Q. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on March 27, 2020, during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Finger was first asked about Seton Hill’s response to the crisis.]
A. I’ve had calls with other university presidents and we all realize that there was no way for any school to be fully prepared for something of this magnitude. But we also see that higher education really was ahead of the curve in comparison to other institutions, in terms of moving online, practicing social distancing, and adjusting our typical routines to ensure the safety of our students, faculty, and staff.
This isn’t really something that any of us in leadership could have trained for, so we had to rely on the overall commitment to serve our students as we made decisions.
This isn’t really something that any of us in leadership could have trained for, so we had to rely on the overall commitment to serve our students as we made decisions. Now schools must consider how to continue to serve students in the best way, given these new circumstances. We were fortunate to be at the forefront of technology at Seton Hill, having been an Apple Distinguished School for the past eight years and the first school in the country to give every student an iPad and MacBook. About 75 percent of our faculty have been trained in online instruction, so they were prepared for the transition.
As a Catholic institution, we have also made sure that Mass is available online, as well as electronic “Mission Moments” and virtual service opportunities. I’ve been really amazed by how generously, promptly, and creatively everybody at Seton Hill has responded to this crisis.
What were some of the significant moments that led to your career in higher education administration? As someone with considerable background in advancement work, what advice would you offer to new presidents who are not as experienced in this area?
I went into my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania not really thinking that I would become a college president. By the time I graduated, I was more interested in the possibility, but I would not have accepted just any presidency. When the opportunity at Seton Hill presented itself, I had been working at DePaul University — a Vincentian institution — for almost a decade. I felt an immediate connection to Seton Hill, in part, because the charism of the Sisters of Charity is aligned with St. Vincent de Paul. Mother Seton chose the Vincentian way in her ministry. I quickly felt at home at Seton Hill because it is such a mission-centered place and would allow me to continue to support the work so often seen in Catholic institutions of higher education – to provide opportunities, especially for low-income populations, students of color, and first-generation students.
Fundraising is as much art as it is science. The primary responsibility of the president is to communicate about what is happening on campus, articulate a sense of vision, and create a strategic plan. The president needs to be supported by a strong fundraising operation, professionals who really know the science of fundraising and can determine how the president should spend their time most effectively. The president is the chief spokesperson, but it’s not necessarily the president’s job to know the sophisticated science of fundraising. My recommendation is to make sure you have a good fundraising team and follow their lead.
The Sisters of Charity founded Seton Hill in 1918. What has remained consistent about the mission? What are some ways that schools can keep their mission vibrant?
The primary mission of the Sisters of Charity has always been education. Mother Seton was an educator and is commonly regarded as the foundress of Catholic education in the United States.
Having been impressed by the strong Vincentian formation program at DePaul, when I arrived at Seton Hill, I asked, “What is our formation program for faculty, staff and trustees?” Our campus is next to the Motherhouse, and we have a high level of interaction with members of the order, but there are only a few sisters who presently work at the university, so keeping the mission alive is very important, and it is the responsibility of everyone – not only the Sisters of Charity. Our mission committee worked to expand existing programming and design new programs centered on the mission and history of the university. For example, for the past 20 years, Seton Hill has had a very effective program infusing Catholic Social Teaching throughout the curriculum. Our mission committee is currently looking at designing a similar program in regard to Catholic Intellectual Tradition. We also partnered with other institutions that share the Setonian charism to develop a formation program for faculty and staff. We know Mother Seton as a saint, icon, foundress, but my work as president is how to interpret her example in a way that influences our day-to-day reality here on campus.
We know Mother Seton as a saint, icon, foundress, but my work as president is how to interpret her example in a way that influences our day-to-day reality here on campus.
Since you became president, Seton Hill formed an Office of Academic Innovation and Planning and began offering new programs, including nursing, cybersecurity, and data analytics, and expanded the adult learning program. What opportunities does the competitive landscape of American higher education present to schools, in terms of renewed academic offerings?
Typically, academic programs arise from the faculty, and they are asked to create these programs on top of everything else they do. This new office supports the academic program development process with resources for research, marketing, and curriculum development. The office looks at national and regional trends and draws on input from corporate and non-profit leaders who serve as advisers to identify new and changing fields of employment. Having an office and resources devoted to the process has shortened the time to market for new academic programs from 24-36 months to 12 or 9 months.
Seton Hill has formed a partnership with Salus University to offer articulation agreements for pre-optometry and pre-audiology. As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what other opportunities for collaboration do you see?
Seton Hill has many collaborative partnerships. We have a pathway program with Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), the largest medical school in the country, for students interested in medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. In fact, LECOM has one of its four medical school sites on our campus. We also have pathway programs with the University of Pittsburgh for engineering and Duquesne University for law. Our cybersecurity program collaborates with the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance on curriculum development and internships that allow students to be on the forefront of this constantly evolving field. We have partnered with area community colleges to align our course offerings, so that it doesn’t take five years to earn a four-year degree. Collaboration like this begins at the top with presidents setting this as a priority and then the provost and deans working out the details. In the end, the whole purpose is to make it as seamless as possible for students.
As someone who is fluent in Spanish and worked in a bilingual education department, can you describe the value of language study for college students today?
I like to say that I’m somewhat ambivalent about study abroad programs [laughs]. It’s an amazing learning experience (as a young adult, I spent nearly two years in Bogota), but my daughter studied abroad in Spain (which I encouraged her to do all her life) and she met and married her husband, a Spaniard, and now lives there with my two grandchildren. Seriously, though, study abroad is such a rich experience for students, and I do fear that COVID-19 might make us more isolated. Learning about another culture, speaking another language, understanding the nuances — there is no better way to be open to the world.
Study abroad is such a rich experience for students, and I do fear that COVID-19 might make us more isolated.
Seton Hill offers both study abroad and study away (3-6 week) programs. When you serve a low- and middle-income population, study abroad/study away can be a hard sell for many families. About 30 percent of our students are Pell recipients, and 40 percent are the first in their families to go to college. One of the first things that we did with the Development Office when I arrived was to raise money to help students afford study-away opportunities because the global exposure is so valuable for students.
Greensburg is about 45 minutes from Pittsburgh. For students who are attracted to urban environments, what are the advantages of studying in a more rural setting?
There are advantages to the urban environment and there are advantages to a more rural environment. Seton Hill is in a good place because students can have the idyllic college setting of a more rural/small city environment, but we are still close to Pittsburgh.
The big challenge with more rural areas is the availability of internships. We now require students to complete an internship or research project for graduation. A lot of hiring comes out of internships, so it is really critical that we are able to offer our students this opportunity. This can be more challenging in an environment away from a larger metropolitan market, but we have worked hard at Seton Hill to form partnerships with local corporations and industries.
Seton Hill seeks to offer an excellent academic preparation but is explicit about also preparing students practically. As more families consider the value of higher education, how necessary is it for colleges to show that earning a liberal arts degree is also helpful toward pursuing a career and being successful in day-to-day life?
Mother Seton would say, “I would wish to fit you for the world in which you are destined to live.” She lived in a very volatile time in this nation’s history — during and after the Revolutionary War. She prepared students for a world that was changing very rapidly. Following her example, Seton Hill has a career readiness program called “Fit for the World,” which begins freshmen year and helps students with academic career exploration, résumé building, internship placements, and employment preparedness. We try to find the balance of allowing students to explore during college, but we don’t want them to get so far down the road in their major and then make a change that requires a fifth year to graduate.
When I arrived at Seton Hill, the placement rate for graduates was 96 percent, which is extremely high. Now it is 98 percent and, for our graduate students, it is 100 percent. Education is a huge investment for students and their families, and I believe that we have to keep doing the best we can to ensure that students can accomplish what they want in the long term. That means helping our graduates not only to get a job, but also to find a job that they find life-sustaining and meaningful.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
I think that Catholic colleges and universities have a prominent place in the world. Even though most of us don’t have large endowments and this storm that we currently face will be difficult for us to weather, the sense of community that we develop on campus based on faith and shared values is what will carry us forward.
Sr. Christine DeVinne, OSU
Position: Sr. Chris is the 17th president of Ursuline College in Ohio, a position she has held since 2015.
Career highlights: Professor in the Ursuline Studies Department, which she directed from 1999 to 2001, and in the English Department at Ursuline College; Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, 2001–2010; Vice President for Academic Affairs at Notre Dame of Maryland University, 2010–2015. Active in her profession, she is a past president of the American Name Society, where she serves as a member of the editorial board and book review editor. She writes and presents in the fields of name studies, life-writing, and higher education administration and mission.
Education: B.A. in mathematics from Ursuline College (1973); M.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame (1981); Ph.D. in English from The Ohio State University (1996).
Family: Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Sr. Chris had the benefit of an Ursuline education at Saint Ann School and Beaumont School. She and her sister Virginia have been members of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland for more than 40 years. Her other sister and brother share the joys of life with far-flung young adult children.
Fun Fact: A capable swimmer, Sr. Chris was a member of a synchronized swimming team for four years and certified by the Red Cross as a lifeguard. Both experiences have shaped her service as president. Sr. Chris remarks, “I learned the discipline and determination to keep my institution afloat.”
Q. Can you describe your transition from teaching into higher education administration? For those who aspire to serve in senior leadership positions at a Catholic college or university, what skills and traits are most important?
A. My history as a classroom teacher includes everything from middle school to graduate school. The transition to administration was gradual, beginning when I taught high school and became an administrator. When I returned to Ursuline College, my alma mater, I was a faculty member and then became the director of the core curriculum and later the dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way I gradually took on the skills and experiences of an administrator. Before becoming president of Ursuline, I also spent five years as the academic vice president of Notre Dame of Maryland University.
Being president is a tough job and requires adaptability and flexibility as well as vision. From one hour to the next, a president is drawing on different skill sets, so many skills that I would never have them all. I don’t think that anyone has them all. My recommendation is first to find and develop the skills that come naturally. Start with the ones that you know, hone them, and from there you can expand your range.
My background has served me well in this position. All along I have kept a real connection to teaching; in fact, I still co-teach a first-year English course. No matter what I’m doing as president, I begin with my absolute commitment to students. I also bring to the job a modest repertoire of people skills, my efforts to read people well and communicate with them. There are times when being clear and articulate becomes a goal in itself. The mission of any Catholic campus requires good financial stewardship, too, and thankfully my background in mathematics gives me facility with interpreting financial documents and spreadsheets.
Today, we still have 15 sisters ministering at the college. In fact, some of them serve at the main reception desk, so every person who enters is greeted by a sister.
Since the Ursuline Sisters arrived in Cleveland in 1850 and founded the college in 1871, what has remained consistent about the mission? What has evolved over the years?
The first sisters arrived to educate a mostly immigrant population. And, in particular, the sisters in the tradition of the Paris Ursulines carried a commitment to educating young women. Within 21 years of their arrival in Cleveland, the first sisters won a charter from the State of Ohio to grant all degrees and with it created the first Catholic college for women in the state.
Ursuline Sisters who follow the Paris tradition make a fourth vow of Christian education. Education is such an important commitment for us that it is part of our vowed life. Our foundress, Saint Angela Merici, left three sets of writings: her testament, her counsels, and her rule (the first religious rule written by a woman). What comes through in these writings is a sense of care and nurture for each individual person. Her attention to the individual is embodied every day at Ursuline College. Today, we still have 15 sisters ministering at the college. In fact, some of them serve at the main reception desk, so every person who enters is greeted by a sister.
In any good community, a lot of the culture is passed on informally. Under the influence of ACCU, we have also developed formal programs such as a first-year seminar for all new faculty and staff. In the seminar, we discuss the Ursuline charism, the history of the college, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. This content is important, but equally important is the building of community that occurs during the seminar. That is part of Angela’s legacy today.
Ursuline College is one of the first Catholic women’s colleges in the United States. What does it mean to be a “women-focused college”? What is “women-centered learning”?
When Ursuline College was founded, most private colleges were single sex. Our student body has evolved over the years since then, and our current undergraduate enrollment is about 92 percent female, while at the graduate level we have always been co-ed. Today, our largest program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is nursing. As the profession of nursing has grown to include more men, so too has our student population.
When we designed our latest strategic plan, [we made] women’s leadership one of its four pillars. We recently established a women’s center on campus, and it offers engaging programs on women’s issues and leadership. We regularly invite to campus women who have become leaders in their professions, in order to raise the profile of women’s leadership, as well as Ursuline College. In 2018, we gave the first biannual Women Who Light the Way award to Cokie Roberts, and in 2020 we honored Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ. Research on what are described as “women’s ways of knowing” is woven into our academic core curriculum. Many of our trustees are women (two of them have formed a women’s leadership committee) and three of our five senior administrators are women. So, while we are no longer an exclusively women’s college, fostering women’s leadership is intentional for us and remains a priority.
It is important for the long-term viability of a school to have high-profile programs that extend its reputation in the community and attract qualified students.
In the increasingly competitive landscape of higher education in the United States, how important is it for schools to offer niche programs? Ursuline College, for example, is well-known for its School of Nursing and health care programs.
Every college or university needs to focus on its strengths, with the goal of building a reputation for excellence in key areas. For us, out of the dozens of nursing programs in Ohio, Ursuline is ranked second, and nationally we are ranked in the top 10 percent. It is important for the long-term viability of a school to have high-profile programs that extend its reputation in the community and attract qualified students.
Equally necessary is to increase the support that is offered to students once they have entered the college, so that they can progress through to graduation. This is especially true for those who arrive under-prepared. We have students who will make great nurses, for example, but who come to us from high schools where they might not have taken enough math or science courses. In response, we have intensified our efforts to provide academic and social support services that enable every individual student to become successful.
Having a niche program can certainly be a good foundation, but it can’t be everything. Each profession rises and falls in terms of the market over time, so no school can stop developing new programs to complement its core strengths. Ursuline College, for instance, also has niches in counseling and art therapy, fashion, social work, and historic preservation, in addition to a high-profile program in education administration. Many of the superintendents, principals, and vice principals across Northeast Ohio have graduated from our program.
As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what opportunities for collaboration among smaller schools do you see?
I am always very happy to attend ACCU’s Annual Meeting and talk about the places we can collaborate because it reminds me that we are more alike than different and that we can do more together than separately. If Catholic colleges and universities are going to make good sense of collaboration and partnering, it’s going to come from that sense of appreciative inquiry. What is it that you do well that you can share with us? What is it that we do well that we can share with you?
If Catholic colleges and universities are going to make good sense of collaboration and partnering, it’s going to come from that sense of appreciative inquiry.
As a former English professor, what is one book that every college student should read before they graduate?
Every college student should find a book that they can read with passion. I suggest Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Toni Morrison is from Lorain, Ohio, so we have a great deal of hometown pride for her. One of our rare women Nobel laureates, she writes from her experience as an African American woman. Beloved is not an easy book to read, either emotionally or intellectually. It tells the story of a woman’s life sacrifice in her attempt to escape slavery. It’s far from my comfortable, privileged twenty-first-century experience, but one of the things that good literature does is open us up to experiences unlike our own. In fact, the latest research suggests that novels are an important means to build empathy in readers. In order to understand the characters in a book, a reader needs to get inside their heads and hearts. And that translates to life, too.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
Doing good for students. The mission of Ursuline College includes the word “transform.” We transform our students for service, leadership, and professional excellence. In student after student, maybe not day by day, but over time, it is actually possible to see them transformed.
In graduate school at Ohio State, I had the experience of teaching at a very large, secular university, and it never felt like home for me. As soon as I returned to Ursuline, I knew the difference. In Catholic higher education, we do more than convey content, conduct research, and prepare students for their professional lives. We challenge them to explore the life of the soul, and we give them their own hope for the future and the difference they will make in the world.
Michael T. Victor
Position: Michael T. Victor is the 12th president of Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., a position he has held since 2015.
Career highlights: President of Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, 2006–2015; dean of Mercyhurst’s Walker School of Business, 2002–2006. Michael began his professional career as an attorney and is a widely respected civic and business leader and entrepreneur. From 1988 to 2000, he was co-owner and CEO of Pyramid Industries in Erie. Currently, Michael is co-chair of The Victor Group and a member of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, Rotary Club of Erie, and United Way.
Education: B.A. from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. (1983); J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh (1986). Michael also received an honorary doctorate in leadership from Lake Erie College in 2013.
Family: Born in Ridgway, Pa., he has lived in Erie most of his life. He has two daughters and two granddaughters.
Fun Fact: When Michael finds an interesting cookbook, he will attempt every recipe. Once Michael made a summer seafood salad, which involved a complex recipe that took all day to prepare. The salad became infamous because Michael did not test the dressing beforehand, which his family described as tasting like a “Lemon Pledge bomb.”
Q. Beginning your career as an attorney and entrepreneur, how did you become involved in Catholic higher education?
A. My entire education was in Catholic education. In high school, I was taught by the Benedictine sisters. In college, I was taught by Benedictine monks. At Duquesne, I got to know the Spiritans.
When I was dean of business at Mercyhurst, I also served as a trustee of Saint Vincent College, my alma mater. The president of Saint Vincent had a similar background as mine and told me that he had nominated me for three presidencies. I accepted the offer at Lake Erie College. As president there, we were able to be very successful, doubling both the enrollment and fundraising.
A few years later, I was approached about the soon-to-be open presidency at Mercyhurst. I was on the fence because I really loved Mercyhurst and Erie is my hometown, but I also really enjoyed Cleveland. Around Thanksgiving of 2014, a Sister of Mercy strongly encouraged me to apply for the presidency, telling me that Mercyhurst needed me to come home.
Since Mercyhurst was founded in 1926 by the Sisters of Mercy, what has remained consistent about the mission of the university? What has evolved over the years?
I have always admired the religious sisters and I really, really treasured my time as dean getting to know the Sisters of Mercy. They are the most unique order that I have ever encountered. They believe in what they call “mercy hospitality.” When you come to Mercyhurst, it is not just that they will offer hospitality in the traditional sense. It is more than that. They welcome everyone without exception. Everyone is welcome at a Mercy institution. For me, it is the hallmark of the Mercy sisters, and it is what attracted me here.
[From] when the school was founded until about the 1970s, the majority of faculty were sisters. Today we have no full-time sisters working in the university. But the mission has not changed: we are still committed to serving the underserved and educating those who would not be educated but for what we are doing. Recognizing the need to keep the mission vital, we started the Mercy Emissary Program. It was designed by a sister to teach groups of faculty and staff in a seminar fashion about the university mission. Since it started, hundreds of individuals throughout the university have become Mercy emissaries.
Everyone is welcome at a Mercy institution.
Given the increasingly competitive landscape of higher education in the United States, what are important strategies for schools to increase their efficiency and ability to respond to student and market needs?
First, it is important to build upon success with niche majors. At Mercyhurst, our motto is carpe diem, and we seized upon the success of our Intelligence Studies program. It began in 1992, but after 2001, there was greater demand, so we expanded it to include cybersecurity and programs focusing on money laundering and human trafficking. Recently, we partnered with a national firm to complete a multi-million-dollar cybersecurity center.
We also streamlined our core curriculum to give both the school and students more flexibility. The liberal arts offer a training in soft skills that are still very much in demand. Yes, offering vocational tracks is necessary, but students still need to think and write and speak to be of value. At the same time, we expanded our repertoire of online offerings. We have a full summer program online. Many of our graduate programs are offered online.
Next, we invested in what I call “consumable amenities.” These are things that my generation would have never expected in college, but today’s students do. When I arrived on campus, our cafeteria looked the same way it did in the 1980s, so we renovated it and added three more restaurants on campus. We also built a suite-style residence hall and a large convenience store. We mandated that students live on campus, unless they live at home with their parents, to increase the vibrancy of campus. We renovated our athletic facilities, too.
Finally, we emphasized that the admissions process is not just the purview of the admissions office. We all work toward recruiting students.
As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what opportunities for collaboration do you see?
I think that the era of collaboration has only begun, and that we should all be looking for ways to collaborate to deliver high-quality education to the students we serve. Regionally, Mercyhurst collaborates with Case Western Reserve University in our cybersecurity offerings, which has helped to expand that field. Locally, we partner with one of the largest medical schools in the area, as well as four other schools that form the Innovation Beehive Network.
We are one of the largest Mercy schools, but we also collaborate with the Mercy Conference. For example, we attend the ACCU conference every year; most of [the first day] is spent with the other Mercy schools.
I think that the era of collaboration has only begun, and that we should all be looking for ways to collaborate to deliver high-quality education to the students we serve.
Mercyhurst offers 25 varsity sports for students, including a Division 1 hockey program. What role do athletics play in the college experience?
Athletic programs help with the “but for” factor in admissions. But for men’s rowing, would a young man from Orange County, California come to Mercyhurst University? But for women’s field hockey, would a young lady come from Massachusetts to Mercyhurst? We also offer club teams for students who want to play at the collegiate level but don’t expect a scholarship. Athletics play a big role in both our admission and retention initiatives.
We are also renowned for our fine arts programs. We have our own orchestra. We are continually named one of the best dance programs in the country. We have our own ballet, chamber orchestra, choirs, and marching band of around 80 students.
For those who are aspiring to serve in a senior leadership position at a Catholic college or university, what skills and traits are most important to develop? How has your previous experience influenced your leadership at Mercyhurst?
A leader of a Catholic liberal arts institution must believe in the school, the mission, and their own abilities to get it done. This is not a job for the faint of heart.
The days of relying only on your gut are gone. A leader must have the ability to be nimble and use data to drive decision making. A leader must also be willing to take risks because higher education today, especially smaller Catholic schools, are on the verge of a demographic tsunami. If a school is not nimble enough to make changes, survival in this atmosphere is really challenging.
Someone who has been successful in business, law, or government and also understands academia is a good fit for leadership. Where a school can run afoul is if they pluck someone from public or private industry who has no experience in academia. The leader must understand the demands on the faculty to be successful.
I have an understanding of the business model, but I also understand that the university is not a business. The university is more akin to a city-state, even if it requires a business model to make it operate. In a private corporation, it is a top-down culture. In higher education, it is about shared governance. My experience as a corporate president, professor, and administrator along with my Catholic background gave me a very unique skillset. Ultimately, you need a leader who really, truly understands and believes in the mission. Without that passion, the rest does not matter.
A leader must also be willing to take risks because higher education today, especially smaller Catholic schools, are on the verge of a demographic tsunami.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
My motto has been to change the world one student at a time. Even while I was dean, I advised students and taught a full load of classes. At Lake Erie College, I wanted to continue teaching, but as president you never know when you will be called away, so I decided it would be a disservice to the students. I am still very engaged with the students at Mercyhurst, trying to be visible around campus and hoping the students will feel comfortable around me.
This past spring, a student who I advised when I was dean, invited me to lunch. He wanted to thank me and ask if there was anything that he could do for the university. As a student, I encouraged him when he doubted his leadership abilities. Now he lives in California and, at the age of 35, has sold his second company for $100 million. I asked him to serve as a member of Mercyhurst’s board of trustees — he is the youngest member!
I believe that Catholic higher education, especially the schools that are affiliated with religious orders, will thrive because of their emphasis on mission, the good of society, and focus on the whole person.
Diane E. Melby
Position: Diane E. Melby is currently completing her fifth year as president of Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). She is the university’s ninth president.
Career highlights: Diane spent 13 years working with severely challenged students, including those with autism, 10 years with Lord Fairfax Community College on curriculum initiatives, seven years with Shenandoah University in continuing education and advancement, and seven years with Shepherd University in advancement.
Education: Ed.D., Nova Southeastern; master’s, James Madison University; bachelor’s, Slippery Rock University
Family: Husband Dave; daughters Elizabeth, married to Jeremy, and Dana, married to Taylor; two grandchildren
Fun Fact: Diane recently traveled through France following in the footsteps of the Blessed John Martin Moye.
Q: Before becoming president at OLLU, you held administrative positions at Shepherd University and Shenandoah University. Did you always aspire to become a college administrator?
A: I was the type of person that could never really answer the question where I wanted to be in five years. But I was fortunate to have, every step along the way, people that would guide me and say, “You know, Diane, you should really think about doing this or that.” I’d say that I am more of an opportunistic person. My dad always encouraged me to at least look through the doors that were opened for me. So my path to college administration was guided by the people I met along the way who encouraged me to look at particular opportunities.
I will also say that I have always thought administration made best use of my talents. Having degrees in education and being in various aspects of education, people always ask what I teach. I’ve never really been a full-time teacher, except when I worked with students with autism at the Grafton School in Virginia, which was a residential school for students who could not be educated within the public school system. I’ve taught classes here or there — but most enjoy the process of bringing people together toward a shared goal or vision, and bringing together resources to let people do what they do best. So, I think my real gifts lie in administration.
How did the experience of working with students with autism shape your approach as an educator?
In a broad sense, it taught me that everybody can benefit from education — regardless of their challenges. It’s the challenge of educators to maximize educational attainment. What I really like to think about: If students are having difficulty processing this information or working their way through this set of problems, how can we rearrange our methodology so they’re more successful? As an administrator, that same interest structures how I develop my teams. I see my responsibility to develop employees through that same construct of individualizing education to develop potential. As a supervisor or as a manager, I ask: where is an individual or a team, where are they in their professional development, where do they want to go, where are their skills and where do they need to have more experiences or different experiences to help them get to where they want to be? I think in that whole process of educating somebody who has severe learning difficulties, whether it’s autism or learning disabilities, you have to go through the process of breaking down before you can build up. I really love that process of thinking about the microsteps or the micropieces of knowledge or experiences that you need to develop to get to this bigger goal, and then putting those together so an individual can get there.
You have written about the mental health struggles that many college students face. How big is the problem at OLLU and what have you done to address mental health among your students?
We’re a school of about 3,100 this year. We have several early detection or global detection mechanisms in place, but I’m not sure there is a way to define the scope of problem. The number of students who self-identify as having mental health issues is somewhere around 3 percent of our population, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. I think more about those who don’t self-identify. For example, we know that about 7 percent of our population has self-identified other disabilities. When you have other disabilities, the incidence of those with mental health issues ranges up to about 43 percent. In addition, we have other populations within the student body that have stepped forward to help us recognize they need special attention. Examples include our veterans, LGBTQ community, and students in recovery from addiction. Not only is the number of students self-identifying with diagnosed mental illnesses increasing, so are the number of students from these other more vulnerable populations.
Not only is the number of students self-identifying with diagnosed mental illnesses increasing, so are the number of students from these other more vulnerable populations.
To give you just some scope of what we’re talking about at Our Lady of the Lake, we have what’s called the Student Behavior Intervention Team (SBIT). This team is a cross-section of the university that takes referrals regarding students whose behavior is causing concern. Referrals for emergency behavior concerns increased by about 44 percent over three years, and the kinds of issues that we’ve dealt with include suicidal ideation, domestic violence, substance abuse, erratic behavior, withdrawal or going missing, cutting, self-harm, and stalking. These are really severe and concerning situations, obviously. In addition, our counseling services program experienced a 35 percent increase in numbers of students seeking help and managed 37 cases of suicidal ideations, with four hospitalizations over that same time period. So, we have these crisis issues, but we try to get there before it’s a crisis intervention by attending to the needs of vulnerable populations. We tailor support mechanism to needs identified by different groups. For example, our veterans emphasized that they preferred counseling services through the VA but needed quiet places on campus to decompress and so we have put in lounges for veterans only.
What do you think is behind the fact that so many more students are suffering from these problems? Or are people just more open to talking about them now?
I don’t think that openness to talking about mental health issues is the major factor driving the increase, although I do think some of the increase in the volume of referrals being managed by our SBIT occurred because we intentionally do a lot of things to encourage students and faculty to report behavioral or mental health concerns.
I do think that the number of students struggling with mental health is increasing and that a number of factors are contributing to the issues. One of those factors is that we are becoming more successful at educating more of our population, including those working their way through mental health issues. Not too long ago, people with mental health issues wouldn’t have been served very well in the K-12 system, so they wouldn’t have found their way to college. Not only are K–12 educators developing better, more effective strategies to progress students with all types of individual needs, universities are welcoming more of these students. The challenge is for us to develop the structures and services to help these students progress and attain their educational goals.
Beyond that, in the same way that physical health issues can affect any individual at any time, so too can mental health issues. I mentioned several populations that are vulnerable to facing mental health issues but there are societal and cultural aspects of the increase. At OLLU, 70 percent of our population is Latinx and most are first-generation. Our students come from a very family-oriented culture. Some of our students come without the support of their parents at first, because their parents don’t want them to go away to college, don’t want them to leave the family unit or don’t know how to help the student navigate the challenges that confront them on campus.
Also, many of our students work so they can continue to support their families, while managing full course loads. These students have anxieties that we, or at least I never experienced as I was growing up and going away to college. Financial issues in general really seem to be driving a lot of the increase. We just did a financial security survey and the financial concerns of our students are just overwhelming: So many have experienced homelessness, experienced food insecurity on a daily basis. So it’s just this whole perfect storm, if you will, that’s driving up anxiety and depression, which are the two most common disorders we see.
How do you feel that Catholic higher education is able to improve students’ mental health?
Our Catholic identity calls on us to develop spirituality and that requires us to educate and serve students holistically. We can bring faith and hope and trust into the conversation before an event that challenges mental health erupts into a crisis, while helping a person in crisis work their way back to a healthy state. I truly cannot imagine leading a college through this time of heightened anxiety where overt development of spirituality is not sanctioned.
I truly cannot imagine leading a college through this time of heightened anxiety where overt development of spirituality is not sanctioned.
Beyond just the fundamental ability to integrate spiritual education, we have resources that are unique to us because we are Catholic. Our Division of Mission and Ministry plays a vital role in providing a proactive approach to promoting mental health. For example, the staff sponsor ongoing programs addressing immigration issues, helping students deal with anxieties around DACA status, family deportation, and perceived threats in the community. They have also started our first Living Learning Community to help students learn about and address social justice issues. Not only does the community provide a tangible way to carry out the heritage passed to us from our Sisters, it provided a structure that helped vulnerable students transition into a college environment.
Another example from Mission and Ministry is their program, Loaves and Fishes. Each week of finals, various academic and other university departments donate food and time to provide food for students throughout the day. It was started simply to provide a family environment for students as they were going through exams, [but] we found that it was addressing a very real hunger issue as students were running out of funds at the end of the semester and were depending on Loaves and Fishes for nourishment. So now Mission and Ministry is offering food — and not cake and punch, but tacos and hamburgers and things like that — throughout the semester and it brings together not only our students, but also some of our staff who have financial issues.
In what ways do you think your presidency has continued the work of the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence?
The Sisters were formed in France to educate those without access to education. I, along with the OLLU community, remain committed to opening the doors of education, especially to marginalized communities. We work together to try to take finances out of the access dynamic by keeping tuition as low as possible, providing as much aid as possible, and helping students through financial emergencies. Some examples of how we operationalize that includes our Wings Up Summer Tuition Grant program. Rising juniors and seniors who have taken 30 credit hours the year before are eligible to take up to six to eight credits free during the summer. The reason why we do that is we allow students to catch up and stay on time to graduate. Many of our students have a slow start or deplete their personal resources and this program allows them to stay on time for graduation. We have also created funds to address financial emergencies. We have a lot of students who want to drop out because they’re shy $200 for books or they can’t get their cars re-inspected, they just don’t have that kind of cash, and these funds help address those needs. We work with donors and granting agencies to develop these funds so that we can help our students persist through graduation.
Position: Jim Collins is the 26th president of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is a Loras alumnus and is now Loras’ longest-serving president.
Career highlights: Collins has served his alma mater as an admissions representative, director of special projects, director of alumni and college relations, interim director of development, assistant to the president, and vice president for institutional advancement. In 1999, he was appointed the college’s senior vice president and was then elected president in 2004, becoming the youngest president in the college’s history.
Education: Degrees from Loras College and the University of Iowa
Family: Collins and wife Lisa have six children — all six of whom will have attended and/or graduated from Loras.
Fun Fact: Jim is a third-generation Irish immigrant. He also threw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of Loras College.
Q: As the longest-serving president at Loras College, what do you think has been the key to your longevity in this role?
A: I think that aside from Irish luck and divine intervention, it probably helps that I knew Loras so well and believe passionately in its mission. To that end, I think that the learning curve for me was probably not as steep as what others who come from outside might perhaps encounter. Now, that brings other inherent challenges, but I think that it’s probably helped that I’ve been so familiar and so in line with what Loras stands for.
When you were first named president, you were the youngest president that Loras ever had. How do you think your age affected how you handled the job at the time?
I was named when I was 42, so fortunately I was in good health and had a lot of energy. I think that those two components certainly helped a lot. I also entered as the fourth president in four years, so the campus desperately desired continuity since it had experienced so much distress. In that regard, I was blessed in that so many wanted me (Loras) to succeed. I think the other thing is that I wanted to do well because this is my alma mater and now I was in a position of significant leadership. Also — and I always say this to young professionals, at least in terms of the way in which I hire — I think that in this particular case, it was imperative that I did well because it was going to impact my career. That served as a critical motivation since I had a very young family at the time. You want to make sure that you can keep putting bread on the table. So a combination of good health, high energy, deep love for Loras, and career importance were all critical factors.
How have you evolved as president over the last 15 years?
Well, I certainly believe that with experience comes a better sense of what’s important and where I should invest the majority of my time. While I might have been heavily engaged in all sorts of things early, I’ve probably come to appreciate the fact that I don’t need to be everywhere or do everything, in part because for me to be effective, and for the college to be successful, I need to expend my time where I think we’re going to have the greatest return on investment. But, as importantly, we’ve got really good people who can handle lots of things in a way that either I wouldn’t be helpful and/or I would be getting in the way of others doing their job well.
Prior to becoming president, you held several positions at Loras. What is it about Loras that has inspired you to dedicate your career to the school?
I’ve been fortunate and blessed to see the lives of so many students transformed because of their experiences at Loras. I can’t ever remember a day when I’ve left work at Loras not feeling as if I wasn’t able to witness, or to hear about, some great transformational experiences that our students had. Being part of that has been a real gift and I’m a big believer that it would take something significant for me to believe that the grass would be as green or greener at any place other than Loras. Further, I haven’t achieved what Loras deserves. To that end, I have more to contribute.
I can’t ever remember a day when I’ve left work at Loras not feeling as if I wasn’t able to witness, or to hear about, some great transformational experiences that our students had.
You earned your undergraduate degree at Loras. What was your experience like as an undergrad and how do you feel it differs from students attending Loras today?
I had a great experience as an undergraduate. I’m the oldest of six kids, so I was the first among my siblings to go off to college. I wanted to be at a Catholic institution, I wanted to be at a small place, and I wanted to be at a place that was within travel distance from where I grew up. I came to Loras as a very introverted individual and wound up establishing lifelong friendships with classmates and being inspired by a lot of faculty and staff from a mentoring standpoint. I built a capacity to have an extraneous personality and simultaneously developed experiences and leadership that I don’t think I would have ever had if I had enrolled somewhere else.
As for what’s changed, I don’t know that students today would reflect much differently than the way I have reflected on my experience at Loras. Namely, that faculty and staff were outstanding in mentoring them, that the friendships they’ve developed here are lifelong, and that the opportunities they now have professionally, civically, and vocationally would not have been as strong were it not for Loras.
That said, I would say that the place, as a physical campus, has only gotten more beautiful. I would say that the opportunities and experiences we provide students are significantly more than what existed when I was here. In that way, the growth of the institution has only magnified the type of outcomes that students can experience in a way that my classmates and I can’t claim in similar fashion.
Every post I’ve held at the college came about because there was some mentor or some colleague who saw something in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to take on a new role.
When you received the First Citizen Award [from the Telegraph Herald newspaper in 2019], you mentioned how you wouldn’t have been able to get to where you today are without your mentors. What was it about your mentors that inspired you so much?
One of the odd things about my professional life is that I’ve never applied for a job at Loras, with the exception of the presidency. Every post I’ve held at the college came about because there was some mentor or some colleague who saw something in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to take on a new role. Those individuals really played a significant part in my life. I thought, after graduating from Loras, I was going to be a banker in downtown Chicago. I believed that even after the first three to five years at Loras, but one opportunity after another was presented to me and these individuals again saw something in me that I wouldn’t have seen in myself. Over time, this support system offered an extraordinary level of confidence to me in terms of both what it is that they thought I should be pursuing in life, but more to the point, me being able to reflect on how this was indeed the place and the calling I ought to pursue in life.
How has your experience as an undergrad at Loras influenced your presidency?
I think it’s had a significant influence. I remember as an undergraduate student, and particularly as a student government officer, always wanting to make sure that students had a greater voice. In like fashion, when I was an admissions rep and as an inexperienced staff member, I always felt that it was important that staff who otherwise didn’t feel included in decision making, that they ought to be included. While I’ve had to make plenty of decisions, I like to think that the way in which we’ve built our community here does incorporate, in large measure, student, staff, and faculty voices. I think in many ways, that’s helped to really build a cohesive community here, but I’m not sure I’d have that same sensibility if it weren’t for having had leadership experience as a student and then desiring leadership experience as a new staff member.
In what ways do you feel your presidency has contributed to the Catholic identity that Loras was founded on?
One of my mentors was Father Barta, a former president and priest at the archdiocese. I think being able to watch him lead, but also getting to hear him speak on a number of occasions about Loras’ tradition and its history, and his perspective on what it means to be a diocesan university was important. I think that the relationship allowed me to bring greater voice to where and how we needed to move forward, both as an archdiocesan institution, but also as a Catholic institution. Knowing that our roots were so heavily tied to us serving the diocese and the wider region, it has only helped to inspire the way in which Loras has fostered an even stronger focus on service, on liturgy, on faith, on Catholic Social Teaching, and on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. I think it’s so widely present in most everything we do at the curricular and co-curricular levels, but to suggest that I can take credit for that would not be right. I just think our Catholic and diocesan charism is in the bones of our college. Mostly what I do is try to encourage, support, and provide the resources so that talented faculty, staff, and students can go about their work in enhancing our Catholic identity.
Knowing that our roots were so heavily tied to us serving the diocese and the wider region, it has only helped to inspire the way in which Loras has fostered an even stronger focus on service, on liturgy, on faith, on Catholic Social Teaching, and on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.
Service is one of your school’s core values. How do you encourage Loras students to serve others?
I hope, as with lots of other things with Loras students, I model it — both in terms of work ethic and the way in which I’m engaged in the local community and the wide number of organizations that Loras is connected with. I think it lands better on 18- to 22-year-olds than telling them that they ought to serve if I provide an example by modeling ways in which to serve. Ironically, I find all these years later that it’s really the faculty, staff, and students who inspire me to serve because they do it so often and so incredibly selflessly.
Personally, what does service mean to you?
Service means using your gifts and talents for the betterment of those around you, particularly for those individuals who are on the margins of our society or don’t necessarily have some of the blessings that I and others have in their lives. So finding a way to give voice, or to serve as a voice, for those who don’t typically have that access is something I take seriously. I think it’s arguably one of the greatest modes of service we can provide.
What have you accomplished as president that you’re most proud of? What do you hope to achieve in the future?
I think if there’s any role I’ve had here at Loras, it’s to empower and encourage, and to remove barriers. To the extent that we’re humble as individuals here at Loras, I think it’s really important to boast the success of the institution. I’m very proud of the national success that Loras has had as an institution, but also across a wide array of programs that we offer. I think the other thing is instilling pride. I love the fact that our students, faculty, and staff take great pride in the institution that they serve or attend. We have this thing called “Duhawks Supporting Duhawks.” Whether it’s the theater program going to support students at an athletic contest or student athletes going to a faculty lecture, I encourage all to find a way — while we all participate in various subsets of the institution — to support the many offerings we provide as an institution. This is indeed one of the greatest points of satisfaction.
In terms of going forward, it’s all about me doing whatever I can to bring the good name of Loras to a wider audience with the hope that enrollment increases as a byproduct, and with the hope that greater resources come to the institution to support the good work of our faculty, staff, and students.
Position: Miguel Martinez-Saenz is the 19th president of St. Francis College in New York, a position he has held since 2017.
Career highlights: Professor of Philosophy, Assistant Provost for the First Year Experience and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, from 2001 to 2011; Dean and Associate Provost for Student Success at St. Cloud University (MN), from 2011to 2014; Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, from 2014 to 2017. In March 2016, he received an administrative Fulbright Scholarship through the Fulbright-Nehru International Education Administrators Program. He has also received several honors, including the Ohio Latino Awards Educator of the Year, Insight into Diversity Visionary Award, and The Lillian C. Franklin Diversity Award.
Education: B.A. from Florida State University (1992); M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from University of South Florida (2001).
Family: He and his wife Julie have two children, Caterina and Joaquin, and two dogs, Charlotte and Dallas.
Fun Fact: When Miguel visits high schools in New York City, students are surprised to hear a college president perform spoken word. Energized in any classroom space, Miguel has taught in correctional facilities for ten years, including now at the federal detention facility in Brooklyn.
Q. St. Francis College is described as “the small college of big dreams.” What attracted you to St. Francis?
A. Two things drew my attention. First, it was Brooklyn. Colleges today are becoming more urban-centric. Second, it was the Franciscan nature of the college. When I began to learn about the mission of the college and its history, especially how it has served working-class families and immigrants — being what I call a “college of opportunity” — I wanted to take a closer listen.
I talk a lot about the difference between “making a living” and “making a life.” Everyone needs to get paid, but fundamentally more important is helping students think about how to make a fully human life. The Franciscans recognize the importance of both. Accessibility and affordability are drivers at St. Francis. At the same time, we aspire to create a community of learners where everyone belongs and everyone has the opportunity to dream, serve, and achieve.
How do you describe the Franciscan charism?
It’s a fundamental commitment to radical hospitality and the dignity of every human person. The orientation that I’ve tried to bring to the college is to expand the notion of hospitality. There is little question that our doors are open to everyone. But that’s not sufficient. We have to go out to the community and invite people in. It’s about “getting proximate,” as Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy. It’s about moving into community spaces that other people don’t want to move into.
Treating every person with dignity isn’t just that I think it. It’s not only conceptual. It’s essential to practice it. People are paying attention all the time, seeing what I do and not do. If we show through our daily interactions what it means to treat people with dignity, then our students might adopt the same orientation.
There is little question that our doors are open to everyone. But that’s not sufficient.
You have said that higher education is in the middle of a major transition. What are the most pressing demands and how should Catholic higher education best respond?
Recently I was at a meeting where some college presidents suggested that people no longer value Catholic higher education. It’s not that people don’t value Catholic higher education; it’s that they can’t afford it. We have to be able to create the conditions for our schools to be more affordable and accessible. The cost structure for schools in urban areas like Saint Francis is more challenging, but there is also greater demand. There might be some creative opportunities for urban and rural schools to collaborate.
Second, we need to become nimbler and more innovative with our curriculum. Some Catholic colleges are struggling to recognize that there is a changing market reality.
Third, we have to be upfront that we are values-based. It’s a mistake to try to become more secular to attract students. If we try to compete with the public schools on their terms, we will go out of business. We have to differentiate ourselves and explain the value-added. We not only help students make a living, but we will also help them to make a life.
How do you balance your desire to be a “student-centered” president with your responsibilities that take you away from campus?
One of the challenges in these administrative posts is that I don’t get as much opportunity to be in the classroom. But it’s an issue of priorities. I think it’s vitally important to stay in touch with the core of what we are supposed to be doing, which is educating young people. For me to be an effective leader, it’s important for me to be in touch not only with the students who we currently serve but the students who we will serve in the future. So, I visit one or two high schools per week.
For me to be an effective leader, it’s important for me to be in touch not only with the students who we currently serve but the students who we will serve in the future.
A common characterization of the modern college president is that the most important stakeholder is the school’s benefactor base. I know that I have to talk with our benefactors, but more important is whether the students see me as an advocate for the learning experience. When I talk with our benefactors, I can tell stories for hours about specific students, what they accomplish, what they are struggling with, what they hope to achieve. The stories are what resonate with people. I don’t think that I could do my job effectively if I was not in the midst of our students.
My good fortune as an undergraduate was meeting Dr. Maureen Tilley. This woman was the first person to take an interest in me. She asked me about my interests and my life experience. What I realized was that you have to take an interest in folks for them to be able to achieve their potential. She helped me realize that I have the opportunity to live the life that I want to live. This is the same message that I try to pass along to our students.
American Catholic higher education represents significant geographic, cultural, and demographic diversity with over 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Having lived and worked in Miami, the Midwest, and now in Brooklyn, what opportunities for collaboration do you see?
One fear is that we are becoming more insular because no one wants to give up their identity. In a merger, someone is going to lose something. And the smaller schools are going to lose more. Part of the issue is how to collaborate and maintain identity and history. But there is a lot of opportunity to collaborate in the future. Just in New York among the Franciscan schools, for example, we have St. Bonaventure University in a rural environment, Siena College in Albany, which is a policy center, and then us [St. Francis] in an urban space.
What encouragement would you provide for other leaders who care about diversity and inclusion but are struggling to navigate this concern with their school’s Catholic identity?
Just recently, we hosted a panel discussion about religious perspectives on the prison industrial complex. We also hosted Fr. James Martin, SJ to discuss LGBTQ issues. We have the space to host real conversations. Scripture makes it very clear that we ought to love, to show mercy, to be compassionate to all human beings. That doesn’t mean that I agree with every decision a person makes, but it does mean that I’m committed to treating them with dignity. And you can’t do that if you close yourself off to the questions.
As we try to educate students in a diverse learning environment, we bring together a diversity of viewpoints — including the Church’s perspective — and we don’t pretend that complex issues are one-sided. I was at an event with our local bishop, Bishop DiMarzio, and he spoke powerfully about respecting immigrants and refugee communities. He took the opportunity to encourage the audience to adopt a more Christian perspective. One of the things that I like about the ACCU conference is that it shows the type of dynamic dialogue that is possible between Church officials and Catholic colleges.
As we try to educate students in a diverse learning environment, we bring together a diversity of viewpoints — including the Church’s perspective — and we don’t pretend that complex issues are one-sided
You have named “student access, retention, and student success” as the three pillars of higher education. What strategies have you found to be most effective in this regard?
We need to go into new spaces. I visit one or two public high schools per week and our message is being received there even better than I thought. When I go to a public school where a college president has never set foot, students start to think that maybe St. Francis is the right fit for them. If we meet students on their terms and in their spaces, they trust quickly and are willing to have frank conversations about college.
For example, a young Mexican girl, a senior in high school, came up to me and told me, “I am going to St. Francis College.” She repeated this very proudly. I asked why. She told me, “I heard you speak. You are Latino. And you are a college president.” This is why I attempt, imperfectly, to meet people where they are. As college presidents, we have an enormous platform to engage these young people and make an impact, if we take the time to appreciate their situation.
As a philosopher, what would you say is the hard question that every student should contemplate before graduation?
What kind of life ought I be living? When I taught full-time, I wanted students to believe that this question was a live question. This is the message of Socrates when he said that the unexamined life is not fit to be called a human life. Jesus in his preaching orients us to be more self-critical. Saint Francis in his reform of the Church as well as our current pope do the same. Cornell West says that we have a temporary journey from womb to tomb, and we have to figure out who we are going to be in the meantime. The important thing is to keep the question alive. I don’t have all the answers, but as Rilke says, we must lean into the question.
Rhona C. Free
Position: Rhona Free became the ninth president of the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) in July 2015.
Career highlights: Previously at Eastern Connecticut State University, serving as vice president for academic affairs from 2007-2013 and provost from 2013-2015. Dr. Free taught Economics at Eastern for 25 years before becoming an administrator. In 2004, she was recognized as the Council for Advancement and Support of Education/Carnegie Foundation National Professor of the Year from Master’s Granting Institutions. During her time at USJ, Dr. Free has championed the creation of the Women’s Leadership Center and guided the deliberations that led to the university’s decision to become fully coeducational in fall 2018. Additionally, she oversaw the start of its Physician Assistant Studies program; the creation of an annual Veterans Day observance; and the launch of the Catholic Promise Scholarship program. Dr. Free serves as Chair of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education Board of Directors and Vice Chair of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges Board of Directors.
Education: Ph.D. in 1983 and M.A. in 1980, both in Economics, from the University of Notre Dame; B.A. in 1978 from Sarah Lawrence College.
Family: Dr. Free has been married to Peter Boardman since 1979. They have two children and three grandchildren.
Fun Fact: In recognition of Dr. Free’s Scottish heritage, her inauguration included a “Highland Games.” She did not excel at tossing the caber.
Q: You were a professor for over two decades before becoming an administrator. What went into your decision to make the move from teaching to administration?
A: I suppose it was the realization that what I enjoyed about teaching, which was really being able to support students’ learning and growth, and their transition from being a high school student to career person, all of that I could do on an even larger scale as an administrator. So it was really the idea that as a faculty member, you create opportunities for students to learn and to grow and you can do that even more when you are an administrator. You have more direct and indirect ways to make that happen.
The University of Saint Joseph recently became coeducational after being a women’s-only institution for many years. How did that decision come about and what have been the effects of it?
We saw data that showed almost 98% of students graduating from high school planned to attend a coeducational institution. If we admitted men, there would be higher enrollment of both women and men, and that’s come to pass. With that increased enrollment, we could offer more opportunities to the women students, as well as to the men, including curricular, co-curricular, and athletics. We’ve been able to add academic majors, sports teams, facilities, and more on-campus activities for all students, but we could not have done that with the enrollment level that was attainable with only women on campus.
If we admitted men, there would be higher enrollment of both women and men, and that’s come to pass.
How do you feel that being co-educational has changed the overall atmosphere on campus?
We were co-educational at the graduate level before. We are part of an 11-campus consortium of colleges and universities in the Hartford area, and students can take courses on [any of the] other campuses, regardless of gender. We had part-time male undergraduate students, so it wasn’t unusual to have male students in classes, but I think having males on campus has enlivened the campus because students are more likely to stay here over the weekends. We can have more co-curricular activities, so it’s a livelier campus, there’s no question about it.
You’re the first non-Catholic president at the University of Saint Joseph. Does being a non-Catholic running a Catholic university give you a unique perspective that previous presidents may not have had?
I can’t really say for sure. I had spent five years at the University of Notre Dame and so I think I understood well the values of the Sisters of Mercy. The University of Notre Dame had a very strong emphasis on social justice, and that’s a major issue of concern with the Sisters of Mercy. So I was very comfortable with that focus.
During your presidency, how have you been able to uphold the Catholic tradition the school was founded on?
There are a lot of policies and procedures that have been in place here for decades to ensure that any new academic program, for example, incorporates elements of the Mercy areas of critical concern so that there’s a focus on the program meeting the needs of society. In the general education requirements in the core curriculum, there’s a lot of emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic identity — not in a way that would be uncomfortable for students who are not Catholic — but reflected in questions about equity, diversity, and understanding the relationship between faith and reason, regardless of the particular faith. The policies and procedures that have been in place ensure in terms of the curriculum that Catholic identity and the Mercy tradition and values continue to be integrated. And I think the same thing would be true in terms of the value of community engagement and service. Since those programs were in place, it’s been my job to make sure that they continue to be areas of priority, they continue to be well-funded, and that we continue to ask how well we’re doing with mission integration. We also have six Sisters of Mercy on our board and they ask questions, as do other board members, about ensuring that we maintain a focus on our mission and are consistent with our mission.
Because you were an administrator at Eastern Connecticut State University, have you observed any differences in leading a Catholic university versus a secular university?
There is a difference. As an administrator at a public university, there were some questions that were not as easily answered because there wasn’t a sense that we all agreed to the shared values. Here, we have a commitment to a set of values that guide our decision making, and so in a lot of cases, it is easier because there’s a clear value that we are using to gauge whether or not a decision is the right one. I find that a little bit easier.
As an administrator at a public university, there were some questions that were not as easily answered because there wasn’t a sense that we all agreed to the shared values.
You have focused your research on areas like gender and racial/ethnic earnings differences and occupational health and safety. In what ways have your research interests influenced how you handle your presidency?
I think that the first thing is that my research was always very evidence-based and I used a lot of data. I worked with colleagues who had really good quantitative and econometric skills and so we looked at data to help us understand why we saw differences in earnings, how deep those differences were, and how prolonged they were. So I approach every question that same way: I first ask, is there data available that can help us find answers to a question so we’re not acting on a hunch, we’re not acting on what our biases tell us. Part of looking at earnings differences by race and gender is really peeling back layers of an onion; you look at the data and it gives you one insight and then it leads you to another question. So I think that that research has also helped me to understand the complexity of problems, and that even with data, answers are not always as simple as they might first appear. That’s the perspective that I brought with me to this job, so if you’re looking at something like retention, you have to look carefully at the data [and] don’t act on a hunch.
You became the chair of Hartford Consortium for Higher Education in 2018. How are you able to juggle the responsibilities of that role with your presidency?
They’re really compatible. The strength of the consortium really helps the strength of this institution and so for me, it’s just been a matter of asking how can we make the consortium stronger and more effective because in doing that, it’s good for the university. It hasn’t been a real juggling question at all, it’s been more that the two roles go hand in hand. The consortium has focused a lot in the last couple of years on creating the sense that Hartford is a college town, that it’s a great place to come to for college, whichever college you go to in the area. There are 11 colleges in this area, so we want students to understand that if you come to Hartford, you share the benefit of being around all these other college students and all these other campuses. And that’s really good for the University of St. Joseph for people to understand that, and it’s good for Hartford to become, in effect, a college town.
You have accomplished a lot during your presidency. What have you done that you’re most proud of?
It’s really what made me go from being a faculty member to an administrator in the first place, that I have always been very proud of the accomplishments of my students and then when I became an administrator, it was the accomplishments of students and the faculty because my job is to get them the resources and create opportunities for them to succeed. Although I probably shouldn’t take much credit for it, but what gives me the greatest satisfaction is observing the success of students — the fellowships that they get, the great jobs they get, the great internships that they get, and then for faculty, their scholarly activity, their teaching awards. Again, I don’t know how much credit I should get for it, but it’s what gives me the most satisfaction.
Rev. Brian F. Linnane, SJ
Position: Fr. Linnane became the 24th president of Loyola University Maryland in 2005.
Career highlights: During his presidency, Fr. Linnane has overseen the completion of Loyola’s $100 million Bright Minds, Bold Hearts campaign, the opening of the Ridley Athletic Complex, the designation change to Loyola University Maryland, and the transition to the Patriot League. Under his leadership, Loyola has experienced increased diversity, equity, and inclusion among the campus community. Fr. Linnane also inspired the vision for Messina, Loyola's distinctive interdisciplinary living and learning program for first-year students.
Education: A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Boston College; M.A. from Georgetown University; master’s degree and Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. Fr. Linnane also has master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in religious studies concentrating in religious ethics from Yale University. He received an honorary doctorate from Loyola in 2015.
Religious Order: Society of Jesus
Fun Fact: Every year at Orientation Fr. Linnane tells the incoming students to make the most of their time at Loyola and “squeeze the sponge dry.” This phrase has become a source of inspiration to the students. As they cross the stage at Commencement, some will say, “Father, I squeezed the sponge dry.” In 2019, for the first time, a student brought an actual sponge to the ceremony to show Fr. Linnane.
Q. When you earned your doctorate in religious studies, you concentrated on religious ethics. What sparked your interest in this specific area?
A. I wasn’t looking forward to studying theology when I went to school for ordination. I have a master’s degree in political science, I taught political science at Fairfield when I was a scholastic, and then I thought, “Well, theology is the thing you have to do if you’re going to be a priest.” I went out to Berkeley to study and I just loved it. I immediately was taken with it and I really liked Christian ethics. I had some terrific classes in that, but I was still thinking of going on and getting my Ph.D. in political science. I wrote my proposal for the provincial — what I was going to do and where I was going to apply — and when I finished it, my heart wasn’t in it. Those questions really didn’t interest me as much. And I think what changed me to theology generally, and to ethics in particular, was the way in which I thought that it had such obviously intellectual implications, but also pastoral implications. I saw that by studying theology carefully, it would position me to be helpful to souls, as St. Ignatius would say.
I saw that by studying theology carefully, it would position me to be helpful to souls, as St. Ignatius would say.
How do you feel your study of ethics has guided you in your career?
I think that it’s made me acutely aware of where the ethical challenges are and not turning a blind eye to them. I know that it’s formed the way I think about the human condition and the need for respect and inclusion. I think most presidents get that, but certainly as an ethicist, that has sharpened my focus.
In your long history as an educator, how do you feel liberal arts education has evolved?
The great influence of postmodernism has been extraordinary and of course, it’s had good and bad influences, but you see this in the humanities, you see this across the board. One of the things that I think you saw in the liberal arts faculty when I was first teaching back in the early 1980s [is] there would be faculty members who believed Catholicism wasn’t really consistent with higher education because it privileged a particular point of view. Now people realize that everybody has a particular point of view and we don’t believe there is this plateau, a point where we can be value-free and entirely neutral, and so I think that’s been great in higher education. The faculty has been much more enthusiastic about the Catholic mission because they see that it is a particular narrative. It’s a particular focus that they may not agree with, or partake in, but it shapes the institution and it shapes the society in ways that are very, very positive.
The thing that I think is more troubling is the shift away from liberal arts majors and that students really want that professional degree. There’s a narrative in our society that majoring in English or philosophy or art history is a waste of time and you’ll never get a job and of course, that’s just not true. The institution I was at before was only liberal arts and the students did very well. The Ivy League on the undergraduate level is essentially liberal arts and their graduates are not on the street corners begging for spare change. There is a loss in the faith that liberal arts really shape you intellectually and personally to prepare you for a wide variety of opportunities when you graduate and conducive to helping you be the sort of thoughtful and caring person that I think increases your chances of a happy and meaningful life.
There’s a narrative in our society that majoring in English or philosophy or art history is a waste of time and you’ll never get a job and of course, that’s just not true.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with going into business or STEM. If that’s a passion, I think that is terrific. But if you’re going into these fields just because you think there’s a paycheck at the end of four years, that’s what I worry about. I think students should study what they’re passionate about and take the steps to deal with the career sector to figure out what their marketable skills are and that sort of thing. The students who major in something they like or love or are passionate about, they’re going to get that grade, they’re going to know their faculty, and their faculty will be willing to go out on the line and recommend them.
I think that many people are under the misapprehension that a liberal arts education is a dead end, when the movers and shakers and people who have made a difference in this country have looked to the liberal arts and to liberally educated persons to be the agents of change and to make a difference in our world.
In what ways do you feel your presidency represents the principles of the Catholic tradition?
I believe first of all that Loyola is a place where the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is alive, where there are people who are deeply engaged in the questions, both inside and outside the classroom. [They] engage in the Church both from a theological perspective and from a sociological perspective of how as educated Christians we should deal with the pressing social issues of the day. I think that while most of our students do not major in philosophy and theology and the like, nonetheless, they all are having a deep encounter with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition through the core curriculum.
We also partner with the local Catholic Church and I think even more than partnering, we are part of the local Catholic Church. We are part of the archdiocese, working in companionship with them, taking the lead from our archbishop and his priorities around education, racial justice, and the like.
You have successfully been able to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion on the Loyola campus. How were you able to achieve this?
I was on the board before I became president and at that time, we approved a strategic plan that would increase the number of students of color on the undergraduate level from 8 percent to 13 percent. We did that specifically by looking at our recruiting patterns in terms of where we recruited and who we recruited. We have many, many students who come out of Catholic secondary schools, so we’re looking more and more at schools in the city and in different areas where we hadn’t been recruiting, and we’re looking at how we package our financial aid. Also, the key thing really is putting supports in place because we’re just shy of 30 percent students of color in the undergraduate population and those students need support in place — for people to mentor them, for places they can go and hang out.
We’re just shy of 30 percent students of color in the undergraduate population and those students need support in place — for people to mentor them, for places they can go and hang out.
For example, we just increased the space for ALANA services because the number of students of color has grown. I’m convinced that students of groups that are underrepresented need a place where they can express their cultures and share their experiences of the campus. I think that is a dimension of the support we’ve worked really hard to offer our students of color.
What is your vision for the future of Loyola and what do you plan to do to achieve it?
My vision for the school is to be an increasingly dynamic and equitable institution that mirrors our nation in the sense of being quite diverse, quite open, and also to furthering the Catholic identity of the institution, especially as it is delivered in the curriculum. Those are very clear in our current strategic plan. I look to a strong, vibrant, liberal arts–focused university leading the way in the 21st century.
How do we do this? I say the most obvious thing that a president has to do to achieve these priorities is fundraising and making sure there is enough money to achieve our goals and to continue to maintain the excellent academic and co-curricular programs that we offer at Loyola. And the other thing has to do with hiring people across the board. We ask all our faculty who are applying to write an essay to reflect on our mission statement and how they will specifically in their work, whatever it is, contribute to the Jesuit atmosphere and focus of the university. So I think that it’s explaining your vision to the external people through fundraising and through recruiting students and recruiting the best faculty, and then also hiring particularly well for folks who would support the mission.
Position: Richard Ludwick is the 9th president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, a position he has held since 2017.
Career highlights: Dean of Students at the University of Oregon School of Law, 1999–2003; Assistant Dean for Student and Academic Affairs at the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, 2003–2005; Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Albany Law School, 2005–2008; Provost of St. Gregory’s University, 2008–2010; President of the Independent Colleges of Indiana, 2010-2017. Currently, Ludwick serves as president of the International Council of the Universities of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a global network of institutions dedicated to the spirit of St. Thomas.
Education: B.A. in History, University of Evansville; M.A. in Higher Education Administration, Teachers College of Columbia University; J.D., Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney Law School; D.Ed. in Policy Management and Organization of Higher Education Administration, University of Oregon.
Family: Richard and his wife, Melynda, a pharmacist, have two grown children, Richard III, also a graduate of the University of Evansville, and Christianne, a graduate of Ave Maria University and Butler University.
Fun Fact: People are surprised to learn that Dr. Ludwick was raised in rural Indiana on a pig farm. Outside work, he enjoys spending time with his family and playing with his grandchildren.
Q. You practiced law in Indiana from 1991 to 1999. How did you become involved in higher education?
A. Even as an attorney, I engaged in issues related to higher education. But what really lit my fire for higher education was serving as student president when I was in college. In that role, I sat on the president’s cabinet and the board of trustees. I was able to see how impactful higher education can be in the lives of students and the community. And I saw that as a great good in society and I wanted to contribute to that.
As someone who has served as assistant dean, dean, vice president, provost, and now as president, how do you understand the role of administration? And how did you find your way to the University of St. Thomas?
I hope that my approach is one of servant leadership. Administrators are trusted with the opportunity to shape the environment, and that is a special privilege because it empowers the faculty and students.
About fifteen years ago, I made a list of institutions that I thought would be a really good fit for me as I thought about leadership in the future. The University of St. Thomas was among the top five schools on that list. I feel that there is a special calling for me to be here. I feel particularly blessed to be in this institution at this time to help build a future for the University of St. Thomas to become a preeminent institution in Catholic higher education.
As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
Not unlike many college presidents, my day begins early in the morning and ends late at night. A typical day is a mixture of events with our internal and external constituencies. Since I cannot be in two or more places at one time, it is important to get the leadership team aligned. Having a really good administrative team allows the message to be amplified by folks in a lot of different ways. When we have to make decisions, we make a hierarchy of priorities based on the needs of the institution and how they align with our mission. What we try to do with our administration is set a cultural tone through every aspect of the university.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration.
You served as president of the Independent Colleges of Indiana, the nation’s oldest association of 31 private, nonprofit colleges and universities enrolling more than 100,000 students. From this experience, what counsel would you provide Catholic colleges and universities regarding collaboration?
I have strong opinions on this subject [laughs]. And I have been privileged to work in that arena. We really did build collaboration and cooperation in a way that convinced me of the impact of unified effort. But now there are only 30 schools in that association because one of the Catholic colleges closed, so the need for greater collaboration is serious.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration. We understand that we are part of the mystical body of Christ. Each part of the body has different gifts, but each part contributes to the body. For Catholic institutions, even though there exists a variety of charisms, there still is an underlying premise that we are part of the same body and we are on mission together.
One benefit of collaboration is helping to bring the costs of higher education down. But, from the Catholic perspective, we can see ourselves not so much as competitors but together on the same mission field. Collaboration is really about relationships, which take time to build and time is a rare commodity. Collaboration requires an intentional effort to put a process together.
It’s a true passion point for me. Since I have arrived at the University of St. Thomas, we have thought about ways to collaborate. I invite any president from any college to contact me if they are interested in discovering ways to collaborate with us.
The University of St. Thomas is known for being committed to its Catholic identity. What are ways that you advance the Catholic mission of the school?
If you talk to our alumni, our faculty, and even our current students, they will tell you about the robust philosophy and theology components in our core curriculum. It is a source of pride because it serves as a basis for understanding the human person that transcends all of the other academic disciplines and also makes them coherent.
The role of the president at a Catholic college is to be an evangelist. I do not mean a proselytizer or preacher, but the president should engage, accompany, and invite others to help craft the community. Our Catholic identity seeks to be open to all people of good will. Our faculty members who are not Catholic understand our mission and contribute to move it forward.
One of the ways that we bring our Catholic identity to life is through our nursing program, which is held in high regard in Houston and is rapidly growing. People will tell me that our nurses are special. Our nurses our competent, of course, but people notice that there is something more in the way that our nurses connect with patients. Our faculty approaches nursing as a healing art and the curriculum includes a ceremony to bless the hands of our nursing students. Some of our non-Catholic students are touched by this ritual even more than some of our Catholic students.
You have stated that financial concerns are challenges and not “existential concerns.” Can you say more about that for other presidents who are facing financial struggles?
Financial problems left unattended might become an existential threat, so it is helpful to be transparent about the challenges that a school is facing. Whether it is rising discount rates, operational deficits, or defending the value proposition of higher education, instead of handwringing, we take them seriously, talk about them as a community, and move to fix them.
At the University of St. Thomas, we are facing similar pressures as most schools. But our balance sheet, land assets, net tuition, and endowment are all on a positive trend. Houston is a great geographic location and people want to be here. So, we have the capacity to continue to grow.
The University of St. Thomas is located in one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the country. Can you describe the demographic shifts you have experienced?
The changing demographics of the Catholic Church in America are already present in Houston. Houston sits in the middle of the country and we serve as an enormous bridge from north to south when you look at the Western Hemisphere. We have large Hispanic and Asian populations and people from all over the world. Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city and continuing to grow. It is also one of the most diverse cities in America.
Particularly important for me is the makeup of our student body. In our incoming classes, we are 80-85% students of color. In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that; the future leadership of the American Catholic Church already appears on the faces of our student body.
I believe that the University of St. Thomas has a special calling at this time. Acting as a bridge-builder, we can develop leaders for the Church and the country in a pluralistic environment that we live here every day in an organic way.
In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that...
The board of directors has recently charged your administration with restructuring the university and creating a new academic-business model by the end of fall 2020. What advice would you give to other presidents who are leading their institutions through significant change?
We looked at the trend lines for budget and cost and we realized that it was not something that could be sustained over the long term. One helpful thing we did was create a metaphor to talk about the operational situation that we were facing. We called it “the dragon,” and we had to figure out as a community how to defeat the dragon. From the beginning, we understood that there would be surprises, but there was an openness and willingness to talk about it, which helped to demystify and take the fangs out of the dragon that we were facing.
Our core identity and values will remain unchanged. We are working as a community to strengthen the institution so that we are able to live our identity and values well into the future. As a university community, there will always be smart minds who think differently. But it really helps to be upfront with people, to share the story that lets people know that there is a way forward, and to develop a plan together. Our board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Our faculty senate sent a letter of support. The staff and students have all been understanding.
Your inaugural address at the University of St. Thomas was marked by confidence toward the future, your blog is titled “Fearlessly Forward,” and your writings and speeches regularly convey a sense of joy. With all the challenges facing Catholic higher education today, where do you find hope?
In Jesus Christ. Truly. As we move forward, we have faith that the battle is already won. It is not our success so much as it is God’s. We are called to be faithful, to use our talents the best we can, to have faith in the great cloud of witnesses who support us, and to trust in the outcome.
Mary Dana Hinton
Position: Mary Hinton is the 15th president of the College of Saint Benedict, a residential liberal arts college founded by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1913. Saint Ben’s prepares women to think critically, lead courageously, and advocate passionately. It is the only Benedictine college for women in the country and has operated in a unique academic partnership with Saint John's University, a Benedictine college for men, for over 60 years.
Career highlights: Named president of CSB in 2014; in 2018, Hinton received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, named for the Sister who brought Benedictine women to the United States and awarded by the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. Mary is proud to serve on several national higher education boards including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU); the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU); and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).
Education: B.A. in psychology with minors in women’s studies and African-American studies from Williams College; M.A. in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas; Ph.D. from Fordham University in religion and religious education.
Family: Husband of 21 years, Robert Williams; children: Hallela Hinton-Williams is a junior at Grinnell College; Hillel Hinton-Williams is a first-year student at Oberlin College; and Hosanna Hinton-Williams is a sophomore at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn.
Fun Fact: Mary has won five trophies for her trivia knowledge.
Q. You earned your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, so how did it come about that you transitioned to the education field? Was that always your intention?
A. I choose to study psychology because I loved it, not because I had a particular career plan in mind. My first job after college was as an elementary school teacher because I had been told my whole life that my number one job in life was to serve others. I thought the number one way that you could give back to the community was by being a teacher and I still believe that. I’m so grateful for all the people who are called to teach. The stakes are so high when you teach elementary school because you’re helping a young person develop a love of learning.
It turns out teaching elementary school was not my calling. But, when I thought about graduate school the first time around, I still wanted to do something that put me in a position to serve others, and that’s why I chose clinical child psychology.
After you got your master’s, did you want to go into the psychology field or did you want to go into education?
I could not have articulated this at the time, but it wasn’t that I had a particular discipline or field in mind. It was that I had a calling I was trying to respond to. For me, that calling was to do work toward educational equity, so once I got my master’s degree, I went right into policy work. That feels as far away from the classroom as you can get, but when you can create structures and policies that govern what students learn, how they learn, and the conditions under which they learn, you’re really having an impact on equity.
Is having that impact on equity why you went from policy work to getting your doctorate in religion and religious education?
I think religion and psychology have something in common in that they both help you comprehend how individuals and communities understand themselves, organize themselves, and move themselves forward. I think that has served me well as an educator because I recognize that we don’t all understand ourselves the same way. We don’t all see the world the same way, but we all have value.
How do you feel that your passion and vision for the liberal arts fits into the Catholic framework?
I am convicted by Catholic Social Teaching and its calls to equity and justice and by the goal of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition of bringing humanity closer to God. I’ve been called to do this work through promoting educational equity, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and understand their role in humanity. I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking – the key goals of a liberal arts education – that they can be fully engaged with humanity and with the divine.
I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking
You have written about your concern that with technology on the rise, people no longer think the liberal arts are valuable. What would you tell those who say liberal arts education is obsolete or irrelevant?
Here’s the thing: Technology can enhance and literally extend our lives at moments. But there are at least three things that technology cannot do. One, I don’t believe technology can make meaning out of human experiences. It can use algorithms to make guesses and assumptions about me, but a guess about someone is not the same as understanding someone.
Two, technology conflates information with knowledge. Technology provides overwhelming amounts of information, but I don’t know any more unless I engage with that information in meaningful ways. I have to hear about others’ experiences to turn that information into knowledge. I must apply prior learning to turn that information into knowledge.
And most importantly, we gather wisdom from listening to diverse perspectives and experiences, and then challenging yourself and challenging others. In my estimation, technology cannot do those things for us. The liberal arts, on the other hand, help us become wise people when we learn to translate information into knowledge, to interrogate knowledge and to connect knowledge.
Given how plugged in to technology young people are now, how do your students feel about your ideas on this?
I have found that young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation. I think they value us having a conversation and a hug, praying together, crying together, cheering for our athletic teams together. I’m really proud of them and their ability to respond to human connection. However, unfortunately, because we are less connected as a society, they often feel that they have to default to social media as a proxy for connection.
...Young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation.
You have talked about student retention being something you’re passionate about, so what have you done during your presidency to address this and what have the results been?
The first step to student success is retaining students at an institution. At Saint Ben’s, we developed an inclusion ecosystem whereby we explore for every student who chooses us, what structures, systems, programs, and policies we need to put into place to ensure that each young woman can be successful. When you think about inclusion, sometimes people say, “Well, that’s just about diversity or for diverse students,” but really, inclusion is making sure that every student has what she needs in order to be successful. The result is that Saint Ben’s retains students at higher rates than other institutions.
In interviews, you have mentioned your concerns about college affordability and student debt. What kind of message are you giving your students and prospective students about this issue?
I can’t imagine a better use of resources than to invest in one’s education, and I think there are times when the student debt argument has been overstated. About a quarter of college students don’t carry any debt, and at our institution the default rate is less than 1 percent. The average student loan debt in the United States is less than the average new car loan and you don’t hear people talking about the car loan crisis. At the same time, your education is worth far, far more than your car.
During your tenure as president, what have you done to further the spirit of the school’s Benedictine founders?
In the first year of my presidency, I established a Benedictine Values Task Force. As a group of monastery and college leaders, we met regularly to talk about how we can support the transmission of Benedictine values on our campuses. Additionally, several years ago, the Sisters agreed to allow the college to buy several of their buildings, so now we’re able to highlight our Benedictine heritage in our physical spaces as well. When you come into our new admissions welcome center, the view is of the dome of Sacred Heart Chapel, a powerful symbol of the spirit of the college’s founders.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage. The biggest formal way was when we wrote our strategic plan five years ago. It has four pillars, one of which is an inclusive and engaging Catholic and Benedictine experience. We also, in my second year, updated our mission statement to explicitly reference the Catholic and Benedictine tradition.
What accomplishments are you most proud of since you took office and what do you want to accomplish in the future?
I’m enormously proud of having received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, as a sign of the way the Sisters support and value my leadership. I’m proud that the college has largely accomplished the goals of our strategic plan, including a new curriculum, a $100 million fundraising campaign, and a revitalization the campus physical structure. And, I’m proud of our inclusion ecosystem and how we are beginning to transform into the community we want and need to be.
I hope to continue to embrace equity and ensure, that any young woman who wants to attend the College of Saint Benedict has the opportunity to thrive at the college. I am grateful and hope to continue to play a role in shaping, promoting, and furthering Catholic higher education, as I truly believe that Catholic higher education has a special role to play in achieving a more just world.
Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ
Position: Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, is the 13th president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, a position she has held since 2007.
Career highlights: Professor of English at the College of St. Rose, Albany, NY, from 1972 to 1991; Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Avila University, Kansas City, MO, from 1991 to 1993; Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO, from 1993 to 1998; President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country, from 1998 to 2007. In March 2011, Sister Joan received the Athena Award for leadership given by the Women’s Connection of the Quad Cities. She was elected to the board of trustees of ACCU in January 2015.
Education: A native of Albany, NY, Sister Joan earned a doctorate in English literature from Brown University in 1981. She received her bachelor's (in 1970) and master’s (in 1974) degrees in English literature from the College of Saint Rose. Sister Joan holds certificates in fund raising management and educational management from Indiana and Harvard Universities, respectively.
Religious Order: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis, Missouri, since 1965.
Fun Fact: Among her personal pursuits, Sister Joan enjoys organic gardening and art appreciation. She also enjoys flying and has flown with the Navy's Blue Angels and the aerial demonstration team, The Red Barons.
Q. Is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you at St. Ambrose? As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
A. There is hardly such a thing as a “typical hour.” You can have a very well-set up schedule and then suddenly you’ll get a phone call as president that throws everything into chaos. A president needs to plan and organize, but situations can come up that change everything.
I always say to people that you have to pay attention to the day, the week, the month, and the year. If a president gets so fixated on the day or even the week, they will not keep in mind their responsibility to plan and guide at the mega-level. A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
You have been a college president since 1998. In that time, what is the most significant change in American Catholic higher education? How has the role of president changed?
Colleges and universities are having to rethink the mix of academic programs that they offer. Certain programs, which were the backbone of colleges and universities for five or six generations, are seeing dramatic drops in student interest. Simultaneously, colleges and universities must ask, “What are students interested in?” And they need to build those programs based on very careful market studies. For example, we have just finished rolling out a new master’s degree in cybersecurity.
Twenty-five years ago, students would see the president on campus every day. Now, easily 70 percent of a president’s work is outward-focused. When I am working with new presidents, I tell them that the care and feeding of their board and the care and feeding of their direct reports are among the most important things that they will do. It’s not glamorous work but it is necessary work.
In addition to St. Ambrose, there are several other schools in the Quad Cities. What collaboration exists among those institutions? In the increasingly competitive landscape of American higher education, what counsel can you provide about collaboration?
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration and I think that’s true. I instinctively want to find ways to collaborate, even with competitors.
For example, when I came to St. Ambrose, I called up the president of Augustana College just across the river and said, “Yes, I know that we are competitors, but there must be ways that we can collaborate.” One example is that we formed an international student organization with Augustana, so our international students can interact with a a larger group of people. This collaboration in no way hampers our ability to recruit to our own institution. In fact, it makes us a more attractive place.
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration...
You are the first woman to serve as president of St. Ambrose University. You were also president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country. Can you say something about the role of women in Catholic higher education?
When I first became a dean in the early 1990s, I looked far and wide to find another woman [dean]. As time went on, that began to change. When I went to my first meeting as president in 1998, it was like going back in time. I saw some women, but it was heavily male. Now, of course, that has continued to change, and I am no longer an anomaly. When I arrived at St. Ambrose and people introduced me as the “first woman president,” I said that I look forward to the day when we stop using “woman” as an adjective.
I mentor women to consider the presidency because I was well-mentored by both men and women early in my career. Probably the skill that most people aspiring to the presidency feel least qualified to do is in the area of fundraising. So, I take people with me on visits to mentor them. As I’ve tried to help people get comfortable in the fundraising sphere, I suggest: 1) be well-prepared for your visit; 2) be interested in the people; and 3) pay close attention to their reaction.
Under your leadership, SMWC achieved record gains in enrollment. What is the most critical thing that colleges can do to develop an effective enrollment strategy?
My mantra is to find your niche and market it aggressively and consistently. You cannot be everything to everyone. Our niche at St. Ambrose, for example, is the area of health sciences. When I arrived, we had a good regional reputation, and now we have an excellent reputation that is becoming national.
The pressure on private institutions of 1,500 students or fewer is very intense. Going forward, smaller institutions would be well-advised to think about ways to connect and collaborate formally, not just informally, with larger institutions that share their values.
St. Ambrose University has a close relationship with the Diocese of Davenport. What advice can you provide other presidents concerning their school’s relationship with the Church?
First and foremost, collaboration with the bishop is important. Presidents of Catholic colleges should keep in close conversation with their bishop, talking with him and seeking his advice regularly. Whenever I was appointed to a new position, I wrote a letter to the bishop expressing my interest in working with him in a collaborative manner. Bishops are busy people too, but it’s necessary to meet with them.
Among the 200-plus Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, I have a relatively unique relationship with the bishop because he serves as the chair of our board. My experience with the bishop has been a productive and supportive relationship.
You entered religious life in 1965, the same year as the final session of Vatican II. Can you describe that time? What are your best hopes for the future direction of the Church?
I was a teenager and it was thrilling to watch the changes, especially in the liturgy. It opened up new possibilities to participate in the liturgy and be part of the Church.
As Pope Francis has been doing, my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor. Catholic colleges and universities can serve the Church by helping its students to understand their roles as adult Christians.
I believe enough in the message of Jesus Christ that I am willing to dedicate my entire life to it. A couple years ago, I celebrated my 50th jubilee. I do not worry about the message of Jesus Christ surviving. I believe it will continue to affect the world positively as it has for the past 2,000 years.
...my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor.
Students of St. Ambrose University give more than 178,000 service hours annually. The university’s mission statement aims for students to develop not only intellectually but also ethically and socially. Why is this important for Catholic higher education?
The service hours are placed in the context of the Church’s social teaching. Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that we have an obligation beyond our own personal well-being. Our core values at St. Ambrose emphasize peace and justice, which motivate us to care for the wider human family — and now we extend this to include care for the earth, too.
As a professor of English literature, what is one book every college student should read before graduating?
One book, without doubt, is Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Not only because the characters are delightful and it has a happy ending and it is beautifully written, but because we have two characters who are wrong in their initial assessment of things. They are wrong because they are not fully aware of who they are. But as they become more self-aware, they are able to realize the mistakes that they have made, to admit that they were wrong, and to change their behavior. That for me is the great vision of what it means to grow up. Even though I’ve taught this book several times, it is always rewarding to see the lightbulb going off in the minds of the students.