U’s ‘biggest fan’ keeps freshman classes growing

Coralie Carlson

While high school seniors sat timidly with their parents in the Office of Admissions Friday morning, Wayne Sigler bounded from family to family, offering Tootsie Pops and a taste of the University.
“How y’all doing? Where y’all from?” he beckoned with a slight Southern drawl, breaking the ice and putting the visitors at ease.
After extending greetings and candy to every person in the room, the former social studies teacher stood before the group in his navy blazer and gold wire-rimmed glasses.
“I want to welcome you to the University of Minnesota. My name is Wayne Sigler and I’m the director of admissions here at the University,” he began.
Sigler proceeded to show the prospective students a video about the University and present a slide show extolling the wonders of this “world class” institution.
The session focused on the students’ needs and questions, as have most of the admissions programs since Sigler came on board as director six years ago.
Sigler spearheads efforts to attract new students, coordinating relations among the separate colleges, central administration and future students.
Under his guidance, applications to the University from high school seniors jumped 60 percent. This year’s freshman class of more than 5,000 students is the largest in 12 years. In fact the surplus is so large, about 209 incoming freshmen were forced to stay at the Days Inn last week in lieu of available dorm rooms.
Jerry Rinehart, associate dean of the Carlson School of Management, said Sigler has had a bigger impact on students at the University than anyone else by implementing his customer-service orientated philosophy. Sigler quickly diffuses such praise, insisting, “This has not been a one-person show. This has not been a one-office show.”
Despite his downplay, Patricia Jones Whyte, assistant director in charge of freshman admissions, assured that Sigler earned respect through his success during the last six years. “He’s awfully modest,” she explained.
But he’s not modest about the University. Sigler’s enthusiasm for the school has triggered interest among his growing number of recruits.
It’s more than just a job
“We call him the cheerleader,” Whyte said, “He is the University’s biggest fan.”
She recalled running into Sigler in 1993 — before she worked in his office — at a restaurant where Sigler and his family ventured to watch the Gophers play in the NIT basketball tournament. The Siglers did not get that cable channel at home, but that couldn’t stop them from catching the game.
Whyte said Sigler’s commitment to the team impressed her even then.
Sigler still supports Gopher sports, raising himself from mere team booster to religious follower. He watches both men’s and women’s teams, holding women’s soccer as his favorite.
But Sigler doesn’t wait for a game to show his school spirit — he wears it like a badge on a daily basis.
“He really does love the University, I mean, this guy is always wearing a U of M shirt or apparel,” said his daughter Anne Tallman. “It’s not just a job for him, it’s really who he is.”
While he owns a large collection of University gear — from hats and t-shirts to ties and polo shirts — Sigler’s zeal for the University extends past athletics and school fashions, leading him to recruit new students even outside of his 50- to 70- hour work week.
He recruited his daughter, Anne, who graduated from the political science department two years ago. He recruited his son-in-law’s best friend’s brother, a new freshman this year. He quizzes the cashiers at Target on their college plans.
“When he was at the state fair, he was taking a mental tally of how many Gopher shirts he saw,” said his wife Cherryl.
Sigler said he’s aware of his obsession.
“The line between work and what I like to do blurs,” he explained.
The maroon and gold oasis
Sigler achieved success by believing in his product, the University, and serving his customers, the students.
“You don’t get numbers by treating people like numbers,” Sigler said.
A quick walk through Williamson Hall reveals the tangible results of his customer-service philosophy: The 2-year-old admissions office sits as a gold and maroon oasis for current and future students among the gray concrete backdrop.
Inside, the admissions staff holds small group sessions like the one Sigler leads every Friday morning, twice daily and on Saturdays. Convenience for interested students and their families is at the heart of the schedules, Sigler said.
Admissions employees shape custom tours for visitors, specific to their particular interests. Following the tours, the guests can use private interview rooms to voice concerns rather than exposing fears in front of the group.
“It’s really meant to enhance their dignity,” he said.
Sigler said he and his crew carry the same ideology off campus as they “spread the Minnesota story” at college fairs and high schools.
He also shoulders responsibility to ensure the University’s customers include minorities and disadvantaged students. Although the school does not fill admissions quotas, officials strive to meet predetermined goals to enhance diversity.
The admissions office itself comprised one of the most diverse workforces at the University, said Whyte, who formerly headed up minority recruitment.
Sigler said the makeup of the admissions office staff mirrors the population University officials want to draw to the school.
Unfortunately, with so many applicants — 16,666 for 1998 — Sigler can’t sell the University to everyone interested in buying.
“The absolute worst part is having to tell a student that I can’t admit them,” he said. “I don’t like it any more today than I did 25 years ago.”
Sigler said he’s “made peace with himself” by remembering that admissions decisions are made with the students’ interests in mind. He rejects applicants because they would likely drop out before graduation.
The admissions staff also individually reviews applications from students who don’t meet the initial requirements so fewer students slip through the cracks.
The journey
Sigler’s childhood and education helped shape his work style and admissions policies at the University today.
“It’s a journey,” he said, “I didn’t start out to be in admissions.”
Sigler grew up in the Chesapeake Bay area on the eastern shore of Maryland. The oldest of two boys, he delivered papers and worked in his dad’s furniture store as a youngster.
“I learned very early that in order to survive, it is necessary to realize that you have customers and they’re important,” he recalled.
Sigler’s love for sports also started early. In high school he won the state championship in the triple jump, an event similar to the long jump.
He went to college in Baltimore at Towson University, a teacher’s college, where he continued competing in track for four years.
A student in political science, Sigler served as president of the Men’s Residence Hall Administration and took a job operating the college switchboard. Through these activities, he became acquainted with many administrations at Towson, sparking his interest in the profession.
“Some of us never grew up,” Whyte said. “He and I are some of those people who enjoyed college so much we never wanted to leave.”
Now Sigler uses his political science training in the Office of Admissions.
He likened college recruiting strategies to political campaigns, explaining that good campaigns are not based on hard sells, slick sales work or pressure. Instead, they stem from hard work and aggressive communication with the public, which he tries to do for the University.
In addition, both perform market research and polling and use direct mail and telemarketing techniques, he said.
Sigler’s co-workers said his understanding of the political environment at the University is key to his success.
John Printz, associate director of admissions, said Sigler works effectively with central administration and the deans of colleges. Through his interaction, Sigler developed a system to predict the number of new students that can be admitted long before number crunchers determine official figures.
Coming to the University
Sigler’s successful initiatives don’t surprise those who have seen his rÇsumÇ Sigler started his career in admissions early and polished his skills while building successful programs across the country.
“There’s probably not anything in admissions I haven’t done,” Sigler said.
After graduating from Towson in 1962, Sigler taught ninth grade social studies in a junior high school in Baltimore County. After his second year of teaching, a position opened up at Towson as the assistant director of admissions. Sigler got the job and earned a promotion to associate director the following year.
In 1974 he moved to the University of Maryland-College Park for nine years where he was promoted to director of admissions.
During that time, Sigler continued his own education, finishing his master’s degree in college student personnel and a doctorate in higher education at George Washington University.
Sigler left the East Coast and headed south, first working in San Marcus, Texas, and then at the University of Houston. He came on board at Houston as their director of admissions and worked his way up to dean of admissions/ associate vice president during his 10 years of service.
In August of 1992, Sigler joined the University of Minnesota’s admissions staff as the new director. The University’s reputation attracted him to the school, Sigler said.
“In the higher education communities, the University of Minnesota is one of the top-of-the-pyramid type schools,” he said.
The job, too, attracted Sigler with its opportunity to enhance customer service and outreach to the state and the rest of the country.
“He was really the right person, the right place and the right time to make the changes,” said Rinehart.
Relocating from Houston to Minneapolis came with a bit of culture shock, Sigler admitted.
For example, while Sigler is shy about his own accomplishments, he said he finds the reserved nature of Minnesotans frustrating when it comes to the University.
“It drives me crazy in my job here,” he said. “You can’t be modest in sales work.”
Family first
Just as Sigler focuses on people in the work place, his personal life also centers around people — especially his family.
Sigler first met his future bride as an undergraduate at Towson.
“I saw her in the cafeteria one night and I fell in love with her right on the spot,” he reminisced.
Sigler’s dorm roommate knew Cherryl Bowen, the young lady Sigler saw that night, and introduced them the next day. They began dating and married after Sigler graduated when Cherryl was a senior at Towson.
“Man, I was really taken by her,” Sigler said. “I had stars in my eyes.”
More than 30 years later, the couple is still married, Cherryl teaches social studies at Minnetonka High School.
The Siglers have two children: John, 28, lives in San Francisco with his wife where he works as a graphics designer; Anne, 24, lives down the road from her parents in Minneapolis. She works for the Target headquarters in events marketing.
“I don’t just love my kids, I adore my kids,” Sigler said, attributing part of the family’s closeness to frequent moves.
And Sigler doesn’t hide his affection for his children. He tells prospective freshman about his daughter’s experience at the University to ease their apprehensions about the big school.
“I’m really convinced that the reason she was able to get a good job like that was because she was able to get good internships and people here at the U of M were here to help her out,” the proud father told students and their parents on Friday.
Saying thanks
Now Sigler is making a list of all the people who have helped him throughout his career, like his high school English teacher who encouraged Sigler in school and in life.
Donald Giffin, Sigler’s first boss at Maryland, is another important figure on the list. Sigler said he was young when he took the job, and he needed a lot of mentoring. Giffin gave him that guidance.
“All of them gave me a chance to grow,” Sigler said, “They were all different, but each one was really affirming.”
Sigler is writing letters of appreciation to those on his list. In addition, he said he makes a special effort to return the favor by affirming and mentoring the people around him.
Sigler explained, “For me, it’s a way to say thank you for all the help I’ve had.”