate taught a bridge course at the Ex College. "That was one of the highlights, really," he said. "It was a fascinating and challenging experience to do that. In fact, the two elements that tie my Tufts experiences to the present are my continued interest in economics and my positive feelings toward the Ex College."

In the late 1990s, Distler worked with Robyn Gittleman, director of the Ex College, to establish an endowed course called "Innovation in the Workplace."

"There's a significant demand among the student body for some courses that relate their academic experiences to their eventual careers," he said. "I recognize this is not a grad school. What we're trying to do is to turn out broad-based, well-rounded, thoughtful people, but from what I understand, whenever they run courses like this at the Ex College, they are always very heavily subscribed. One or two such courses during a four-year liberal arts experience will hardly dilute Tufts' educational vision for its undergrads."

In a similar vein, Distler stepped in when his local school district in Princeton, N.J., eliminated economics courses because of budget cutbacks. "I thought it was sort of shameful," Distler said. He provided funding to the school district over a five-year period so that the high school could reinstate economics. "It was a very satisfying experience. A lot of kids really fell in love with the program, and now many of them are following this passion into college," he said.

"It's not unlike what we did at the Ex College at Tufts. We're not out to turn tenth-graders into Wall Street tycoons, but it seems kids are growing up faster and faster, and they should be exposed to simple concepts like supply and demand sooner rather than later," he said.

Public-private partnerships
After graduating from Tufts, Distler received an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University and worked as a CPA for a public accounting firm before moving to private firms. Since 1984, he has worked at Warburg Pincus & Co. in New York. After serving as chief financial officer and managing director, he is now responsible for the firm's private equity investments in the field of education.

He serves on the board of three educational companies: APEX Learning, which provides online learning products and services to K-12 schools; Chancellor Academies, a manager of public charter schools; and 4GL School Solutions Inc., a software provider for special education management.

"Technology is the lever through which private enterprise is going in, trying to help the educational process," he said. While there are other avenues that could be equally fruitful for public-private partnerships, technology is an obvious need at the moment, he said.

"The government has paid billions to get public schools wired to the Internet; now they're looking for ways to utilize that access. There's a burgeoning business there," he said. And technology is essential in managing the information flow necessary to run schools.

A Tufts romance
Distler met his future wife, Dr. Roxanne Kendall, while at Tufts. She is a graduate of Yale Medical School and is a pediatrician at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J.

The couple has three children: Alexis and Ted, who both attend Washington University in St. Louis, and Jaclyn, a junior at Princeton High School. Distler is chairman of the parents' council at Washington University. "I'd like to try to bring some of their interesting ideas to Tufts, and vice-versa," he said.

Distler's interests also include politics. He's the co-chairman of the Republican Leadership Council, a national organization that supports centrist Republicans. And there are what he calls the "traditional" activities—golf, tennis, time at his beach house on the Jersey Shore.

Right now, his attention remains focused on Tufts and the promise waiting in the new century with a new president.

"Most important is for the students, faculty and especially the alumni to support Larry Bacow," he says.