When the economy hit the skids in 2008, plenty of colleges felt the sting of plunging family incomes in the form of declining enrollment and falling tuition dollars.
It was not an easy time at Allentown's Muhlenberg College either.
But the forthright way college President Randy Helm and the rest of the institution's leadership handled the challenge — by leveling with employees and promising to do everything possible to avoid layoffs — made an impression on Chris Hooker-Haring.
"The college continued to operate in a very positive, healthy way, people kept working really hard at what they were doing, and Randy and the board also found a way to live up to that promise," said Hooker-Haring, 62, dean of admissions and financial aid.
To employees, it's not surprising that Muhlenberg College would place among the Lehigh Valley's top employers. The institution was ranked second among large employers surveyed by WorkplaceDynamics in the Lehigh Valley.
The 164-year-old liberal arts college, founded by the Evangelical Lutheran Church and named after Colonial benefactor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, is in Allentown's leafy West End and offers students and staff a wide variety of cultural and social amenities.
It offers its 800-plus employees a strong package of benefits that extend to same-sex domestic partners, contributes 10 percent of each employee's annual salary to their retirement accounts and provides employees' children with scholarships to attend Muhlenberg and hundreds of institutions across the country.
That's an attractive benefit to employees like Jason Feiertag, an assistant treasurer who has worked at Muhlenberg for nearly nine years and has a 10-year-old daughter, Greta, who is just a few years away from making her college choice.
But the numbers man said he also likes university leadership's pragmatic approach to decision-making. It inspires confidence, he said.
"Generally speaking, we tend to do a lot with less than what we consider to be our main competitors," Feiertag said. "Being in finance, I can have confidence we are not going to be doing anything lavish or outlandish that is going to put all our eggs in one basket."
In surveys, employees said they felt valued and trusted, enjoyed working with friendly, genuine colleagues with a common educational mission and liked the youthful, energetic environment of the college.
Many employees said one of their favorite things about working at Muhlenberg is the sense of common purpose that pervades the campus.
"I think the culture that Muhlenberg creates is really unique," said Phedra Fishbein, 35, who lives in Allentown and walks to her job as the college's webmaster. "We have so many alums who come back to work here."
Fishbein came into her job at Muhlenberg through the college's Wescoe School, a program for nontraditional students. The part-time position through the college's presidential assistantship program turned into a full-time job she has held for a nearly a decade.
"It really is just a caring place to work, it is not just a job," she said. "It is not like this strict hierarchy, your opinion is valued. You are not just looked at as do your job and that's it."
Helm said that's baked into Muhlenberg's culture as an institution of higher learning and an important part of his leadership style.
"The word college is related to the word collegial and it's related to the word colleague," Helm said. "A college is supposed to be a place where ideas matter, and reason matters where you can have a reasoned debate and the best ideas win out and you don't just say this is what we are doing because I said so."
Helm said he makes an effort to keep those lines of communication open by conducting a transparent strategic planning process that welcomes input from all segments of the university community and by sending out frequent updates that praise employees for excellent work.
"When that goes out to everyone on campus and the trustees and the parents council and you single out a professor or an administrator or a secretary or a member of the grounds crew or the football coach or the volleyball coach or somebody who did something terrific, and you let the whole community know that is something that is appreciated, that goes a long way," Helm said.
• Founded: 1848
• Ownership: Private
• Sector: College/university
• Locations: 1
• Employees: 805
• Website: http://www.muhlenberg.edu/