Q: You served in the Air Force for 23 years. What made you want to go from the military into higher education?
Today I’m in my third career. I’ve retired twice in three phases of my life. The first phase was all about giving back today, right now. I think citizenship carries with it responsibilities and obligations, not just privileges and freedoms, so for me, it was about taking care of the here and the now. Then I went to Johns Hopkins University, where I had a career at the Applied Physics Laboratory and my work there was focused on not just the education piece, but I also did a lot of work in technology development to help first responders and war fighters. And then this third phase is really about the people, the leadership piece of it. We know that if you look across America, the leadership in the private sector and in the public sector all have had a college and university experience, so the opportunity to influence directly — by name, by nose — the folks who will be the future leadership, just felt like the right place to be.
You started your presidency in late 2019, shortly before COVID hit. What was it like to be so new in your role during a health crisis, as well as the political and social crises of 2020?
When this first started, we saw what was happening with travel. We had students in Rome, and so we had a conversation here asking, “Okay, if this gets too crazy, what are we going to do?” We decided that if the CDC said, “People shouldn’t go to Italy,” then we’d bring those students home. I wanted to take the approach of being an early adopter and getting out in front of it all, so on a Friday, the CDC made the call and by that weekend, we told the students to come home. On Monday, I was at the airport at midnight to greet all the students and most of the parents were there, and half of them wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me. Then the next week, parents were coming in here, pounding on my table, mad as hornets that I had denied their students this once in a lifetime opportunity. I remember at the time thinking, this is going to be a really rough run.
I think a lot of what is happening in higher ed was already happening and the “COVID effect” has simply accelerated some dramatic changes. The pandemic has exposed some fracture lines, not just in higher education, but also across culture. We’re doing a lot of quarrelling as Americans and if you’re going to quarrel, you’re never going to find truth. In my view, we’ve had two crises actually going on across the country for a couple of years. I’m not exactly sure where this started, but certainly well before the pandemic, we’ve had both a crisis of conviction and a crisis of leadership.
The pandemic has exposed some fracture lines, not just in higher education, but also across culture.
By a crisis of conviction, what I mean is, we’re simply responding to the loudest voice. We weren’t having reasoned and reasonable conversations about nearly anything. People weren’t standing up for their convictions and saying, “Look, it’s not about the loudest voice, it’s about the common good.”
As far as the crisis in leadership, those who are in leadership in America — in business, in education, in politics — most of them have had a college or university experience. They’re the ones that are supposed to show us how to navigate the space of disagreement, to find what’s best for all of us, and they simply weren’t contributing to it — and in some cases, were part of the problem.
In higher education, we are the test bed for exchanging ideas and trying to find truth, and in large measure, we’ve been failing in really preparing students to do that. And not just students themselves, but having intellectual vibrancy on campus, so that you can bring communities in and take any topic and look at it from multiple sides, and not say, “You can’t come to my campus because you hold a view that I don’t agree with.” If you can’t do that on a college campus, where can you do it?
In higher education, we are the test bed for exchanging ideas and trying to find truth, and in large measure, we’ve been failing...
One of the priorities you have created for your presidency is to further the mission of the Brothers of Christian Instruction. How are you planning to accomplish this?
The Brothers of Christian Instruction are men that have a belief that their mission, their duty, is to teach and to go where no one else will go, to the periphery of society. Their focus is to go to where people need this transformational experience who can’t get it any other way, so about half of our students are underserved, below the poverty line. They just have not had the opportunities, but we’re also preparing them for life and we know that when they graduate, they need to have the capability to work with people of different cultures, different faith traditions, different levels of intellectual capability, different levels of physical capabilities, the full spectrum. Since last year, we’ve been a location for National Merit Scholars. Also, the Air Force has given us the green light to have our first students here from the Air Force ROTC, so it’s not just about students at one end of a spectrum, it’s about the whole spectrum.
To fulfill the Brothers’ mission of going where no one else will go and going to the periphery of society, what do you do to find the people who need help most?
Anything we can. You can start where you’re at and reverse engineer it and go backwards, so for instance, if we have someone from Cleveland, we can go into their high school, going to where they came from, so that’s one way to get you out there.
The other way is to go where the need might be. For instance, there’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Center in Naples, Florida, which is a nonprofit that provides K-12 education for the children of immigrants working in agriculture across southern Florida. We can imagine people who come there, they don’t speak English, they don’t have an education, and they brought their kids or they’re having kids. So we went down to Naples last year, and said, “This is the kind of student we’re looking for” and we can understand their circumstances and try to help them. Right now, we’ve got two students [from there] who are in the application stage.
What kinds of services does Walsh offer the underserved populations you bring into the school?
First we’ve created a food pantry for our commuter students, which we house inside campus ministry. We do it there so people can go and there’s no stigma and nobody sees them going in. They can put stuff in their backpack and just walk out and nobody thinks anything of it. We’re very mindful to make sure their dignity is maintained — it’s not about who they are, it’s about what they need.
The other thing is, as you can imagine, when it’s time for an internship or for a job interview, these students don’t have nice clothes, they don’t have a sports jacket, so next month we’re going to open up a clothing store for men and women, so they can go in there and get what they need. It’s staffed as a service project and all of our students are required to do service, so they help the students so they can go on that interview, go to that internship, and be a little dressed up in that professional way that we expect as a college graduate. We don’t want our students to not get an opportunity because the hiring manager thinks they didn’t dress right.
When you’re in the military, if you didn’t have a heart for service when you arrived, you’ve got one when you leave.
How do you feel your military service has helped you in your presidency?
The word service is it. When you’re in the military, if you didn’t have a heart for service when you arrived, you’ve got one when you leave. We’re an all-volunteer force, and you come in for whatever reasons you come in, and you only stay if you really believe that you’re making a difference. Even over the last 10 to 15 years, being in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s worth noting that re-enlistment rates were at record levels for people coming back from the war. That’s because they get over there — and I was over there myself — and when you turn on the water in a town that never had water, when you restore power to a hospital in a town that never had anything but a generator that only worked whenever they had fuel, when you open up a school and you see these kids now going to school every day, that’s a real sense of satisfaction that you’re making a difference.
At Walsh University, it’s in our mission statement to build leaders in service to others, and more precisely, to prepare men and women to serve others. My time in the military really brought out that service in my heart. I think as a college president, I have two jobs: I have the responsibility to protect the university, and I have the responsibility to serve each and every person here. This is a service job, period.
What do you hope to accomplish in your presidency after COVID has been resolved and life has gone back to normal?
I hope the institution is not important. Tim Collins is not important. It’s our graduates who are important: They’re the outcome, they are why we’re here. So I hope at the end, I have had something to do with creating an environment where we can prepare the leaders for tomorrow — so we don’t have to face that crisis of conviction and that crisis of leadership — men and women that will really serve others in finding the common good. For me, it’s not about building the next building, it’s about this environment to produce people who happily serve and understand that’s where you find happiness.
Sister Paula Marie Buley, IHM
Position: Sister Paula is the 12th president of Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire, a position she has held since 2011.
Career highlights: Vice President of Finance and Administration at Immaculata University from 1988 to 1997; Executive Vice President and Treasurer, at Mount St. Mary University from 1998 to 2004; and Executive Vice President of Administration at Seton Hall University from 2004 to 1998. Sister Paula’s professional service has included extensive experience in the development and implementation of comprehensive master plans and programs that support teaching and learning excellence. Her research interests include issues of organizational governance and leadership in higher education.
Education: B.A. from Immaculata University; M.B.A. from Villanova University; M.A.L.S. in Catholic Studies from Georgetown University; Ed.D. in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania.
Family: Born in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Sister Paula is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Fun Fact: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sister Paula has undertaken virtual walking challenges, including walking the Grand Canyon with her sister.
Q. Who are the people and what are the moments that led you to serve in Catholic higher education administration?
A. I was deeply influenced by my undergraduate experience. When I graduated, Immaculata University was a college for women and so the leadership roles were nearly exclusively held by women. I could see how I could combine the role of an educator and the role of an administrator in service of mission. I learned early on that both teaching and administration can serve the needs of students. The Sister who served as president at the time and hired me for my first administrative role was a great influence for me. She had a wonderful ability to blend the leadership styles of the people who reported to her. As she worked with her senior leadership, she was able to bring out the best in each person.
A lot has changed since Rivier University was founded by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary and Sister Madeleine of Jesus in 1933. What has stayed the same?
The founding spirit of Rivier has remained the same. I describe it as a formula of mission embracing opportunity. Sister Madeleine’s vision included providing an opportunity for the daughters of French-Canadian millworkers to earn a college degree and live lives of service. Catholic colleges for women were most often founded by well-educated women religious whose passion overcame any lack of resources. Today resources are more abundant, yet the mission and vision still inform aspirations to achieve more.
Demographics are changing, particularly in the Northwest and Midwest. I believe this has offered the opportunity for Catholic institutions to expand their sense of mission to adult learners and students under-represented in the professions.
While our mission remains very much the same, it has also been transformed with the increase in faculty, application of technology, and an understanding that learning is lifelong. Rivier has successfully expanded in the areas of graduate and online learning opportunities.
Demographics are changing, particularly in the Northwest and Midwest. I believe this has offered the opportunity for Catholic institutions to expand their sense of mission ...
How should Catholic colleges work to expand educational access in the future, especially smaller institutions that compete with institutions that offer tuition at a lower cost?
Those of us in higher education can be tempted by the “want to be” syndrome. It is an aspiration to be something other. Institutions can acquire an unreasonable amount of debt, award financial aid that creates a downward spiral of net income, or expand facilities in an unscalable way. Accessibility requires that an institution authentically follow its own mission and value serving the needs and aspirations of student they admit.
It is important for us to tell our stories and provide a concrete value proposition to families. While many public institutions’ published tuition rates are lower than private institutions, the addition of fees or an increased time to graduation are an important consideration for families as they make a decision based on full costs of attendance.
What should Catholic higher education be doing in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
The answer is rooted in the social tradition of the Catholic Church. The fundamental principle is that every human person is created by God and enjoys an equal claim to dignity. It also means that we need to explore what Vatican II called the “joys and hopes, the grief and suffering” of the entire world. Especially in a liberal arts context, students have the opportunity to “meet the other.”
Rivier students are challenged to ask and answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Today, we are experiencing a great divide in society. Answering this fundamental question and the knowledge that comes with it can foster empathy. By exploring the world, we find differences, but we also realize the similarity of aspirations.
New Hampshire hosts the first presidential primary election in the country. What are your hopes for the new Biden administration, in terms of higher education priorities and policy?
Nearly 60 percent of our New Hampshire students leave the state to pursue higher education. We would certainly want more students to experience the rich educational opportunities of their home state. The other unique element of New Hampshire is that less than 50 percent of high school graduates pursue higher education. We obviously need to expand access to postsecondary education and recognize higher education as a public good — not just an expense, but also an investment.
We obviously need to expand access to postsecondary education and recognize higher education as a public good — not just an expense, but also an investment.
You have served in a variety of senior roles at several Catholic universities. What do Catholic higher education institutions share, and what makes them each unique?
The diversity of institutions within Catholic higher education is distinctive in and of itself. On the national stage, there exists a continuum of institutions that repeatedly demonstrate the synergy of faith and reason in the role of discovery. Most schools take their distinctive culture from the founding charism of a religious order. Beginning in the 1960s and the transition to lay trustees, boards have incorporated the founding mission with their own wisdom and have expanded this vision through their own generosity.
Each institution with its unique charism, nevertheless, is really a representation of the Good News. Our institutions were founded to meet a particular moment in history and the values and genus has been their agility and adaptability to the “signs of the times.”
You bring more than 25 years of experience in higher education administration. What one lesson should future leaders bear in mind?
Leadership in higher education is about authenticity. If we seek to serve, everything else will fall into place. The challenge is to expand resources that enable a strong foundation while also taking risks necessary for a sustainable future. Service is a lens through which we see our students, faculty, staff, parents, and broader community. Today, it is tempting to substitute other words for service, words like compete, excel, expand, or win. If we were to ask our founders what they did and why they did it, I believe that service, meeting the needs of others, would be at the heart of the story.
Daniel J. Elsener
Position: Elsener is the 8th president of Marian University in Indianapolis, a position he has held since 2001.
Career highlights: Executive director of the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation and Project E Indiana, from 1999 to 2001; executive director, offices of Catholic education and stewardship and development for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, from 1992 to 1999; teacher, high school principal, and superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Wichita in Kansas, from 1977 to 1992. President Elsener serves on several community boards and executive committees including St. Vincent Health, Indiana Chamber, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Council of Presidents for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and Teach for America. Elsener is committed to improving educational access for all children, young adults, and adult learners, as well as better teacher and principal preparedness. In May 2014, President and Mrs. Elsener were recognized by Roncalli High School with the John Paul XXIII Spirit of Service award for their contribution to Catholic education in Indiana.
Education: B.S. in political science from Nebraska Wesleyan University (1977); M.S. in education administration from the University of Nebraska (1982); and other graduate-level work from Kansas State University, Washburn University, Wichita State University, Kansas Newman University, and Saint Meinrad.
Family: Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Elsener and his wife Beth have been married for 45 years and have nine children and 32 grandchildren.
Fun Fact: A typical Sunday after Mass at the Elsener’s includes enjoying the backyard pool with family, accompanied by good barbeque, side dishes, and all the fixings.
Q. You have significant experience working in Catholic education, first as a teacher and then moving into administration. Can you describe what led you to become president of a Catholic university?
A. All along the way, I had people who challenged me to think about my life in ways more than just for myself. I had mostly Dominican Sisters [as teachers] in grade school. I went to a great Catholic high school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Athletics was for me a good laboratory to discover what a generous effort is and why teamwork is superior to going it alone.
When I got to college, one of my favorite professors (and we couldn’t have been more different) took an interest in me and challenged me. He would bring me with him to teach in the state penitentiary. One day, driving back home, he said to me, “You know what you are, Daniel? You are a teacher.” In my first year of teaching, around Thanksgiving, the principal called me into his office. I thought that he was going to tell me to calm down, because I was a crazy young teacher, standing on top of tables and such, trying to get the attention of students. He told me instead that he saw leadership abilities in me, and that I should strive to become a principal. Six years later, I was a principal, and frankly I was underprepared for it, but I learned a lot.
Then I moved into stewardship and [learned] how to invite people to invest in Catholic education. Fundraising is all about mission. If you have a big idea, a bold idea, it’s actually easier than tinkering around the edge. One time when I visited Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame, he repeated his well-known advice, “Don’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” The main job of a leader is to blow a loud, certain, bold, and meaningful trumpet.
The main job of a leader is to blow a loud, certain, bold, and meaningful trumpet.
Before coming to Marian, I was running a foundation and it was really a comfortable job. For the first time, my wife and I had a meaningful savings account. The chair of the board [of Marian] asked me to consider the presidency and I promptly said no. At the time, Marian had one foot in the financial grave and the other on a banana peel. It had no line of credit, low enrollment, very little endowment, and all the rooves leaked. A couple of months later, after thinking and praying about it, I applied. But I never thought that they would select me. I’m just a worker in the vineyard, not a person with academic achievements of impressive pedigree. But here I am, 20 years later, with many generous partners and prayers of support.
Many Catholic universities have interesting founding stories. The early history of Marian includes the story of 24-year-old Sr. Theresa Hackelmeier, who traveled to Indiana from Vienna by herself after her companion turned back. Much has changed since 1851, but what continues to resonate about the Marian University story for you?
She [Hackelmeier] traveled the Erie Canal by herself and arrived here in the dead of January. She built orphanages, schools, and made a great contribution — all before she died at the very young age of 32. She was a nurse, but had no formal education beyond that. We have a lot of challenges today — political, economic, and in higher education — but if she could do all that, what can we accomplish by faith?
In the archives, there is evidence that in 1935, the Mother Superior who was also president of the college at the time informed the Sisters that they needed to slow down and just manage the things that they were doing. Six months later, there is further evidence that she pressed on to move the college to Indianapolis where it would grow, and that exemplified the Sisters’ courage to venture. The courage to venture — that still keeps us moving today.
The courage to venture — that still keeps us moving today.
How does the Franciscan charism of Marian influence the educational philosophy and operation of the university?
The Sisters were extremely generous. They understood this work as a calling, not a part-time thing. They set a standard of otherness and generous effort for us today. If you’ve studied Saint Francis at all, [you know] he really poured himself into becoming Christ-like. He was very much on the side of the poor and vulnerable. The Sisters embodied this for us at Marian. They set the pace and put it in our DNA. To get an excellent education to be superior to others is not the point. It’s actually antithetical to our goal here.
As we continue to feel the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is interesting to note that the major at Marian University with the highest number of students is nursing. There are also a large number of graduate students in health-related fields. What are your hopes for these graduates?
When I first arrived as president, they handed me a mission statement, and it was like two pages long. The strategic plan was like a phone book. I said that we needed to get this down to one page. What was Jesus? He was a teacher, healer, a person of prayer, and a leader. So we focused on that. We went big time into healing. I knew that there was a huge physician and nursing shortage.… We identified a need, we had a strategic partner, it fit our mission, and we found the resources. Nursing went from the outhouse to the penthouse: The nursing school was in the basement of the old convent and now is in an unbelievable new building. Nursing went from the outhouse to the penthouse: The nursing school was in the basement of the old convent and now is in an unbelievable new building. Our nursing faculty are skilled but they are also so faith-filled and have a great spirit.
Nursing went from the outhouse to the penthouse: The nursing school was in the basement of the old convent and now is in an unbelievable new building.
Marian University has a long history of serving both non-traditional and traditional students. How should Catholic schools work to expanding educational access in the future?
Retention is key. When we began, our retention was 59%. Now our first to second year rate is 95.5%. We hired the right people, a good team, and we asked what would really excellent service to our students look like. For our students who were on free or reduced lunch in high school, their retention rates are at or sometimes above our average rates. We also raised a lot of money to support this work, all with the spirit that we cannot let our brothers and sisters sit on the side of the road and walk by them. During the pandemic as the need increased, we raised even more money to support our students with sparse resources. A few years back, [one of those] students graduated and now they call her “Doctor.” That’s a long walk from free and reduced lunch in high school to becoming a physician, but I like to walk alongside people like that.
By any measure, your tenure as president has been successful. In 2009, Marian College became Marian University. In 2010, you announced plans to begin a college of osteopathic medicine. In 2016, you rebranded and reimagined your school of education. In 2017, you celebrated a new home for the school of business. In 2018, you opened new state-of-the-art facilities, including a dining commons, convention center, and health and fitness center. And, more recently, you announced the Witchger School of Engineering with the support of major donors. To what do you attribute this success?
All of this came from a lot of prayer, a really good board, and excellent faculty and staff. But somehow the Holy Spirit always helped us make really good decisions. We reclaimed our faith roots, boldly, imperfectly, too — it’s always a work in progress. But we are mission-driven. This doesn’t mean that all our faculty are Catholic or all our students our Catholic. It means that Jesus is our model. Politicians, CEOs, they all come and go, but Jesus as teacher stands the test of time. And we are on the journey to keep deepening our commitment.
Politicians, CEOs, they all come and go, but Jesus as teacher stands the test of time.
If you look at some of the things that we’ve been able to accomplish, there’s no other way of explaining it. When I said, “Let’s start a medical school,” some key leaders thought it to be a crazy idea. I reminded them that we are in the healing business. They told me that we couldn’t afford it and I knew that, but we could worry about that next. We need to begin with mission.
And people have been very generous. When I started, our endowment was just $2.9 million. So far this year, we have raised $46 million. They just recently put out a list of the top 25 gifts in Indiana, and you know that Notre Dame is also in Indiana, and we have three of the top 25 gifts. Our top gift is $24 million. But it is never about what the money will do for us; it’s always about how the money helps us better serve others.
What one lesson would you share with other leaders who are beginning their career in Catholic higher education?
Being a president isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. In higher education, they will kill you with committees. The Second Coming will arrive, and college presidents will be in some committee meeting. Trying to do many small things just tires people out. First ask: What are we called to do? Then claim the mission tightly, let your faith feed it, and have a business mind in pursuing it: Think big, start small, and move fast.
Father James P. Burns, IVD
Position: Father Burns is the 14th president of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a position he has held since 2018.
Career highlights: Dean of the Woods College of Advancing Studies and Summer Session at Boston College, from 2010 to 2018; Co-chair and associate professor of the Graduate School of Psychology at the University of Saint Thomas (Saint Paul, MN), from 1999 to 2010; assistant professor in counseling psychology and religion at Boston University from 2004 to 2010; Pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships at Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. Father Burns is an active researcher, accomplished author, and a licensed psychologist in Minnesota and Massachusetts. He sits on several professional boards and committees and is a doctoral program accreditor for the American Psychological Association.
Education: B.A. in accounting from the University of St. Thomas (1989); M.Div. in theology from Saint Paul Seminary’s School of Divinity (1992); M.A. in counseling psychology from the University of St. Thomas (1996); and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Northeastern University in Boston (2003).
Family: Born in Saint Paul’s West End, Father Burns is grateful to return to Minnesota to be closer to his father, brothers, sisters and their families (his mother passed away in 2013).
Fun Fact: Father Burns owned several quarter horses after he was ordained, and remarked that “being close to such a majestic, powerful animal puts our own strength into context.” He also notes, “There is a certain freedom from the day-to-day cares of the world that exists when you are horseback riding.”
Q. The end of the last academic year and the beginning of the 2020-21 year have been marked by the twin challenges of COVID-19 and a reckoning with racial injustice. The university’s Twin Cities Campus is not far from where George Floyd died, in fact. How has the unrest of these last months affected the university? How has it affected you as its leader?
Saint Mary’s has approached the pandemic through planning and communications that call on the entire community to be “steadfast and resilient” in the face of great uncertainty. We have been blessed that our undergraduate students were able to live and learn on campus this semester and our graduate and professional students advanced their studies with no interruption. While we have spent considerable time on operations during COVID-19, we have also been able to advance our strategic plan “Building a Future Full of Hope 2025.” The groundwork laid in the plan — including meeting students where they are, creating a variety of pathways for success, and strengthening our Lasallian Catholic heritage — allowed us to pivot in the face of the pandemic.
In terms of reckoning with racial justice, the clear and consistent call has been to address racial injustice by upholding, in all ways, the inherent dignity and worth of each person. To that end, faculty, staff, and students have engaged in heightened inquiry including moderated discussions, special Masses and other prayer experiences, outreach to local faith groups, and plans for a cabinet-level position, vice president for Inclusion and Human Dignity. Last month, we hosted a panel presentation on the role higher education and Christianity play in understanding race and the effects of racism in society. We see our efforts leading to action expressed through the prism of ethical leadership and service. We plan an ongoing thought and action series.
We see our efforts leading to action expressed through the prism of ethical leadership and service.
You are a member of the Voluntas Dei Institute. Can you explain what this is and how it influences your ministry and work as president?
As a secular institute, Voluntas Dei is unique because it is composed of clerics, married couples, and single men. It acts as a model of collaboration for work and ministry in the church. The ongoing formation activities and community gatherings are significant and sustaining for me. A defining feature of these times together is that members encourage and celebrate each other's talents.
Underlying our community life and influencing everything we do is what our founder called the “spirituality of the 3 fives.” First, there are the five modes of prayer and intimacy with Christ: the Divine Office and other prayers, scripture reading and reflection, Mass, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and Marian devotion. Second, we try to cultivate the attitude of Christ through: remaining in and remembering the presence of God, absence of destructive criticism, absence of complaint, being of service wherever needed, and being a peacemaker. Third, we practice five concrete acts of charity every day according to the manner of Christ. All of this may sound simple, but actually living the “3 fives” is challenging yet fulfilling.
Can you describe your path toward 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?
My pathway was made possible in large part by mentors who encouraged me and called out particular gifts in me. From the moment I began as a faculty member at St. Thomas, Dr. Skip Nolan, the dean of the school, and Father Dennis Dease, then president, encouraged me to take on leadership roles and responsibilities. I also had great opportunities at Boston University to not only begin my own research, but to oversee some new programs. Father William Leahy, SJ, president at Boston College, asked me to take on a director role focused on the role of mission for faculty. From there I was asked to become dean of the Woods College at BC.
Others saw and called out the leadership potential in me, but I also made myself available for these opportunities, learning things new to me, including enrollment management, fundraising, online education, and adult learning to name a few areas. At each stage, I worked hard to make good on what others saw in me.
On a foundational level, it is critical that a president is attuned to how a faith-based mission is reflected in the life of their university. How does the school understand its mission in light of a realized commitment to faith? How does the president come to appreciate that and act upon it? On a more granular level, necessary skills for senior administration include understanding advancement, enrollment management, finances, and the budget process. If a president hasn’t come up through the ranks of faculty, it is necessary to learn how faculties operate and understand shared governance.
On a foundational level, it is critical that a president is attuned to how a faith-based mission is reflected in the life of their university.
In your time as dean of the Woods College, Boston College’s once smallest school grew to become the fourth largest. The enrollment, retention, revenue, endowment, and academic reputation of the school all increased under your leadership. To what do you attribute this success?
I began with a tenacious drive to continue to advance the mission of the school, set by its namesake, Father James Woods, S.J. It required a deep dive to understand the school and the place it occupied in higher education. It helped to form partnerships with deans at other Jesuit schools to understand both what we shared in common and how the Woods College is unique. Some well-picked consultants helped me determine the school’s strategic plan. Industry alignment should not dictate academics, but knowing what students need and desire influences how academic institutions should respond. After establishing a foundation for growth, we hired the right people for the right positions. We had a good product driven by our desire to make good on our mission, which appealed to new students and faculty.
In your first year as president of Saint Mary’s, you began to implement a new strategic plan for the university. What are some of the key elements in effective strategic planning?
Strategic planning depends on the current status of the school. If a school is stable in terms of enrollment and finances, this presents one sort of trajectory. Saint Mary's presented a different trajectory since, like many schools, we were facing challenges and needed to critically examine our enrollment plan. In our first three months, we worked with an enrollment management advisor and created a plan to stabilize enrollment. Then we engaged many university stakeholders (about 1,400) and worked with leaders from other schools to think through key areas of strategic planning. Within eight months, our board of trustees unanimously approved the plan. Critical to strategic planning at Catholic universities is the question: what is the foundation of the strategic plan? At Saint Mary’s, our Lasallian Catholic mission drives everything we do.
The history of Saint Mary’s includes its founding in 1912 by the bishop of Winona and the transfer to the Christian Brothers in 1933. Both priests and brothers have served as president of the university. What has remained consistent about the mission? What has evolved over the years?
The mission of Saint Mary’s has always been to educate young people, especially young people who might not have access to education. This aligns with the example of Saint John Baptist de la Salle, so the transition from the Diocese to the Christian Brothers made sense. The ethos of educating at the margins was present from the founding of Saint Mary’s.
In many ways the mission continues, whether it is educating first-generation students, hosting high school students during the summer to prepare them for college, working with students who prefer a smaller, residential, liberal arts setting, or adult learners. Many students thrive in this environment as it can launch them into successful and meaningful careers or graduate school options. The mission, whether as a diocesan school or Lasallian, has been to provide high-quality education in an especially relational way.
The ethos of educating at the margins was present from the founding of Saint Mary’s.
Last year marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Saint John Baptist de la Salle. Saint Mary’s is one of six Lasallian colleges and universities in the United States. What are some distinct features of the Lasallian charism as it relates to education?
The phrase of the Brothers — teaching minds, touching hearts, and transforming lives — influences everything we do at Saint Mary’s. Many Lasallian schools are guided by the core principles of respect for all persons, quality education, inclusive community, concern for the poor and social justice, and faith in the presence of God. These principles focus our efforts on campus and speak to our place within the wider world of Catholic higher education and the communities where we serve. One of the things we have received from Saint La Salle is the 12 virtues of a good teacher. These virtues integrate well with our renewed focus on character and virtue education at Saint Mary’s.
Saint Mary’s has campuses in Winona, Rochester, and Minneapolis. In an era when collaboration among colleges and universities will become increasingly necessary (even among schools that are not geographically close), what challenges and opportunities do multiple campuses present?
One surprise when I came to Saint Mary’s was the distance between campuses. All three campuses are fully functioning and require care and attention from the administration. A goal of our strategic plan is to create a greater sense that we are one university with multiple locations, even though each campus has its own focus. Our challenge is maximizing the ability of the administration to function effectively and efficiently. We have already moved to a provost model to unite the academic enterprise. We have empowered campus deans to assume more leadership at their location as well as outward-facing responsibilities with the community.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
Student engagement, especially with the mission of our school. Students at Saint Mary’s, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are curious about what it means to pursue truth, live a good life, be of service, and grow as ethical leaders. I am regularly encouraged by the number of our students who show up for discussions, events, and a full range of opportunities to engage in and out of the classroom, both faith-related and other focused. In fact, visiting presenters have also recognized this and mentioned it to me. All of this is great in terms of fostering their intellectual growth, but I also think that it comes from the opening of their hearts with the eyes of faith and through formation.
Position: Irma Becerra, Ph.D., is the seventh president of Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, a position she has held since 2018.
Career highlights: Provost and chief academic officer at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens from 2014 to 2018; vice president, vice provost, entrepreneurship center director and professor at Florida International University from 1996 to 2014. Becerra founded Florida International University’s Knowledge Management Lab and led major projects as principal investigator at the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Air Force Research Lab. She was also a Sloan Scholar at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research. Becerra has authored four books and numerous journal articles in the areas of knowledge management and business intelligence. She is also the holder of four patents and copyrights.
Education: B.A. (1982) and M.A. (1986) in electrical engineering from the University of Miami; Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Florida International University (1994).
Family: A Cuban-born American, Becerra immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was an infant. She is the mother of two adult children, Anthony and Nicole.
Fun Fact: When she arrived at Marymount, Becerra was asked to join DC's Dancing Stars Gala. Her cha-cha won first prize and raised $70,000 for the university's Sister Majella Internship Fund – Watch the video!
Q. Who are some of the influential people and what are some of the significant moments that led you to serving as a university president?
A. I never thought that becoming a university president would be part of my journey. I began working as an engineer during my master’s degree program. It was a very technical job, coding up to 10 hours per day, and I really missed interacting with people. At the same time, I fell in love with adult education and I began to feel the vocation for academia. It is an amazing opportunity to discover new knowledge and open the eyes of students to see what is possible.
Many people contributed to my journey. My dissertation advisor convinced me to start my doctorate even though I had a six-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son at the time. I was teaching as an adjunct professor and he gave me confidence, encouraging me that I could complete the doctoral degree and still be a full-time mom. After I finished my doctorate, the dean of the college of business at Florida International University (FIU) hired me as an assistant professor and showed me the ropes of being a research professor. She also encouraged me in my first administrative position as the director of the entrepreneurship center.
Another dear friend and colleague at FIU became an amazing research partner. We worked on many research projects and wrote journal articles and books together. The provost at FIU saw leadership qualities in me and hired me as vice provost, which did prepare me to become a university president. Finally, I am grateful for the chair of the board of trustees at Marymount, who hired me to lead this school forward with a very ambitious strategic plan.
I loved my teaching job. My research was funded by NASA and I had 63 students in my lab. But when I entered administration, the center was facing some financial challenges, and it was my first experience of an academic turnaround. I realized the possibility of administration to have an even greater impact on students.
Marymount is tied for #1 for Most International Students and ranks #2 in Campus Ethnic Diversity among regional universities in the South, according to U.S. News and World Report. In a time when we have become more aware of the need, what advice would you offer other colleges regarding efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion?
These numbers do not happen by chance. If a school wants to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, the school must be intentional about it. For example, we appointed a dean at Marymount who is responsible for creating an environment in which students feel a sense of belonging at the university. A real sense of belonging is one of the most important things that we can do to retain students. We are proud of where we are, but we are not finished. Everyone needs to feel that they are included and belong. It is also important for us to provide sufficient role models, so we are working hard to diversify our staff, our faculty, and our trustees. We want our students to be able to see themselves represented in the community and leadership.
A real sense of belonging is one of the most important things that we can do to retain students.
“Knowledge management” seems to be a particularly apt area of expertise for a university president. What is it? And how does your scholarly interest in this area intersect with your leadership responsibilities?
Knowledge management is the study of how organizations create the processes, mechanisms, and technologies to allow employees to successfully discover, share, apply, and capture knowledge. It is a relatively new area of study, perhaps only 20 or 30 years old. Most of my work with NASA was helping them create an environment and culture to support the flow of knowledge.
I am a true believer in the value of the collective, so whenever we are making important decisions, I want to hear many perspectives — not only ones that I agree with. I strive to create a collaborative culture, not only among my cabinet members, but also their direct reports. There is real value in cognitive diversity, creating a group around the table with people who look at a specific situation from multiple angles. This has really helped us be successful with managing the pandemic. The “secret sauce” of managing during complex times is (1) creating a culture that supports listening to multiple perspectives and (2) not being afraid to change course if necessary. An important part of knowledge management is analyzing actions and learning lessons. Not every decision will be a good one. Reviewing decisions, learning lessons — if you do this, an organization can pivot and make better decisions in the future.
American Catholic higher education faces significant demographic changes in the future. You have been committed to expanding educational access throughout your career. What advice would you provide to other school leaders?
One of the most important things that we need to tackle is making Catholic education affordable. My children were educated in Catholic schools for both primary and secondary education, but for many of their classmates, the financial cost of Catholic higher education forced them to select other options. We need to be obsessively focused with on-time graduation rates. For us to make the model work for families, we need to promise them that we will help their son or daughter earn a very valuable degree in four years or less. If we can do this, there is a financial value to attend a Catholic college, even if there are less expensive alternatives. Here at Marymount, students are assigned an advisor to help them navigate the maze of higher education to ensure that they make good decisions and graduate on time.
Marymount is only five Metro stops from the nation’s capital. What are your hopes for higher education priorities and policy with the new administration?
I have two big hopes. First, we need to raise Pell grants significantly, perhaps by double or triple. More Pell opportunity would allow many students who are in need to attend schools like Marymount. Second, and I have written about this, we need to support our Dreamers. It is time to treat Dreamers with the dignity that they deserve. For many of them, the United States is the only home that they know, they are hard workers, they have incredible grades, and they deserve the opportunity to succeed. They too should have access to Pell grants and other need- and merit-based scholarships. The need for more funding for higher education is not only a federal issue, but also one that needs to be taken up at the state level.
It is time to treat Dreamers with the dignity that they deserve.
Much has changed since Marymount was founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in 1950. What remains consistent about the school’s mission?
We may have a renewed vision today, but our mission remains the same. We are a comprehensive Catholic university guided by the traditions of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Our core values of intellectual curiosity, service to others, and a global perspective have not changed. At Marymount, our education is underpinned by the liberal arts but promotes career preparation, what we call a practical education. Our top degrees are all very practical: nursing, physical therapy, forensic and legal psychology, fashion and interior design, business, and cybersecurity. Next fall we will be offering engineering for the first time. When Marymount was founded, it was to prepare women for work. Today, we are coeducational and we prepare both men and women for meaningful careers that reflect their passions and purpose. We are a student-centered learning community that focuses on educating the whole person, the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of every student, because we believe that they are made in the image of God.
Throughout its history, Marymount has expanded from a two-year college for women to a comprehensive coeducational university with 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students. In your first six months as president, you launched a new strategic plan. What is your vision for the future growth of Marymount?
The name of our strategic plan is Momentum. It is a bold plan that includes the goal of becoming a leading Catholic university that will be nationally recognized for innovation and commitment to student success, alumni achievement, and faculty and staff excellence. We have already improved our standing in regional rankings; we want to enter the national rankings.
The four pillars of the plan are embracing our distinctive identity, offering transformative experiences, fostering a vibrant community, and ensuring a sustainable future. What is really important is that we have identified very measurable objectives for success. We plan to grow our enrollment to 10,000 students over the next four years, improve our retention rates, increase our four-year graduation rate, become a leader among peers for impact practices, and achieve the status of an R2 university. It is a bold plan, but we feel very excited and proud about it, and we are already making progress toward our goals.
Position: Brennan O’Donnell is the 19th president of Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY, a position he has held since 2009.
Career highlights: Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, Fordham University, from 2004 to 2009; professor of English (1987-2004) and director of the university-wide honors program (1999-2004) at Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland). O’Donnell’s teaching and research interests focus on poetry, especially of the British Romantic period, and on religion and literature, particularly contemporary American Catholic writers. In 2013, he won the prestigious Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award, which recognizes scholars whose work has “made a lasting contribution to the art and science of versification.”
Education: B.A. in English (with highest distinction and honors) from the Pennsylvania State University (1981); M.A (1983) and Ph.D. (1987) in English and American literature and language from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Family: Born in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, O’Donnell is married to Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a poet and writer who teaches at Fordham University, where she serves as associate director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. They have three sons: Charles, Patrick, and Will.
Fun Fact: Before enrolling in college, O’Donnell worked as a professional musician, playing bass guitar in a rock band. He still plays occasionally with colleagues and (once a year) with the Manhattan College jazz band.
Q. What are some of the significant moments that led you to serving as a university president?
A. I started my first job at Loyola after having a pretty secular graduate student experience. At that point, I had not made any real connection between being Catholic and being a professor and literature scholar. At one of the first faculty meetings, a bunch of faculty members were grumbling that the Catholic identity of the school had been completely lost. Before I knew what I was about to say, especially as an untenured faculty member, I asked, “Are you serious?” As an outsider, I could see how much the Jesuit Catholic identity really underwrote everything that was going on there, especially in the very strong emphasis on the full development of the student, as well as a very strong core curriculum that really was core and included serious study of philosophy and theology.
Having not come from that experience, I found myself gravitating toward conversations about Catholic mission and identity. When a senior colleague (who really was an authority on Jesuit education) had to step aside from serving on the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education, he nominated me to take his place. And so, as a junior faculty member, I ended up at the table with an amazing group of people — Monika Hellwig, David O’Brien, and John Padberg, SJ, for example — and ended up editing the Seminar’s publication, Conversations, for six years. It was like getting a master’s degree in Jesuit Catholic higher education. Also during those years, Collegium was very formative for me in providing opportunities to explore the intersection of faith and intellectual life. Back at Loyola, I began to accept opportunities to play an increasingly broader role in university-wide initiatives that related to mission and identity.
From your experience, what would you say to someone who is aspiring to a leadership position in Catholic higher education?
Going back to my own story, I think all about the mission and identity. I did not set out to be a president so much as I wanted to make a difference in efforts to sustain Catholic higher education. For someone to be successful in leadership at a Catholic school, they really have to have a passion for the mission of that particular institution. And then it’s all about fit, especially what the institution needs at the time. You can do this with a background in education or law or business, as long as you have that core passion for the institution, its particular charism, history, and place in the world. Authentically telling the story and being passionately committed to the mission are essential when asking people to support the school.
As the world becomes more complex from a financial point of view, a president must be able to recognize his or her own limitations. No one can cover all the areas that need to be covered in a university. If you are a team builder, it doesn’t matter what door you enter. You just need to make sure that if area A is not your strong suit, you have to have someone who is really smart and experienced in area A.
As the world becomes more complex from a financial point of view, a president must be able to recognize his or her own limitations.
Manhattan College has a diverse student body. Of its 4,000 students, 31% are minorities (20% Hispanic), 33% are first-generation, and more than 60 countries are represented. In a time when we have become more aware of its need, what advice would you offer in regard to efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I’m afraid that I’m being a one note samba, but it keeps going back to mission. Back in the 1990s when we were talking about Catholic identity, there was a constant tension, with some people saying that we needed to become more diverse and others who wanted us to become more Catholic, as if these two were antithetical to each other. If you take Catholic incarnational theology seriously — and you really do believe that all human beings are imbued with dignity flowing from the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God — then you need to be committed to diversity and inclusion, not in spite of your Catholic identity, but because of your Catholic identity.
We are blessed at Manhattan College with the diversity of New York City. But whether you are here or elsewhere, you are not fulfilling what you are claiming to be as a Catholic institution if you do not fully embrace all who come to study as brothers and sisters. Speaking this way is distinct from sociological or political ways of speaking, and this is a gift to share. It’s not easy, and it’s not becoming any easier, but when people tell me that brotherhood and sisterhood paint too rosy of a picture, I kind of scratch my head. I don’t know about their family, but my family is not always easy.
There is a traditional liberal arts college at Manhattan College, but you also have graduate and pre-professional programs. Three-quarters of your students participate in an internship or field-based experience. As students and their families make decisions about the value of higher education, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, how important is it to offer a range of degree options and real-life experiences?
Manhattan College was founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers in 1853, the first university founded by the order. From its very beginning, it was intended as a place that combines the best of the liberal arts with the disciplines of a polytechnic institute. We were one of the first Catholic colleges in the country to have an engineering school and it continues to be one of our best-known schools nationally. As the dean of that school says when potential students ask why they should study engineering at Manhattan College, he says that it is because you are coming not just to an engineering school but to a university that will provide a comprehensive education. Here you will be challenged not only to be an excellent engineer but also to ask important questions about yourself as a human being and what it is that you will do as an engineer for your fellow human beings.
Post-pandemic, I think that certain technology for remote learning will continue to be useful. Our challenge is to use it thoughtfully, in the service of the deep interpersonal relationships that are the core of our approach to teaching and learning. We were forced to make a quick switch to remote learning back in March and since then, our faculty have been very creative to ensure that the care for each student is sustained through virtual learning. In Catholic higher education, I don’t think online learning will supplant face-to-face instruction, but I think that it can augment it, especially if it helps us broaden our offerings to nontraditional students.
In Catholic higher education, I don’t think online learning will supplant face-to-face instruction, but I think that it can augment it...
For someone who is unfamiliar with Saint John Baptist de La Salle, would you describe the Lasallian charism as it relates to Catholic higher education?
Having had experience in both Jesuit and Lasallian schools, [I feel] there is so much more in common among the charisms than differences. But if I were to point to something distinctive about the Lasallian charism that I find particularly sustaining, it’s the fact that we really do have a long tradition of excellence in teaching, pedagogy, and the psychology of our students. Unlike many of the religious orders, the Christian Brothers were founded to be teachers, and John Baptist de La Salle is the patron saint of teachers. Lasallian institutions honor and respect the sacred duty of teaching and the sacred bond between teacher and student. I frequently ask our faculty and students to consider what it means that our institution was founded by people who considered themselves brothers to one another. We take the notion of brotherhood and sisterhood very seriously at Manhattan College and people notice the very strongly united faculty culture when they come to campus.
As an active contributor to national and international conversations about the current state and future prospects of Catholic higher education, what is the single most significant challenge we face? And what is your proposed response?
We are not drawing on the same student body anymore. The demographics have shifted in a way that we can no longer count on the Catholic school pipeline. The sociological reality is that many families who attended Catholic schools are now sending their children to elite, non-Catholic [colleges]. Many new faculty members have not been formed by a personal experience of Catholic education. But all of this is both a challenge and an opportunity. The way forward is being as authentically Catholic as we can, which means authentically inviting anyone of good will into this project.
As a professor of English, what do you recommend as one book that every college student should read before they graduate and why?
When I was a sophomore, I remember reading Moby Dick, and as soon as I got to the last page, page 500 or something, I immediately started reading it over. There’s not one particular book that I think students need to love. I am happy if students find a book that they love deeply enough to carry with them through their life. The only criteria is that the book delights them as much for how it is written as for what it says. I’ve taught healthy doses of Shakespeare over the years. You can’t reduce Shakespeare to a plot summary of what happened. It’s all about the language and [helping] students to get excited about how things are said.
William K. Thierfelder
Position: Bill Thierfelder is the 20th president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, a position he has held since 2004.
Career highlights: Prior to his appointment as president, Thierfelder led York Barbell Company, providing sales, marketing, product development, and logistical services to mass merchants and major sporting goods retailers throughout the United States and Europe; was principal in Joyner Sports Medicine Institute, a physical therapy corporation; and served as national director of sports science at NovaCare, as well as executive director of the Player Management Group, a sports representation company for professional athletes in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. He has also helped thousands of athletes, including over a hundred at the Olympic and professional levels, achieve dramatic improvements in their athletic performances.
Education: B.A. in Psychology from University of Maryland, College Park (1982); M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Sports Psychology and Human Movement from Boston University (1989). Thierfelder is also a licensed psychologist.
Family: Born and raised in New York City, Thierfelder currently lives just outside Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife, Mary, and their ten children.
Fun Fact: Thierfelder is a former NCAA Division I Coach, Olympian (did not compete due to injury), National Champion, and two-time All-American from the University of Maryland. He participated in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon and was a medalist at the 1981 U.S. Track & Field Indoor National Championship.
Q. How did you find your way to leadership in Catholic higher education?
A. It's a story of divine providence, because becoming a college president is the last thing in the world that I would have ever thought myself doing. But one day, as I was reading an article, out of the corner of my eye, I caught the word Benedictine, and I've always had a real affinity for Saint Benedict. It was an advertisement for the president of Belmont Abbey College, a school that I had never heard of before this. For some reason, I cut out the advertisement, something that I'd never done before.
Over the next five days, the advertisement kept turning up. I'd see it in a folder or find it in one of my pockets. So, finally, and I don't know why, but I felt compelled to call the number. I told the man who answered the phone, “I'm not looking for a job. But can you tell me more about this position?” After 45 minutes on the phone, he tells me that I am the person for the job and that he needs to meet me two days from now. I tell him that I can't because I have a meeting in Pittsburgh on that day. In the next breath, he tells me that he will also be flying through Pittsburgh on the same day and that we can meet in the airport. After two hours of conversation in the airport, he asks me if I am still interested in the position, and I could hear myself say “yes,” even though I have no idea of why I'm saying it. I placed it in God’s hands, and after almost forgetting about it, found myself and my wife Mary visiting the campus six weeks later. We stopped in the Basilica before meeting anyone because we were really praying for discernment. We experienced such a sense of peace there. We had a beautiful life in Hershey, Pennsylvania. We had eight children at the time, I was president of a company, we lived in a beautiful house, we had good neighbors, a good parish — the whole thing. There was every reason to stay in PA but when we visited Belmont Abbey College, it felt like we were meant to be there. All I can say is that almost 17 years later, I'm still feeling the call, except that it's exponentially stronger today than when I first arrived.
Almost 17 years later, I'm still feeling the call, except that it's exponentially stronger today than when I first arrived.
What advice would you give other presidents of Catholic colleges and universities that want to hire for mission?
I was upfront and very clear with the Board of Trustees when I arrived. I said “yes” to this position because it is a Catholic college, because it is a Benedictine college with a Benedictine monastery. I had no desire to run a small, secular, liberal arts college. Every corporation, any secular business, has a mission. The only way you can build a business or anything else is if the people working there believe in the mission. Take the University of Chicago, for example. If you want to study economics there, you have to accept that they have a certain philosophy of economics. If you don’t agree with it, you go someplace else, but no one would expect the University of Chicago to change their viewpoint because you have arrived.
When I started at Belmont Abbey College, our enrollment was really low. Very quickly, we doubled our enrollment and we had to hire a lot of new people. I created a video for prospective employees that spoke about our history, mission and vision, and Catholic identity. I met with every candidate and asked them about why they wanted to work here. The Benedictine charism is one of hospitality. We welcome everyone, regardless of their background, in-persona Christi, as Christ. It is because of our deeply held religious beliefs that we can welcome people from all faith backgrounds while remaining a steadfastly Catholic college. In fact, our welcome of every person is predicated on our incredible devotion to Jesus Christ.
We are conducting this interview in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. You have recommended a prudent, practical, and reasonable response. Can you describe life at Belmont Abbey College today?
I made it clear from the beginning that we were going to hold classes in-person. Our faculty, staff, and coaches responded in the most charitable and extraordinary ways. The administrators here are incredibly mission-driven, intelligent, skilled, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and completely trustworthy individuals. Right now, we have zero positive cases. To do what we have done is a tribute to the excellence and virtue of the people here — faculty, staff, coaches, students, monks, even the volunteers who helped pack and deliver meals— and their willingness to sacrifice for others. Prudence tells us to be reasonable, to examine the situation carefully, to take our obligations seriously, and then to make a prayerful, prudential judgement.
Prudence tells us to be reasonable, to examine the situation carefully, to take our obligations seriously, and then to make a prayerful, prudential judgement.
Belmont Abbey College has set new records for the number of incoming students, total enrollment, and retention rates. To what do you credit this trend?
When people come to visit, whatever their faith, whatever their background, it’s pretty clear that everything we do here is so that God is glorified in all things. On the practical side, we have a very high acceptance rate into the medical fields. I would put our honors college on par with the best in the country. We have new majors, we have a stunning campus, we are 15 minutes from uptown Charlotte, the weather here is great, and there is a real sense of southern hospitality. Everyone says this, but the welcome here is profound.
At its essence, I’d say that it’s about real presence, real relationships with each other. Students meet our faculty and they fall in love right from the start. I know you can make friendships anywhere, but the friendships that are formed here are Aristotle’s friendships — those rare, long-lasting friendships where you only care about the other’s good. If you have one friendship like this, you are blessed. Our graduates leave with many, and it’s a remarkable thing to witness.
You have written about the importance of sport. Plato and Aristotle wrote about sport. Saint Paul used athletic imagery. What is the relationship among sport, faith, and education?
All the greatest minds had something to say about this thing called play. Play is essential to who we are as human beings. Every human being since the beginning of time has played. Play — and sport as the competitive form of play — has the potential to lift us up to contemplate the highest things. Normally, we only think great works of art, cathedrals, or nature can do this, but I’ll give you an example. When I watched David Rudisha break the 800-meter world record at the London Olympics, and it was almost unbelievable (the beauty of that man running, his form, courage, focus, determination, perseverance). What came to my mind was that God made this man in his image and likeness.
Unfortunately, this is not always what we see in sports. We see the greed, the vices, and then we make the mistake of labeling sport or play as the problem. When I first started talking to coaches about sport and virtue, some feared that they were going to have to give up performing at a high level. Not so! Here at Belmont Abbey College, we are competing at a really high level. Many of our teams are nationally ranked and yet we focus on the development of the whole person in body, mind, and soul. We have very large rosters but we make it a great experience for the student athletes, because our coaches are teachers and mentors first.
Where better than at a Catholic college to show what sport can be? This is not about non-competitive play, where everyone wins a trophy and says a prayer afterwards. Sport properly directed is always highly competitive, virtue forming, and ultimately done for the service and praise of our Creator. If you take two world-class athletes of equal ability, one filled with virtue and one filled with vice, I guarantee you that the one with virtue is going to out-perform the one with vice every time.
Where better than at a Catholic college to show what sport can be?
With all the challenges that presidents of Catholic colleges and universities face, what keeps you hopeful about the future of Catholic higher education?
We know how the story ends, and that gives me a lot of hope. We just don’t know everything in between. I am sure that it will involve a cross. I don’t know how big it will be, but I do know how the story ends.
And I go back to real presence. I’ve always believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But until a conversation about technology a few years ago, I had never considered our real presence. My aha moment was, “There is no substitute for real presence.” How to integrate technology and real presence is the next frontier in higher education, and Catholic colleges and universities should be blazing the trail forward.
Linda M. LeMura
Position: Linda LeMura is the 14th president of Le Moyne College, a position she has held since 2014.
Career highlights: With advanced degrees in applied physiology, LeMura is a highly published researcher in the field of pediatric obesity. She is also the first laywoman to be appointed president of a Jesuit college or university in the United States.
Education: Niagara University (B.S.); Syracuse University (M.S., Ph.D.)
Family: Husband Dr. Lawrence Tanner is a professor of geobiology and environmental science; daughter Emily is a graduate of Fordham and Syracuse universities.
Fun Fact: While an undergrad at Niagara University, LeMura played point guard for the basketball team.
Q: You were previously a professor and researcher, so what made you want to switch over to administration?
A: Originally, I was asked to help administer the college of arts and sciences on a temporary basis. After that, it was recommended that it would be good for me to do an administrative fellowship. This occurred while I was a professor in Pennsylvania. After doing the fellowship, I really enjoyed doing creative work outside my discipline. At the same time, I loved being a professor and having a graduate program and graduate students, but I found the creativity of working with different departments really intriguing.
Do you feel you have more creativity now in your work than you did as a teacher and researcher?
I think I had tremendous opportunity to be creative in the classroom and in the laboratory, but going beyond my own discipline, I definitely have more latitude now to be creative and experimental and to encourage those things at a time when innovation is absolutely key to sustainability and success.
Speaking of sustainability, how is Le Moyne College handling these times of COVID-19?
Thankfully, we entered this unprecedented stress from a position of strength. For a young school, we have been very disciplined in terms of how we budget and how careful we are in the distribution of resources. A careful cultivation of our alumni and donors allowed us to grow our endowment such that our financial ratios were solid pre-COVID. During COVID, we know that we have a cushion, if you will, but we can’t take that for granted. We still have to be meticulous with how we manage our resources and prepare the campus not only financially and economically, but also psychologically, for unprecedented shocks to the system. We place a premium on flexibility in planning, so not to set a strategic plan in stone. We have shortened the strategic planning cycle to ensure that there is a measure of flexibility in all of the initiatives that could change on a dime due to intense volatility in the world around us.
We still have to be meticulous with how we manage our resources and prepare the campus not only financially and economically, but also psychologically, for unprecedented shocks to the system.
What has been your approach to reopening?
We moved online in March and placed all of our summer sessions online. We opened [early] for our freshman this past August, to get them acclimated for a two-week period before the upperclass students arrived on campus. We are teaching face to face, hybrid, and online courses. All of our students will be coming to us on campus unless they have a preexisting condition.
How is the Le Moyne College community coping with all this?
We worked since March on a reopening plan and given the size of our campus, and the nature of the community that has been cultivated since the college’s founding, if anyone could pull this off, we believed that we could. We also have very good relationships in the community with our neighbors, with the city, with the county, and with [nearby] Syracuse University. We’re all working together and helping one another through this unprecedented stress. And essentially, we’ve challenged our students to go down in history as one of the greatest generations of all time and really emphasize behavior on behalf of the greater good. It’s early yet though, admittedly, but so far, so good.
...We’ve challenged our students to go down in history as one of the greatest generations of all time and really emphasize behavior on behalf of the greater good.
Do you feel like Catholic colleges are in a better position to handle something potentially catastrophic coming out of the blue, like the current pandemic?
I do. I say that because we have relied heavily on the tenets of Catholic social teaching to help serve as a guidepost, and in our case, the teachings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. In terms of Catholic social teaching, we concluded that given the number of Pell and first-generation students — roughly 30 percent — that we owed it to them, as well as to the community in which we reside, to try to open if the data made sense. And given that in our community, the numbers [of positive cases] are incredibly low, we thought that the science allowed us to open safely. Insofar as our Jesuit charism is concerned, we thought long and hard, using the principles of Jesuit discernment, to weigh all of the different options. We wanted to be responsive to different groups on campus. Since we concluded we could accommodate a wide range of individual teaching preferences, we decided we should re-open the campus.
I imagine your health care background has played a huge role in your decision making, as well.
I think it helped a lot. I was able to have epidemiological conversations with the health scientists on our campus. We have a comfort with data and data analytics, and a good grounding in epidemiology. The consultations allowed us to reach a good conclusion.
How has being the first lay woman president at a Jesuit institution influenced the way you handle your position?
I think that as the first lay woman in Jesuit education, I’ve been able to bring in my experiences not only as a professor and a department chair, a dean, a provost, but also as a mother, as a parent. It has helped me tremendously in communicating with other families that I understand the anxieties as well as the exhilaration that’s associated with selecting a college, and thriving as a result of that choice. Also, with regard to how I interact with students, it’s a very comfortable place for me because I love being around young people and I think I understand and deeply appreciate the developmental differences from the vantage point of being a mom.
How has being a first-generation college student helped you meet the needs of other first-gens, and students in general on campus?
This is one of the things that attracted me to Le Moyne as the youngest Jesuit institution in the United States. The youthfulness of the institution is palpable and I think it serves first-generation students exceptionally well. I have a sense, because of my own experience, of what students need to do to be successful. Students need to have an array of educational experiences, and at the same time, colleges need to be willing to try new things. The combination of being a youthful Jesuit institution, with the intellectual architecture of enduring a 500-year-old tradition, puts us in a unique entrepreneurial space.
Do you think if Le Moyne was older, you wouldn’t have as much flexibility as you do?
Yes, I do think that some of the more venerable institutions, as wonderful as they are, sometimes have to move mountains, so to speak, to make changes, to try new things. That’s not always the case, of course, but we’re not bound by those conventions or by the desire to be highly elite while constantly worrying about how status impacts rankings. Naturally, we’re concerned about excellence and we more than hold our own, but there’s still a youthful, entrepreneurial spirit that I think was born when the college was founded — it was the first [Jesuit college] to open as co-ed for instance. It’s always been a part of the Le Moyne experience to be different, to try new things, and to learn and not to be afraid to fail.
It’s always been a part of the Le Moyne experience to be different, to try new things, and to learn and not to be afraid to fail.
You’ve been quoted as saying “education is an act of faith.” What have you done as president to earn the faith of the Le Moyne community?
As you well know, the academy has a reputation for moving at a glacial pace and yet we’re all, every one of us, whether we’re venerable or not, sitting on tectonic plates in higher education. The shifting that’s occurring could be perceived to be frightening or threatening, but I view it as exhilarating, the chance to rewrite the script in terms of how to offer a high-quality education. I love exploring new partnerships, I love to experiment with new pedagogies, I love to mix up the revenue streams of the institution, to keep it fresh and always forward looking. Naturally, there are parts of the academy that we believe fervently are so strong and so important that we don’t want to change them, for example, offering a liberal arts education. But how we do that can be very creative and done in new and exciting ways in order to continue to be relevant to different generations over time. So, in the case of Jesuit education, originally there was something called the Ratio Studiorum, or Plan of Studies. It was a very rigorous, unambiguous plan where you had to study geometry and astronomy and Latin and Greek. We don’t do that today, and yet Jesuit education continues to endure. Why? Because by its very nature, it was entrepreneurial. And that’s what I love about this form of education.
You’ve accomplished quite a bit since you’ve been president, so what would you say is your most important accomplishment?
Well, we’re closing in on our capital campaign, which was record-breaking for the college. That’s lovely, but I think more to the point, my most important accomplishment was to reassure our faculty colleagues that change is not the enemy and that entrepreneurial thinking is the liberal arts and sciences on steroids. I love to think in unconventional ways, tapping into community and institutional partners with an eye toward collaboration to serve our students. I think that’s a major and important shift for Le Moyne, and for all institutions in higher learning.
Marc M. Camille
Position: Marc Camille is the 14th president of Albertus Magnus College, founded by the Dominican Sisters of Peace in 1925.
Career Highlights: Currently in his fourth year as president, Marc has 31 years of higher education experience, including two decades in senior leadership positions at Catholic colleges and universities. Prior to his presidency, Marc’s career included extensive leadership experience in college admissions, financial aid, institutional research, and marketing and communications.
Family: Two children, Katie, 23, an alumna of Loyola University Maryland; and Ryan, 21, a senior at College of the Holy Cross
Fun Facts: Marc once appeared on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” show. He also hit a homerun at the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards Stadium during a corporate sponsorship event.
Q: How is Albertus Magnus College handling COVID-19?
A: For the fall, the start of the college’s 95th anniversary, we’ve welcomed our students back to campus. We’re in Connecticut and comparatively speaking, Connecticut is in pretty good shape as a state. Most institutions in the state are conducting classes in some combination of face-to-face and hybrid modalities. The majority of our 1,500+ students come from Connecticut. At the traditional-aged undergraduate level, we have roughly 550 students and those classes will be hybrid — including face-to-face, but in order to de-densify classroom sizes for social distancing, if a class is Monday and Wednesday, half of the students will be in the classroom on Monday and the other half will participate virtually, and then it will flip on Wednesday.
In addition, we have approximately 1,000 adult learners at undergraduate and graduate levels and the vast majority of those courses are online. The Good Lord willing and knock on wood, this semester will go smoothly, and our plan, like many colleges across the country, is to be done with our face-to-face learning right before Thanksgiving, and then our residential students will head home, finishing the last couple weeks online. At this point, our plan is to not have students return to campus until the spring semester begins, likely in January.
This fall’s class is going to be right around 200 students, so on the one hand, it’s 20 percent smaller than last year, however, it will still be the second-largest class in the college’s history.
What effect has COVID-19 had on enrollment?
Well, it’s had a negative impact for sure, and it’s brought what I believe will be a temporary pause to the enrollment growth we’ve been achieving. In the fall of 2019, we enrolled the largest incoming class in the college’s history. To put context on that for you, the year I arrived, fall of 2017, the incoming class size was about 120 and the incoming class last fall was 250. So in three years’ time, we doubled the size of the class. This fall’s class is going to be right around 200 students, so on the one hand, it’s 20 percent smaller than last year, however, it will still be the second-largest class in the college’s history. We originally budgeted to replicate the fall 2019 class size, and we were on pace in January/February to set an all-time record for applications, which we did. Things were trending exactly the way we wanted them to going into March, and then the pandemic hit, requiring us to adjust our original projections and forecasts. Considering all the challenges associated with the pandemic, to actually enroll 200 new students is a testament to our enrollment management teams and faculty and staff across the campus, and frankly I think it continues to affirm the relevancy, appeal, and value of an Albertus Magnus College, Catholic, and Dominican education. Indeed, the pandemic is seriously impacting our budget and ability to meet expenses, while fulfilling our education mission. But at the same time, as a community and institution, we have not been as negatively impacted as might be the case elsewhere.
What advice would you give to colleges that have been hit really hard by this?
Obviously that’s going to be contextualized for each individual institution, and it has to begin with prioritizing the safety, health, and well-being of students, faculty, and staff. But I think for those of us that are tuition-dependent — and frankly that’s most colleges in this country, especially the Catholic schools with very few exceptions — the advice is you have to do what you can to try to maximize enrollments and still communicate value. I think that’s what we tried to do here. We did arguably a very good job last spring of shifting on a dime to online learning, but because in our adult space, we do so much of that to begin with, the change for us was maybe a little less traumatic than it was for other colleges that teach primarily in-person classes. We did that last spring and so all summer long, our planning has been around how do we deliver on an Albertus Magnus College education in this changed, pandemic-impacted environment — how do we effectively infuse technology into our teaching? How do we take what were face-to-face courses and translate that into a hybrid model or a virtual model and still communicate value?
You’ve written about ethics and strategic enrollment management. From your perspective, what does ethical enrollment management mean and how do you implement it?
Ethical strategic enrollment management means that you keep the students, and their best interests, front and center in your strategy and in your planning and in your tactics. For example, if enrollment managers become entirely data-driven, a predictive model that prioritizes standardized test scores or net revenue might suggest not even considering admitting a particular student or group of students. While the science behind the model indicates a preferred outcome, if you bring the human element into the equation, which models obviously have trouble accounting for, maybe there’s something about a student where there’s grit and academic gifts that aren’t accounted for in the model, or perhaps they have other financial resources enabling them to pay.
I’m just trying to paint a picture of some of the challenging decisions that enrollment managers face. And by the way, I’m not sure that there’s a tougher job on the college campus than to be the chief enrollment officer, as they’re often tasked with meeting enrollment objectives that have competing priorities, such as, “We want to enroll more students from the lowest socioeconomic statuses, so that we make our education available to students regardless of need, but we don’t want to spend more in institutional financial aid.” Enrollment managers face scenarios like this all the time. In that example, an enrollment manager grounded in values or ethics is going to see the tensions inherent in those types of competing priorities and will make sure that leadership is aware: “Hey, if we can’t spend more on financial aid, we’re not going to be able to achieve that objective” or “If we’re not going to fund students at sufficient levels, they might not be able to afford four years with us.”
I’m not sure that there’s a tougher job on the college campus than to be the chief enrollment officer, as they’re often tasked with meeting enrollment objectives that have competing priorities...
Do you feel that the approach to enrollment at a Catholic institution is different from the approach at a secular one?
I do, or maybe I’ll suggest it probably should be. On the one hand, the art and science of going out and recruiting students, there will be commonalities in strategies that look very similar [at different types of institutions], but at a Catholic institution, there’s a Catholic identity and mission element at play that is likely not at play at a secular, nonsectarian institution. I’ve always argued and really believed that at the highest levels, mission informs everything that we do, it inspires it. Then, market has to be overlaid against mission — and if you want to build out that equation, then enrollment managers also need to focus on margin, meeting net revenue goals. But there’s no question in my mind that enrollment management at Albertus Magnus College is likely different than it is at the local state institution, if for no other reason than we have our Dominican mission and Catholic identity informing all we do.
How do you feel the years you spent in admissions have shaped the way you handle your presidency?
The first thing that comes to mind in the context of our enrollment management discussion is, I think I have a pretty good appreciation for the pressures faced by those who work in enrollment management here. I’ve lived in their world and I think — and I hope our vice president would concur on this— that’s a good thing. On one hand, I appreciate the pressures of the work that she and her teams undertake, and I certainly inform it from a strategy perspective at the highest levels. But I also realize I am not the vice president for enrollment management.
The other thing is, I started 31 years ago as an admissions counselor and I worked for a college that doesn’t exist today, Mount Ida College. At the time, it was a private college that had just gone from two-year to four-year and was basically open admission and so I, out of necessity during my four years there, really learned the importance of work ethic. I just say that because that shaped me from day one, and so I think that number one, I’m all in on this job. I don’t know any other way. I have very high expectations of all of our community members, but particularly those who report directly to me. You don’t do anything other than with your best effort, and if at the end of the day you can say that you gave it your best, even if it didn’t achieve the result you wanted, at least you can go to sleep and say, it’s not like I left something on the table.
There is no more important work than mission integration and deepening our engagement with our Dominican tradition and mission.
How has your presidency at Albertus Magnus College been a reflection of the four pillars of the Dominican tradition (study, prayer, community, and service)?
The four pillars speak to our Dominican mission and Catholic identity, and our mission dates to 1925, the year the college was founded by the Dominican Sisters. Everything we do here emanates from that mission. Our chief mission officer is a Dominican Sister who reports directly to me. There is no more important work than mission integration and deepening our engagement with our Dominican tradition and mission. During my tenure, we’ve been intentional in increasing the number of Sisters on campus, and we’ve brought back a chaplain, who is a Dominican Friar. We’re doing more programming around mission than we were doing, and from my first days as president, I’ve made it very clear that first and foremost, we are a Catholic, Dominican institution. That is a differentiator, it’s who we are, it’s why we’re different, and it’s not only valuable in the marketplace, it’s needed in the marketplace, because at our core, we are a values-based institution. Our Catholicity will resonate with our Catholic and Christian students. But our student body also includes Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students, and I think part of why we are as diverse as we are, and part of why students are attracted to and feel comfortable at Albertus Magnus College, is because our mission calls us to embrace you for who you are, respect the dignity of you as an individual human being, and give you opportunities to explore and deepen your faith and spirituality. Fostering and championing the four pillars are a real priority for me.