@ the Helm Archive
Mary C. Finger, Ed.D.
Position: Mary Finger is the 10th president of Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., a position she has held since 2014.
Career highlights: Senior vice president for advancement at DePaul University from 2004 to 2014; vice president for planning and institutional advancement at Mount Mary College (now University) in Milwaukee from 1995 to 2004; director of development for the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University; and acting executive director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Foundation. Mary is active in the community on the regional, state, and national levels as a member of the boards of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pennsylvania Economy League of Pittsburgh, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Education: B.A. in journalism from Marquette University; M.A. in education from Mount Mary College; Ed.D. in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.
Family: Born in Chicago, Mary is married to David Paris, the executive editor of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, and has one daughter and two grandchildren.
Fun Fact: Mary enjoys running and has competed in a 5k run as well as the Pittsburgh Marathon as part of a relay team with faculty, staff, and students of Seton Hill. She admits, however, that she was the slowest member of the team.
Q. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted on March 27, 2020, during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Finger was first asked about Seton Hill’s response to the crisis.]
A. I’ve had calls with other university presidents and we all realize that there was no way for any school to be fully prepared for something of this magnitude. But we also see that higher education really was ahead of the curve in comparison to other institutions, in terms of moving online, practicing social distancing, and adjusting our typical routines to ensure the safety of our students, faculty, and staff.
This isn’t really something that any of us in leadership could have trained for, so we had to rely on the overall commitment to serve our students as we made decisions.
This isn’t really something that any of us in leadership could have trained for, so we had to rely on the overall commitment to serve our students as we made decisions. Now schools must consider how to continue to serve students in the best way, given these new circumstances. We were fortunate to be at the forefront of technology at Seton Hill, having been an Apple Distinguished School for the past eight years and the first school in the country to give every student an iPad and MacBook. About 75 percent of our faculty have been trained in online instruction, so they were prepared for the transition.
As a Catholic institution, we have also made sure that Mass is available online, as well as electronic “Mission Moments” and virtual service opportunities. I’ve been really amazed by how generously, promptly, and creatively everybody at Seton Hill has responded to this crisis.
What were some of the significant moments that led to your career in higher education administration? As someone with considerable background in advancement work, what advice would you offer to new presidents who are not as experienced in this area?
I went into my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania not really thinking that I would become a college president. By the time I graduated, I was more interested in the possibility, but I would not have accepted just any presidency. When the opportunity at Seton Hill presented itself, I had been working at DePaul University — a Vincentian institution — for almost a decade. I felt an immediate connection to Seton Hill, in part, because the charism of the Sisters of Charity is aligned with St. Vincent de Paul. Mother Seton chose the Vincentian way in her ministry. I quickly felt at home at Seton Hill because it is such a mission-centered place and would allow me to continue to support the work so often seen in Catholic institutions of higher education – to provide opportunities, especially for low-income populations, students of color, and first-generation students.
Fundraising is as much art as it is science. The primary responsibility of the president is to communicate about what is happening on campus, articulate a sense of vision, and create a strategic plan. The president needs to be supported by a strong fundraising operation, professionals who really know the science of fundraising and can determine how the president should spend their time most effectively. The president is the chief spokesperson, but it’s not necessarily the president’s job to know the sophisticated science of fundraising. My recommendation is to make sure you have a good fundraising team and follow their lead.
The Sisters of Charity founded Seton Hill in 1918. What has remained consistent about the mission? What are some ways that schools can keep their mission vibrant?
The primary mission of the Sisters of Charity has always been education. Mother Seton was an educator and is commonly regarded as the foundress of Catholic education in the United States.
Having been impressed by the strong Vincentian formation program at DePaul, when I arrived at Seton Hill, I asked, “What is our formation program for faculty, staff and trustees?” Our campus is next to the Motherhouse, and we have a high level of interaction with members of the order, but there are only a few sisters who presently work at the university, so keeping the mission alive is very important, and it is the responsibility of everyone – not only the Sisters of Charity. Our mission committee worked to expand existing programming and design new programs centered on the mission and history of the university. For example, for the past 20 years, Seton Hill has had a very effective program infusing Catholic Social Teaching throughout the curriculum. Our mission committee is currently looking at designing a similar program in regard to Catholic Intellectual Tradition. We also partnered with other institutions that share the Setonian charism to develop a formation program for faculty and staff. We know Mother Seton as a saint, icon, foundress, but my work as president is how to interpret her example in a way that influences our day-to-day reality here on campus.
We know Mother Seton as a saint, icon, foundress, but my work as president is how to interpret her example in a way that influences our day-to-day reality here on campus.
Since you became president, Seton Hill formed an Office of Academic Innovation and Planning and began offering new programs, including nursing, cybersecurity, and data analytics, and expanded the adult learning program. What opportunities does the competitive landscape of American higher education present to schools, in terms of renewed academic offerings?
Typically, academic programs arise from the faculty, and they are asked to create these programs on top of everything else they do. This new office supports the academic program development process with resources for research, marketing, and curriculum development. The office looks at national and regional trends and draws on input from corporate and non-profit leaders who serve as advisers to identify new and changing fields of employment. Having an office and resources devoted to the process has shortened the time to market for new academic programs from 24-36 months to 12 or 9 months.
Seton Hill has formed a partnership with Salus University to offer articulation agreements for pre-optometry and pre-audiology. As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what other opportunities for collaboration do you see?
Seton Hill has many collaborative partnerships. We have a pathway program with Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), the largest medical school in the country, for students interested in medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. In fact, LECOM has one of its four medical school sites on our campus. We also have pathway programs with the University of Pittsburgh for engineering and Duquesne University for law. Our cybersecurity program collaborates with the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance on curriculum development and internships that allow students to be on the forefront of this constantly evolving field. We have partnered with area community colleges to align our course offerings, so that it doesn’t take five years to earn a four-year degree. Collaboration like this begins at the top with presidents setting this as a priority and then the provost and deans working out the details. In the end, the whole purpose is to make it as seamless as possible for students.
As someone who is fluent in Spanish and worked in a bilingual education department, can you describe the value of language study for college students today?
I like to say that I’m somewhat ambivalent about study abroad programs [laughs]. It’s an amazing learning experience (as a young adult, I spent nearly two years in Bogota), but my daughter studied abroad in Spain (which I encouraged her to do all her life) and she met and married her husband, a Spaniard, and now lives there with my two grandchildren. Seriously, though, study abroad is such a rich experience for students, and I do fear that COVID-19 might make us more isolated. Learning about another culture, speaking another language, understanding the nuances — there is no better way to be open to the world.
Study abroad is such a rich experience for students, and I do fear that COVID-19 might make us more isolated.
Seton Hill offers both study abroad and study away (3-6 week) programs. When you serve a low- and middle-income population, study abroad/study away can be a hard sell for many families. About 30 percent of our students are Pell recipients, and 40 percent are the first in their families to go to college. One of the first things that we did with the Development Office when I arrived was to raise money to help students afford study-away opportunities because the global exposure is so valuable for students.
Greensburg is about 45 minutes from Pittsburgh. For students who are attracted to urban environments, what are the advantages of studying in a more rural setting?
There are advantages to the urban environment and there are advantages to a more rural environment. Seton Hill is in a good place because students can have the idyllic college setting of a more rural/small city environment, but we are still close to Pittsburgh.
The big challenge with more rural areas is the availability of internships. We now require students to complete an internship or research project for graduation. A lot of hiring comes out of internships, so it is really critical that we are able to offer our students this opportunity. This can be more challenging in an environment away from a larger metropolitan market, but we have worked hard at Seton Hill to form partnerships with local corporations and industries.
Seton Hill seeks to offer an excellent academic preparation but is explicit about also preparing students practically. As more families consider the value of higher education, how necessary is it for colleges to show that earning a liberal arts degree is also helpful toward pursuing a career and being successful in day-to-day life?
Mother Seton would say, “I would wish to fit you for the world in which you are destined to live.” She lived in a very volatile time in this nation’s history — during and after the Revolutionary War. She prepared students for a world that was changing very rapidly. Following her example, Seton Hill has a career readiness program called “Fit for the World,” which begins freshmen year and helps students with academic career exploration, résumé building, internship placements, and employment preparedness. We try to find the balance of allowing students to explore during college, but we don’t want them to get so far down the road in their major and then make a change that requires a fifth year to graduate.
When I arrived at Seton Hill, the placement rate for graduates was 96 percent, which is extremely high. Now it is 98 percent and, for our graduate students, it is 100 percent. Education is a huge investment for students and their families, and I believe that we have to keep doing the best we can to ensure that students can accomplish what they want in the long term. That means helping our graduates not only to get a job, but also to find a job that they find life-sustaining and meaningful.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
I think that Catholic colleges and universities have a prominent place in the world. Even though most of us don’t have large endowments and this storm that we currently face will be difficult for us to weather, the sense of community that we develop on campus based on faith and shared values is what will carry us forward.
Sr. Christine DeVinne, OSU
Position: Sr. Chris is the 17th president of Ursuline College in Ohio, a position she has held since 2015.
Career highlights: Professor in the Ursuline Studies Department, which she directed from 1999 to 2001, and in the English Department at Ursuline College; Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, 2001–2010; Vice President for Academic Affairs at Notre Dame of Maryland University, 2010–2015. Active in her profession, she is a past president of the American Name Society, where she serves as a member of the editorial board and book review editor. She writes and presents in the fields of name studies, life-writing, and higher education administration and mission.
Education: B.A. in mathematics from Ursuline College (1973); M.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame (1981); Ph.D. in English from The Ohio State University (1996).
Family: Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Sr. Chris had the benefit of an Ursuline education at Saint Ann School and Beaumont School. She and her sister Virginia have been members of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland for more than 40 years. Her other sister and brother share the joys of life with far-flung young adult children.
Fun Fact: A capable swimmer, Sr. Chris was a member of a synchronized swimming team for four years and certified by the Red Cross as a lifeguard. Both experiences have shaped her service as president. Sr. Chris remarks, “I learned the discipline and determination to keep my institution afloat.”
Q. Can you describe your transition from teaching into higher education administration? For those who aspire to serve in senior leadership positions at a Catholic college or university, what skills and traits are most important?
A. My history as a classroom teacher includes everything from middle school to graduate school. The transition to administration was gradual, beginning when I taught high school and became an administrator. When I returned to Ursuline College, my alma mater, I was a faculty member and then became the director of the core curriculum and later the dean of Arts and Sciences. Along the way I gradually took on the skills and experiences of an administrator. Before becoming president of Ursuline, I also spent five years as the academic vice president of Notre Dame of Maryland University.
Being president is a tough job and requires adaptability and flexibility as well as vision. From one hour to the next, a president is drawing on different skill sets, so many skills that I would never have them all. I don’t think that anyone has them all. My recommendation is first to find and develop the skills that come naturally. Start with the ones that you know, hone them, and from there you can expand your range.
My background has served me well in this position. All along I have kept a real connection to teaching; in fact, I still co-teach a first-year English course. No matter what I’m doing as president, I begin with my absolute commitment to students. I also bring to the job a modest repertoire of people skills, my efforts to read people well and communicate with them. There are times when being clear and articulate becomes a goal in itself. The mission of any Catholic campus requires good financial stewardship, too, and thankfully my background in mathematics gives me facility with interpreting financial documents and spreadsheets.
Today, we still have 15 sisters ministering at the college. In fact, some of them serve at the main reception desk, so every person who enters is greeted by a sister.
Since the Ursuline Sisters arrived in Cleveland in 1850 and founded the college in 1871, what has remained consistent about the mission? What has evolved over the years?
The first sisters arrived to educate a mostly immigrant population. And, in particular, the sisters in the tradition of the Paris Ursulines carried a commitment to educating young women. Within 21 years of their arrival in Cleveland, the first sisters won a charter from the State of Ohio to grant all degrees and with it created the first Catholic college for women in the state.
Ursuline Sisters who follow the Paris tradition make a fourth vow of Christian education. Education is such an important commitment for us that it is part of our vowed life. Our foundress, Saint Angela Merici, left three sets of writings: her testament, her counsels, and her rule (the first religious rule written by a woman). What comes through in these writings is a sense of care and nurture for each individual person. Her attention to the individual is embodied every day at Ursuline College. Today, we still have 15 sisters ministering at the college. In fact, some of them serve at the main reception desk, so every person who enters is greeted by a sister.
In any good community, a lot of the culture is passed on informally. Under the influence of ACCU, we have also developed formal programs such as a first-year seminar for all new faculty and staff. In the seminar, we discuss the Ursuline charism, the history of the college, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. This content is important, but equally important is the building of community that occurs during the seminar. That is part of Angela’s legacy today.
Ursuline College is one of the first Catholic women’s colleges in the United States. What does it mean to be a “women-focused college”? What is “women-centered learning”?
When Ursuline College was founded, most private colleges were single sex. Our student body has evolved over the years since then, and our current undergraduate enrollment is about 92 percent female, while at the graduate level we have always been co-ed. Today, our largest program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is nursing. As the profession of nursing has grown to include more men, so too has our student population.
When we designed our latest strategic plan, [we made] women’s leadership one of its four pillars. We recently established a women’s center on campus, and it offers engaging programs on women’s issues and leadership. We regularly invite to campus women who have become leaders in their professions, in order to raise the profile of women’s leadership, as well as Ursuline College. In 2018, we gave the first biannual Women Who Light the Way award to Cokie Roberts, and in 2020 we honored Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ. Research on what are described as “women’s ways of knowing” is woven into our academic core curriculum. Many of our trustees are women (two of them have formed a women’s leadership committee) and three of our five senior administrators are women. So, while we are no longer an exclusively women’s college, fostering women’s leadership is intentional for us and remains a priority.
It is important for the long-term viability of a school to have high-profile programs that extend its reputation in the community and attract qualified students.
In the increasingly competitive landscape of higher education in the United States, how important is it for schools to offer niche programs? Ursuline College, for example, is well-known for its School of Nursing and health care programs.
Every college or university needs to focus on its strengths, with the goal of building a reputation for excellence in key areas. For us, out of the dozens of nursing programs in Ohio, Ursuline is ranked second, and nationally we are ranked in the top 10 percent. It is important for the long-term viability of a school to have high-profile programs that extend its reputation in the community and attract qualified students.
Equally necessary is to increase the support that is offered to students once they have entered the college, so that they can progress through to graduation. This is especially true for those who arrive under-prepared. We have students who will make great nurses, for example, but who come to us from high schools where they might not have taken enough math or science courses. In response, we have intensified our efforts to provide academic and social support services that enable every individual student to become successful.
Having a niche program can certainly be a good foundation, but it can’t be everything. Each profession rises and falls in terms of the market over time, so no school can stop developing new programs to complement its core strengths. Ursuline College, for instance, also has niches in counseling and art therapy, fashion, social work, and historic preservation, in addition to a high-profile program in education administration. Many of the superintendents, principals, and vice principals across Northeast Ohio have graduated from our program.
As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what opportunities for collaboration among smaller schools do you see?
I am always very happy to attend ACCU’s Annual Meeting and talk about the places we can collaborate because it reminds me that we are more alike than different and that we can do more together than separately. If Catholic colleges and universities are going to make good sense of collaboration and partnering, it’s going to come from that sense of appreciative inquiry. What is it that you do well that you can share with us? What is it that we do well that we can share with you?
If Catholic colleges and universities are going to make good sense of collaboration and partnering, it’s going to come from that sense of appreciative inquiry.
As a former English professor, what is one book that every college student should read before they graduate?
Every college student should find a book that they can read with passion. I suggest Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Toni Morrison is from Lorain, Ohio, so we have a great deal of hometown pride for her. One of our rare women Nobel laureates, she writes from her experience as an African American woman. Beloved is not an easy book to read, either emotionally or intellectually. It tells the story of a woman’s life sacrifice in her attempt to escape slavery. It’s far from my comfortable, privileged twenty-first-century experience, but one of the things that good literature does is open us up to experiences unlike our own. In fact, the latest research suggests that novels are an important means to build empathy in readers. In order to understand the characters in a book, a reader needs to get inside their heads and hearts. And that translates to life, too.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
Doing good for students. The mission of Ursuline College includes the word “transform.” We transform our students for service, leadership, and professional excellence. In student after student, maybe not day by day, but over time, it is actually possible to see them transformed.
In graduate school at Ohio State, I had the experience of teaching at a very large, secular university, and it never felt like home for me. As soon as I returned to Ursuline, I knew the difference. In Catholic higher education, we do more than convey content, conduct research, and prepare students for their professional lives. We challenge them to explore the life of the soul, and we give them their own hope for the future and the difference they will make in the world.
Michael T. Victor
Position: Michael T. Victor is the 12th president of Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., a position he has held since 2015.
Career highlights: President of Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, 2006–2015; dean of Mercyhurst’s Walker School of Business, 2002–2006. Michael began his professional career as an attorney and is a widely respected civic and business leader and entrepreneur. From 1988 to 2000, he was co-owner and CEO of Pyramid Industries in Erie. Currently, Michael is co-chair of The Victor Group and a member of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, Rotary Club of Erie, and United Way.
Education: B.A. from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. (1983); J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh (1986). Michael also received an honorary doctorate in leadership from Lake Erie College in 2013.
Family: Born in Ridgway, Pa., he has lived in Erie most of his life. He has two daughters and two granddaughters.
Fun Fact: When Michael finds an interesting cookbook, he will attempt every recipe. Once Michael made a summer seafood salad, which involved a complex recipe that took all day to prepare. The salad became infamous because Michael did not test the dressing beforehand, which his family described as tasting like a “Lemon Pledge bomb.”
Q. Beginning your career as an attorney and entrepreneur, how did you become involved in Catholic higher education?
A. My entire education was in Catholic education. In high school, I was taught by the Benedictine sisters. In college, I was taught by Benedictine monks. At Duquesne, I got to know the Spiritans.
When I was dean of business at Mercyhurst, I also served as a trustee of Saint Vincent College, my alma mater. The president of Saint Vincent had a similar background as mine and told me that he had nominated me for three presidencies. I accepted the offer at Lake Erie College. As president there, we were able to be very successful, doubling both the enrollment and fundraising.
A few years later, I was approached about the soon-to-be open presidency at Mercyhurst. I was on the fence because I really loved Mercyhurst and Erie is my hometown, but I also really enjoyed Cleveland. Around Thanksgiving of 2014, a Sister of Mercy strongly encouraged me to apply for the presidency, telling me that Mercyhurst needed me to come home.
Since Mercyhurst was founded in 1926 by the Sisters of Mercy, what has remained consistent about the mission of the university? What has evolved over the years?
I have always admired the religious sisters and I really, really treasured my time as dean getting to know the Sisters of Mercy. They are the most unique order that I have ever encountered. They believe in what they call “mercy hospitality.” When you come to Mercyhurst, it is not just that they will offer hospitality in the traditional sense. It is more than that. They welcome everyone without exception. Everyone is welcome at a Mercy institution. For me, it is the hallmark of the Mercy sisters, and it is what attracted me here.
[From] when the school was founded until about the 1970s, the majority of faculty were sisters. Today we have no full-time sisters working in the university. But the mission has not changed: we are still committed to serving the underserved and educating those who would not be educated but for what we are doing. Recognizing the need to keep the mission vital, we started the Mercy Emissary Program. It was designed by a sister to teach groups of faculty and staff in a seminar fashion about the university mission. Since it started, hundreds of individuals throughout the university have become Mercy emissaries.
Everyone is welcome at a Mercy institution.
Given the increasingly competitive landscape of higher education in the United States, what are important strategies for schools to increase their efficiency and ability to respond to student and market needs?
First, it is important to build upon success with niche majors. At Mercyhurst, our motto is carpe diem, and we seized upon the success of our Intelligence Studies program. It began in 1992, but after 2001, there was greater demand, so we expanded it to include cybersecurity and programs focusing on money laundering and human trafficking. Recently, we partnered with a national firm to complete a multi-million-dollar cybersecurity center.
We also streamlined our core curriculum to give both the school and students more flexibility. The liberal arts offer a training in soft skills that are still very much in demand. Yes, offering vocational tracks is necessary, but students still need to think and write and speak to be of value. At the same time, we expanded our repertoire of online offerings. We have a full summer program online. Many of our graduate programs are offered online.
Next, we invested in what I call “consumable amenities.” These are things that my generation would have never expected in college, but today’s students do. When I arrived on campus, our cafeteria looked the same way it did in the 1980s, so we renovated it and added three more restaurants on campus. We also built a suite-style residence hall and a large convenience store. We mandated that students live on campus, unless they live at home with their parents, to increase the vibrancy of campus. We renovated our athletic facilities, too.
Finally, we emphasized that the admissions process is not just the purview of the admissions office. We all work toward recruiting students.
As you consider the future of American Catholic higher education, what opportunities for collaboration do you see?
I think that the era of collaboration has only begun, and that we should all be looking for ways to collaborate to deliver high-quality education to the students we serve. Regionally, Mercyhurst collaborates with Case Western Reserve University in our cybersecurity offerings, which has helped to expand that field. Locally, we partner with one of the largest medical schools in the area, as well as four other schools that form the Innovation Beehive Network.
We are one of the largest Mercy schools, but we also collaborate with the Mercy Conference. For example, we attend the ACCU conference every year; most of [the first day] is spent with the other Mercy schools.
I think that the era of collaboration has only begun, and that we should all be looking for ways to collaborate to deliver high-quality education to the students we serve.
Mercyhurst offers 25 varsity sports for students, including a Division 1 hockey program. What role do athletics play in the college experience?
Athletic programs help with the “but for” factor in admissions. But for men’s rowing, would a young man from Orange County, California come to Mercyhurst University? But for women’s field hockey, would a young lady come from Massachusetts to Mercyhurst? We also offer club teams for students who want to play at the collegiate level but don’t expect a scholarship. Athletics play a big role in both our admission and retention initiatives.
We are also renowned for our fine arts programs. We have our own orchestra. We are continually named one of the best dance programs in the country. We have our own ballet, chamber orchestra, choirs, and marching band of around 80 students.
For those who are aspiring to serve in a senior leadership position at a Catholic college or university, what skills and traits are most important to develop? How has your previous experience influenced your leadership at Mercyhurst?
A leader of a Catholic liberal arts institution must believe in the school, the mission, and their own abilities to get it done. This is not a job for the faint of heart.
The days of relying only on your gut are gone. A leader must have the ability to be nimble and use data to drive decision making. A leader must also be willing to take risks because higher education today, especially smaller Catholic schools, are on the verge of a demographic tsunami. If a school is not nimble enough to make changes, survival in this atmosphere is really challenging.
Someone who has been successful in business, law, or government and also understands academia is a good fit for leadership. Where a school can run afoul is if they pluck someone from public or private industry who has no experience in academia. The leader must understand the demands on the faculty to be successful.
I have an understanding of the business model, but I also understand that the university is not a business. The university is more akin to a city-state, even if it requires a business model to make it operate. In a private corporation, it is a top-down culture. In higher education, it is about shared governance. My experience as a corporate president, professor, and administrator along with my Catholic background gave me a very unique skillset. Ultimately, you need a leader who really, truly understands and believes in the mission. Without that passion, the rest does not matter.
A leader must also be willing to take risks because higher education today, especially smaller Catholic schools, are on the verge of a demographic tsunami.
What keeps you hopeful about the future of American Catholic higher education?
My motto has been to change the world one student at a time. Even while I was dean, I advised students and taught a full load of classes. At Lake Erie College, I wanted to continue teaching, but as president you never know when you will be called away, so I decided it would be a disservice to the students. I am still very engaged with the students at Mercyhurst, trying to be visible around campus and hoping the students will feel comfortable around me.
This past spring, a student who I advised when I was dean, invited me to lunch. He wanted to thank me and ask if there was anything that he could do for the university. As a student, I encouraged him when he doubted his leadership abilities. Now he lives in California and, at the age of 35, has sold his second company for $100 million. I asked him to serve as a member of Mercyhurst’s board of trustees — he is the youngest member!
I believe that Catholic higher education, especially the schools that are affiliated with religious orders, will thrive because of their emphasis on mission, the good of society, and focus on the whole person.
Diane E. Melby
Position: Diane E. Melby is currently completing her fifth year as president of Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). She is the university’s ninth president.
Career highlights: Diane spent 13 years working with severely challenged students, including those with autism, 10 years with Lord Fairfax Community College on curriculum initiatives, seven years with Shenandoah University in continuing education and advancement, and seven years with Shepherd University in advancement.
Education: Ed.D., Nova Southeastern; master’s, James Madison University; bachelor’s, Slippery Rock University
Family: Husband Dave; daughters Elizabeth, married to Jeremy, and Dana, married to Taylor; two grandchildren
Fun Fact: Diane recently traveled through France following in the footsteps of the Blessed John Martin Moye.
Q: Before becoming president at OLLU, you held administrative positions at Shepherd University and Shenandoah University. Did you always aspire to become a college administrator?
A: I was the type of person that could never really answer the question where I wanted to be in five years. But I was fortunate to have, every step along the way, people that would guide me and say, “You know, Diane, you should really think about doing this or that.” I’d say that I am more of an opportunistic person. My dad always encouraged me to at least look through the doors that were opened for me. So my path to college administration was guided by the people I met along the way who encouraged me to look at particular opportunities.
I will also say that I have always thought administration made best use of my talents. Having degrees in education and being in various aspects of education, people always ask what I teach. I’ve never really been a full-time teacher, except when I worked with students with autism at the Grafton School in Virginia, which was a residential school for students who could not be educated within the public school system. I’ve taught classes here or there — but most enjoy the process of bringing people together toward a shared goal or vision, and bringing together resources to let people do what they do best. So, I think my real gifts lie in administration.
How did the experience of working with students with autism shape your approach as an educator?
In a broad sense, it taught me that everybody can benefit from education — regardless of their challenges. It’s the challenge of educators to maximize educational attainment. What I really like to think about: If students are having difficulty processing this information or working their way through this set of problems, how can we rearrange our methodology so they’re more successful? As an administrator, that same interest structures how I develop my teams. I see my responsibility to develop employees through that same construct of individualizing education to develop potential. As a supervisor or as a manager, I ask: where is an individual or a team, where are they in their professional development, where do they want to go, where are their skills and where do they need to have more experiences or different experiences to help them get to where they want to be? I think in that whole process of educating somebody who has severe learning difficulties, whether it’s autism or learning disabilities, you have to go through the process of breaking down before you can build up. I really love that process of thinking about the microsteps or the micropieces of knowledge or experiences that you need to develop to get to this bigger goal, and then putting those together so an individual can get there.
You have written about the mental health struggles that many college students face. How big is the problem at OLLU and what have you done to address mental health among your students?
We’re a school of about 3,100 this year. We have several early detection or global detection mechanisms in place, but I’m not sure there is a way to define the scope of problem. The number of students who self-identify as having mental health issues is somewhere around 3 percent of our population, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. I think more about those who don’t self-identify. For example, we know that about 7 percent of our population has self-identified other disabilities. When you have other disabilities, the incidence of those with mental health issues ranges up to about 43 percent. In addition, we have other populations within the student body that have stepped forward to help us recognize they need special attention. Examples include our veterans, LGBTQ community, and students in recovery from addiction. Not only is the number of students self-identifying with diagnosed mental illnesses increasing, so are the number of students from these other more vulnerable populations.
Not only is the number of students self-identifying with diagnosed mental illnesses increasing, so are the number of students from these other more vulnerable populations.
To give you just some scope of what we’re talking about at Our Lady of the Lake, we have what’s called the Student Behavior Intervention Team (SBIT). This team is a cross-section of the university that takes referrals regarding students whose behavior is causing concern. Referrals for emergency behavior concerns increased by about 44 percent over three years, and the kinds of issues that we’ve dealt with include suicidal ideation, domestic violence, substance abuse, erratic behavior, withdrawal or going missing, cutting, self-harm, and stalking. These are really severe and concerning situations, obviously. In addition, our counseling services program experienced a 35 percent increase in numbers of students seeking help and managed 37 cases of suicidal ideations, with four hospitalizations over that same time period. So, we have these crisis issues, but we try to get there before it’s a crisis intervention by attending to the needs of vulnerable populations. We tailor support mechanism to needs identified by different groups. For example, our veterans emphasized that they preferred counseling services through the VA but needed quiet places on campus to decompress and so we have put in lounges for veterans only.
What do you think is behind the fact that so many more students are suffering from these problems? Or are people just more open to talking about them now?
I don’t think that openness to talking about mental health issues is the major factor driving the increase, although I do think some of the increase in the volume of referrals being managed by our SBIT occurred because we intentionally do a lot of things to encourage students and faculty to report behavioral or mental health concerns.
I do think that the number of students struggling with mental health is increasing and that a number of factors are contributing to the issues. One of those factors is that we are becoming more successful at educating more of our population, including those working their way through mental health issues. Not too long ago, people with mental health issues wouldn’t have been served very well in the K-12 system, so they wouldn’t have found their way to college. Not only are K–12 educators developing better, more effective strategies to progress students with all types of individual needs, universities are welcoming more of these students. The challenge is for us to develop the structures and services to help these students progress and attain their educational goals.
Beyond that, in the same way that physical health issues can affect any individual at any time, so too can mental health issues. I mentioned several populations that are vulnerable to facing mental health issues but there are societal and cultural aspects of the increase. At OLLU, 70 percent of our population is Latinx and most are first-generation. Our students come from a very family-oriented culture. Some of our students come without the support of their parents at first, because their parents don’t want them to go away to college, don’t want them to leave the family unit or don’t know how to help the student navigate the challenges that confront them on campus.
Also, many of our students work so they can continue to support their families, while managing full course loads. These students have anxieties that we, or at least I never experienced as I was growing up and going away to college. Financial issues in general really seem to be driving a lot of the increase. We just did a financial security survey and the financial concerns of our students are just overwhelming: So many have experienced homelessness, experienced food insecurity on a daily basis. So it’s just this whole perfect storm, if you will, that’s driving up anxiety and depression, which are the two most common disorders we see.
How do you feel that Catholic higher education is able to improve students’ mental health?
Our Catholic identity calls on us to develop spirituality and that requires us to educate and serve students holistically. We can bring faith and hope and trust into the conversation before an event that challenges mental health erupts into a crisis, while helping a person in crisis work their way back to a healthy state. I truly cannot imagine leading a college through this time of heightened anxiety where overt development of spirituality is not sanctioned.
I truly cannot imagine leading a college through this time of heightened anxiety where overt development of spirituality is not sanctioned.
Beyond just the fundamental ability to integrate spiritual education, we have resources that are unique to us because we are Catholic. Our Division of Mission and Ministry plays a vital role in providing a proactive approach to promoting mental health. For example, the staff sponsor ongoing programs addressing immigration issues, helping students deal with anxieties around DACA status, family deportation, and perceived threats in the community. They have also started our first Living Learning Community to help students learn about and address social justice issues. Not only does the community provide a tangible way to carry out the heritage passed to us from our Sisters, it provided a structure that helped vulnerable students transition into a college environment.
Another example from Mission and Ministry is their program, Loaves and Fishes. Each week of finals, various academic and other university departments donate food and time to provide food for students throughout the day. It was started simply to provide a family environment for students as they were going through exams, [but] we found that it was addressing a very real hunger issue as students were running out of funds at the end of the semester and were depending on Loaves and Fishes for nourishment. So now Mission and Ministry is offering food — and not cake and punch, but tacos and hamburgers and things like that — throughout the semester and it brings together not only our students, but also some of our staff who have financial issues.
In what ways do you think your presidency has continued the work of the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence?
The Sisters were formed in France to educate those without access to education. I, along with the OLLU community, remain committed to opening the doors of education, especially to marginalized communities. We work together to try to take finances out of the access dynamic by keeping tuition as low as possible, providing as much aid as possible, and helping students through financial emergencies. Some examples of how we operationalize that includes our Wings Up Summer Tuition Grant program. Rising juniors and seniors who have taken 30 credit hours the year before are eligible to take up to six to eight credits free during the summer. The reason why we do that is we allow students to catch up and stay on time to graduate. Many of our students have a slow start or deplete their personal resources and this program allows them to stay on time for graduation. We have also created funds to address financial emergencies. We have a lot of students who want to drop out because they’re shy $200 for books or they can’t get their cars re-inspected, they just don’t have that kind of cash, and these funds help address those needs. We work with donors and granting agencies to develop these funds so that we can help our students persist through graduation.
Position: Jim Collins is the 26th president of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is a Loras alumnus and is now Loras’ longest-serving president.
Career highlights: Collins has served his alma mater as an admissions representative, director of special projects, director of alumni and college relations, interim director of development, assistant to the president, and vice president for institutional advancement. In 1999, he was appointed the college’s senior vice president and was then elected president in 2004, becoming the youngest president in the college’s history.
Education: Degrees from Loras College and the University of Iowa
Family: Collins and wife Lisa have six children — all six of whom will have attended and/or graduated from Loras.
Fun Fact: Jim is a third-generation Irish immigrant. He also threw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of Loras College.
Q: As the longest-serving president at Loras College, what do you think has been the key to your longevity in this role?
A: I think that aside from Irish luck and divine intervention, it probably helps that I knew Loras so well and believe passionately in its mission. To that end, I think that the learning curve for me was probably not as steep as what others who come from outside might perhaps encounter. Now, that brings other inherent challenges, but I think that it’s probably helped that I’ve been so familiar and so in line with what Loras stands for.
When you were first named president, you were the youngest president that Loras ever had. How do you think your age affected how you handled the job at the time?
I was named when I was 42, so fortunately I was in good health and had a lot of energy. I think that those two components certainly helped a lot. I also entered as the fourth president in four years, so the campus desperately desired continuity since it had experienced so much distress. In that regard, I was blessed in that so many wanted me (Loras) to succeed. I think the other thing is that I wanted to do well because this is my alma mater and now I was in a position of significant leadership. Also — and I always say this to young professionals, at least in terms of the way in which I hire — I think that in this particular case, it was imperative that I did well because it was going to impact my career. That served as a critical motivation since I had a very young family at the time. You want to make sure that you can keep putting bread on the table. So a combination of good health, high energy, deep love for Loras, and career importance were all critical factors.
How have you evolved as president over the last 15 years?
Well, I certainly believe that with experience comes a better sense of what’s important and where I should invest the majority of my time. While I might have been heavily engaged in all sorts of things early, I’ve probably come to appreciate the fact that I don’t need to be everywhere or do everything, in part because for me to be effective, and for the college to be successful, I need to expend my time where I think we’re going to have the greatest return on investment. But, as importantly, we’ve got really good people who can handle lots of things in a way that either I wouldn’t be helpful and/or I would be getting in the way of others doing their job well.
Prior to becoming president, you held several positions at Loras. What is it about Loras that has inspired you to dedicate your career to the school?
I’ve been fortunate and blessed to see the lives of so many students transformed because of their experiences at Loras. I can’t ever remember a day when I’ve left work at Loras not feeling as if I wasn’t able to witness, or to hear about, some great transformational experiences that our students had. Being part of that has been a real gift and I’m a big believer that it would take something significant for me to believe that the grass would be as green or greener at any place other than Loras. Further, I haven’t achieved what Loras deserves. To that end, I have more to contribute.
I can’t ever remember a day when I’ve left work at Loras not feeling as if I wasn’t able to witness, or to hear about, some great transformational experiences that our students had.
You earned your undergraduate degree at Loras. What was your experience like as an undergrad and how do you feel it differs from students attending Loras today?
I had a great experience as an undergraduate. I’m the oldest of six kids, so I was the first among my siblings to go off to college. I wanted to be at a Catholic institution, I wanted to be at a small place, and I wanted to be at a place that was within travel distance from where I grew up. I came to Loras as a very introverted individual and wound up establishing lifelong friendships with classmates and being inspired by a lot of faculty and staff from a mentoring standpoint. I built a capacity to have an extraneous personality and simultaneously developed experiences and leadership that I don’t think I would have ever had if I had enrolled somewhere else.
As for what’s changed, I don’t know that students today would reflect much differently than the way I have reflected on my experience at Loras. Namely, that faculty and staff were outstanding in mentoring them, that the friendships they’ve developed here are lifelong, and that the opportunities they now have professionally, civically, and vocationally would not have been as strong were it not for Loras.
That said, I would say that the place, as a physical campus, has only gotten more beautiful. I would say that the opportunities and experiences we provide students are significantly more than what existed when I was here. In that way, the growth of the institution has only magnified the type of outcomes that students can experience in a way that my classmates and I can’t claim in similar fashion.
Every post I’ve held at the college came about because there was some mentor or some colleague who saw something in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to take on a new role.
When you received the First Citizen Award [from the Telegraph Herald newspaper in 2019], you mentioned how you wouldn’t have been able to get to where you today are without your mentors. What was it about your mentors that inspired you so much?
One of the odd things about my professional life is that I’ve never applied for a job at Loras, with the exception of the presidency. Every post I’ve held at the college came about because there was some mentor or some colleague who saw something in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to take on a new role. Those individuals really played a significant part in my life. I thought, after graduating from Loras, I was going to be a banker in downtown Chicago. I believed that even after the first three to five years at Loras, but one opportunity after another was presented to me and these individuals again saw something in me that I wouldn’t have seen in myself. Over time, this support system offered an extraordinary level of confidence to me in terms of both what it is that they thought I should be pursuing in life, but more to the point, me being able to reflect on how this was indeed the place and the calling I ought to pursue in life.
How has your experience as an undergrad at Loras influenced your presidency?
I think it’s had a significant influence. I remember as an undergraduate student, and particularly as a student government officer, always wanting to make sure that students had a greater voice. In like fashion, when I was an admissions rep and as an inexperienced staff member, I always felt that it was important that staff who otherwise didn’t feel included in decision making, that they ought to be included. While I’ve had to make plenty of decisions, I like to think that the way in which we’ve built our community here does incorporate, in large measure, student, staff, and faculty voices. I think in many ways, that’s helped to really build a cohesive community here, but I’m not sure I’d have that same sensibility if it weren’t for having had leadership experience as a student and then desiring leadership experience as a new staff member.
In what ways do you feel your presidency has contributed to the Catholic identity that Loras was founded on?
One of my mentors was Father Barta, a former president and priest at the archdiocese. I think being able to watch him lead, but also getting to hear him speak on a number of occasions about Loras’ tradition and its history, and his perspective on what it means to be a diocesan university was important. I think that the relationship allowed me to bring greater voice to where and how we needed to move forward, both as an archdiocesan institution, but also as a Catholic institution. Knowing that our roots were so heavily tied to us serving the diocese and the wider region, it has only helped to inspire the way in which Loras has fostered an even stronger focus on service, on liturgy, on faith, on Catholic Social Teaching, and on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. I think it’s so widely present in most everything we do at the curricular and co-curricular levels, but to suggest that I can take credit for that would not be right. I just think our Catholic and diocesan charism is in the bones of our college. Mostly what I do is try to encourage, support, and provide the resources so that talented faculty, staff, and students can go about their work in enhancing our Catholic identity.
Knowing that our roots were so heavily tied to us serving the diocese and the wider region, it has only helped to inspire the way in which Loras has fostered an even stronger focus on service, on liturgy, on faith, on Catholic Social Teaching, and on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.
Service is one of your school’s core values. How do you encourage Loras students to serve others?
I hope, as with lots of other things with Loras students, I model it — both in terms of work ethic and the way in which I’m engaged in the local community and the wide number of organizations that Loras is connected with. I think it lands better on 18- to 22-year-olds than telling them that they ought to serve if I provide an example by modeling ways in which to serve. Ironically, I find all these years later that it’s really the faculty, staff, and students who inspire me to serve because they do it so often and so incredibly selflessly.
Personally, what does service mean to you?
Service means using your gifts and talents for the betterment of those around you, particularly for those individuals who are on the margins of our society or don’t necessarily have some of the blessings that I and others have in their lives. So finding a way to give voice, or to serve as a voice, for those who don’t typically have that access is something I take seriously. I think it’s arguably one of the greatest modes of service we can provide.
What have you accomplished as president that you’re most proud of? What do you hope to achieve in the future?
I think if there’s any role I’ve had here at Loras, it’s to empower and encourage, and to remove barriers. To the extent that we’re humble as individuals here at Loras, I think it’s really important to boast the success of the institution. I’m very proud of the national success that Loras has had as an institution, but also across a wide array of programs that we offer. I think the other thing is instilling pride. I love the fact that our students, faculty, and staff take great pride in the institution that they serve or attend. We have this thing called “Duhawks Supporting Duhawks.” Whether it’s the theater program going to support students at an athletic contest or student athletes going to a faculty lecture, I encourage all to find a way — while we all participate in various subsets of the institution — to support the many offerings we provide as an institution. This is indeed one of the greatest points of satisfaction.
In terms of going forward, it’s all about me doing whatever I can to bring the good name of Loras to a wider audience with the hope that enrollment increases as a byproduct, and with the hope that greater resources come to the institution to support the good work of our faculty, staff, and students.
Position: Miguel Martinez-Saenz is the 19th president of St. Francis College in New York, a position he has held since 2017.
Career highlights: Professor of Philosophy, Assistant Provost for the First Year Experience and Associate Provost for Academic Affairs at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, from 2001 to 2011; Dean and Associate Provost for Student Success at St. Cloud University (MN), from 2011to 2014; Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, from 2014 to 2017. In March 2016, he received an administrative Fulbright Scholarship through the Fulbright-Nehru International Education Administrators Program. He has also received several honors, including the Ohio Latino Awards Educator of the Year, Insight into Diversity Visionary Award, and The Lillian C. Franklin Diversity Award.
Education: B.A. from Florida State University (1992); M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from University of South Florida (2001).
Family: He and his wife Julie have two children, Caterina and Joaquin, and two dogs, Charlotte and Dallas.
Fun Fact: When Miguel visits high schools in New York City, students are surprised to hear a college president perform spoken word. Energized in any classroom space, Miguel has taught in correctional facilities for ten years, including now at the federal detention facility in Brooklyn.
Q. St. Francis College is described as “the small college of big dreams.” What attracted you to St. Francis?
A. Two things drew my attention. First, it was Brooklyn. Colleges today are becoming more urban-centric. Second, it was the Franciscan nature of the college. When I began to learn about the mission of the college and its history, especially how it has served working-class families and immigrants — being what I call a “college of opportunity” — I wanted to take a closer listen.
I talk a lot about the difference between “making a living” and “making a life.” Everyone needs to get paid, but fundamentally more important is helping students think about how to make a fully human life. The Franciscans recognize the importance of both. Accessibility and affordability are drivers at St. Francis. At the same time, we aspire to create a community of learners where everyone belongs and everyone has the opportunity to dream, serve, and achieve.
How do you describe the Franciscan charism?
It’s a fundamental commitment to radical hospitality and the dignity of every human person. The orientation that I’ve tried to bring to the college is to expand the notion of hospitality. There is little question that our doors are open to everyone. But that’s not sufficient. We have to go out to the community and invite people in. It’s about “getting proximate,” as Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy. It’s about moving into community spaces that other people don’t want to move into.
Treating every person with dignity isn’t just that I think it. It’s not only conceptual. It’s essential to practice it. People are paying attention all the time, seeing what I do and not do. If we show through our daily interactions what it means to treat people with dignity, then our students might adopt the same orientation.
There is little question that our doors are open to everyone. But that’s not sufficient.
You have said that higher education is in the middle of a major transition. What are the most pressing demands and how should Catholic higher education best respond?
Recently I was at a meeting where some college presidents suggested that people no longer value Catholic higher education. It’s not that people don’t value Catholic higher education; it’s that they can’t afford it. We have to be able to create the conditions for our schools to be more affordable and accessible. The cost structure for schools in urban areas like Saint Francis is more challenging, but there is also greater demand. There might be some creative opportunities for urban and rural schools to collaborate.
Second, we need to become nimbler and more innovative with our curriculum. Some Catholic colleges are struggling to recognize that there is a changing market reality.
Third, we have to be upfront that we are values-based. It’s a mistake to try to become more secular to attract students. If we try to compete with the public schools on their terms, we will go out of business. We have to differentiate ourselves and explain the value-added. We not only help students make a living, but we will also help them to make a life.
How do you balance your desire to be a “student-centered” president with your responsibilities that take you away from campus?
One of the challenges in these administrative posts is that I don’t get as much opportunity to be in the classroom. But it’s an issue of priorities. I think it’s vitally important to stay in touch with the core of what we are supposed to be doing, which is educating young people. For me to be an effective leader, it’s important for me to be in touch not only with the students who we currently serve but the students who we will serve in the future. So, I visit one or two high schools per week.
For me to be an effective leader, it’s important for me to be in touch not only with the students who we currently serve but the students who we will serve in the future.
A common characterization of the modern college president is that the most important stakeholder is the school’s benefactor base. I know that I have to talk with our benefactors, but more important is whether the students see me as an advocate for the learning experience. When I talk with our benefactors, I can tell stories for hours about specific students, what they accomplish, what they are struggling with, what they hope to achieve. The stories are what resonate with people. I don’t think that I could do my job effectively if I was not in the midst of our students.
My good fortune as an undergraduate was meeting Dr. Maureen Tilley. This woman was the first person to take an interest in me. She asked me about my interests and my life experience. What I realized was that you have to take an interest in folks for them to be able to achieve their potential. She helped me realize that I have the opportunity to live the life that I want to live. This is the same message that I try to pass along to our students.
American Catholic higher education represents significant geographic, cultural, and demographic diversity with over 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Having lived and worked in Miami, the Midwest, and now in Brooklyn, what opportunities for collaboration do you see?
One fear is that we are becoming more insular because no one wants to give up their identity. In a merger, someone is going to lose something. And the smaller schools are going to lose more. Part of the issue is how to collaborate and maintain identity and history. But there is a lot of opportunity to collaborate in the future. Just in New York among the Franciscan schools, for example, we have St. Bonaventure University in a rural environment, Siena College in Albany, which is a policy center, and then us [St. Francis] in an urban space.
What encouragement would you provide for other leaders who care about diversity and inclusion but are struggling to navigate this concern with their school’s Catholic identity?
Just recently, we hosted a panel discussion about religious perspectives on the prison industrial complex. We also hosted Fr. James Martin, SJ to discuss LGBTQ issues. We have the space to host real conversations. Scripture makes it very clear that we ought to love, to show mercy, to be compassionate to all human beings. That doesn’t mean that I agree with every decision a person makes, but it does mean that I’m committed to treating them with dignity. And you can’t do that if you close yourself off to the questions.
As we try to educate students in a diverse learning environment, we bring together a diversity of viewpoints — including the Church’s perspective — and we don’t pretend that complex issues are one-sided. I was at an event with our local bishop, Bishop DiMarzio, and he spoke powerfully about respecting immigrants and refugee communities. He took the opportunity to encourage the audience to adopt a more Christian perspective. One of the things that I like about the ACCU conference is that it shows the type of dynamic dialogue that is possible between Church officials and Catholic colleges.
As we try to educate students in a diverse learning environment, we bring together a diversity of viewpoints — including the Church’s perspective — and we don’t pretend that complex issues are one-sided
You have named “student access, retention, and student success” as the three pillars of higher education. What strategies have you found to be most effective in this regard?
We need to go into new spaces. I visit one or two public high schools per week and our message is being received there even better than I thought. When I go to a public school where a college president has never set foot, students start to think that maybe St. Francis is the right fit for them. If we meet students on their terms and in their spaces, they trust quickly and are willing to have frank conversations about college.
For example, a young Mexican girl, a senior in high school, came up to me and told me, “I am going to St. Francis College.” She repeated this very proudly. I asked why. She told me, “I heard you speak. You are Latino. And you are a college president.” This is why I attempt, imperfectly, to meet people where they are. As college presidents, we have an enormous platform to engage these young people and make an impact, if we take the time to appreciate their situation.
As a philosopher, what would you say is the hard question that every student should contemplate before graduation?
What kind of life ought I be living? When I taught full-time, I wanted students to believe that this question was a live question. This is the message of Socrates when he said that the unexamined life is not fit to be called a human life. Jesus in his preaching orients us to be more self-critical. Saint Francis in his reform of the Church as well as our current pope do the same. Cornell West says that we have a temporary journey from womb to tomb, and we have to figure out who we are going to be in the meantime. The important thing is to keep the question alive. I don’t have all the answers, but as Rilke says, we must lean into the question.
Rhona C. Free
Position: Rhona Free became the ninth president of the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) in July 2015.
Career highlights: Previously at Eastern Connecticut State University, serving as vice president for academic affairs from 2007-2013 and provost from 2013-2015. Dr. Free taught Economics at Eastern for 25 years before becoming an administrator. In 2004, she was recognized as the Council for Advancement and Support of Education/Carnegie Foundation National Professor of the Year from Master’s Granting Institutions. During her time at USJ, Dr. Free has championed the creation of the Women’s Leadership Center and guided the deliberations that led to the university’s decision to become fully coeducational in fall 2018. Additionally, she oversaw the start of its Physician Assistant Studies program; the creation of an annual Veterans Day observance; and the launch of the Catholic Promise Scholarship program. Dr. Free serves as Chair of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education Board of Directors and Vice Chair of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges Board of Directors.
Education: Ph.D. in 1983 and M.A. in 1980, both in Economics, from the University of Notre Dame; B.A. in 1978 from Sarah Lawrence College.
Family: Dr. Free has been married to Peter Boardman since 1979. They have two children and three grandchildren.
Fun Fact: In recognition of Dr. Free’s Scottish heritage, her inauguration included a “Highland Games.” She did not excel at tossing the caber.
Q: You were a professor for over two decades before becoming an administrator. What went into your decision to make the move from teaching to administration?
A: I suppose it was the realization that what I enjoyed about teaching, which was really being able to support students’ learning and growth, and their transition from being a high school student to career person, all of that I could do on an even larger scale as an administrator. So it was really the idea that as a faculty member, you create opportunities for students to learn and to grow and you can do that even more when you are an administrator. You have more direct and indirect ways to make that happen.
The University of Saint Joseph recently became coeducational after being a women’s-only institution for many years. How did that decision come about and what have been the effects of it?
We saw data that showed almost 98% of students graduating from high school planned to attend a coeducational institution. If we admitted men, there would be higher enrollment of both women and men, and that’s come to pass. With that increased enrollment, we could offer more opportunities to the women students, as well as to the men, including curricular, co-curricular, and athletics. We’ve been able to add academic majors, sports teams, facilities, and more on-campus activities for all students, but we could not have done that with the enrollment level that was attainable with only women on campus.
If we admitted men, there would be higher enrollment of both women and men, and that’s come to pass.
How do you feel that being co-educational has changed the overall atmosphere on campus?
We were co-educational at the graduate level before. We are part of an 11-campus consortium of colleges and universities in the Hartford area, and students can take courses on [any of the] other campuses, regardless of gender. We had part-time male undergraduate students, so it wasn’t unusual to have male students in classes, but I think having males on campus has enlivened the campus because students are more likely to stay here over the weekends. We can have more co-curricular activities, so it’s a livelier campus, there’s no question about it.
You’re the first non-Catholic president at the University of Saint Joseph. Does being a non-Catholic running a Catholic university give you a unique perspective that previous presidents may not have had?
I can’t really say for sure. I had spent five years at the University of Notre Dame and so I think I understood well the values of the Sisters of Mercy. The University of Notre Dame had a very strong emphasis on social justice, and that’s a major issue of concern with the Sisters of Mercy. So I was very comfortable with that focus.
During your presidency, how have you been able to uphold the Catholic tradition the school was founded on?
There are a lot of policies and procedures that have been in place here for decades to ensure that any new academic program, for example, incorporates elements of the Mercy areas of critical concern so that there’s a focus on the program meeting the needs of society. In the general education requirements in the core curriculum, there’s a lot of emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic identity — not in a way that would be uncomfortable for students who are not Catholic — but reflected in questions about equity, diversity, and understanding the relationship between faith and reason, regardless of the particular faith. The policies and procedures that have been in place ensure in terms of the curriculum that Catholic identity and the Mercy tradition and values continue to be integrated. And I think the same thing would be true in terms of the value of community engagement and service. Since those programs were in place, it’s been my job to make sure that they continue to be areas of priority, they continue to be well-funded, and that we continue to ask how well we’re doing with mission integration. We also have six Sisters of Mercy on our board and they ask questions, as do other board members, about ensuring that we maintain a focus on our mission and are consistent with our mission.
Because you were an administrator at Eastern Connecticut State University, have you observed any differences in leading a Catholic university versus a secular university?
There is a difference. As an administrator at a public university, there were some questions that were not as easily answered because there wasn’t a sense that we all agreed to the shared values. Here, we have a commitment to a set of values that guide our decision making, and so in a lot of cases, it is easier because there’s a clear value that we are using to gauge whether or not a decision is the right one. I find that a little bit easier.
As an administrator at a public university, there were some questions that were not as easily answered because there wasn’t a sense that we all agreed to the shared values.
You have focused your research on areas like gender and racial/ethnic earnings differences and occupational health and safety. In what ways have your research interests influenced how you handle your presidency?
I think that the first thing is that my research was always very evidence-based and I used a lot of data. I worked with colleagues who had really good quantitative and econometric skills and so we looked at data to help us understand why we saw differences in earnings, how deep those differences were, and how prolonged they were. So I approach every question that same way: I first ask, is there data available that can help us find answers to a question so we’re not acting on a hunch, we’re not acting on what our biases tell us. Part of looking at earnings differences by race and gender is really peeling back layers of an onion; you look at the data and it gives you one insight and then it leads you to another question. So I think that that research has also helped me to understand the complexity of problems, and that even with data, answers are not always as simple as they might first appear. That’s the perspective that I brought with me to this job, so if you’re looking at something like retention, you have to look carefully at the data [and] don’t act on a hunch.
You became the chair of Hartford Consortium for Higher Education in 2018. How are you able to juggle the responsibilities of that role with your presidency?
They’re really compatible. The strength of the consortium really helps the strength of this institution and so for me, it’s just been a matter of asking how can we make the consortium stronger and more effective because in doing that, it’s good for the university. It hasn’t been a real juggling question at all, it’s been more that the two roles go hand in hand. The consortium has focused a lot in the last couple of years on creating the sense that Hartford is a college town, that it’s a great place to come to for college, whichever college you go to in the area. There are 11 colleges in this area, so we want students to understand that if you come to Hartford, you share the benefit of being around all these other college students and all these other campuses. And that’s really good for the University of St. Joseph for people to understand that, and it’s good for Hartford to become, in effect, a college town.
You have accomplished a lot during your presidency. What have you done that you’re most proud of?
It’s really what made me go from being a faculty member to an administrator in the first place, that I have always been very proud of the accomplishments of my students and then when I became an administrator, it was the accomplishments of students and the faculty because my job is to get them the resources and create opportunities for them to succeed. Although I probably shouldn’t take much credit for it, but what gives me the greatest satisfaction is observing the success of students — the fellowships that they get, the great jobs they get, the great internships that they get, and then for faculty, their scholarly activity, their teaching awards. Again, I don’t know how much credit I should get for it, but it’s what gives me the most satisfaction.
Rev. Brian F. Linnane, SJ
Position: Fr. Linnane became the 24th president of Loyola University Maryland in 2005.
Career highlights: During his presidency, Fr. Linnane has overseen the completion of Loyola’s $100 million Bright Minds, Bold Hearts campaign, the opening of the Ridley Athletic Complex, the designation change to Loyola University Maryland, and the transition to the Patriot League. Under his leadership, Loyola has experienced increased diversity, equity, and inclusion among the campus community. Fr. Linnane also inspired the vision for Messina, Loyola's distinctive interdisciplinary living and learning program for first-year students.
Education: A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Boston College; M.A. from Georgetown University; master’s degree and Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. Fr. Linnane also has master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in religious studies concentrating in religious ethics from Yale University. He received an honorary doctorate from Loyola in 2015.
Religious Order: Society of Jesus
Fun Fact: Every year at Orientation Fr. Linnane tells the incoming students to make the most of their time at Loyola and “squeeze the sponge dry.” This phrase has become a source of inspiration to the students. As they cross the stage at Commencement, some will say, “Father, I squeezed the sponge dry.” In 2019, for the first time, a student brought an actual sponge to the ceremony to show Fr. Linnane.
Q. When you earned your doctorate in religious studies, you concentrated on religious ethics. What sparked your interest in this specific area?
A. I wasn’t looking forward to studying theology when I went to school for ordination. I have a master’s degree in political science, I taught political science at Fairfield when I was a scholastic, and then I thought, “Well, theology is the thing you have to do if you’re going to be a priest.” I went out to Berkeley to study and I just loved it. I immediately was taken with it and I really liked Christian ethics. I had some terrific classes in that, but I was still thinking of going on and getting my Ph.D. in political science. I wrote my proposal for the provincial — what I was going to do and where I was going to apply — and when I finished it, my heart wasn’t in it. Those questions really didn’t interest me as much. And I think what changed me to theology generally, and to ethics in particular, was the way in which I thought that it had such obviously intellectual implications, but also pastoral implications. I saw that by studying theology carefully, it would position me to be helpful to souls, as St. Ignatius would say.
I saw that by studying theology carefully, it would position me to be helpful to souls, as St. Ignatius would say.
How do you feel your study of ethics has guided you in your career?
I think that it’s made me acutely aware of where the ethical challenges are and not turning a blind eye to them. I know that it’s formed the way I think about the human condition and the need for respect and inclusion. I think most presidents get that, but certainly as an ethicist, that has sharpened my focus.
In your long history as an educator, how do you feel liberal arts education has evolved?
The great influence of postmodernism has been extraordinary and of course, it’s had good and bad influences, but you see this in the humanities, you see this across the board. One of the things that I think you saw in the liberal arts faculty when I was first teaching back in the early 1980s [is] there would be faculty members who believed Catholicism wasn’t really consistent with higher education because it privileged a particular point of view. Now people realize that everybody has a particular point of view and we don’t believe there is this plateau, a point where we can be value-free and entirely neutral, and so I think that’s been great in higher education. The faculty has been much more enthusiastic about the Catholic mission because they see that it is a particular narrative. It’s a particular focus that they may not agree with, or partake in, but it shapes the institution and it shapes the society in ways that are very, very positive.
The thing that I think is more troubling is the shift away from liberal arts majors and that students really want that professional degree. There’s a narrative in our society that majoring in English or philosophy or art history is a waste of time and you’ll never get a job and of course, that’s just not true. The institution I was at before was only liberal arts and the students did very well. The Ivy League on the undergraduate level is essentially liberal arts and their graduates are not on the street corners begging for spare change. There is a loss in the faith that liberal arts really shape you intellectually and personally to prepare you for a wide variety of opportunities when you graduate and conducive to helping you be the sort of thoughtful and caring person that I think increases your chances of a happy and meaningful life.
There’s a narrative in our society that majoring in English or philosophy or art history is a waste of time and you’ll never get a job and of course, that’s just not true.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with going into business or STEM. If that’s a passion, I think that is terrific. But if you’re going into these fields just because you think there’s a paycheck at the end of four years, that’s what I worry about. I think students should study what they’re passionate about and take the steps to deal with the career sector to figure out what their marketable skills are and that sort of thing. The students who major in something they like or love or are passionate about, they’re going to get that grade, they’re going to know their faculty, and their faculty will be willing to go out on the line and recommend them.
I think that many people are under the misapprehension that a liberal arts education is a dead end, when the movers and shakers and people who have made a difference in this country have looked to the liberal arts and to liberally educated persons to be the agents of change and to make a difference in our world.
In what ways do you feel your presidency represents the principles of the Catholic tradition?
I believe first of all that Loyola is a place where the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is alive, where there are people who are deeply engaged in the questions, both inside and outside the classroom. [They] engage in the Church both from a theological perspective and from a sociological perspective of how as educated Christians we should deal with the pressing social issues of the day. I think that while most of our students do not major in philosophy and theology and the like, nonetheless, they all are having a deep encounter with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition through the core curriculum.
We also partner with the local Catholic Church and I think even more than partnering, we are part of the local Catholic Church. We are part of the archdiocese, working in companionship with them, taking the lead from our archbishop and his priorities around education, racial justice, and the like.
You have successfully been able to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion on the Loyola campus. How were you able to achieve this?
I was on the board before I became president and at that time, we approved a strategic plan that would increase the number of students of color on the undergraduate level from 8 percent to 13 percent. We did that specifically by looking at our recruiting patterns in terms of where we recruited and who we recruited. We have many, many students who come out of Catholic secondary schools, so we’re looking more and more at schools in the city and in different areas where we hadn’t been recruiting, and we’re looking at how we package our financial aid. Also, the key thing really is putting supports in place because we’re just shy of 30 percent students of color in the undergraduate population and those students need support in place — for people to mentor them, for places they can go and hang out.
We’re just shy of 30 percent students of color in the undergraduate population and those students need support in place — for people to mentor them, for places they can go and hang out.
For example, we just increased the space for ALANA services because the number of students of color has grown. I’m convinced that students of groups that are underrepresented need a place where they can express their cultures and share their experiences of the campus. I think that is a dimension of the support we’ve worked really hard to offer our students of color.
What is your vision for the future of Loyola and what do you plan to do to achieve it?
My vision for the school is to be an increasingly dynamic and equitable institution that mirrors our nation in the sense of being quite diverse, quite open, and also to furthering the Catholic identity of the institution, especially as it is delivered in the curriculum. Those are very clear in our current strategic plan. I look to a strong, vibrant, liberal arts–focused university leading the way in the 21st century.
How do we do this? I say the most obvious thing that a president has to do to achieve these priorities is fundraising and making sure there is enough money to achieve our goals and to continue to maintain the excellent academic and co-curricular programs that we offer at Loyola. And the other thing has to do with hiring people across the board. We ask all our faculty who are applying to write an essay to reflect on our mission statement and how they will specifically in their work, whatever it is, contribute to the Jesuit atmosphere and focus of the university. So I think that it’s explaining your vision to the external people through fundraising and through recruiting students and recruiting the best faculty, and then also hiring particularly well for folks who would support the mission.
Position: Richard Ludwick is the 9th president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, a position he has held since 2017.
Career highlights: Dean of Students at the University of Oregon School of Law, 1999–2003; Assistant Dean for Student and Academic Affairs at the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, 2003–2005; Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Albany Law School, 2005–2008; Provost of St. Gregory’s University, 2008–2010; President of the Independent Colleges of Indiana, 2010-2017. Currently, Ludwick serves as president of the International Council of the Universities of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a global network of institutions dedicated to the spirit of St. Thomas.
Education: B.A. in History, University of Evansville; M.A. in Higher Education Administration, Teachers College of Columbia University; J.D., Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney Law School; D.Ed. in Policy Management and Organization of Higher Education Administration, University of Oregon.
Family: Richard and his wife, Melynda, a pharmacist, have two grown children, Richard III, also a graduate of the University of Evansville, and Christianne, a graduate of Ave Maria University and Butler University.
Fun Fact: People are surprised to learn that Dr. Ludwick was raised in rural Indiana on a pig farm. Outside work, he enjoys spending time with his family and playing with his grandchildren.
Q. You practiced law in Indiana from 1991 to 1999. How did you become involved in higher education?
A. Even as an attorney, I engaged in issues related to higher education. But what really lit my fire for higher education was serving as student president when I was in college. In that role, I sat on the president’s cabinet and the board of trustees. I was able to see how impactful higher education can be in the lives of students and the community. And I saw that as a great good in society and I wanted to contribute to that.
As someone who has served as assistant dean, dean, vice president, provost, and now as president, how do you understand the role of administration? And how did you find your way to the University of St. Thomas?
I hope that my approach is one of servant leadership. Administrators are trusted with the opportunity to shape the environment, and that is a special privilege because it empowers the faculty and students.
About fifteen years ago, I made a list of institutions that I thought would be a really good fit for me as I thought about leadership in the future. The University of St. Thomas was among the top five schools on that list. I feel that there is a special calling for me to be here. I feel particularly blessed to be in this institution at this time to help build a future for the University of St. Thomas to become a preeminent institution in Catholic higher education.
As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
Not unlike many college presidents, my day begins early in the morning and ends late at night. A typical day is a mixture of events with our internal and external constituencies. Since I cannot be in two or more places at one time, it is important to get the leadership team aligned. Having a really good administrative team allows the message to be amplified by folks in a lot of different ways. When we have to make decisions, we make a hierarchy of priorities based on the needs of the institution and how they align with our mission. What we try to do with our administration is set a cultural tone through every aspect of the university.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration.
You served as president of the Independent Colleges of Indiana, the nation’s oldest association of 31 private, nonprofit colleges and universities enrolling more than 100,000 students. From this experience, what counsel would you provide Catholic colleges and universities regarding collaboration?
I have strong opinions on this subject [laughs]. And I have been privileged to work in that arena. We really did build collaboration and cooperation in a way that convinced me of the impact of unified effort. But now there are only 30 schools in that association because one of the Catholic colleges closed, so the need for greater collaboration is serious.
I believe that collaboration is a particular opportunity for Catholic institutions because we have the DNA for collaboration. We understand that we are part of the mystical body of Christ. Each part of the body has different gifts, but each part contributes to the body. For Catholic institutions, even though there exists a variety of charisms, there still is an underlying premise that we are part of the same body and we are on mission together.
One benefit of collaboration is helping to bring the costs of higher education down. But, from the Catholic perspective, we can see ourselves not so much as competitors but together on the same mission field. Collaboration is really about relationships, which take time to build and time is a rare commodity. Collaboration requires an intentional effort to put a process together.
It’s a true passion point for me. Since I have arrived at the University of St. Thomas, we have thought about ways to collaborate. I invite any president from any college to contact me if they are interested in discovering ways to collaborate with us.
The University of St. Thomas is known for being committed to its Catholic identity. What are ways that you advance the Catholic mission of the school?
If you talk to our alumni, our faculty, and even our current students, they will tell you about the robust philosophy and theology components in our core curriculum. It is a source of pride because it serves as a basis for understanding the human person that transcends all of the other academic disciplines and also makes them coherent.
The role of the president at a Catholic college is to be an evangelist. I do not mean a proselytizer or preacher, but the president should engage, accompany, and invite others to help craft the community. Our Catholic identity seeks to be open to all people of good will. Our faculty members who are not Catholic understand our mission and contribute to move it forward.
One of the ways that we bring our Catholic identity to life is through our nursing program, which is held in high regard in Houston and is rapidly growing. People will tell me that our nurses are special. Our nurses our competent, of course, but people notice that there is something more in the way that our nurses connect with patients. Our faculty approaches nursing as a healing art and the curriculum includes a ceremony to bless the hands of our nursing students. Some of our non-Catholic students are touched by this ritual even more than some of our Catholic students.
You have stated that financial concerns are challenges and not “existential concerns.” Can you say more about that for other presidents who are facing financial struggles?
Financial problems left unattended might become an existential threat, so it is helpful to be transparent about the challenges that a school is facing. Whether it is rising discount rates, operational deficits, or defending the value proposition of higher education, instead of handwringing, we take them seriously, talk about them as a community, and move to fix them.
At the University of St. Thomas, we are facing similar pressures as most schools. But our balance sheet, land assets, net tuition, and endowment are all on a positive trend. Houston is a great geographic location and people want to be here. So, we have the capacity to continue to grow.
The University of St. Thomas is located in one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the country. Can you describe the demographic shifts you have experienced?
The changing demographics of the Catholic Church in America are already present in Houston. Houston sits in the middle of the country and we serve as an enormous bridge from north to south when you look at the Western Hemisphere. We have large Hispanic and Asian populations and people from all over the world. Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city and continuing to grow. It is also one of the most diverse cities in America.
Particularly important for me is the makeup of our student body. In our incoming classes, we are 80-85% students of color. In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that; the future leadership of the American Catholic Church already appears on the faces of our student body.
I believe that the University of St. Thomas has a special calling at this time. Acting as a bridge-builder, we can develop leaders for the Church and the country in a pluralistic environment that we live here every day in an organic way.
In the future, the Church in America will be a majority Hispanic. The University of St. Thomas already embodies that...
The board of directors has recently charged your administration with restructuring the university and creating a new academic-business model by the end of fall 2020. What advice would you give to other presidents who are leading their institutions through significant change?
We looked at the trend lines for budget and cost and we realized that it was not something that could be sustained over the long term. One helpful thing we did was create a metaphor to talk about the operational situation that we were facing. We called it “the dragon,” and we had to figure out as a community how to defeat the dragon. From the beginning, we understood that there would be surprises, but there was an openness and willingness to talk about it, which helped to demystify and take the fangs out of the dragon that we were facing.
Our core identity and values will remain unchanged. We are working as a community to strengthen the institution so that we are able to live our identity and values well into the future. As a university community, there will always be smart minds who think differently. But it really helps to be upfront with people, to share the story that lets people know that there is a way forward, and to develop a plan together. Our board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of the plan. Our faculty senate sent a letter of support. The staff and students have all been understanding.
Your inaugural address at the University of St. Thomas was marked by confidence toward the future, your blog is titled “Fearlessly Forward,” and your writings and speeches regularly convey a sense of joy. With all the challenges facing Catholic higher education today, where do you find hope?
In Jesus Christ. Truly. As we move forward, we have faith that the battle is already won. It is not our success so much as it is God’s. We are called to be faithful, to use our talents the best we can, to have faith in the great cloud of witnesses who support us, and to trust in the outcome.
Mary Dana Hinton
Position: Mary Hinton is the 15th president of the College of Saint Benedict, a residential liberal arts college founded by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1913. Saint Ben’s prepares women to think critically, lead courageously, and advocate passionately. It is the only Benedictine college for women in the country and has operated in a unique academic partnership with Saint John's University, a Benedictine college for men, for over 60 years.
Career highlights: Named president of CSB in 2014; in 2018, Hinton received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, named for the Sister who brought Benedictine women to the United States and awarded by the Sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn. Mary is proud to serve on several national higher education boards including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU); the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU); and the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).
Education: B.A. in psychology with minors in women’s studies and African-American studies from Williams College; M.A. in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas; Ph.D. from Fordham University in religion and religious education.
Family: Husband of 21 years, Robert Williams; children: Hallela Hinton-Williams is a junior at Grinnell College; Hillel Hinton-Williams is a first-year student at Oberlin College; and Hosanna Hinton-Williams is a sophomore at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn.
Fun Fact: Mary has won five trophies for her trivia knowledge.
Q. You earned your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, so how did it come about that you transitioned to the education field? Was that always your intention?
A. I choose to study psychology because I loved it, not because I had a particular career plan in mind. My first job after college was as an elementary school teacher because I had been told my whole life that my number one job in life was to serve others. I thought the number one way that you could give back to the community was by being a teacher and I still believe that. I’m so grateful for all the people who are called to teach. The stakes are so high when you teach elementary school because you’re helping a young person develop a love of learning.
It turns out teaching elementary school was not my calling. But, when I thought about graduate school the first time around, I still wanted to do something that put me in a position to serve others, and that’s why I chose clinical child psychology.
After you got your master’s, did you want to go into the psychology field or did you want to go into education?
I could not have articulated this at the time, but it wasn’t that I had a particular discipline or field in mind. It was that I had a calling I was trying to respond to. For me, that calling was to do work toward educational equity, so once I got my master’s degree, I went right into policy work. That feels as far away from the classroom as you can get, but when you can create structures and policies that govern what students learn, how they learn, and the conditions under which they learn, you’re really having an impact on equity.
Is having that impact on equity why you went from policy work to getting your doctorate in religion and religious education?
I think religion and psychology have something in common in that they both help you comprehend how individuals and communities understand themselves, organize themselves, and move themselves forward. I think that has served me well as an educator because I recognize that we don’t all understand ourselves the same way. We don’t all see the world the same way, but we all have value.
How do you feel that your passion and vision for the liberal arts fits into the Catholic framework?
I am convicted by Catholic Social Teaching and its calls to equity and justice and by the goal of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition of bringing humanity closer to God. I’ve been called to do this work through promoting educational equity, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and understand their role in humanity. I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking – the key goals of a liberal arts education – that they can be fully engaged with humanity and with the divine.
I think it’s just when every person has an opportunity to learn how to think, to engage in big ideas, to be creative in their thinking
You have written about your concern that with technology on the rise, people no longer think the liberal arts are valuable. What would you tell those who say liberal arts education is obsolete or irrelevant?
Here’s the thing: Technology can enhance and literally extend our lives at moments. But there are at least three things that technology cannot do. One, I don’t believe technology can make meaning out of human experiences. It can use algorithms to make guesses and assumptions about me, but a guess about someone is not the same as understanding someone.
Two, technology conflates information with knowledge. Technology provides overwhelming amounts of information, but I don’t know any more unless I engage with that information in meaningful ways. I have to hear about others’ experiences to turn that information into knowledge. I must apply prior learning to turn that information into knowledge.
And most importantly, we gather wisdom from listening to diverse perspectives and experiences, and then challenging yourself and challenging others. In my estimation, technology cannot do those things for us. The liberal arts, on the other hand, help us become wise people when we learn to translate information into knowledge, to interrogate knowledge and to connect knowledge.
Given how plugged in to technology young people are now, how do your students feel about your ideas on this?
I have found that young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation. I think they value us having a conversation and a hug, praying together, crying together, cheering for our athletic teams together. I’m really proud of them and their ability to respond to human connection. However, unfortunately, because we are less connected as a society, they often feel that they have to default to social media as a proxy for connection.
...Young people today crave human connection, more than any other generation.
You have talked about student retention being something you’re passionate about, so what have you done during your presidency to address this and what have the results been?
The first step to student success is retaining students at an institution. At Saint Ben’s, we developed an inclusion ecosystem whereby we explore for every student who chooses us, what structures, systems, programs, and policies we need to put into place to ensure that each young woman can be successful. When you think about inclusion, sometimes people say, “Well, that’s just about diversity or for diverse students,” but really, inclusion is making sure that every student has what she needs in order to be successful. The result is that Saint Ben’s retains students at higher rates than other institutions.
In interviews, you have mentioned your concerns about college affordability and student debt. What kind of message are you giving your students and prospective students about this issue?
I can’t imagine a better use of resources than to invest in one’s education, and I think there are times when the student debt argument has been overstated. About a quarter of college students don’t carry any debt, and at our institution the default rate is less than 1 percent. The average student loan debt in the United States is less than the average new car loan and you don’t hear people talking about the car loan crisis. At the same time, your education is worth far, far more than your car.
During your tenure as president, what have you done to further the spirit of the school’s Benedictine founders?
In the first year of my presidency, I established a Benedictine Values Task Force. As a group of monastery and college leaders, we met regularly to talk about how we can support the transmission of Benedictine values on our campuses. Additionally, several years ago, the Sisters agreed to allow the college to buy several of their buildings, so now we’re able to highlight our Benedictine heritage in our physical spaces as well. When you come into our new admissions welcome center, the view is of the dome of Sacred Heart Chapel, a powerful symbol of the spirit of the college’s founders.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage.
I try to be intentional about connecting structures, philosophies, and physical symbols of the way we can live into and honor our heritage. The biggest formal way was when we wrote our strategic plan five years ago. It has four pillars, one of which is an inclusive and engaging Catholic and Benedictine experience. We also, in my second year, updated our mission statement to explicitly reference the Catholic and Benedictine tradition.
What accomplishments are you most proud of since you took office and what do you want to accomplish in the future?
I’m enormously proud of having received the Mother Benedicta Riepp Award, as a sign of the way the Sisters support and value my leadership. I’m proud that the college has largely accomplished the goals of our strategic plan, including a new curriculum, a $100 million fundraising campaign, and a revitalization the campus physical structure. And, I’m proud of our inclusion ecosystem and how we are beginning to transform into the community we want and need to be.
I hope to continue to embrace equity and ensure, that any young woman who wants to attend the College of Saint Benedict has the opportunity to thrive at the college. I am grateful and hope to continue to play a role in shaping, promoting, and furthering Catholic higher education, as I truly believe that Catholic higher education has a special role to play in achieving a more just world.
Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ
Position: Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, is the 13th president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, a position she has held since 2007.
Career highlights: Professor of English at the College of St. Rose, Albany, NY, from 1972 to 1991; Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Avila University, Kansas City, MO, from 1991 to 1993; Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean at Fontbonne University, St. Louis, MO, from 1993 to 1998; President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country, from 1998 to 2007. In March 2011, Sister Joan received the Athena Award for leadership given by the Women’s Connection of the Quad Cities. She was elected to the board of trustees of ACCU in January 2015.
Education: A native of Albany, NY, Sister Joan earned a doctorate in English literature from Brown University in 1981. She received her bachelor's (in 1970) and master’s (in 1974) degrees in English literature from the College of Saint Rose. Sister Joan holds certificates in fund raising management and educational management from Indiana and Harvard Universities, respectively.
Religious Order: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis, Missouri, since 1965.
Fun Fact: Among her personal pursuits, Sister Joan enjoys organic gardening and art appreciation. She also enjoys flying and has flown with the Navy's Blue Angels and the aerial demonstration team, The Red Barons.
Q. Is there such a thing as a “typical day” for you at St. Ambrose? As president, how do you balance your schedule and prioritize your responsibilities?
A. There is hardly such a thing as a “typical hour.” You can have a very well-set up schedule and then suddenly you’ll get a phone call as president that throws everything into chaos. A president needs to plan and organize, but situations can come up that change everything.
I always say to people that you have to pay attention to the day, the week, the month, and the year. If a president gets so fixated on the day or even the week, they will not keep in mind their responsibility to plan and guide at the mega-level. A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
A president cannot let the minutiae of any given day take their energy away from the longer-term planning.
You have been a college president since 1998. In that time, what is the most significant change in American Catholic higher education? How has the role of president changed?
Colleges and universities are having to rethink the mix of academic programs that they offer. Certain programs, which were the backbone of colleges and universities for five or six generations, are seeing dramatic drops in student interest. Simultaneously, colleges and universities must ask, “What are students interested in?” And they need to build those programs based on very careful market studies. For example, we have just finished rolling out a new master’s degree in cybersecurity.
Twenty-five years ago, students would see the president on campus every day. Now, easily 70 percent of a president’s work is outward-focused. When I am working with new presidents, I tell them that the care and feeding of their board and the care and feeding of their direct reports are among the most important things that they will do. It’s not glamorous work but it is necessary work.
In addition to St. Ambrose, there are several other schools in the Quad Cities. What collaboration exists among those institutions? In the increasingly competitive landscape of American higher education, what counsel can you provide about collaboration?
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration and I think that’s true. I instinctively want to find ways to collaborate, even with competitors.
For example, when I came to St. Ambrose, I called up the president of Augustana College just across the river and said, “Yes, I know that we are competitors, but there must be ways that we can collaborate.” One example is that we formed an international student organization with Augustana, so our international students can interact with a a larger group of people. This collaboration in no way hampers our ability to recruit to our own institution. In fact, it makes us a more attractive place.
They tell me that my middle name is collaboration...
You are the first woman to serve as president of St. Ambrose University. You were also president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), then the oldest Catholic liberal arts women’s college in the country. Can you say something about the role of women in Catholic higher education?
When I first became a dean in the early 1990s, I looked far and wide to find another woman [dean]. As time went on, that began to change. When I went to my first meeting as president in 1998, it was like going back in time. I saw some women, but it was heavily male. Now, of course, that has continued to change, and I am no longer an anomaly. When I arrived at St. Ambrose and people introduced me as the “first woman president,” I said that I look forward to the day when we stop using “woman” as an adjective.
I mentor women to consider the presidency because I was well-mentored by both men and women early in my career. Probably the skill that most people aspiring to the presidency feel least qualified to do is in the area of fundraising. So, I take people with me on visits to mentor them. As I’ve tried to help people get comfortable in the fundraising sphere, I suggest: 1) be well-prepared for your visit; 2) be interested in the people; and 3) pay close attention to their reaction.
Under your leadership, SMWC achieved record gains in enrollment. What is the most critical thing that colleges can do to develop an effective enrollment strategy?
My mantra is to find your niche and market it aggressively and consistently. You cannot be everything to everyone. Our niche at St. Ambrose, for example, is the area of health sciences. When I arrived, we had a good regional reputation, and now we have an excellent reputation that is becoming national.
The pressure on private institutions of 1,500 students or fewer is very intense. Going forward, smaller institutions would be well-advised to think about ways to connect and collaborate formally, not just informally, with larger institutions that share their values.
St. Ambrose University has a close relationship with the Diocese of Davenport. What advice can you provide other presidents concerning their school’s relationship with the Church?
First and foremost, collaboration with the bishop is important. Presidents of Catholic colleges should keep in close conversation with their bishop, talking with him and seeking his advice regularly. Whenever I was appointed to a new position, I wrote a letter to the bishop expressing my interest in working with him in a collaborative manner. Bishops are busy people too, but it’s necessary to meet with them.
Among the 200-plus Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, I have a relatively unique relationship with the bishop because he serves as the chair of our board. My experience with the bishop has been a productive and supportive relationship.
You entered religious life in 1965, the same year as the final session of Vatican II. Can you describe that time? What are your best hopes for the future direction of the Church?
I was a teenager and it was thrilling to watch the changes, especially in the liturgy. It opened up new possibilities to participate in the liturgy and be part of the Church.
As Pope Francis has been doing, my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor. Catholic colleges and universities can serve the Church by helping its students to understand their roles as adult Christians.
I believe enough in the message of Jesus Christ that I am willing to dedicate my entire life to it. A couple years ago, I celebrated my 50th jubilee. I do not worry about the message of Jesus Christ surviving. I believe it will continue to affect the world positively as it has for the past 2,000 years.
...my hope for the Church is to pay attention again to the heart of the Christian message, which is compassion, forgiveness, and outreach to the poor.
Students of St. Ambrose University give more than 178,000 service hours annually. The university’s mission statement aims for students to develop not only intellectually but also ethically and socially. Why is this important for Catholic higher education?
The service hours are placed in the context of the Church’s social teaching. Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that we have an obligation beyond our own personal well-being. Our core values at St. Ambrose emphasize peace and justice, which motivate us to care for the wider human family — and now we extend this to include care for the earth, too.
As a professor of English literature, what is one book every college student should read before graduating?
One book, without doubt, is Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Not only because the characters are delightful and it has a happy ending and it is beautifully written, but because we have two characters who are wrong in their initial assessment of things. They are wrong because they are not fully aware of who they are. But as they become more self-aware, they are able to realize the mistakes that they have made, to admit that they were wrong, and to change their behavior. That for me is the great vision of what it means to grow up. Even though I’ve taught this book several times, it is always rewarding to see the lightbulb going off in the minds of the students.
Bassam M. Deeb
Position: Bassam Deeb is the sixth president of Trocaire College, a career-oriented Catholic college in Buffalo, NY, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1958. Trocaire offers degrees and workforce development programs in healthcare, business, hospitality, and technology, and strives to empower students toward personal enrichment, dignity, and self-worth.
Career highlights: Worked in higher education for more than 30 years, primarily in roles within student affairs and enrollment management. Most recently, he served at Niagara County Community College as vice president for student services. Deeb was recently named to the boards of both the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Conference for Mercy Higher Education.
Education: B.A., geography, State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo; Ed.M., student personnel, SUNY at Buffalo; Ph.D., higher education administration, Kent State University.
Family: Wife Jodi and their children, Emily and Matthew.
Fun Fact: He is a homebrewer and pseudo-gourmet cook, but can never replicate any of his creations!
Q. Prior to your managerial experience, you had significant experience with student affairs. Has that been helpful to you in fostering student engagement at Trocaire?
A. Yes, to the extent that we're involved with student life. As you know, we're a different institution, in the sense that we're career-oriented. The engagement here takes on a different dimension than it does at a traditional institution. There are no residence halls, no athletic teams, no campus recreation facilities, and those kinds of things. Our student engagement has been primarily around the academic programs that the students participate in. To fill in the gap, we have instituted a town hall meeting concept with students. Every semester, I and the other leaders of the institution participate, both in person and also through an internal broadcast for students to be able to listen in and ask questions. So our student engagement takes a little bit of a different form.
Trocaire has an emphasis in workforce development. What is the intentionality behind that? Is it a response to the current career-focused narrative in higher education?
There are two ways I can answer your question. One, it has to do with the legacy of the institution, as an institution in the Mercy tradition. The Sisters of Mercy, when they came to Buffalo 160 years ago, focused primarily on providing support in the fields of education and healthcare. For a while, they operated two major hospitals, which became the nucleus for Catholic Health, a healthcare system here in western New York. The two largest hospitals within that system are Mercy hospitals.
That’s one reason. As a result of that, when the college — which was started in order to educate members of the religious order of the Sisters of Mercy — opened to lay members, it was primarily providing a career orientation through their academic programs, which still have a liberal arts base. The career orientation piece was driven by supporting the other ministries of the Sisters of Mercy.
The second way is that over the last 20-plus years, the college has adopted the philosophy of maintaining and expanding a curriculum that is in line with serving the population that lives in western New York and the employability of that population. In the last 20 years, this community has focused primarily on healthcare, hospitality, and tourism and dabbled a little bit in business technology. As a result, the college has aligned its academic offerings to match, because 99 percent of the students who go to Trocaire are from western New York and they stay in western New York. These individuals require ongoing continuing education and further certifications — another reason to invest in workforce development.
How are the values of the Sisters of Mercy — dignity, respect, and empowerment — lived out by your students on campus?
We do a couple of things. First, about 85 percent of our students are in the healthcare profession. We tailor their clinical experiences to provide a broad exposure to a variety of patients and clientele so that they can see the Mercy values in action during their clinical experience.
The second thing is we've mandated a graduation requirement across the curriculum for all students that they be involved in a service-learning experience related to their curriculum. What we call the Mercy Action Project requires the student to engage in ways that promote and promulgate the critical concerns of the Sisters and our legacy as an institution in serving the community, as we have served it for 60-plus years. So, we try to take two bites of the apple to provide that.
The Mercy Action Project requires the student to engage in ways that promote and promulgate the critical concerns of the Sisters ...
When events have necessitated, Trocaire has responded by donating to disaster relief efforts and standing up for the rights of immigrant students. How is peace and justice reflective of your Catholic mission and Mercy heritage?
First and foremost, there is an element of education that has to take place. Our position has been that our job is to provide a wider understanding for our students about the issues and the impact of those issues on society as a whole. So, there's an educational component. Obviously, we provide programs for students to participate in discussions. There is a program that's run from our Office of Mission, Ministry and Service called “Toward the Common Good.” We take substantive topics and we bring in some experts in the field who try to provoke thought and consideration. But remember, because of the academic focus of our programs, we rely heavily on our faculty to use contemporary topics in conversations around how to best react to those things. At the end of the day, there needs to be an ultimate goal of caring for someone else who is part of our community and part of our neighborhood.
Is that focus on the neighborhood what has shaped Trocaire’s role in revitalizing the local economy?
Absolutely, because those are the choices we make about the programs we offer, the way we bring students in, the wraparound services that we provide them — it is all very locally focused. It's a purposeful choice that we've made. And as a result of that, we've created a niche for ourselves within a community that has 21 institutions of higher education (and seven Catholic institutions of higher education) for about a million people. The density of the educational opportunities is significant, so you have to separate yourself from the others in a positive way. And the way we see it, what we do and the way we do it is a positive way of doing it, versus just a competitive marketing tactic.
As an immigrant yourself, how do you approach the issue of immigration on behalf of your college?
As president of the college, I want students to understand that there is value in dealing with individuals who are less fortunate. It's a little easier for me in this community, because this is a community that has historically been open to immigrants. And those who are second- and third-generation have tried to maintain connectivity to their ethnic heritage...
Our goal is to be more engaged with organizations that promote awareness and diversity, whether that's the National Federation of Just Communities or the International Institute, which is a group of individuals who work exclusively with new immigrants, the “new Americans,” to provide not only a smooth transition to the culture but also resources so that as they face discrimination or other challenges, they have supporters, people who could advocate for them.
For me, it's making sure that we as an institution provide support to that new population. One of the things that we've done recently is a global action project where we've identified about 70 students (out of 1,300) who have come from significantly different educational backgrounds. All of them are either immigrants or refugees. We try to find ways to provide support that wouldn't necessarily be required for someone coming into the institution from a traditional background. That support may be giving them an opportunity to connect with other students who have faced similar challenges, or we may need to tap into resources in the community for additional language enhancement.
It's not driven by the fact that I'm an immigrant myself. It's in line with what this institution has done historically.
As president of the college, I want students to understand that there is value in dealing with individuals who are less fortunate.
What is your overall enrollment strategy and in what way does that encourage diversity and inclusion?
Right now, about 30 percent of our students are members of underrepresented populations. …We've done a couple of different things [to increase that figure]. For example, we were recently awarded a grant for diversity and inclusion in the field of nursing, to increase the number of minorities going into nursing. Historically, that pipeline has not been easily accessible, especially when dealing with individuals who may be graduating from institutions that have not focused heavily on academics. We also have an opportunity program for academically promising, economically disadvantaged students that's partially funded by the state. We've expanded that to about 40 students…. We work with them, try to upgrade their skill set, so they can be ready to make a choice within the academic offerings that we have.
Last but not least, we've tried to use not just a for-credit pathway, but also a not-for-credit pathway. We are the third largest provider of workforce development training in this community. Part of what we do is create opportunities for people to be exposed to some of the programs that we offer in the healthcare professions that could lead them into pursuing for-credit programs. We create partnerships with agencies and centers that specifically work with underrepresented populations and underemployed populations, as a way to positively impact enrollment and also be of service to the community.
Your work experience spans private and public, small and large institutions. From your perspective, what do you think the future holds for Catholic higher education?
The private sector, as a whole, is under some stress. I think religiously affiliated institutions are probably under additional stress, Catholic institutions in particular. For the most part, the bulk of the Catholic institutions that operate today are not wealthy institutions. They are institutions that have always been about mission. And while, in order to be able to fulfill mission, you have to have money, we've operated with the understanding that as long as we can break even, we should be okay.
… We need to be smart about the way we operate and find means that could provide us some room to tap into existing resources, or use them to leverage additional resources that can encourage us and our people to be more entrepreneurial.
Sometimes institutions, particularly small Catholic institutions, focus so much on the mission and what we're trying to do with the population we're serving, that we fail to look at things 10 years down the road.
Sometimes institutions, particularly small Catholic institutions, focus so much on the mission and what we're trying to do with the population we're serving, that we fail to look at things 10 years down the road. Now, we're obligated to be forward-looking and not just reactive to what's happening around us. Some of the work that's being done at Trocaire is to raise the question of sustainability today, rather than wait until someone asks, “Are we sustainable?” It is critical. And a lot of that is already happening on all college campuses. It’s helpful to be able to be more transparent about that, in a good way, because it shows a willingness to evaluate what we've been successful at for multiple decades as Catholic institutions, and allows us to create a strategy that could make it possible for all of us, or at least the majority of us, to continue to serve the populations we serve.
Just because we're a career-oriented institution that has a base in the liberal arts, we're still a Catholic institution in the Mercy tradition. And it is, for me, important that when people think of Catholic institutions of higher education, they recognize the diversity that exists within that sector. We're not all the same, and some of us have not only a service mission, but are also attentive to the location in which we live.
Jason N. Adsit
Position: Jason Adsit is the seventh president of Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, a liberal arts college founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1959.
Career Highlights: Dean, School of Arts, Sciences, and Education, D’Youville College; director, Educational Leadership Doctoral Program, D’Youville College; associate provost, academic administration, University of Rochester; director, Teaching and Learning Center, State University of New York at Buffalo; and assistant dean, Institutional Research and Assessment, Johns Hopkins University.
Education: B.A., philosophy, American University; Ph.D., philosophy, SUNY Buffalo.
Family: Wife, Heather, and their five children, Stella, Ronin, Marah, Jackson, and Lee Carter.
Fun Fact: Adsit and his wife are avid runners and often go for runs together.
Q. This is your first experience as a university president, yet you’ve come with considerable administrative and some executive experience. How do you go from being a philosophy scholar to leading a liberal arts college?
A. I’m very fortunate and blessed to be surrounded by very smart people. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have unbelievable mentors and be surrounded by fabulous faculty, colleagues, and administrative staff. And I’ve just tried to soak in as much information from them as I can. And that’s true here, as well. We’ve got fabulous faculty, fabulous student leaders, a wonderfully supportive board, and I have great administrative and leadership colleagues here.
So, the presidency wasn’t something you had aspired to?
As I told the campus when I first got here, I was not looking to be president of just any college — I wanted to be the president of Mount Saint Mary College. When people first reached out to me and when I was first investigating the institution, I sort of went undercover at that point. You talk to alumni. You visit campus quietly. You do as much reading as you can on the institution. And what I found was they have unbelievably dedicated students, alumni, and stakeholder groups here in Hudson Valley. People feel very passionately about the success of this institution. I really wanted to investigate that more and be a part of that. I was not out there as someone who set himself on the fast track to being a president.
Mount Saint Mary College was established by the Dominican Sisters with study, prayer, service, and community as its pillars. How does the college maintain that Dominican tradition?
The four pillars of Dominican charism are alive and well here. We’re very, very fortunate to still have many of the Sisters from the founding order actively engaged on campus. They serve on our board of trustees. We have several who are still here on the faculty and many who live in the area. They spend a great deal of time here with our students, with our faculty, and certainly with me. They’ve been an unbelievable support system for me in understanding the mission of the institution, the history of the institution, and where we fit in as part of the greater Hudson Valley region.
We’re very, very fortunate to still have many of the Sisters from the founding order actively engaged on campus.
How would you describe the value of the college’s Catholic and Dominion roots? What does the Mount do to ensure those values are fully assimilated by students?
The institution has, since its inception, been very focused on providing opportunity. And providing those opportunities not only for students to come here and learn, but also providing opportunities for our community as a whole to engage in an area that needs it a great deal. Newburgh, New York has had its struggles over the past 50 years. It has a very high poverty rate. Historically the school system has struggled, although they have some wonderful leadership now. The Mount is deeply engaged in working with the community, the archdiocese, and all the parishes here in the area to help support learning and to help support schools that provide opportunity for students as young as kindergarten and first grade.
Here on campus, we have a mission office that works very closely with the Dominican Sisters of Hope. We also have a Catholic and Dominican Institute that’s headed by the same individual who serves as our mission officer. They offer a full slate of programming for students. We have a group of students who are Dominican Scholars. They meet regularly for readings, for thoughtfulness, for prayer, and for opportunities to serve the community through raising funds and going out and doing mission work, particularly during cold seasons.
We have a thriving philosophy and religious studies division, and they’re actively engaged in the intellectual life on campus on both the teaching and learning sides. The head of our faculty senate is the chair of that division. We run an annual conference every summer on St. Thomas Aquinas and it brings in speakers from around the globe and participants from around the country. It’s an amazing group of high-powered individuals coming here to have very deep discussions about St. Thomas and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition as a whole.
We keep it alive in our service side, but we also keep it alive on the intellectual side and that search for truth. “Teach Me the Truth” is our mission and our motto, as well.
About 40 percent of the Catholic Church in America is Latino, and the Mount has a sizable Latino population. What is your campus doing to meet the needs of this young and growing demographic?
You bring up a really good point and we’ve been having these discussions with the other Dominican institutions. We have a lot of work to do. We, and a lot of our fellow institutions nationwide, need to be much more intentional. We need to build pipelines into school districts and with the Latino community starting at a very early age, so that these students know that they have a broad range of opportunities to attend private, Catholic institutions, as well as the wide range of other opportunities that they have. We’re working very hard with New York City schools and with Newburgh City schools. We’re building out very specific initiatives to target the Spanish-speaking population in our area, which is growing by leaps and bounds, through more bilingual programming, more bilingual literature, and by hosting cultural events here on campus. We’re also doing the legwork of getting out into schools, talking with students, and talking with parents very early on, so they know that this is the place where they can not only come to school, but also be welcomed and thrive.
We need to build pipelines into school districts and with the Latino community starting at a very early age, so that these students know that they have a broad range of opportunities to attend private, Catholic institutions...
While you were at D’Youville College, you developed an online MBA program. How did that work out and are you considering similar programming at Mount Saint Mary College?
Oh, it’s a fun story. We were very fortunate to have one of the local companies reach out to us at D’Youville College. They had asked local colleges and universities to submit information on developing an online master’s program. A lot of the other institutions in the region struggled to meet the parameters of the company’s needs. We came in — and we had a very entrepreneurial president — and she said, “Let’s find a way to say yes.”
So we had a great many negotiations with National Grid, which is a large organization here in New York State. We had many conversations with them about design and delivery modalities, how often we would offer the classes, how big the cohorts would be. That was a good two- to three-month negotiation with the company and then we launched our first cohort. I believe they are now on their third cohort of National Grid employees working their way through the MBA program. It’s been wildly successful and I think it’s a model a lot of institutions should look at. It certainly is one that we are considering here, where you form very creative partnerships with local organizations that have a specific degree need and you build [a program] around them, as opposed to going out and telling the world what the world needs.
I’ve noticed that the Mount tends to use practical approaches to touch upon various social justice issues. For example, you held a poverty simulation experience for students, to highlight the stark realities faced by low-income families. How do such practical experiences help form the students?
First of all, it helps students see that the world is their classroom. There is nothing more powerful than when you move from a lecture or a textbook or even a discussion in class and then suddenly, you start to make it a part of your lived experience. It might be engaging with people who have gone through some series of experiences you’ve only read about in newspapers or in a textbook, and actually sitting down with them and hearing their stories and understanding their narrative.
Moving to the next level with simulation exercises, students suddenly understand that theory goes out the window …. And it’s discussions of empathy, it’s discussions of understanding the other, and taking the other’s position and trying to see the world through their eyes. That, repeated over time, has a cumulative effect with our students, so that they are much more attuned to seeing the world from a broad aperture, as opposed to always seeing it through the narrow focus of self-interest. Those practices, repeated over time, have had a wonderful impact, not just on the experiences that students have, but also doubling back to re-inform the curriculum and curriculum development.
One of the early things you did when you became president was to conduct a critical review of the college and following that, you made the tough decision to lay off some of your administrators. How can Catholic higher ed achieve increased efficiencies required of these times, while also adhering to our values?
You have to be very thoughtful in your review of how the institution is operating. You have to stay very true and focused on your mission. You have to be data-informed. …We are in a time when private Catholic colleges that look like the Mount, and there are many that are out there, are highly tuition-dependent. We need to understand that, at the end of the day, our decisions have to be made in the best interest of the mission and the students. These students chose us over lots of other places they could have gone. We have to understand that when we’re talking about developing efficiencies, whether those are administrative or they’re in program development or investments, etc., [we have to ask,] what is in the best interest of the mission? What is in the best interest of the students? That’s really what’s guided how we’ve made some of those decisions. You have to make some very difficult calls in some of those cases, where you are either reducing operations in one area or providing opportunities for individuals on campus to move into new and larger roles.
We need to understand that, at the end of the day, our decisions have to be made in the best interest of the mission and the students.
Is there a way that Catholic colleges and universities can think differently about their approach to long-term sustainable revenue and enrollments?
There’s a really powerful message that Catholic colleges and universities can put out there in a time of great turbulence. I think sometimes colleges and universities nationwide in their quest for dollars and for students, they sometimes forget that students who are coming up today have lived a very different life than someone who is of my vintage. They’ve been through economic crises like none of us had seen when we were growing up. They saw their friends and neighbors lose their homes. They have never known something other than being at war, in many cases. They see a time of great political turbulence. I think that there’s a real desire on the part of students today to want to have an understanding of greater purpose, and they want to attend institutions that really do look at the whole being and the whole person. That’s going to be, if we can use stark language, a competitive advantage for Catholic colleges and universities. We do that as part of our very nature. It’s in our DNA.
I hear that when I talk with our students on campus. They want to lead lives of purpose and as long as we can continue to provide them with avenues for that, I think we’re going to be just fine.
What is your greatest hope for your students?
My greatest hope for my students is that when they come here they feel challenged, they feel welcomed, they feel that what they’re doing here matters, and that when they leave here, they do lead their life’s purpose.
You know what? I’m having the time of my life. This is a fabulous place. Our Dominican colleagues around the country have been unbelievably supportive and the Catholic colleges and universities here in the Hudson Valley region really do look out for one another. I’ll give you an example: We had a dormitory that we had to temporarily close down three weeks into the fall semester. It was the freshman dorm, so 214 freshman women had to be relocated. I was receiving calls left and right from my presidential colleagues at other Catholic institutions offering support, offering to send mattresses up here for them, or calling to just give me an opportunity to have someone to lean on. That was really heartwarming to see institutions, which in many instances compete with one another for students, ultimately understand what’s really important. I know that I have a wonderful set of supportive colleagues not only here, but also in other Catholic and Dominican institutions in the area. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Rev. Thomas B. Curran, SJ
Position: Rev. Thomas B. Curran, SJ, is the 14th president of Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. A native of Philadelphia, Fr. Curran has become a well-respected member of the Kansas City community, serving on the Board of Directors of the Civic Council of Kansas City and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. He also serves on the boards of St. Joseph’s University and John Carroll University.
Career Highlights: Before being named president of Rockhurst in 2006, Father Curran served as associate vice president for university relations and assistant to the president at Regis University. Before that, he was president of the Salesianum School in Wilmington, Delaware, a Catholic high school operated by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. While in that role, he founded Nativity Preparatory School, a middle school for low-income boys, where he also served as executive director.
Education: B.A., politics, DeSales University; M.A., theology, DeSales School of Theology; M.A., liberal studies, public policy and government, Georgetown University; J.D., the Catholic University of America; M.B.A., Saint Joseph’s University.
Religious: Fr. Curran is a member of the Society of Jesus, making his final vows in May 2015. Prior to entering the Jesuit order, he was an ordained member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales since 1984.
Fun Fact: Fr. Curran has visited all 13 presidential libraries in the United States. “I’ve written about them and used them as models of leadership. There’s one more that needs to be seen and that’s President Obama’s. It isn’t finished yet, but when it is, I will go there, as well.”
Q. Though you’ve been a priest for 30 years, you are fairly new to the Jesuit order. What attracted you to it and how do you translate the philosophy of Jesuit higher education to your leadership?
A. I have been trained in both the Salesian and the Ignatian traditions. The Salesian tradition is rooted in Saint Francis DeSales. Francis DeSales did the spiritual exercises and he maintained a Jesuit spiritual director all his life. The Salesian spirituality grew out of Ignatian spirituality. … Through my Jesuit education and my Salesian education, I received the best of both worlds. Having been educated in Jesuit schools and then working in them, I thought I clearly understood that a vocation is dynamic, that one continues to respond to God over the course of a lifetime. Yet, when the call to be a member of this society came back again and again, I realized I had not thoroughly addressed this concept.
To gain a deeper understanding, I went on a retreat and during that 30-day retreat, I raised a question to God: “Do you, or do you not, want me to be a member of the Society of Jesus?” The answer came back saying, “What I want of you is a deeper relationship.” I said, “No. The question I asked you, God is, ‘Do you, or do you not, want me to be a member of the society?’” The answer came back, “I want a deeper relationship.” At which point I thought, “You’re not listening to me. I asked, ‘Do you, or do you not?’” The answer came back a third time saying, “No. You’re the one not listening. I want a deeper relationship. Listen to what I’m saying.”
The next message I received from God was, “I don’t call you to be a Salesian or a Jesuit. I call you to a deeper relationship. Those are means, and if this deepens that relationship, I’d bless it, but I call you to a deeper relationship.” That brought me to a place of great freedom. It was in that freedom that I pursued full entrance into the Society of Jesus. I was already in final vows when I knelt before the Superior General of the Society of Saint Francis DeSales. I was asked, “Why is it that you seek entrance into the Society of Jesus?” My answer was simple, “For the salvation of my soul.” It was a means. It’s a means that I continue to try to incorporate in the way I live.
In Jesuit parlance, we speak about a way of proceeding. This process continues to deepen my response to God. One does not need to be a Jesuit to be working at a Jesuit school. Being a Jesuit and being the leader of a school gives me an opportunity to demonstrate and commit to that process and to be authentic. I hope my leadership reflects, more than anything, an authenticity of who I am. Francis DeSales says, “Be who you are and be it well.” That was the platform for me to take final vows to become a member of the Society of Jesus. …
My identity as a Jesuit is a means to deepening my relationship with God. My work at Rockhurst is a means to deepening that relationship, because ultimately all of us are called into leadership. While we’re called because of our skillset and perhaps our abilities — and there may be an alignment of the two — there’s a difference between being recruited and being called. Recruitment is about those skill sets. The call is being invited to internal transformation.
My work at Rockhurst is a means to deepening that relationship [with God], because ultimately all of us are called into leadership.
On a personal level, what forms your faith and how do you instill Ignatian values in your students?
The heart of it is a call to personal transformation. It’s a call to allow God, in the person of Jesus Christ, to accompany you and you to accompany God. In the accompaniment and the companionship, you then extend that invitation to others. In the Ignatian tradition, it’s the experience of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. You’re invited into that community and you fully embrace it by inviting others into that relationship, as well. For Ignatius, it’s all about companionship, the companionship of Jesus or, as I like to say on campus, we are all companions.
From your vantage point as both a religious and an executive, what do you consider to be the most pressing challenge for the future of Catholic higher education?
The most pressing challenge for Catholic higher education today is being faithful to the mission. The crises come, and the crises will pass. I like to call it, the crisis du jour. Today, it’s enrollment; tomorrow, it’s finances. The next day, it’s personnel. You just move from crisis to crisis. All you’re really doing is managing. At the heart of this — whether it’s enrollment or finances or personnel — is, how does the mission inform? How does the mission animate you? How does the mission invite you to that intentionality? … That mission will provide a vision of where it is you want to go.
Schools don’t close because of lack of money or lack of students. Schools close because there was a lack of vision. The articulation of the mission and the pursuit of that mission comes about because you’ve been attentive and faithful to your mission.
Schools don’t close because of lack of money or lack of students. Schools close because there was a lack of vision.
What core values distinguish a Jesuit graduate from Rockhurst?
I like to say our Jesuit graduates have four C’s. First, they’re truly competent. They know their stuff. They’re not just good at what they do, they’re excellent and they exude competence.
Second, they are people of compassion. Though they may not be able to resolve an issue, they willingly enter the chaos of a situation. They enter the chaos of their own lives. They enter the chaos of others. They’re people of compassion.
Third, they’re people of conscience, so they’re ethical. They’re moral.
Fourth, they’re people of courage. They’re willing to be innovative. They’re willing to take risks. They’re willing to grow in, what Ignatius calls, holy indifference and recognize that they’re not called to be successful. They’re called to be faithful. Faithfulness consists in that authenticity of being competent, compassionate, courageous, and people of conscience.
Rockhurst is firmly grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Can you expound on what that means, in terms of your modes of inquiry?
Commitment to the liberal arts is commitment to an integrated, well-rounded person, someone who brings appreciation for the arts and beauty into the public square. We engage the world. We don’t see the world as evil or as dark. We see the world as good, but capable of being made better. Drawing upon the arts and the reflection and experience of that art in a demonstrable way is good citizenry.
You don’t shy away from publicly taking a stance on political issues. For example, you put out a statement regarding the situation in Nicaragua. When social justice issues are involved, is that a necessary role for leaders in Catholic higher education?
I don’t see myself as political. I see myself and our institution as being faithful to the mission. The mission means being faithful to the gospel message. The gospel message is one of adherence to and a promotion of human dignity and the common good. That’s the essence of Catholic Social Teaching. We’re all created in the image and likeness of God. It is in that likeness of God that we are called to bring about community, to foster the common good, and to encourage public virtue.
I don’t see myself as political. I see myself and our institution as being faithful to the mission.
What spiritual guidance did you offer your students during the clergy sex abuse crisis?
There are several things here. We needed to engage the issue, to speak to it honestly and authentically. We needed to apologize and ask for forgiveness and hope that forgiveness would be provided. Many have forgiven. Some are still processing. Others may not be able to forgive. I hope at some point we can experience that forgiveness.
What I never want people to do is forget. Nor should we forget who we are and what we’ve done. While I have not been accused or been involved with the abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, I am a priest and I am a leader in the church. Collectively, I need to stand with my brother priests and bishops and clerics and say that we’ve done wrong and not just sinned, in some cases we’ve committed crimes.
There’s a difference between sin and crime. We ask forgiveness for sins, but there also needs to be appropriate retribution and punishment for the crimes. I want to be sure opportunities are available to make that statement, to ask for that forgiveness, for people to know how and where to report abuses. There’s a whole variety of things that need to take place. It’s also an opportunity for us, as church leaders, to look at our whole construct and leadership. It is not just transparency, but greater oversight that is needed. Leadership must be engaged on all levels, most especially women’s leadership in the church must be addressed. These things are in dire need of serious discussion.
Rockhurst focuses on learning, leadership, and service. To that end, how does the university incorporate instruction of the intellect, training of the will, and formation of character into the curriculum?
It’s not just an intellectual exercise. Rockhurst is where leaders learn. You don’t come to Rockhurst to become a leader. You arrive at Rockhurst as a leader. Leadership is being intentional, and here that intention receives reflection. It’s taking what’s experienced at the school, in terms of intellectual formation, and integrating it with what’s happening in the heart. What is that doing to you in terms of the example that you will provide? It’s ongoing transformation. It’s vocational. A vocation is dynamic.
Among its accolades, Rockhurst earned a community engagement classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2010. Why is community partnership essential to your institution?
Rockhurst is an entity. It’s a person. Much like each person is called, in the Jesuit tradition, to be engaged in the world, so the person of Rockhurst needs to be engaged in the world, locally and communally, regionally, worldwide. It’s just a natural outgrowth of who you say you are as a person – or in this case, an entity.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I like to see myself more as a prism, not the source of the light, but rather allowing the light to shine through me and being an instrument of God’s work. I’m led to think of this as not so much what I’ve done or what we have done, though I’m certainly grateful for what we have done collectively. But what’s most important to me is, have I throughout this process been authentic? Have I allowed myself to be God’s instrument that people might benefit from that? Again, back to accompaniment. This is not about Tom Curran, this is about me being an instrument in leading that.
Deanne Horner D’Emilio
Position: Deanne D’Emilio is the sixth president of Gwynedd Mercy University, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1948.
Career Highlights: In addition to being president, D’Emilio currently serves as a professor of management in the Gwynedd Mercy University School of Business and Education. Previously, she was dean of the School of Management and the Graduate College and provost and vice president for academic affairs at Carlow University; she also served Mount Aloysius College as associate academic dean and chair of the Division of Humanities, Social Science and Professional Studies. D’Emilio also served as an arbitrator in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. She is licensed to practice law in the commonwealth and did so until 1998, when she began pursuing a career in higher education.
Education: B.A. with honors, education with a minor in religion, Westminster College; M.A., higher education and student affairs, Bowling Green State University; J.D. with honors, University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Family: Husband Matt; son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Kelsey; and daughter Nia.
Fun Fact: She is a big Disney World fan! “Instead of buying a ticket to go in to the parks, I have an annual pass, which means I can go anytime throughout the year, whenever I want and wherever I want…. I’ve probably been there about 45 times.”
Q. How has your past work at Carlow University benefited you at Gwynedd Mercy University?
A. I have only worked at Catholic, Mercy institutions, Mount Aloysius College and Carlow. The missions are very similar and, of course, the founding order is the same. They both focus on Catholic Social Teaching and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Serving as provost at Carlow gave me a closer look at the major issues in Catholic higher education. Being on the president’s cabinet there, I was able to get a detailed view of those issues and, because Carlow is in the Northeast and deals with similar challenges, I was able to get experience addressing some of those concerns.
You have served at Mercy institutions for almost 20 years. Was that a strategic decision or happenstance?
It started out as happenstance, before I ended up in 1998 at Mount Aloysius. But after that it was absolutely intentional. I stayed at Mount Aloysius for 15 years because I loved the mission of the school and of the Sisters of Mercy and of Catholic higher education. However, I did not love driving 65 miles each way, [which I did] when I worked at Mount Aloysius.
I drove between 500 and 600 miles a week. I stayed there for 15 years, doing that, because I loved it. When the opportunity was presented to go to Carlow, that commute was one reason I considered it, the other being that it was Catholic and Mercy. When I was offered the presidency at Gwynedd Mercy, I would not have been interested had it not been a Mercy school with a mission I’m so passionate about.
When I was offered the presidency at Gwynedd Mercy, I would not have been interested had it not been a Mercy school with a mission I’m so passionate about.
Can you sum up the Mercy charism and the ways those Catholic values are lived out at Gwynedd Mercy?
The Mercy charism mirrors Catholic Social Teaching: respect for the individual, integrity in word and deed, service to society, and social justice in a very diverse world. Add the critical concerns of the Sisters, which are the earth, non-violence, immigration, racism, and women, and we have the Mercy charism.
We try to inculcate these core values and critical concerns in our students in everything we do. They are part of our mission and part of our required curriculum. For example, we have a class called “Wonder Women, Guardians of the Galaxy.” It is about the critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy.
You mentioned immigration, racism, women, non-violence, and the earth. Those values could largely be summed up as hospitality, right?
Yes, Mercy hospitality. When we were crafting our strategic plans, we chose four standards of quality, in addition to our goals and objectives. One of them is Mercy hospitality.
What are some of the initiatives you have going that reflects that value?
Mercy hospitality is demonstrated in some of the things we do through campus ministry and our alternative spring break programs. Students go not only to places in the United States, but also to Haiti and other foreign countries. Students also hear from the Sisters about issues related to immigration.
You recently purchased a new property and you’ve also added a new graduate program in Occupational Therapy. What is your overall goal for growth and expansion?
We’re looking at many different variables in that equation: numbers of students, types of students, types of programs. We want to be strategic about how we approach growth. New programs will be a big part of the equation, but we are investing in market research to make sure we are responding appropriately to market demands and the post-graduate needs of students. The purchase of the property was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Adjacent to our campus, it’s a beautiful piece of property with a great building on it. We’re considering how it can best fit with our strengths, which are in health care, and also with other existing programs. Then, perhaps we can add to that.
We want to be strategic about how we approach growth. New programs will be a big part of the equation, but we are investing in market research to make sure we are responding appropriately to market demands...
Could you describe what it means to be a distinctive Mercy graduate?
That’s actually a very current conversation on our campus. A distinctive Mercy graduate is a student who understands the Mercy core values and critical concerns and is able to translate them to both a successful career and a meaningful life.
Meaningful life according to whom? Is there a definition of what a “meaningful life” is?
Of course, it’s subject to someone’s own interpretation. We mean it in terms of what we value here at Gwynedd Mercy University.
You’re a lawyer by training, though you have a bachelor’s in education. You practiced law for a while before switching to a career in academia. How was that transition? Did you always envision a career in higher education?
The transition was not hard. I have always considered myself a teacher at heart. After I practiced law for a while I decided to look for a teaching job. I did some adjunct [work] at the end of my legal career. Teaching was not part of the transition for me. When I did practice, I was in court quite a bit and there are a lot of similarities in being in court and representing clients, to teaching.
I can’t say that I had a grand goal of being in higher education. It was just something that I wanted to try. It was always teaching that I saw myself doing. I did not plan to end up in administration and certainly not as a university president. I have always chosen to do things that I find meaningful and give me purpose. That is how I have ended up where I’ve ended up.
What are some of the synergies between teaching and being a lawyer?
I was in court often, in front of a judge or other people, trying to be persuasive and that kind of thing. I gained skill in how to explain things and get a point across. That’s very helpful in the classroom. Being sincere when you are in front of students is an important trait to have. I’ve always felt the same as when I was practicing law, both with clients and with judges and other attorneys. If you lose your credibility, you are done.
If you lose your credibility, you are done.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of leading a Catholic institution? You are the second lay president of Gwynedd Mercy. Are there specific challenges from that, as well?
The first challenge is specific to both Catholic and small, private institutions. That’s because of where we are located. We are in the second most competitive market in the United States [outside Philadelphia]. Given the demographics of where we find ourselves, that’s a challenge for all of us, being able to have a clear message and distinguish yourself among the sea of competitors, many of whom are like we are in terms of their Catholic foundation and belief systems and so forth. That’s a challenge. We need to be able to articulate our value and our distinct nature as we move forward.
As far as being the second lay president, the Sisters of Mercy are well aware that their numbers are dwindling. They are aware that they will be led, in the future, by lay individuals. To me, it’s more like a sacred trust that we hold with the Sisters who founded the institution. We have a covenant with them, to make sure that we carry on that mission and the core values that the Sisters have. They’ve been very intentional about that.
Can you talk about your priorities since taking leadership almost two years ago?
We have just completed our strategic plan. Our first goal is the distinctive teaching and learning piece: What programs do we offer? How are we choosing those programs? Are they balanced? Are they responsive to the market? And are we supporting the faculty and staff in order to say that we have excellence in our healthcare and professional education that we provide in a Catholic context? That’s a tall order. That’s definitely a priority, without question: excellence and distinctiveness in teaching and learning.
Then, related to what I was talking about, is that distinctive Mercy experience. We want to be able to really articulate what that is for students and how it’s different from other institutions. We want to make sure that our programs have high-impact practices, that we have experiential learning throughout, and that we can document all that. Those are really concrete things that are priorities, all related to the student experience and also somewhat related to distinctive teaching and learning.
Related to that is the brand: making sure that we are able to document and talk about that value proposition so that people understand what it means, what the Gwynedd Mercy brand is. The other piece is internal, related to how we work here on our campus. Are we making data-informed decisions? Are we efficient in how we do things? Do we have that innovative and inclusive culture that we seek? Those are highlights of the priorities that we will be looking at and moving forward.
A. Gabriel Esteban
Position: A. Gabriel Esteban is the 12th president and first lay leader of DePaul University in Chicago. Founded by the Vincentians in 1898, the university takes its name from the 17th-century French priest, Saint Vincent de Paul.
Career Highlights: Served as president of Seton Hall University from 2011 to 2017, after having served as provost of the university; previously served as provost of the University of Central Arkansas and held senior-level leadership positions, as well as faculty roles in higher education institutions in Arkansas, Texas, and the Philippines. Esteban is a member of the Economic Club, Chicago Club, and Commercial Club; serves on the board of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; and is an emeritus board member of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education.
Education: B.A., mathematics, University of the Philippines; M.A., Japanese business studies, Chaminade University; M.B.A., University of the Philippines; Ph.D., business administration, University of California.
Family: Wife, Josephine; daughter Ysabella is a pediatrician and son-in-law Matthew is an internist; and Maximus, the Estebans’ 13-year-old rescue dog.
Fun Fact: He is a basketball aficionado and former player, as well as a self-professed foodie. “I’ll eat just about anything.”
Q. You’re the first lay president at DePaul, a position that may feel familiar to you, given that you were also the first lay president at Seton Hall University since the early 1980s, when the bylaws were changed to require a priest to be president. How do you maintain a focus on long-term viability while also advancing mission for the country’s largest Catholic university?
A. One of the first things we did when I joined DePaul was embark on a strategic planning process to address that very issue, which is, how do you look long-term when you have short-term concerns, from a business standpoint? Sometimes you can get distracted from a long-term vision because of day-to-day operations. A large part relies on having a commonly shared vision on what the institution could look like and a plan as to how to move forward.
It was very helpful to work on a strategic plan at DePaul because it helped clarify and strengthen our vision of what the future should look like. As we went through our budgeting process, we set aside money for the strategic plan. And, as we speak, we have different groups meeting on various aspects of the plan. One taskforce, called DePaul Tomorrow, is addressing the long-term vision. We’re asking them to look not only six years out, but ten, 20, 30 years into the future, to envision what DePaul might need to look like well into the future and how we might be able to sustain our mission going forward.
How would you sum up DePaul’s Vincentian values and in what concrete ways are those values instilled in your students?
One of the things that struck me when I was interviewed at DePaul was the consistency with which the Vincentian values were being shared, not only with the students, but faculty, staff, and board members. The commitment to the students was a large focus. Many of our students are first-generation, lower income, Pell-eligible students, students of color, or marginalized students. If you look at the profile of the students we bring in every year, it’s consistent with our values. It’s why the Vincentians founded DePaul in 1898 — to serve, at that time, the German and Irish immigrants who happened to be Catholic and Jewish, because they did not have higher ed opportunities. That has continued to this day.
In everything we do, there is a very strong commitment to social justice. Our students put in hundreds of thousands of hours in volunteer work. Just next to our campus, St. Vincent de Paul Church is the only Catholic soup kitchen in Chicago that is open six days a week, and our students volunteer there. The Vincentians were founded to serve the urban poor in Paris. Here we are, in a great city, Chicago, and that’s who we serve.
One of the things that struck me when I was interviewed at DePaul was the consistency with which the Vincentian values were being shared, not only with the students, but faculty, staff, and board members.
You took over as president just over a year ago, inheriting a budget of almost $600 million and a declining enrollment. Can you talk about some of your priorities in reversing that course?
One of the things we’ve started to do is invest more in new academic programs. We’re looking at the inventory of academic programs we offer and how we offer them. In some instances, we’re adding new programs. We’re expanding into new areas, offering them in different modalities, including onsite and online. We’re investing more in our recruitment and marketing initiatives. We know that in this part of the country, projections of the demographics [show that the number of] 17- and 18-year-old high school graduates is going to continue to decline throughout the next couple of decades. We’re going after that market, but we’re also expanding into new geographic areas and we’re looking at how we address the needs of the adult learner.
You mentioned new academic programming. Can DePaul do that and still be affordable for low-income and underrepresented students?
Yes. We recently announced two new scholarship programs. One is called the Chicago Promise Scholarship and through it, a graduate of any Chicago public school who is admitted to DePaul with at least a 3.7 GPA will be awarded a $20,000-a-year renewable scholarship. We also announced a Catholic Heritage Scholarship. A graduate of any Catholic high school in Illinois who is admitted to DePaul with at least a 3.7 will be awarded a $20,000-a-year scholarship, also renewable every year. With those scholarships, the student is going to pay the equivalent of in-state tuition at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois. The state also has the Monetary Assistance Program, MAP. If you’re both MAP- and Pell-eligible, you’re probably going to get another $10,000 between those two. With our $20,000 scholarship, that reduces the cost of tuition and fees to about $10,000 [a year] and you’re eligible for additional merit or need-based aid from DePaul.
We’re constantly looking at how we use our resources and trying to change the way we do things and to cut back on the expense side, as well. We’re also more active in our recruitment for gifts for scholarships, in particular.
Referring back to your strategic plan, what does “grounded in mission” mean for DePaul, as an institution, to its students, to the DePaul community? What should it mean for outsiders?
The scholarship programs that we are deeply rooted in are grounded in mission. We’re a Catholic Vincentian urban institution. That’s who we are. To us, Chicago is a classroom for our students. About 65 percent of our alumni live in the Chicago area. Our students do internships here. For our freshmen, there’s a Discover Chicago or Explore Chicago quarter, where we send students throughout the city to learn more about Chicago and all it has to offer, from the arts and the culture to some of the needs that Chicago has in terms of service volunteer opportunities.
That’s who DePaul is. Our goal is that when our students graduate, they’re ready to hit the ground running. Our mission manifests itself in the students we serve, the work our students do after they graduate, and the way they live their lives. The “grounded in mission” mantra is consistent with who we are and it’s a strengthening of our roots as a Catholic Vincentian urban institution.
Our mission manifests itself in the students we serve, the work our students do after they graduate, and the way they live their lives.
You’re originally from the Philippines. As an immigrant, what unique perspective do you bring to issues facing immigrants and first-generation students, and how does that factor into your overall plan for inclusion and diversity?
As immigrants, my wife and I were blessed in a number of different ways. We were able to bring four suitcases with us when we moved in 1988. Nowadays, some of our refugees and immigrants are lucky to basically have the shirts on their backs and that’s it. As students initially, then immigrants, we went through a number of ups and downs, when we wondered whether or not it was time to call it quits and just head back home. So that’s something both my and wife and I understand.
Recently, we had an alumni event in one of the suburbs of Chicago, and one of our alums came up to me. Like me, he’s also an immigrant. He was a first-generation college student and he started at one of our city colleges. He said he got a scholarship to attend DePaul, he went on to do his MBA at one of the more prestigious public universities in the Midwest, and he’s led a very successful life. He told me that because I was an immigrant, he knew I understood how it feels to use education as a means to transform his life. That’s something that we always have to keep in mind and we hold it dearly at DePaul: the power of education to change the trajectory of the lives of the students we serve, especially those who otherwise would not have opportunities. Why? Maybe because they’re first-generation or they come from lower income levels. Maybe they thought higher ed was out of reach. Yet they were able to achieve their goals because of scholarships.
We live in such a wealthy country. Whenever I go back to the Philippines, I am reminded of the stark differences. Especially when I go to some of the poorer parts of Manila, I see the dichotomy. I get a greater appreciation for what we have and I try to take advantage of everything we have to offer. And education, to me, is one of the biggest ways we can make a difference.
DePaul is a large university, so I imagine you have issues with undocumented students, discrimination, and racism. How to you deal with all of that?
I’ll give you an example, and this is one of the reasons why we ended up joining DePaul. Right before I joined DePaul, there was a vote among our students. Our students voted overwhelmingly — I think it was 85 percent — in favor of paying an additional student fee to fund scholarships for DACA students. How many student groups across the country would actually vote to increase their tuition or fees to fund a scholarship for DACA students? And we have resources available for our DACA students, other than the scholarships, which we provide for them. Right before I joined, we had a request from our African-American students to establish a center, a place for them to come together. So we created spaces for our African-American students, our Latin students, our LGBTQ students, and our Asian American students to have their own spaces on campus.
As we look at programming for our students, we’re very conscious of who we invite and the impact they will have. I reconstituted our president’s diversity council. It had become a little larger than probably it needed to be, which made it difficult to call meetings, among other things. We have a smaller group now. I meet with them at least three times a year and we have a number of initiatives coming out. For one, we’re trying to attract and retain minority or underrepresented faculty. We’re setting up a fund to help in that regard, to provide support, and they’re going to come up with recommendations on how we spend that fund.
How many student groups across the country would actually vote to increase their tuition or fees to fund a scholarship for DACA students?
We support diversity through programming. We create an inclusive community by how we recruit our students. This fall’s class was the most diverse in our history, in terms of absolute numbers and also percentage. Despite the fact that our overall numbers are declining, the number of students of color has increased over the last few years.
In what ways do you see yourself defying expectations? As its first lay president, will you lead DePaul in a different direction?
I realized early on that I can only control how much work and effort I put into something. I always believed, as I started to work my way in higher ed, that what I really needed to do was focus on how much effort I put into everything I do. I couldn’t control how smart I was or what talents I had been given. I really wish I could sing, I really wish I could paint — but I realized early on that those were not my skill sets.
I decided to focus on the things I could control. I can control how much work I put into something. I can control how I treat other people. That’s been my philosophy and if things don’t go my way, so be it. At least I can go to bed at night saying that I did everything I could.
Now, in terms of changing trajectory, I think DePaul is in great shape. Our mission is as strong as ever, and that’s something which I’m going to be eternally grateful for — being able to walk into a situation where a lot of things are going strong. The main question is, how do you ensure that the university remains faithful to its mission and that the commitment strengthens with every passing year as the number of Vincentians decreases in the country? And if we’re going to move in that direction, how do you measure your success? The success we have is in the success of our graduates and the way they live their lives. If we can see that our graduates continue to make a difference in the civic sector, in terms of community service, that they’re successful in terms of being more socially mobile, they’re able to move from this income bracket to the next, while becoming good citizens of Chicago or wherever they decide to settle, then I’d say we’re probably doing the things we’re supposed to do.
It’s being reported that fewer and fewer students now choose a college because of its religious character. Do you have suggestions in how Catholic higher education should leverage its unique strengths to attract more students?
I think our greatest strength as a Catholic institution is the fact that we are Catholic. My experience has been, both on this campus and at my previous institution, that students of different faiths like Catholic institutions because they feel free to practice their own faith. If it’s a spiritual place, then they say it’s okay for them to be spiritual.
By and large, this country is still very spiritual. There are more faiths than in the past. I think there’s a place for Catholic higher ed. When we went through the strategic planning process, we asked if we should become more secular. If you become more secular, who are you competing against? You’re competing against public and private non-affiliated institutions. What do they have to offer that you don’t have to offer? We help provide a moral grounding. We help provide a moral framework to look at things. Whether or not you agree with it is up to the individual, but at least we provide that grounding. At DePaul, we overlay that with the Vincentian values and we say, this is who we are. We are a Catholic Vincentian institution.
Not everyone’s cut out for Catholic higher ed because they might disagree or they might want a different type of environment, but we provide a very personal, very caring environment, which you don’t see in a lot of places.
Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA
Position: Rev. Peter Donohue, OSA, became the 32nd president of Villanova University on June 1, 2006. Under his leadership, the university embarked on a ten-year strategic plan, launched its largest comprehensive fundraising campaign, renovated the physical campus, and dramatically expanded student opportunities. Father Donohue has also worked together with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents to renew Villanova’s commitment to its Augustinian educational mission. He also designed “The Augustinian Connection,” a history of the Augustinian Friars and their involvement with Villanova University, which is shown to all incoming freshmen and their parents during orientation.
Career Highlights: Father Donohue is a tenured professor at Villanova University. He served as chair of the University’s department of theatre from 1992 to 2006. He annually directed musical theatre productions on campus, earning six Barrymore Award nominations and one Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical from the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
Education: B.A., with a concentration in theatre and communication arts, Villanova University; M.A. in theatre, The Catholic University of America; M.Div., Washington Theological Union; Ph.D. in theatre, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Religious Order: Order of Saint Augustine; ordained a priest in 1979.
Fun Fact: He had no exposure to the Augustinian community before the day he arrived at one. “I entered the Augustinians right out of high school after seeing an advertisement in the Catholic newspaper of Detroit for them. I liked what they had to say.”
Q. Under your leadership, Villanova has undergone significant transformation, fortified by a 10-year strategic plan. Can you talk about that?
A. When we were planning the strategy for the next 10 years, we thought it was important to bring in an outside perspective. We had used a similar approach with the campus master plan and found it very helpful. We brought in a consulting firm to help us formulate it. The most important thing they said was that the plan needed to be flexible. It needs to change with what's going on in the world and what is happening at the university. How the university community responds to the plan needs to be considered. It was wise advice. We intentionally made the plan a very flexible one. We started out with one focus: promoting our Catholic identity to national prominence. Then things started falling into place. We were a nationally recognized Catholic university classified as a regional master's comprehensive institution and found ourselves on the brink of being reclassified as a doctoral school. We had taken the necessary steps to make that happen. Flexibility had been the key.
Now Villanova is known as a research institution. How are the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching incorporated into your curriculum?
The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is the foundation, the cornerstone of Villanova University. Our students are exposed to a liberal arts education in — and are required to look at — the Intellectual Tradition through theology, philosophy, language, math, science, and other subjects. We believe that what our students are exposed to within that tradition helps them succeed in whatever field they enter.
Villanova has an Augustinian heritage. In what tangible ways do students live out the Augustinian charism on campus?
The charism of the Augustinians is building community. Within our residence halls, we form learning communities with an emphasis on contributing to the common good. Students are encouraged to use their talents and abilities to help the community grow and thrive, to continue to look at ways they can make it a more prosperous and inclusive community.
Service is [also] an important part of our life on campus. It is service without reward. There's no academic or monetary credit for it. They participate in service as a means of expanding their knowledge of other cultures. Their service is faith-based. Time is devoted to reflection on what they experienced and how that experience may have transformed their lives and that of the community. Also, the sacramental life of the campus is very vibrant through both Sunday liturgies and retreat work.
When I was inaugurated 13 years ago, I wanted to do something that would allow the campus to reach out beyond itself to the local community.
The concept of service learning is significant on your campus. What does the St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service mean to convey?
When I was inaugurated 13 years ago, I wanted to do something that would allow the campus to reach out beyond itself to the local community. The St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service began as a day to serve local communities and we invited everyone on campus to partake in it. Various service sites throughout Philadelphia cooperated with us. Working together, we were able to accomplish things that were needed within the local community’s institutions and organizations. It was a very powerful experience. Students came in touch with people they had never seen, in neighborhoods that they never imagined being in, and found that in various organizations, their missions were the same.
Thirteen years later, we still do it. We sponsor many smaller service projects, but we focus on two large service events each year. One is in the beginning of the school year, and the other one is on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The one at the beginning of the school year is the larger event, largely due to the warmer weather. In January, it's a little tougher to get people engaged in the same kind of projects because they're not doing a lot of outside work. We have service learning in the sophomore year, when students are assigned to a service site in conjunction with classes that they're taking. Much of it is grounded in Catholic Social Teaching. We train the faculty in Catholic Social Teaching thought and how to bring it into their class, be it English, biology, civil engineering, or nursing.
You presided over the university's largest fundraising campaign. How much did you raise, and what was the end goal for these funds?
The campaign goal was $600 million and we ultimately raised $760 million. … The greatest portion of the funds were designated toward the endowment and financial aid. Parts were designated toward capital improvements, professorships, and funding of various institutes and centers on campus, but the majority of the campaign was directed toward increasing our endowment and financial aid.
Did that translate to increased enrollment?
Well, that happened, but I don't think it was because of the campaign necessarily, as much as it was due to two basketball championships in two years. We won the National Men's Basketball title in 2016 and 2018, and we saw a huge increase in our admissions. I think it was largely due to people taking time to look at our university, seeing the kinds of things we do and the emphasis we place on our academic life. Suddenly, they became interested in what we did and how we did it. But the men's basketball program helped open that door, and we are very grateful.
What efforts or initiatives have you made regarding sustainability?
We recently joined the Presidents' Climate Commitment, which is an organization of college and university presidents committed to reducing the carbon footprints on our campuses. With Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si, we're looking at ways to create a concrete movement on campus to look at climate and sustainability in terms of our coursework, what we're teaching our students, and our outside activities. We're in the initial stage of it. It hasn't been concretized yet, but we're working on it.
Do you still have pastoral duties on campus?
Yes, I've maintained my ministry. I offer Mass every Sunday and officiate at a lot of weddings. When I was being interviewed for the president’s job, I said, "I was ordained an Augustinian priest and I don't want to give that up.” I don't want to become some administrator behind a desk, dealing with budgets, and campaigns, and fundraising, and not do anything pastoral. That was important to me.
When I was being interviewed for the president’s job, I said, "I was ordained an Augustinian priest and I don't want to give that up.”
Are you still hosting dinners with the friars?
I host more dinners for the faculty and the students than I do the friars, but I do see the friars all the time.
How do you find time?
It's not easy. It's a balancing act. I depend on a lot of people, too. I live in a house on campus with three other friars, and we host student dinners. I enjoy cooking for them, but it's time-consuming. The friars that live with me are very helpful and pick up the pieces when I can't be there or when I come running in at the last minute.
The most challenging aspect of the job is time management. There are so many things I'd like to be a part of and invested in. The life of our students is really important to me. That's why we're here. That's why we do what we do. It's difficult finding the time to do that and to really get to know them. When I first came to the job, I insisted that I was going to stay engaged with the students. As years have gone by, that's been harder and harder. Part of it is that I keep getting older every year and they're always the same age group! But it just gets harder as I have more commitments and I’m expected to represent the university in so many different venues outside of campus life, and on committees and boards and organizations that invite the university to come for a particular reason. The challenge is balancing all of that while remaining connected to the life and the heart of the university, which are the students.
The life of our students is really important to me. That's why we're here.
Starting out as a theater major, could you have foreseen becoming the president of a university?
I think I was backstage and they found me. I tell everyone that this is the biggest acting job I've ever had. My background in theater has helped me in many ways because of what I do and how I do it. It has helped me engage with others to create a vision for the university. My background was directing musical theater and in directing musical theater, you call on a set designer, costume designer, choreographer, music director, and dramaturge. A good number of people are part of creating the vision the director seeks. It is their contributions that help solidify it. That's the way I lead the university.
Mary Ann Gawelek
Position: Mary Ann Gawelek is the 10th president of Lourdes University, a coed Catholic and Franciscan liberal arts university in Ohio. It was founded in 1958 by the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania. Gawelek has received national recognition including the ATHENA Leadership Award for professional excellence, community service, and mentoring for women, and the Council of Independent Colleges Chief Academic Officer Award.
Career highlights: Served at Seton Hill University for 20 years, including as provost and dean of faculty; vice president, academic affairs; and psychology professor. Prior to that, she spent 14 years as dean at Lesley University.
Education: B.A., psychology and sociology, Franciscan University of Steubenville; M.Ed. and Ed.D., counseling psychology, Boston University.
Family: Husband Frank and their children, Terra and Ryan, and grandchildren, Riley and Jacob. They have a golden retriever named Cody Quinn.
Fun Fact: A lifelong swimmer, Gawelek also enjoys traveling — most recently to Ireland and Italy — and is a voracious reader, who tries to finish at least two books a week.
Q. Since joining Lourdes, you seem to have made increasing academic offerings a priority. You’ve added two new programs — a masters of education in special education and the university’s first online degree program, a doctorate in nursing. What’s your end goal?
A. I believe that small Catholic liberal institutions need to make sure that their academic programs are highly relevant... I think relevant programs are those which respond to the workforce. We will look at programs that we currently have to make sure that they maintain relevancy, and then we'll add some. For the [doctorate] in nursing practice, we got significant feedback from our partners that DNPs were needed in the area and put that program together online, so that it could be offered [beyond] the immediate region. And I was surprised to learn that in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan, there was also a need for special education teachers, so we kicked off that graduate program.
You also made news in athletics with the addition of eSports and introducing a gaming arena. Is facilities development part of a larger growth strategy?
We have used — like many of our peers — athletics as a growth strategy. We examine each sport that we might add… for interest in high school–bound students. And quite honestly, we look at it in the national scheme of what their GPAs look like.
ESports was something I was interested in before I came to the university, because I had watched it. I am a little geeky, so on Saturday mornings I was watching this a little bit. As we developed this, we decided that it would be a good addition to our athletic program. And so we now have about 45 athletes who are in eSports, coming from a variety of majors and from across the country.
You've also put into place an aggressive strategic plan focused on community growth, joining forces with local business, non-profit, and government sectors. What do you hope to accomplish by strengthening community partnerships?
The work with community partnerships does two things. One, it is an excellent connection to bring adult learners into our university. But working with community partners [also] helps us shape curriculum in a very particular way. If we're onsite at a company, instead of using generalized examples when we're doing case study work, the faculty use an example from the industry of that company. So it's more relevant for the students and it proves more useful to their [career] advancement.
Right now in higher education, and in Catholic higher education in particular, there's a negative narrative around the liberal arts. What would you say to that?
Every time I speak to the public, and certainly when I speak to employers, I talk about [several] things. First of all, that Catholic education has the value-added of having trained students who graduate from the university in how to think about the overall good of the people that they work with. Our nurses are thinking about the whole person, not just inserting blood lines. Our business students when they do marketing are thinking about the impact on the folks that they're marketing to.
The second piece is, we make the case very strongly that a liberal arts education — with the exposure to multiple dimensions of study and an emphasis on collaboration, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking — develops the necessary soft skills for employees to be incredibly successful.
I defended my dissertation and my dean offered me a full-time faculty job about a half hour later.
You've had an illustrious career yourself in education. Was your career trajectory — from clinical practice to teaching and now management — all planned?
I must say this was the least planned … pursuit. I actually always planned on doing clinical work. My doctoral advisor happened to have a family member become ill, and she asked me to finish three courses one semester. I took that on because I had a deep respect for this woman. And in doing that I found out I could teach. And I found out that it created a passion and an interest in me that I was surprised about. So, I started teaching. I defended my dissertation and my dean offered me a full-time faculty job about a half hour later.
I loved teaching clinical work because I taught doctoral counseling, psych. And then I got interested in … wellness in individuals and how education at the undergraduate level might do that ... how we could do that better for the common good.
As that interest developed, my husband and I needed to move to be closer to our aging parents. And I was offered the position at Seton Hill. And that was a wonderful run to really think about at Seton Hill how Catholic liberal arts education could be a benefit to the students. And when Lourdes starting looking for a president — which I never planned on being — I knew I would have the opportunity of advancing that agenda even farther as the principle leader of the university.
And as an educator and psychology professional, you have interest in gender equity and multiculturalism. How does gender factor into learning and teaching?
Most teaching theories were designed for the mainstream, for white men. We've expanded that significantly over the last 20 years. Certainly feminist pedagogy pushed that issue. The coin of the realm in education now is talking about engaged learning. And I think that it's simply translated into understanding that learners are individual human beings that need to develop and grow both in the content of what is being addressed in the classroom, as well as who they are as people. I think that's what we do in learning.
Pedagogically, unfortunately, I have very little time to do any research these days, but that's actually what I think we need as the academy to continue to look at.
How does that translate to having diversity and inclusion on your campus? Are there any specific initiatives at Lourdes?
Sure. About a quarter of our students are students of color. Two years ago, we started a diversity and inclusion initiative that really has begun to shape how we do professional development on campus. Our goal is to have a three-fold initiative. One is to know enough about how we address it in the curriculum or in our co-curricular activities. The second is to create a truly inclusive community, versus just doing the walk. And the third issue is helping faculty understand how to have difficult conversations in the classroom. How do we talk about Black Lives Matter, in terms of how we would meld that with our mission? Or how do we have challenging conversations with the students, particularly the Catholic students who have questions about the recent Church scandal? All of that it seems to me is deeply embedded in our diversity initiative.
How do we talk about Black Lives Matter, in terms of how we would meld that with our mission?
How do your programs reflect the Franciscan tradition values of community of learning, reverence, and service?
There's an underlying assumption that everything that we do is in terms of community. All of our coursework is designed to have small group work, to have interchange, including our online courses.
The second piece is part of our diversity and inclusion initiative and is rooted in our value for reverence. That value speaks to not simply including people, but honoring people's existence in their experience. And so all of the work that we do in that is related to that value.
In terms of our service value, in our core curriculum, every student has a service learning requirement. It is a minimal requirement, but it leads to us doing over 12,500 hours a year in service learning and volunteer work of about 15,000 hours. That sense of service is very important to who we are.
Are there other ways that the charisms are lived out by your students on campus?
I think students know our values: the value of community of reverence, community of service, and community of learning. But the second part of that is I think the students believe deeply in honoring the Earth. We don't talk about sustainability as much as we do honoring creation, both in person and the environment. That gets played out in sustainability and recycling and trying not to use paper as much.
But the sense of community [here is special]... We just had a student speak to a group of donors, and he said, "Lourdes is a heads-up place." And of course I said, "What does that mean?" And he said, "It is impossible to walk down the hall without having to pick up your head and say hi to people." And that's something that we think is very important about who we are.
Position: Eric Spina is the 19th president of University of Dayton, a private national research university founded in 1850 by the Society of Mary. It is one of three Marianist universities in the nation and the second-largest private university in Ohio.
Career highlights: Served for almost 28 years at Syracuse University, including most recently as trustee professor, vice chancellor, and provost emeritus; interim chancellor; vice chancellor, and provost; dean, College of Engineering and Computer Science; and chair, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Manufacturing Engineering.
Education: B.A., mechanical engineering, Carnegie Mellon University; M.A. and Ph.D., mechanical and aerospace engineering, Princeton University.
Family: Wife Karen and their children, daughter Kaitlyn and son Emery.
Fun Fact: He is an Oxford comma partisan and often does good-spirited battle with the communications office over proper usage.
Q. You’ve been described by your peers, staff, and administrators as engaged, even-tempered, an effective collaborator, a problem solver, and team builder. How would you describe your leadership style?
A. I try to be self-aware. I think I try to be a good listener. I know very well that in jobs like this, you can’t possibly know it all. So, I surround myself with really good people who are good at what they’re supposed to be good at. Then, I try to have that group collaborate well, focused on what’s best for the institution. I view myself as a collaborative team builder. I’m a believer in what my father always called the Golden Rule … treat others the way that you want to be treated. For me, that’s front and center.
While at Syracuse, you stressed the inclusion of students from various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and increased diversity in the process. Would you describe the University of Dayton as diverse in comparison? Are similar plans in place?
Under the leadership of Nancy Cantor, who I served as vice chancellor and provost at Syracuse, we took a university that was already diverse and made it very diverse—especially the student body, but also the faculty and staff. Working with Nancy and others, I was able to see the great value that diversity adds to an institution in terms of its quality and impact. The University of Dayton [wanted] someone who could help them become a more diverse institution. Pretty quickly, I affirmed that while the values are very well-aligned here with diversity, equity, and inclusion, compositionally, we're not as diverse as we need to be, to be excellent over the long term. This has become one of my very top priorities.
The dignity of each individual informs our values and our perspective about diversity and inclusion. We are a student-centered institution.
How do you maintain focus on your objectives without losing sight of your Catholic mission?
One of the things I've been very impressed with is that the values at the University of Dayton are shared. I know at most universities, that's not necessarily the case. What I have found is that when people are sitting around a table to make a decision, you don't need to articulate the values. They're [already] shared and common enough that they really do guide the decisions that we make. In terms of our Catholic identity and our Catholic mission, that really has informed the values of this university. They are ever present.
Can you talk about some of those values?
Certainly, the dignity of each individual informs our values and our perspective about diversity and inclusion. We are a student-centered institution. We are a research university, but there's no faculty or staff member here who doesn't believe in the power of undergraduate education. Part of the Marianist charism is education [with a family-focused spirit]. That's something you see here on a daily basis—the way faculty and staff interact with students.
The other thing is community. People say that's an overused word. But it's also the right word. There is a strong sense of community—that we're in this together, we're in this for higher purposes—that really animates this institution.
Your experience with Catholic education growing up was within the Jesuit tradition. Now, you’re leading a Marian institution. In what specific ways does your founding charism inform students on campus?
The sense of social justice in Catholic Social Teaching was ingrained in my Jesuit education and is something that I witness here. We have research programs, centers, and academic programs that are focused on social justice that is deeply Marianist in its view of the world. That was one of the things that was attractive for me, having come from a Jesuit background.
There's an awful lot of work to do around diversity and inclusion, but we've almost doubled the percentage of students of color in our entering classes the last two years.
We attract students who see a University of Dayton education—in the classroom and outside the classroom—as a path toward making some difference in the world. Some envision themselves as teachers; some envision themselves as working with an underprivileged population; and some envision themselves curing cancer. But it's palpable. When you talk to our first-year students, that's motivating. The experiences that they build for themselves here—whether it's a program like REAL Dayton, where students spend a fall break in under-resourced parts of Dayton engaging with community members, or whether it's a research project that is focused on the homeless or a summer experience working on building and developing a school in an under-resourced part of Malawi—our students really live these elements that are available to them for a more just world. That is clearly connected to what they get from their engagement with faculty and staff at the institution.
Next week, we’re going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our human rights studies program, which I think was the first or one of the first in the country at an undergraduate level. That is prototypical University of Dayton. Our students are flocking to [such programs] for the experiences that they provide.
As a national research institution, what are some of your academic and strategic priorities?
We went through a strategic visioning exercise in my first year. We talked to all parts of our community about our history, opportunities, the future, and about areas of strength that we could build on. We identified a number of research areas. The two that best aligned with our charism and roots in social justice [are] sustainability and human rights. Those are two areas that we've identified that have a strong intersection.
Another one is in the area of artificial intelligence and also autonomous systems. Increasingly, society's going to have to deal with autonomous systems around healthcare, manufacturing, transportation. What we can provide from a much broader perspective than just a technological one is that we're thinking about the fundamental dignity of human beings. We're thinking about the environment. We're thinking about a range of issues that go beyond what a "traditional university" might do as they think about advances in autonomous systems.
The board recently extended your contract for another five years through 2024, which is a strong vote of confidence. But what about campus culture?
I had plenty of time before I started at the University of Dayton to think about what kind of president I would be. I decided I was going to spend an awful lot of time with students everywhere they are—in the classroom, in the research lab, in our student neighborhood, in the dormitories, at athletic events. From the very beginning, I've been deeply engaged with students, which has helped me understand the culture here. That helped me understand both the things we celebrate and the things that are challenges.
That said, my focus is on student success, student health, and safety. We have an incredible student neighborhood that's adjacent to the university [with] more than 500 houses, each with front porches where students live. That's an incredible asset for the university and an incredible opportunity for the students. It also leads to challenges. So, what we are trying to do is make sure that our students can enjoy the student neighborhood and the freedoms that they have as college students, while maintaining safety and their own health.
To be a leader in Catholic higher ed requires a greater degree of agility and flexibility than at any previous time.
The culture is sound. What we're trying to do is put “guard rails” on student behavior so that they don't harm themselves, they don't harm others, and they don't damage property. Again, we want to encourage fun and … incredible personal relationships that our students develop with each other in the student neighborhood. I love our students. Part of my job is making certain that they are safe. Then they can graduate from here and lead successful lives. I don't regard it as in any way a conflict with my contract being extended. The board knows that I care deeply for our students and that this is about trying to make sure that they stay safe and are able to lead productive lives on campus.
What accomplishment are you most proud of since taking office?
That's a great question. There's an awful lot of work to do around diversity and inclusion, but we've almost doubled the percentage of students of color in our entering classes the last two years. Still, not a number that's [as] high as we like it to be.
That's huge, though.
We like the doubling. So that certainly is one point of pride for the institution. The other thing that I would identify is that over the last two years, there have been a number of political issues across the country that have resulted in lots of different protests—students shouting down students, clashes between faculty and students, and so on. I think part of the Marianist charism that is alive on campus is working across differences, being at the table, and talking through issues around which there might be conflict. I'm really proud of the way our students have dealt with more complex issues around race and around politics. I think that's something that as an institution we can model well for a broader society.
Your own academic background doesn’t necessarily foretell a career in higher ed administration. Yet, I understand it’s something you always aspired to. Any advice for aspiring leaders in Catholic higher education?
Two things that immediately come to mind in these leadership positions in higher ed is that self-awareness is really important. These positions really expose folks who don't understand what they're strong at and what they're not so strong at. It’s valuable for people to take the time and listen carefully to mentors and people around them who provide advice and perspective on what they need to work on, and what their strengths are to be able to play to those strengths.
The other thing that I would say is these are complex times. To be a leader in Catholic higher ed requires a greater degree of agility and flexibility than at any previous time. There are things that come across your desk on a daily basis that can be really challenging. If you come into these positions dead set—this is the way we're going to do it—I think that's a recipe for failure.
Position: Dottie King is the 16th president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), a co-ed liberal arts college in Indiana. King combines her academic background with years of experience in administration to advance the mission of women’s leadership, online and STEM education, and the value of service through doing. She led SMWC through a visioning and strategic planning process, which resulted in the college becoming a fully coeducational institution in 2015.
Career Highlights: Spent 26 years in higher education, mostly at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, including time as interim president; vice president, academic affairs; assistant dean, undergraduate and international programs; chair, sciences and mathematics department; and associate professor, mathematics. Previously, she taught mathematics at Indiana State University.
Education: B.S./M.S., mathematics, Indiana State University; Ph.D., curriculum instruction and educational leadership, Indiana State University.
Family: Husband, Wayne; they have six children and nine grandchildren.
Fun Fact: “I grew up with horses and now I am president at an institution that owns about 50 of them!”
Q. You’ve created a culture of innovation that has resulted in tremendous academic expansion—you’ve restructured the core curriculum for undergraduates, added new programs in criminology, environmental science, and renovated science labs. But you’ve also focused on growing health sciences, specifically, with a major in administration and nursing, online RN, and BSN programs. What is the end goal?
A. The end goal is to keep our college moving forward. It's always been an innovative place. If we go back to [founder] Saint Mother Theodore Geurin, she was very forward-thinking about the needs of women in the future. In addition to what all academies in that day would have had, she had a robust science curriculum. We were the first women's college to do several things, including programs in gerontology, and among the first to offer teacher education programs formally in college. So, I think that what I'm doing is really continuing that legacy of innovation and meeting the needs of today's students with a forward look.
What I'm doing is really continuing that legacy of innovation and meeting the needs of today's students with a forward look.
The Woods was the second college in the country to implement a distance learning program. Now in its 45th year, Woods Online continues to be a pioneer in the delivery of online education and an avenue for working adults to complete their education. How has technology advanced your academic goals? How has it supported your Catholic mission?
Technology is changing so rapidly and allows us to deliver instruction in a manner very similar to face-to-face [interaction] even though you're at a distance, by being able to record responses and interact that way, hold webinars, and so on. The delivery of distance education is now much more personal and meaningful to adult learners.
As far as delivering our Catholic mission, our core curriculum contains those components. Any program that we offer contains those components from an academic point of view. But from the co-curricular point of view, we are able to consider the needs of the whole student—not just their educational needs—and care for them. Adult learners are often people who are struggling with the competing demands of families and their jobs. We're able to be more flexible and meet them where they need to be. And I think that's an important component of Catholic education in the United States, meeting the needs of students.
In what other ways would you say your campus has responded to the changing landscape in higher education?
To answer the question, I always take a look backward. If you think back to the pioneering days, the Catholic community was so important in developing our educational system and our hospitals, too. It’s synonymous with excellence, but also the value proposition that goes along with education. At Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, we emphasize virtue and knowledge combined. In our classrooms, of course, content is important. We would never minimize that, and we stand by our strong educational rigor. But in addition, we want our students to be good citizens and to put that knowledge to a virtuous use.
A few years ago, you raised $11 million for a new sports and recreation center to advance health and wellness initiatives for the campus and neighboring community. How do community partnerships and engagement factor into your overall strategy?
When I was looking at a school that needed to grow in order to be sustained in the future, it was about going back to the foundation of why Catholic education is important. What would be different about us as a Catholic institution? And to me, that was being a good neighbor. So, we fundraised and asked people to support us. But in addition, we spend a lot of time asking what we can do to be better neighbors and better stewards of what we've been given. How can we reach out in the name of God? And we have done that with local elementary schools, local high schools, local communities. That has been important to ask, to remember why it was important for us to be Catholic and what that really meant.
In what ways have you worked to strengthen Catholic identity on campus?
We started an internal dialogue, [asking] “What does it mean to each of us to work in a Catholic institution?” I asked the question of each person, no matter where they worked—whether a professor or a housekeeper, all the way to the president's office. What is different about your job? How do you go about your job in a Catholic institution? That internal dialogue led us to think about defining the values that made us uniquely Catholic and how that would affect each one of us in the performance of our jobs. From there, we formed a Catholic identity committee. It became an important part of our strategic plan. We [incorporated] spirituality as a thread throughout our strategic plan, rather than it being one part of it. Now, we're to the point where it's becoming a daily part of who we are and what we think about.
That internal dialogue led us to think about defining the values that made us uniquely Catholic and how that would affect each one of us in the performance of our jobs.
And you became co-ed in 2015. Besides expansion, what else has since changed?
Co-ed was an important decision for us. I want to point out that this year, we have about 450 students on campus, but 400 of them are women. That’s the largest number of women that we've educated in many years since the early 1970s, so we are enjoying rapid enrollment growth. We're very blessed by it. I'm not discounting the number of men that are here, but just having men and being co-educational has made us far more attractive to women. We remain committed to our heritage as a women's college and the empowerment of women. And now, we are truly able to do that with more women than in recent history.
We've also done a lot with marketing. We have a new website. Our college team really works tirelessly and deserves a lot of credit. And we have a board of trustees member who has that as an expertise, and she has worked directly with our own team. While our marketing dollars are not as large as most of our competitors, we are really being nimble with the use of them. And I think that's an important factor in our growth.
You’ve touched on the importance of a women’s college. How do you ensure that you’re developing women leaders who will transform their lives and communities?
We were not able to sustain enrollment enough to give us a future. So, we made a courageous decision to not only become co-educational, but to do so in a way that really honored both the legacy of women's education and the importance of women empowerment for the future. We looked at how we would build those important things into the core curriculum.
Sometimes you make decisions based on a reality such as finances, but it becomes the next pathway to mission.
We sponsor many different activities that lend themselves to the empowerment of women. I've led a group of women to Washington, DC, and to Indianapolis, to talk to legislators, helping women to become more politically aware and empowered with their voices. We are talking about women's leadership in lots of ways and bringing groups together. What we're doing is with a great deal of intention, bringing men and women together and educating them about the importance of female leadership and the ways that women lead, and the ways that women and men can lead together.
It sounds like it was more of an enrollment strategy to open up the college to men?
Yes, but I can't say this next part strongly enough. Sometimes you make decisions based on a reality such as finances, but it becomes the next pathway to mission. We spent a year in discernment. One of the Sisters of Providence who was in the room when we made that historic vote—which was unanimous by the way—came to me with a great deal of wisdom. I still think about her words. She said, “Sometimes providence allows us to get to a place where we don't know any other way to go, so that our minds will open up to the next pathway that was always part of our future.”
What about ethnic and socioeconomic diversity? Is the Woods an inclusive environment that bears the values and traditions of the Sisters of Providence?
It absolutely is. I wish we were more diverse than we are. If you go back to the heyday of the school in the mid-1960s, it had lots of pipelines from lots of different places. In recent years that was not true for us. However, with a great deal of intentionality … we are addressing not only the need to be more diverse, but also maybe even more importantly: How do we communicate? How do we value diversity? And how do we welcome diversity and include different cultures coming together in important ways? We not only want to have numbers that are diverse; we want to do it very well. This year, we have more African American students, but we also have more Hispanic students. If you talk about other kinds of diversity, we’ve always been welcoming to our students with a different sexual orientation. That continues to be true.
Indiana has a strong program to bring in first-generation students who are often from a lower socio-economic level. It's called the 21st Century Scholars program. We've done a lot of very specific work on that program. We’re seeing large success with the population that is not usually retained at a high level, and we are retaining them at a high level. I’m very proud of that.
Why is a liberal arts education relevant to Catholic higher education?
Liberal arts education is relevant throughout and I think more relevant than it's ever been. … The world is changing very quickly. We now know that we are training students for jobs that do not yet exist. We also know that they're not on career ladders anymore.... It's been described more like a jungle gym than it is a ladder now. They make lateral moves and upward moves. They will change jobs more often than we did, and they need a different way to think. Also, we have a world that’s often in strife—both globally with things like war but also in our own country, which is political division. We believe that teaching students how to communicate and look at issues from multiple perspectives—really learn how to listen to one another, use communication to communicate responsibly, and to think critically—that we are creating the problem solvers for the future that gives us hope.
Now back to the Catholic part of that question. If our students include in that liberal arts education a thought about where God fits into that and fits into their personal lives and jobs, and then how to communicate that in an inclusive way that respects the viewpoints of other people with other religious views—we believe all of that works to give us students who are poised to change their communities and world in a positive way.
Service is at the heart of your institution. Every year, the Woods celebrates Foundation Day of Service in the spirit of Saint Mother Theodore. How does the campus epitomize the values she instilled?
We have multiple service opportunities throughout the year. But when I think about Mother Theodore—she admonished the Sisters who were teaching to love their students first before they tried to teach them. We want our students to love the communities in which they live. We want them to feel a sense of giving back. We build that into all that we do, and with a great deal of intentionality. It’s easy to say that in the classroom. It's even easy to take one class out to do one project. It's very different to build it into a way of life. We think of multiple ways that we can come together as a community to model it. By cancelling classes on Foundation Day, it would be nice for us to just have a nice Mass, which we do, but we also then want them to go out of that church and begin to do projects, understanding that the foundress was a giving person. In addition to the academy that she built that became St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, and the religious order, she created a free school. She created 17 other schools and she was a healer [two healing miracles were also attributed to her for canonization] and had a little garden with herbal remedies. She did lots of things to make her world a better place. And that's what we should do too. We each have different gifts, talents, and majors. We want our students to use those for the good of our community. In the springtime, we also celebrate a week of service with our alums. They report back to us with projects from all over the world. Recently, we had beautiful photos from Italy where one of our alumni was living and did a service project there. All of our athletic teams go out into the community and do various service projects. So, it’s not just Foundation Day. The Foundation Day is an opportunity to really focus on why we're doing it.
And as a providence associate yourself, how would you best describe your college’s inherited charism? In what significant ways is that charism reflected on campus?
We honor our legacy, but we don't honor it in a way that makes it only historical. We try to think about how that legacy is still important to us today and how it will look in the future. We won't do exactly the same things Mother Theodore did. But we will certainly embody her spirit of actively loving and caring for people around her—and march forward to make a difference in the world.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I believe that Catholic higher education is more relevant than ever. But it's incumbent on all of us to remember the difference that Catholic education was created to make.
Position: Scott Flanagan is the seventh president of Edgewood College, a co-ed liberal arts college in the Dominican tradition. He is a native of Wisconsin and the son of two public school teachers in that state. Flanagan is also board member of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Career Highlights: Spent 20 years in a variety of roles at Edgewood College before assuming the presidency, including as executive vice president; adjunct faculty, School of Education; vice president, planning and enrollment; and dean, admissions and financial aid. Previously, he served as assistant vice president for enrollment services, director of admissions, and director of athletics at the University of Saint Francis (IN).
Education: B.S., political science, Phi Beta Kappa, University of Wisconsin-Madison; M.B.A., University of Saint Francis (IN); Ed.D., higher education management, University of Pennsylvania.
Family: Wife, Krista, an event management professional; and their children, Erin and Sean.
Fun Fact: Basketball was Scott’s entry into higher education leadership. His first job after graduation was in admissions at the University of Saint Francis (IN) so he could pursue his passion as the school’s assistant men’s basketball coach. Prior to that, he was a four-year student manager for the men’s basketball team during his undergraduate days at UW-Madison.
Q. You’ve been with Edgewood for two decades now. Did working in a variety of roles during that period help prepare you for the presidency?
A. I think that I've had a chance to see and experience the institution in a lot of different capacities over that time, whether it's enrollment or finance or advancement, teaching some classes, overseeing athletics, working on retention — all those things. No one has a complete perspective on every part of the university, but I think the fact that I have a wide variety of experiences over a long period of time means that I have a pretty good understanding of how the college operates.
And are you still teaching a doctoral program in higher education finance?
I'm not teaching that course anymore. No, when I moved into the presidency, I stepped back from that commitment.
Research shows that student athletes, particularly at colleges and universities like ours, tend to have higher retention and completion rates.
It’s clear that sports has been important to your leadership trajectory. What would you say is the correlation of athletics to education? Is there an academic advantage for students involved in sports?
Well, research shows that student athletes, particularly at colleges and universities like ours, tend to have higher retention and completion rates. That's reflected in relationships that continue while they're alumni. I think the importance of extracurricular athletics at small colleges has been pretty well documented as an important part of that student experience.
You hold a doctorate in higher education. What do you see as the greatest challenge for Catholic higher education right now? And are there also opportunities that perhaps leaders aren’t fully realizing?
The challenges are how to live out our mission and our core values. Those are strong and articulated well at most Catholic colleges and universities. But how we live those out in a world that's changing around us so rapidly that we can't simply point back at what used to be and assume that that will work going forward. It's this ongoing challenge to not get stuck on any answer to that question, but rather keep asking and answering the question over a period of time. That's the challenge! And that manifests in questions like: How do we make sure that we have comprehensive undergraduate experiences? And how do we make sure that our adult and graduate programs meet community needs? How do we make sure that our Catholic identity is informing the student learning experience? How do we make sure we're affordable? All those are manifestations really of that central question: How do we express our mission, vision, and values uniquely in today's world and anticipate tomorrow's?
Financial return on investments is as strong as it's ever been. And [yet] that is an incomplete picture of higher ed. And I think those of us in Catholic higher education can continue to articulate that story more and better.
As education is viewed more as training for one’s first job, I think there's opportunity to differentiate, certainly at Edgewood College, and I suspect for many other Catholic colleges and universities. We take pride in our ability to prepare students for their first job. But we believe there's more to educational experiences than that. The ability to differentiate and show that we are preparing not only for employment, but also for scholarship and for community leadership, for citizenship, entrepreneurialism, and service, and all the rest. That's a counter to the current narrative about higher education, which is: “What's the financial return on investment?” Financial return on investments is as strong as it's ever been. And [yet] that is an incomplete picture of higher ed. And I think those of us in Catholic higher education can continue to articulate that story more and better.
You’ve stated that Edgewood’s mission is to prepare students to become citizens of the community and the world. The Carnegie Foundation has recognized your college’s efforts by rewarding your college with the community engagement classification. What does that mean to you? Do you feel validated?
Awards are both validation and challenging, right? Because it's a validation of the work that has come before, and then the challenge is to earn that today and tomorrow. So, I would say, we're always grateful for that recognition. And what recognition means to me is that now we get the chance … to continue to earn that moving forward.
How has your institution done with diversity and inclusion? Is there cultural representation that mirrors today’s landscape?
Our goals are to look like the communities that we serve, for students of all backgrounds to succeed at the same high level, and for all members of our community to be able to work effectively across dimensions of diversity. And we've made great progress. In my first or second year here — I'll use racial and ethnic diversity as an example — we had nine students who identified as students of color. Not 9 percent, nine students. This year's class will be about 24 percent what we would call ALANA — Asian, Latin, African-American, and Native American — or students of color. The retention rate for that group that came in a year ago is higher than our overall retention rates. We are showing signs of becoming the kind of inclusive campus community that we aspire to be. We have a lot of work remaining, but we've made a commitment to that. It's one of the three central pieces of our strategic framework and I'm pleased to see the progress we're making. It's encouraging.
In terms of socio-economic diversity — and I don't have the numbers right before me — but I know one of the great honors that I've had as president was being invited to a meeting by the Under Secretary of Education, Ted Mitchell. And that was in recognition of the success that Edgewood has had in attracting and graduating students who are Pell-eligible. So yes, socio-economic diversity is an important component of who we are and who we exist to serve.
Last year, you had a student walkout in protest following vandalism during the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration week. What did you learn from the incident?
The United States in 2018 is a place where incidents and expressions of hate have become increasingly too evident. I would love to say that Edgewood College is a bubble that is insulated from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. I can't do that. I can say that we addressed the incidences as they came up — directly and seriously — as an entire community. As you walk in the front door of our campus, you will see commitment cards that students, faculty, and staff — over 600 of them — filled out on a day when we convened the entire college to process, and that was before the student walkout.
Our commitment to our Catholic identity and our commitment to inclusion are completely aligned. It's not despite or with a caveat; we are committed to inclusion because it's an important expression of our Catholic identity.
So, I learned the importance of continuing to engage with and work in partnership with students. It's always been a good idea, and it's never been more important than it is now. The steps that we've taken over the past few months in partnership with student leadership — and with the involvement of many others — has made us a stronger campus now than we were a year ago. We weren't torn apart; we could have been. And we weren't because members of our community got together and were determined to build a better Edgewood College. We've redoubled our efforts to do that. That's reinforced by the retention rates and student enrollment numbers that I cited earlier.
You were one of 70 college presidents who pledged to support undocumented students who qualified for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Would you say cultural competency has become a necessary skill set in advancing Catholic mission?
Absolutely. … One of the phrases in our mission is about building a more “just and compassionate world.” When we see some of the inequalities we have right now, I don't know how we can be blind to that as it pertains to colleges and universities. We also talk about educating students for meaningful personal and professional lives. And again, I don't know how we could say with a straight face that we've prepared a student for a meaningful life in any dimension, if they haven't acquired an appreciation for others who may appear different from them and an ability to work and live effectively with people who, again, may appear to be different from them. It's central. Our commitment to our Catholic identity and our commitment to inclusion are completely aligned. It's not despite or with a caveat; we are committed to inclusion because it's an important expression of our Catholic identity.
Speaking of Catholic identity, in what way is your Dominican heritage reflected on campus on a daily basis?
One of the most powerful expressions of that is that it’s woven into the educational experiences of our students. The Dominican studium of study, reflection, and action is one that is often used in the classroom, in decisions and deliberations that we may go through at the administrative level, or at the board level. That, I think, is the most powerful expression of that identity — in the educational experiences that we offer. Second, when folks drive on campus, they drive by banners that articulate values that we aspire to live and that we utilize in real-time as criteria for decision making and for advancing the institution. So, it is very relevant to us every day.
Edgewood recently received a $7 million endowment, one of the largest in your 90-year history. What will this mean in terms of overall growth strategy?
Well, that gift is an estate pledge. We are certainly grateful for the investment of financial resources that is going to come; that we're able to utilize [it] to support student learning on campus is as important as anything else. What that also does is it reflects confidence in the current life of the college and in the future of the college. It prompts people to think about Edgewood College differently than they have before. We've been grateful for the generous support of many in our community. But the significance of this gift I think will help others dream about Edgewood in a different way — and perhaps think about ways in which Edgewood College can, through philanthropy, help them achieve what they seek to accomplish in their life. And in this case, as a legacy.
As the son of two public school teachers, how do you persuade folks to invest in a private education?
Really, what we try to do is show how we're different and the kinds of students [who can] benefit from an Edgewood College education. And we have worked very, very hard to make that affordable. Our most recent commitment to that is called the Intuition Program. For us, it's about being clear about the types of students that benefit from the kind of experiences we offer here; making sure that they're aware of it; and that we work like crazy to make sure that is affordable for students and families.
Position: Barbara Lettiere, is the 10th president and first lay leader of Immaculata University, a co-ed Catholic university in Pennsylvania founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She is also a 1972 graduate.
Career highlights: Chief financial officer, Trinity Washington University; vice president, finance and administration, Trinity Washington University; president, Bell Atlantic Federal Systems; and vice president/treasurer, Bell Atlantic (now Verizon).
Education: B.S., mathematics, Immaculata University; M.A., economics and statistics, University of Notre Dame; M.B.A., decision sciences and finance, Rider University.
Fun Fact: Drives a convertible Volkswagen Bug.
Q. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time – about 30 years – in corporate America. How different is it from the world of academia? And how are you using those skills to now lead Immaculata?
A. I think that there are differences between the two cultures, but there are also a lot of similarities. The differences lie in what I would consider to be the pace and the sense of urgency. When you have shareowners that you have to respond to and you are accountable to, there's a different sense of urgency, especially with publicly traded companies in corporate America. In higher ed, that does not exist. So that is probably one of the biggest differences. The other difference would be the decision-making processes. In corporate America, decision-making processes are much more streamlined. In higher ed, I have not necessarily found that to be the case. However, I have distilled it down to this: They are both businesses. I know higher ed doesn't like to hear that; but they're both businesses. They both have competitors. They both have to make pricing decisions. They both have product decisions to make. They have promotional decisions to make. And they have placement decisions to make. It's just that one is considered not-for-profit and the other is [for profit]. But they're both businesses.
How has the transition been from religious to lay leadership for Immaculata? In what ways are you ensuring that the charism lives on? I understand a new position was created for mission and ministry.
Yes, I am the first lay president of an almost 100-year-old institution. I found the transition to be a very smooth one. And it has been that way because the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary are a very forward-looking congregation. They understand the world we live in. They have found ways to accommodate the world we live in, and they have been nothing short of extremely supportive. My job in ensuring that the charism moves on here has been evidenced in the fact that I created a committee of the board for mission and ministry. We have a vice president of mission and ministry, and she and I work very closely together to ensure that in fact the charism of the Sisters is infused in everything we do here.
The retention rate among our student athletes far exceeds an already good retention rate of the general student body here.
Last year, Immaculata increased its varsity sports offerings from 19 to 23 for both men and women. What’s the significance of athletics in higher education? Does it add value academically?
Yes, that's the short answer. I will tell you that at least 35 percent of all of our students here at Immaculata are student athletes. I will also add this: The retention rate among our student athletes far exceeds an already good retention rate of the general student body here. Last year, Immaculata won the Division III — what they call CSAC. It’s the conference that we play in; we won the academic award. Yes, we have athletics, but we have students first. They are student athletes. They take it very seriously. Some of our best students play sports.
You recently said, “Pretty good is not enough.” And you mentioned CSAC, which is the Colonial States Athletic Conference that awarded Immaculata with the Institutional Academic Excellence Award for a third time. Can you elaborate on that?
Pretty good is not good enough under any circumstance. I don't know how familiar you are with the Philadelphia area, but I can literally look out my window and see at least a dozen competitors. And when you have that much competition in a saturated market, pretty good does not cut it. You have to be a cut above, and that's the reason why pretty good isn't good enough.
As CFO, you helped successfully steer Trinity Washington University’s fiscal growth. Now, you’re back at your alma mater as president. How does it feel?
How does it feel? It actually feels great. I've been away from the school for many years. I was a graduate from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. I got all caught up in that “rah rah” there and lost contact with Immaculata. And through a random call from one of the Sisters, I found my way back. I was asked to be on the board, served for about six, seven years, and became chair of the board. The president at the time decided it was time for her to retire, and the rest is history.
What are your plans to ensure economic sustainability going forward?
When we first got here, we had to do what I call “stabilize the institution.” They ran into some hard times financially. We had bonds that had very onerous financial covenants. We needed to get out from under those in order to move forward. That was successfully done during the first year here. So, we've got the organization at least stabilized. But here again, pretty good isn't good enough. I want to see this organization thrive, and that's the word that everybody here in the IU community understands. We want to see Immaculata thrive. So we are working on a lot of initiatives for enrollment and fundraising. Four months ago, we put a new VP of advancement in. She’s got 35 years of experience in a small Catholic school in the advancement field. She describes herself as an inveterate fundraiser, and that's what she does. So, there are a lot of things that she needed to change. And she is in the process of making those changes in order to improve the giving from our alums and others.
Pretty good is not good enough under any circumstance.
What would you say is the most pressing challenge for Catholic higher education? Is Immaculata facing similar concerns? And if so, what is Immaculata’s strategy for staving off similar concerns?
Immaculata is a member of an organization called SEPCHE. That's Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education. We get together every once in a while and talk about what's going on on our respective campuses. And we all are basically singing the same song. We are all concerned about enrollment. As I said, this is a very saturated market here. With the demographics changing as they are, the pie has shrunk and we're all trying to get a bigger piece of a smaller pie.
I am talking about the Catholic sector in this area in particular, and I read the trade rags and see [that] smaller institutions, be they Catholic or not Catholic, are all facing the same kinds of challenges. When I first got here, after a couple months of assessment, I put together what is now affectionately referred to as the “Seven Points Strategic Plan.” I'm not going to bore you with all seven points, but basically, the seven points are all fundamentally directed at improving enrollment. They have to do with facilities improvement; they have to do with changes in pricing, new program introductions, a completely revamped admissions strategy and advancement strategy. We are now just about finished with the first year of the plan. We are now embarking on what I refer to as phase two of that plan.
What some colleges and universities have done is to form collaborations. You entered into a partnership agreement with Widener University Delaware Law School. Can you talk about that?
Widener is the first of several [partnerships] that we are pursuing. That deal was done in three weeks. The folks at Widener were exceptional to work with. We went to them and said, “Look, we'd like to do a deal whereby our pre-law students could do three years here. They call it a 3+3 — three years here and three years [to] get their law degree at Widener. And that's the guts of the agreement that we just finalized with them. In addition, Widener has offered a $20,000 scholarship for any of the students that meet the criteria after three years here to go into Widener to study law. We're very excited about this.
Our upcoming class will be the first to be able to take advantage of this 3+3 program. But the feedback that we're getting from students that come here for campus tours, that come here for open houses — there's a great deal of interest in it and we expect to see some good enrollment lift as a result.
The university’s origins began with a focus on serving the daughters of immigrants. How is diversity reflected today on your campus? In what ways are you serving the economically disadvantaged?
I would say that we do not have the level of diversity here that any of us would like. We are fairly far removed from the Philadelphia inner city, which is where the vast majority of the diverse population tends to reside. We're out here in Chester County and I think our enrollment reflects the demographics of this local community. So, I can honestly say that we do not have the diversity that any of us would like to see here and we are targeting our admissions in this coming enrollment cycle to see what we can do to change that profile. We do some work with the Cristo Rey organization and most of the students that come from Cristo Rey really can't afford the college education, room and board, etc. We have made a lot of financial accommodations in order to give them an opportunity.
Was that why one of your first acts as president was to institute the Inaugural Scholarship, which awarded $15,000 financial assistance to its first recipient? Was there an intentionality behind that to set a standard?
Well, how that came about is I did not have a typical inauguration. The typical inauguration as I've come to learn here is that, you invite just about every president of the United States to show up. You invite a lot of local dignitaries, politicians, etc., and I chose not to do that. I chose to focus on the Immaculata community and I chose to try to keep the costs at a reasonable level. So instead of spending the money on an inauguration, I decided to take some of those savings and institute the Inaugural Scholarships. It wasn't just one. We were able to award three $5,000 scholarships.
James T. Harris III (Jim)
Position: James T. Harris III is the fourth president of the University of San Diego, a private research university in California and the youngest Catholic institution among the nation’s top 100 universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. He is also the 2017-19 chair of the board of trustees of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Career highlights: President, Widener University; president, Defiance College; president and chief executive, Wright State University Foundation; vice president, University Advancement, Wright State University.
Education: D.Ed., secondary education/comprehensive social sciences, University of Toledo; M.A., educational administration, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; Ph.D., education, Pennsylvania State University.
Family: Harris and wife Mary have been married for 37 years. They have two adult sons, Zachary and Braden. Their family dog is Ruby Rosebud, a Goldendoodle named after USD founders Bishop Charles Buddy, the first bishop of San Diego, and Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Fun Fact: He recently hiked the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney.
Q. University of San Diego is one of only 45 universities in the world designated as an Ashoka Changemaker, which essentially is proof of your institution’s commitment to Catholic Social Teaching. Please expound on its significance.
I would say what the Ashoka Changemaker designation has done for the campus is that it's allowed another level of conversation about how to prepare students to be engaged in the community, and how they are going to make that change themselves. It is the responsibility of both the university – how it will be a change maker and its work in the community – as well as the individual students. Plus, the faculty have bought into the idea of being a Changemaker campus. What it has done is elevated our conversations around our Catholic mission and the values that we hold dear; and given us a network of institutions – both Catholic and non-Catholic, public and private – that really hold very similar values to what Catholic institutions do. So for us, it was a natural part of who we were and who we are today. But I think it's elevated the conversation to a global conversation and with other institutions outside of our Catholic network.
What are specific ways the University of San Diego incorporates Catholic values into classroom learning to train ethical leaders of tomorrow?
I think the obvious one is the commitment to social justice, to civic engagement, and to treating individuals with dignity. The pieces that we have – the parts that you would think about with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition – align very well with Catholic values of critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills that help students develop. And think about how the institution might be able to contribute to that, working within the system. All those are typically what Catholic institutions are attempting to achieve. It's within our mission; it’s within the broader scope of Catholic higher education. But here we have the Catholic network and other institutions that think like us, but come at it from different perspectives, different faith traditions, in different ways of viewing the world.
I think all politics are local. The manifestation of our mission is local. And I think for all Catholic institutions it probably is the same. For us, the local is that we sit on an international border that is quite controversial. In every one of our schools – and in the College of Arts and Sciences – faculty are designing classes and experiences for our students that have direct impact on some of the societal issues facing the greater San Diego community, and the community that we include within that is Tijuana. In our School of Peace Studies, they're doing work on border issues around criminal activity, the criminal justice system, and trying to work with government officials in Mexico. Our students are engaged and working in clinics in Tijuana on every international issue. We work in AIDS clinics; we work directly on commitments to things that are germane to the border, for example, people who are deported from the United States. Our students are doing work with people who were in the United States illegally and are now placed on the border in Mexico. That’s part of our mission as a Catholic institution.
With other institutions … there was always a bit of tension where my faith was viewed not as an asset by the people on the campus where I served.
In terms of the city of San Diego proper, we’re working locally with the homeless. I think we have the fourth largest homeless population in the United States. There are different disciplines, different majors, and different faculty members and students who are working in a variety of ways to address the issue. As a university, we bring together leaders in the community every two months in what we're now calling, “the Homelessness Symposiums.” We're talking about affordable housing; we're talking about the different elements of homelessness. And we have other community leaders – the mayor comes often, city council. We're becoming the space where people convene to talk about a very serious issue that would have application around the world. So, we're living out our Catholic values through the classroom work and in the community by taking on some of humanity’s most urgent challenges. It's not enough to ask our faculty and students to be engaged. As an institution, we must be engaged in that work, which is part of our vision statement.
USD has quite a few interesting sustainability efforts. Does that tie in to your love of hiking?
We’re one of the top schools for our commitment to the environment. When I came here, there were a number of students who wanted to make sure that I was supportive of our sustainability initiatives. And that's been part of our strategic planning process, particularly being driven by Laudato Si’, the encyclical of Pope Francis. So I became engaged in that and started working with our Outdoor Adventures club. They put together these hikes and camping trips. For example, this morning I went hiking with four students in a local canyon – and that's how students can meet with me. I decided to hike mountains locally and started doing many of the peaks here in Southern California. About a year ago, I set my sights on trying to climb the summit of Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the lower 48. And last Friday, our director of Outdoor Adventures joined me on that trip and helped me get to the summit.
We now have the most diverse freshman class we've ever had in our history. And one of our goals is to strengthen diversity, inclusion, and social justice … We've made a very concerted effort to diversify the class in every way possible.
You’ve led a few non-Catholic institutions in the past. How different (or similar) is your current role now, particularly since you’re also Catholic? And does that change your approach to leadership?
What attracted me away from my previous role was the Catholic mission of USD. As a Roman Catholic, I felt that there were times in my previous roles at institutions that were not Catholic that it wasn't always appropriate to express my personal beliefs, or to allow those personal beliefs to guide the decisions that I made as president. My core values always stayed the same, but at a Catholic institution it has helped me in a number of ways since I'm in alignment with those values for the most part, and there's an opportunity for me to express that. Many years ago, when I was attending a seminar at Harvard University, we had David Riesman, the sociologist, speak. He was doing research on college presidents and someone asked him: “How would you be successful? How can I guarantee success as a president?” And he said, “Become the living embodiment of the mission of the institution.” And USD has been the first time in my career where I really felt that my values align perfectly well with the mission of the institution. Whereas, with other institutions there was alignment, but there was always a bit of tension where my faith was viewed not as an asset by the people on the campus where I served.
Well, it seems to me that you've adapted so well that you named your pet after the founders. Was that after or before you got the job?
That was after I got the job [laughter]. We got the dog and decided that [Ruby] Rosebud would be a great name for her. A funnier story with that, though, is that I'm on Instagram. I have about 2,000 followers and I thought, “Well, that's pretty good.” My dog actually has 19,000 followers on Instagram. Look it up, it’s @ruby.rosebud.doodle. I'm not even number one in my own house in terms of Instagram followers [laughter].
This past year, you raised more than $300 million for your Leading Change campaign, which I understand capped off the most successful year in fundraising ever for the university. What is your end goal?
Our vision statement is to set the standard as an engaged contemporary Catholic university where innovative change makers confront humanity's most urgent challenges. We have a strategic plan that includes five goals that we're seeking to achieve, and then six pathways to get there. Our fundraising goals align perfectly well with that over the campaign, which was an eight-year effort. It went public when I arrived in 2015, and it has helped us with scholarships and support for enhancing student learning and success, which is one of our goals. We now have the most diverse freshman class we've ever had in our history. And one of our goals is to strengthen diversity, inclusion, and social justice. The money that was raised through the campaign has enabled us to help low-income students afford USD. We have a higher percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students than we've had in the past. We've made a very concerted effort to diversify the class in every way possible. And we've been successful. It was the fundraising and the ability to attract resources for financial aid that really helped us move in that direction.
We're living out our Catholic values through the classroom work and in the community by taking on some of humanity’s most urgent challenges .
When you think about an institution that was only founded in 1949, the fundraising and the endowment growth has been significant to help us do some of this work. One of our goals was also to elevate faculty and staff engagement. We’ve endowed faculty chairs, faculty professorships, and faculty fellows. We’ve created the “Diversity Postdoctoral Faculty Program,” where we bring faculty members who have just completed their doctorate – they have a two-year postdoc rather than one year – for the opportunity to get into a tenure-track line. That has helped us in just the last three years to elevate the number of faculty from underrepresented groups.
You have a sizeable number of international students from more than 70 countries and 37 percent minority students. Is that part of your overall development and growth strategy?
It was. My predecessor Mary Lyons had a strategy for increasing the percentage of students who studied abroad and increasing the percentage of students who attended USD from abroad. And we have continued to do that during my administration. We currently rank number two in the country for the percentage of students who, among national universities, will study abroad before they graduate – over 72 percent of our students. We have a center in Madrid, Spain, that helps facilitate many of those opportunities. We also have had a concerted effort to increase the number of international students attending USD. I'm pretty sure you can quote me – 77 different countries are now represented in our student body. The freshman class alone has 25 different countries represented. So the overall student body is quite diverse.
We [also] made a concerted effort to really focus on underrepresented populations from the United States in the last three years. I think we've grown from 32 percent or 33 percent; now we're at 42 percent of the freshman class. That does not include our international students in the freshman class. What's helped us move in that area is developing the minority postdoc program that we have and trying to attract more faculty of color, which we've been successful in doing. Our goal overall would be in double digits in terms of presenting diverse students from abroad and international students on campus because we think that adds a whole new dimension of learning.
Position: Brian Bruess is the eighth president of St. Norbert College, a private co-ed Catholic liberal arts college in Wisconsin and the only Norbertine (Saint Norbert of Xanten) college in the world. He is nationally recognized in the field of higher education, particularly on the topics of assessment and student outcomes, and has received honors for his contributions, including the Minnesota College Personnel Association’s Lud Spolyar Distinguished Service and the Linda Schrempp Alberg awards.
Career highlights: For 22 years, Bruess served at St. Catherine University in various leadership roles, including most recently as executive vice president and chief operating officer; vice president, enrollment, student affairs, and information technology; dean, student affairs and enrollment management; interim vice president, finance and business operations; and dean, student affairs. He built a reputation for having a collaborative and innovative approach to planning and leadership; was the principal architect of efforts resulting in 15 consecutive years of record student enrollment; has an unrelenting focus on student learning, which resulted in strong student retention and increased diversity; and was instrumental in attaining and sustaining St. Kate’s financial strength. Previously, he was at Ohio University as assistant to the vice president for student affairs and dean of students; interim assistant director, university judiciaries; and graduate assistant.
Education: B.A., sociology and psychology (minor), St. Norbert College; M.A. and Ph.D., college student personnel/research and evaluation.
Family: Wife, Carol, is professor emerita at the University of St. Thomas (MN). Both are 1990 graduates of St. Norbert. They have two adult children, Tony and Gracie.
Fun Fact: Bruess loves the outdoors – camping, kayaking, and fishing. As an undergrad, he was a member of the men's basketball team.
Q. You’re the second alumnus president, following in the footsteps of Rev. Dennis Burke, O. Praem, class of 1926. What does it mean for you personally as president, having walked the same grounds as a student three decades ago?
A. First and foremost, it's a real privilege to come back to our alma mater. It's my wife's and mine, both. So, it's a real honor to come back to a place that meant so much to our formation and our vocation, to come back to the place where it all began is really inspiring and humbling. And to find the college in such good health – being vibrant and exciting. I think what is special about it, is that what I've observed and [from] talking with all sorts of people – faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, friends, community members – is that there's a real pride in the community that an alum has come back to lead the college. What's special about it is that I know really well the ethos, the cares, and the values of the college. Those greatest elements of our tradition are even more vibrant and engaging today than they were 30 years ago. But what I'm [also] hearing from people is that being someone who knows the power of a Catholic, liberal arts, Norbertine tradition in education is a real advantage in terms of how the community thinks about itself and how we move forward. And part of what's the same is we have this great Norbertine tradition and one of the ideas that we hold dearly is this idea, “Ever ancient, ever new.” What's really beautiful about St. Norbert College today is that our values as a Catholic, Norbertine, liberal arts institution are still what anchor us.
I think for the college it’s a great opportunity to have someone leading the college who knows the institution. Also, Carol and I both believe that being an alum creates a special opportunity to reengage our alums in a different way. We've seen wonderful response from the alums as well.
What surprised you the most about coming back? What changed and what has remained the same? Ruth’s Marketplace, Dale’s Sports Lounge, Phil’s Grill – have things changed?
So much has changed. In the last 11 years, the college has invested $150 million in new and renovated construction. Some of these great iconic buildings that were here when I was a student have been renovated. And then of course, there are a lot of new buildings – a new residence hall, library, science and athletic facilities – beautiful restorations of facilities. So, there's a considerable amount that has changed in terms of physical aspects of the campus.
It's also true that there's still some faculty who are here that Carol and I had when we were students. That’s pretty fun to have them still be here. I've also been able to interact with a lot of the faculty and staff who were here – and that Carol and I had – who are now retired and still in the area.
Founded by Abbot Bernard Pennings, St. Norbert College was named after St. Norbert of Xanten and is the only Norbertine college in the world. Considering your values – communio, action, faithful, and local – could you explain what it means to “live Norbertine”?
What a great question! Well, one of the things that we take great pride in is how self-evident and how present the values, and the ethos, and the charism is of the Norbertines. And one of the real anchoring ideas is of communio, which calls us into community that is built on mutual esteem, respect, trust, faith, and responsibility. It brings us into a community, a way of being that’s pretty unique. One of the other values is hospitality; and we call it radical hospitality. The idea is pretty simple but very profound. And that is, if each person feels welcome, they in turn feel valued. When people or groups of people feel valued, their chances of flourishing, growing, and developing increase tremendously. This idea of communio and hospitality is a real foundational piece of who we are as a community because it has educational power attached to it, as well as being a founding principle.
"When people or groups of people feel valued, their chances of flourishing, growing, and developing increase tremendously. "
Another attribute of the Norbertines is reflection. Our college theme this year is “Contemplation: Action Begins Within.” We’re spending the year helping our students and community develop their practice of reflection and contemplation. And how do we convert that reflection and contemplation into action? That’s a very Norbertine value and trait. The other piece that I think is really relevant for today is when St. Norbert had his conversion, which is beautifully depicted by a sculpture on our campus, he was like St. Peter, struck by lightning and thrown from his horse, and heard the message to seek peace and pursue it. So, our students are also set in a global context of understanding what it means to build, to contribute to society in a positive way, and to help the common good advance. It’s so delightful to see an organization that’s so committed to its principles and values, and so self-evident on campus. One of the things we’re doing to make sure that our mission endures – among many, many things, including integrating these values in the core curriculum – is that with every capital or facilities project, either new or a renovation, it’s required that 1 percent of the budget goes toward an expression of mission, either art or some expression of mission in the physical space itself. So, in each of these buildings we have an expression of mission – Norbertine, Catholic, liberal arts, or all of our tradition. And that helps make very visible or explicit the importance of these values.
Speaking of visible commitments, St. Norbert is involved in a few community partnerships such as the Green Bay Correctional Institution, CatholicLink, and STEM Girls Rock. What benefits do you hope community engagement will bring?
One of our institutional goals, as well as my own goal as president, is to act on the principal and idea that St. Norbert College as a liberal arts, Catholic, Norbertine college is of, with, and for the community. We take very seriously our responsibility to engage with the community for three purposes: One, our mission calls us to community engagement. Two, we know that engaged pedagogy, having our students actively engaged in the community in their learning, in their curricular, and co-curricular experience, allows for much better learning. And third, there are all sorts of societal benefits of having a college actively engaged in the community. One of them, aside from the educational benefit, is the economic impact. A couple of examples, I think, demonstrate this. CatholicLink is a national model for how a community can come together on Catholic education. CatholicLink puts in a seamless partnership [from] pre-K all the way through college [with] Catholic education systems. St. Norbert College, Notre Dame Academy, which is the high school, and GRACE, which is the Catholic education system for elementary and middle school, the Green Bay Area Catholic Education group, these three institutions are in this partnership that includes curricular and co-curricular educational components. Our faculty and staff at all three organizations enjoy tuition remission at each of the institutions. We’re establishing a CatholicLink Center, which will be housed on St. Norbert’s campus. The focus of that is to develop a training education program for teachers and staff in the system, or in CatholicLink. It’s a really exciting opportunity that the abbot, the bishop, myself, and the Catholic community are really excited about. We're in our fourth year of exciting innovation.
One more partnership that I'm really excited about is a very wonderful relationship with the Medical College of Wisconsin. They offer a three-year medical degree on our campus. They're housed in our Gehl-Mulva Science Center and they have about 75 medical students. Their goal is to help Wisconsin address the shortage of rural primary care physicians. This is an example of a partnership with another educational entity that we think is quite exciting and exceptionally successful.
Those kinds of partnerships have educational value, they have mission relevance, and they have a tremendous impact on both the economy and societal needs.
Part of your broad range of experience at St. Catherine included enrollment management. What’s your overall vision and growth strategy? And how does a focus on undergraduate research, service-learning, and ‘‘radical hospitality’’ help support that?
St. Norbert College has had a very strong history of enrollment strength and outcomes. Our enrollment strategy at St. Norbert College, we are blessed to have built it on pursuit of quality and excellence, not necessarily growth in terms of volume. We're within about 100 students of our optimal enrollment, so we're blessed. Right now our entire strategic plan is pivoting around moving the institution – our educational outcomes, graduation rates, portability outcomes, and postgraduate outcomes – and driving all those outcomes, which are excellent already, but driving them up. We're going to do it primarily through an intense focus on increasing the sophistication of educational experience for students. Our enrollment goal is to remain about the size of what we are. We're really looking for slight growth [and] focusing on the quality of educational experience – things like undergraduate collaborative research, our honors program, engaged pedagogy, or service learning. Our mission calls us to offer a holistic, liberal arts Catholic Norbertine tradition of education, which is very experientially-based, very active.
A wonderful strategy that we're deploying around technology in teaching – and it’s called full-spectrum pedagogy and learning – is working with faculty to develop or integrate digital [resources] in the classroom experience. It also helps students create their own domains. We have a project that's pretty exciting called, “Domain of One's Own.” This is where students develop their own web presence and articulate the kinds of outcomes and kinds of experiences they are having. So those kinds of ways of focusing the institution is what's driving our enrollment success.
We've also had very strong fundraising. And that's helped us do a bunch of exciting things, including launch a new school, the Schneider School of Business and Economics. Last fall, Pat Schneider gave us a $30 million gift restricted to our endowment. That gift was transformational. It's allowing us to really focus on: How do we advance our mission? And how do we advance the kind of educational experience that we're offering? It’s allowed us to develop a new Integrative Studies major, launch our MBA program, our School of Business program. It’s allowed us to invest in faculty development right now.
"The most important outcome of a Catholic college is its graduates."
St. Norbert was again named one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges and one of “America’s Best National Liberal Arts Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report, inching up seven spots in ranking from last year. What accounts for your success? In what way does Catholic mission and identity differentiate your institution?
Well, we believe there are really two or three main measures of excellence and quality. We appreciate all the accolades that the college has gotten over the years, but what we cherish most is the quality of the teaching and learning experience that we offer and the quality of the outcomes that we produce. As an aside, not many of those real measures of quality are included in the measurement of the rankings. But we believe that in a really volatile time in higher education, institutions like St. Norbert College that can consistently and persistently reaffirm identity and its mission as a Catholic liberal arts Norbertine institution – those institutions that stay contemporary and clear about who they are – are the institutions, like us, that will continue to flourish and succeed. We think that the holistic education we offer is very compelling to families, which is why our outcomes continue to improve [and] why there’s increased demand for the college. The employers are telling us this; they're looking for graduates who can think critically, can analyze, can solve problems, who can work effectively in groups, can communicate and view their work in the broader context and ethical framework. Those are the kinds of attributes and outcomes that our employers are saying they want and they're getting from our graduates. Frankly, I think the most important outcome of a Catholic college is its graduates.
F. Edward Coughlin, OFM
ACCU regrets that Brother Edward Coughlin passed away in July 2019. We join with the Siena College community in mourning his passing.
Position: Br. F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, is the 11th president of Siena College (NY), a coed liberal arts college founded in 1937 by the Order of Friars Minor. Br. Ed, as he is known on campus, was inaugurated in 2015 after serving for only four months as interim president. He is shepherding the Franciscan institution through its five-year strategic plan, Tradition Transformed.
Career highlights: Formerly vice president for Franciscan mission at his alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, and board of trustees member at Siena College. He has twice served as the director of St. Bonaventure's Franciscan Institute and has held several leadership positions within the Holy Name Province, including as provincial councilor, secretary, and director of ministerial development and planning.
Education: B.A., sociology, St. Bonaventure University; M.A., pastoral ministry, Boston College; Ph.D., counseling psychology, the Catholic University of America.
Religious Order: Order of Friars Minor (Franciscan)
Fun Fact: He’s both an accomplished cook – his signature dish is chocolate crème brûlée – and a Black Diamond skier. "One of the greatest joys I’ve had is skiing in Colorado. The back bowls in Vail are amazing – I just loved the no-stop trips down one trail after the other to the bottom."
Q. You’re known on campus as Br. Ed, which I imagine probably helps create a sense of ease and camaraderie among your students, faculty, and staff. Was that deliberate or a carryover from your work as a Franciscan?
A. I think generally, as Franciscans, we use our first name, not our last name. And as a religious community with a long tradition, I typically wear my habit every day. My religious habit is kind of a signal to people about who I am and that's how students know me. I usually go to the dining hall every day for lunch. I have a lot of different kinds of interactions with students – not only in committees and things like that, but also in the dining hall. So that's just how I'm known around campus. And most of the friars are known by either “Brother” or “Father so-and-so.” We don't tend to use our last names as Franciscans.
You’ve been president now for four years. You spent a few months as interim before fully assuming leadership. How crucial was that experience as you were transitioning to your new role? What did you learn during that period that has been instrumental to your success as president?
We had a very unique situation here at Siena College because the president of the college was elected minister provincial of the friars in New York City. And this became a little bit of a challenge for the college in terms of leadership transition that was not anticipated or prepared for – in terms of whether or not Fr. Kevin [Mullen, OFM] would get elected at a provincial chapter. So, I agreed to become the interim. I was previously working at St. Bonaventure University for nine years as the vice president for mission and had previous to that been the director of the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure, and also had been a faculty member at St. Bonaventure. So, I had a long association with Franciscan education and played a number of different roles. I thought that I would be able to manage an interim role.
So, they asked you?
They asked me. After I came, I tried to help them sort out some of the issues and concerns that the college needed to deal with. They asked me if I would remain. So, we had a very untraditional search process … – there really wasn't one [laughter]. The sponsoring institution, the Friars, I don't think anticipated what the impact of electing a president to be a provincial was in these days, in terms of higher ed. So anyway, I agreed to serve as the president. I just started my fifth year this semester.
It wasn't necessarily something you aspired to, in a sense it landed in your lap, so to speak?
I told the committee that called me … They said, “Would you be interested in applying for the job?” I said, “No, at my age I'm not interested in applying for the job. It's not on my bucket list [laughter]. If you need an interim …,” I said. I was a trustee here at Siena at that time. And I felt responsible as a member of the religious community with a background in education. We really had to be responsible to the institution and caring for the institution. With all the changes that are going on in higher education at this particular time, walking out on them was just something I thought was not acceptable.
How different is it running an academic institution from doing pastoral work?
I always was primarily involved in education. Or I was involved in the formation of the friars. Or I was involved in provincial administration. I think the biggest challenge or transition for me was to realize that the buck was stopping on my desk. There was no one that I had to ask about or wonder who is going to make the final decision. So that was probably the biggest transition for me, that I was ultimately responsible for making a number of decisions. I just had not been in that particular role before – having been a vice president or an assistant to the provincial, I never was the last word.
Speaking of leadership, Siena prides itself in developing a “new generation of leaders.” Can you expound on what that means in terms of your founding charism of scholarship, innovation, and service?
I think the Franciscan tradition is a rich resource for us as an institution because it really goes back to a time when they talked about the two pillars of a Franciscan education: the cultivation of the mind and the formation of the heart. And it really was a very holistic vision of education, going back to the 13th century. That’s served us well in terms of trying to honor the academic challenge of education of young men and women for a variety of careers and so on. But also trying to do that in a way that invites them, challenges them, encourages them to develop as persons who have an ethical, moral, religious, and spiritual perspective in their lives and in their conversations. So that has been a rich resource for us and is especially important today in terms of all the conversation that's going on about liberal education.
I think the Franciscan tradition is a rich resource for us as an institution because it really goes back to a time when they talked about the two pillars of a Franciscan education: the cultivation of the mind and the formation of the heart.
We're very blessed as a tradition to have someone like St. Bonaventure, who gave a lecture at the University of Paris in 1255 and talked about the value that all of the different disciplines contribute to our understanding of the world, our understanding of truth. And the respect he showed for all the different methodologies, all the different disciplines that were known in the 13th century. I think that provides a wonderful basis to talk about what a liberal education ought to do in terms of its ability to respect the truth. That each discipline is able to contribute, to respect the different ways in which that truth is perceived in the sciences and the social studies. And the overriding concern about how do you form individuals? One of Bonaventure’s criteria was that in all persons, character should be formed. I think that's the root of our sense of leadership and the importance of really educating students who are good citizens as well as compassionate leaders.
As some institutions are turning away from use of the term liberal arts or even cutting programs, Siena makes it a point to describe itself as such. Why is the preservation of liberal arts necessarily "the way to go, period"?
I think the embrace of both our Catholic and Franciscan heritage, as well as our desire to preserve what we think is the breadth of education, is absolutely essential to forming individuals who are going to be able to be, as I said, good citizens and compassionate leaders for the future. We do have a vision about how these different disciplines contribute to a larger sense of an appreciation of the richness and the complexity of the whole, and how important it is to be able to look at things from different perspectives, and to bring those perspectives into conversation. Some of those foundational courses that are part of the core curriculum are really training students to be able to ask those kinds of questions, to look at the resources of different disciplines to understand a perception of truth. We're happy to do that even though it seems to be counter-cultural today. It’s at the heart of why the Franciscans became involved in the University of Paris and University of Oxford and Cambridge and Bologna back in the 13th century.
And would you say a liberal arts education prepares students to also be employed and get lucrative jobs?
I think, again, we're trying to look at the liberal arts in terms of not only gaining knowledge, but also [attaining] the skills of writing and communication and leadership, experiential education … where students are really learning what they need to do to compete in the marketplace. Our accounting students, for example. We get very good feedback that they're not only well-trained in accounting, but our employers say to us, “Your students have a special ability to work together, to be part of a team, to have a consciousness of the wider picture,” which I think is a product of our education. That they’re not only skilled in terms of what they're doing, but they have learned how to work together and be team members, collaborate. That really comes from an educational experience where you're learning to do that from the time you're a freshman.
What do you consider to be the top challenges facing Catholic higher ed?
Certainly, the top challenge is the increasingly competitive environment. Being an institution in the Northeast, there are a tremendous number of institutions here. And so, we're in an increasingly competitive situation just in terms of the demographics. I think we're also challenged by the fact that the system that oftentimes really was the feeder school for an institution like this has more or less collapsed, in terms of the falling away of so many religious-sponsored high school programs. We’re also particularly challenged, I think, in New York State, by free tuition. Siena has always done a tremendous amount in terms of making education accessible and affordable to a wide group of students, especially poor students. And that's becoming more of a challenge for us in terms of free tuition at SUNY. There's a lot of details about that that people haven't understood yet. So how do we communicate that we're offering something that is very unique and very distinctive? It's hard to communicate that, but we know that if a student comes here, they're very likely to graduate – our graduation rates are very high. Our retention rates are very, very high. We know that once a student enrolls that they probably will stay and graduate. So, it's a question of how are we going to communicate to them that there's a unique value here. A Siena education is substantially different from what you might experience at a large public university, for example. It's worth the investment.
Last year, Siena implemented a five-year (2017-22) strategic plan for continued growth and opportunities. Talk about key priorities and what is the Franciscan Tradition Transformed?
The whole strategic plan was an attempt to step back from where the institution has been in the past, and really begin to look at not only where we've been, but where we're going. We're looking at our 100th anniversary coming up in 2037. And so, I tried to situate the plan in the context of: We need to lay the foundation for what the future of this institution would be. It began as a men's commuter college [and] became a coeducational institution. It’s a question about what will Siena be in 2037. I think the plan attempts – in terms of emphasis on academic excellence – to really lay the foundation for the future. Being innovative and thinking about programs and experiences that will help students to develop themselves personally, [and] as individuals who are ready to be very competitive in the marketplace. We're a very strong community-based college. Many of our students live on campus and relationships between professors and students, student engagement – all those things are very important. We have a very strong residence life program that, again, seeks to build relationships and help people live responsibly in relationship with other individuals. And we have a great emphasis on service in a variety of forms. We're constantly offering opportunities for students to not only study abroad, but to be involved in long- and shorter-term service trips, or work with nonprofits to give our students an opportunity to think about service as possibly a key component of what they might do in the future. Those engagements with different nonprofits and service opportunities have a profound impact on them as individuals. So, I think that’s a real value-added to the Siena education we're very proud of.
The overall vision for Siena students, who the college calls “Saints” – institutional excellence, distinctive value, inclusive community, and purposeful community engagement – are those the priorities you’re referencing?
That's opened up a vision of how and when I welcome students, [as] freshman. When I say to the parents, “I'm sure it's a shock to find out that all of a sudden you just arrived here and we're calling your son or daughter a saint [laughter].” I try to build off of that. We're sure they're good people. And we welcome the opportunity to be able to engage in conversation with them both in and outside the classroom, to encourage them to develop and mature as persons who are competent and capable and conscious of what contribution they can make to the world. So that has served as a paradigm for us in terms of bonding students together. And also thinking about what our larger goal is, both in academics as well as beyond academics. It's worked out well for us. Everyone's a saint.
Michael J. Graham, SJ
Position: Rev. Michael Graham, SJ, is the 34th president of Xavier University (OH), the sixth-oldest Catholic and fourth-oldest Jesuit university in the United States. Graham is chair of the Cincinnati Preschool Promise, and serves on the boards of directors for the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. He is also a trustee of Gonzaga University in Spokane and of St. Xavier High School. He sits on the board of the Cincinnati Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and of the Big East Council of Presidents. He remains active locally as a parish priest and celebrates weekly Sunday Mass with Xavier students.
Career highlights: Executive assistant to the president, Xavier University; vice president for University Relations, Xavier University. During this period, he oversaw a $125 million capital campaign, the most successful in Xavier’s history at that time.
Education: B.SS.., Philosophy and Psychology, Cornell College; M.A., American Studies, University of Michigan; M.A., Psychology, University of Michigan; Ph.D., American Studies, University of Michigan; M.Div., the Weston School of Theology.
Religious Order: Society of Jesus, ordained a priest in 1988.
Fun Fact: He used to spend a lot of time gardening before becoming president, which he found quite relaxing. “That was a real passion of mine and a hobby.”
Q. While other institutions seem to struggle, Xavier continues to experience substantial growth, both in terms of academic programs and expansion with new facilities. Now 17 years into your presidency, to what do you attribute that growth? And how can Catholic colleges and universities emulate your success?
A. I would say that there's no such thing as a single silver bullet. There never is. Rather it’s a series of multiple strategies, if you will. I can't help but think that on the one hand, our Jesuit brand serves us well. I'm also deeply indebted to our board of trustees, which has challenged us and led us in all kinds of helpful ways. For example, one of the things that they began asking us several years ago was, where might you find significant opportunities that would generate additional revenue, and significant new revenue for the university? And that led us to think in a variety of ways about recruiting and retention, new academic programs, and so on, and to be very purposeful and focused as to how we pursued them. And that is now paying dividends.
As well, I would say that we really benefited by the success of our basketball program in terms of getting the word out. People don't come here because of that, but they're aware of you because of it, and that's very helpful. And then also we've found undergraduate recruitment growing rapidly in the last several years, specifically within the Big East footprint. So that move to the Big East has also been helpful to us.
So, there’s no blueprint that others can follow?
Yes, I believe there is a blueprint and our experience can suggest one, but that it has to do with leveraging a particular institution’s advantages, opportunities, location, history, tradition, and so on. Other schools, all schools can ask themselves the question, where might significant opportunities be for academic growth that could develop significant revenue opportunities? All institutions can ask themselves the question, what partnerships are there around the community and beyond that could be useful for us in terms of helping further our mission? But those programs and those partnerships are going to differ institution-by-institution, depending upon their local circumstances.
And now there’s the addition of a new chapel, Our Lady of Peace.
The Our Lady of Peace Chapel project was completely mad, and it just happened to work out – thanks be to God! I think because God and all his angels were working overtime on it. We were approached by a local Cincinnati family a few years back about the possibility of relocating the family chapel to campus; it had been built in 1938. The old homestead was slated to be torn down because no one lived there anymore or wanted to, and they were selling off all the land. But then the question occurred, what to do about the chapel? And we didn't have any land to put it on at that point, or any good place for it that would do it justice. And so the family shopped it to several other people or places and nobody bit, for which I'm very grateful because then we acquired some additional properties and it enabled us to vacate the street. The chapel now completes one of our malls and it's a beautiful, beautiful little space. The family stepped up big time to make the relocation possible. We had a variety of benefactors who were entranced by the project – I think that's a good word for it – “entranced.” And so they stepped up to help us find the funds to get it done. Then the university ponied up some dollars as well, because of the way in which this fulfilled something that we have been wanting to do for quite a while, which was to finish out the academic mall.
Xavier has been recognized as a top service learning institution by U.S. News & World Report. With the motto “All for one, one for all” community service seems to be a tenet of your institution. Can you talk about the expectation on your students to change the world through service?
Over a very long period of time – and this goes back before my presidency into the ’90s – we've developed a culture of service here, kind of bit by bit by bit. Fundamental to me was my experience of beginning my presidency in January 2001, and then four months later, there were the riots in Cincinnati in April around Easter time. That forced me to ask what that meant for the university, if we were going to continue to conduct business as usual. Or, if not, how we were going to change. That, I think, was a clarion call for us all here at the university to become more engaged with the community around us. We'd had a number of different pieces to the university at that point that already facilitated vigorous engagement. We were able to deepen and broaden them and connect up more and more to faculty work, research, and teaching and to student learning, such that over the course of these last number of years, we've continued to make more and more immersion learning opportunities available to our students. And now we’re on the edge of making a significant commitment to an immersion learning program that would touch all of our students throughout the course of their time here. So it's a way in which the motto of the university — as you observed, “One for all, all for one” — comes alive. But it's also a way in which we live out the expectation common to all Jesuit institutions, that our students become men and women for and with others.
What are some of your hallmark service projects?
We don't have the largest alternative breaks program in the country in absolute numbers. But if you look at them in terms of the size of the institution, we blow everybody else away pretty much. And as well, our programs are overwhelmingly student-driven. That's a hallmark. We [also] have a number of different scholarships that are given to community-engaged fellows who spend a lot of work out in the community as well as on the ground. We have a program called “Philosophy, Politics, and the Public” that has a community engagement component embedded within it. This immersion learning program that's coming along is another one. So there's lots and lots of different ways in which this gets acted on across the curriculum and beyond it.
The Jesuits have a centuries-long tradition in education. In what ways does Xavier impart on its students ways to live out the Ignatian charism?
In a couple of different ways. I would say the first is through academic excellence. No university worthy of the name Jesuit can be a slouch when it comes to the classroom and all that happens to students there. The relationship between students and faculty is always primary in my view. Another way that we live out the charism is through service, but we've spoken about that. As well, trying to orient students to the horizon of the ultimate that wraps around their lives, that which we name God, in a whole variety of ways. Our students come to us from many different religious traditions, of course, as do students most everywhere nowadays. What we want to do is orient them toward that, to see their lives against that eternal horizon. And be in relationship with it in ways that are congenial to them, if you will. And then to see as well that there is an intimate linkage between that life of the Spirit and the life of committed engagement in the world.
Something that we did a number of years ago clarified for ourselves what we call “the gifts of the Ignatian tradition.” Without going through all of them, they include things like reflection, discernment, solidarity and kinship, service rooted in justice and love, and the like. And so, as students go through their day here on campus, they're reminded of those gifts of the Ignatian tradition in places around campus. We've embedded them in the physical infrastructure of the campus itself. The dining hall, for example, where all our students eat, have all kinds of pictures and words and symbols that are designed to bring those gifts of the Ignatian tradition to life.
You have a sizable undergraduate student population, north of 4,500. And I understand there are more than 20 different religions that are practiced by students on campus. How do you keep respect for other faiths while maintaining your own Catholic identity? Why is providing a space for interfaith discourse important?
To me, we provide platforms and opportunities for other faiths to be visible and engaged, specifically because we are Catholic. That's part of being Catholic, in my view. And part of being a Catholic university is that it allows you the opportunity to invite people to have their faith experience be part of the discourse. For example, earlier today I was speaking with a woman who is one of the senior staff in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, who comes from a religious tradition [that is] not my own. But we're able to speak of things of the Spirit, if you will. We have a similar way of looking at issues of race and reconciliation, and healing, and the contemporary scene in the United States and so on, that's grounded in our own religious traditions. And different though those traditions are, they nonetheless allow us a kind of common vocabulary for speaking about things that are of importance to us. At its best, that's what the visibility of religion on a Catholic campus can do. It can foster common linkages among different people.
Would you describe your institution as diverse?
In some ways yes, in some ways, no. We've been, for several years now, targeting an undergraduate population that's about 25 percent students of color. We're getting very close to that. The first-year class this year is about 23 percent. At the undergraduate level, we're increasingly diverse. We're in fact more diverse than any public institution in Ohio, which we're very proud of. But when you look at faculty and staff, that's a harder nut to crack. We've got a commitment to taking steps as we move forward to make sure that the campus five years from now is more diverse than it is today. And then five years later is still more diverse than that. It's something that we believe is incumbent really upon a Jesuit institution – and especially in today's political climate in the United States.
In times of great uncertainty such as now with Church leadership, what do you tell your students who may be questioning their faith? How do you give them hope? [This interview took place on Aug. 22, 2018.]
If you were to look at the reading from the prophet Ezekiel — which would be in the normal Wednesday of the 20th week of the year cycle – it speaks about the shepherds abandoning their flock, which is a very interesting reading for today, in these times. However, the 22nd of August is also the feast of the Queenship of Mary. The first reading that comes because of that is a wonderful passage from Isaiah that we're used to hearing at Advent – all about the Lord coming to be with His people. So, what I would do is stress that Advent reading. I can totally understand how students and others would feel that their faith has been shaken. But this does not change for an instant the fact that God is coming to be with His people. And in fact, this is a particular time in which they can trust that, that God is with us in the midst of this. If a number of people within the Church have given severe cause for scandal, that does not change the underlying reality, which is that there is a holiness in their lives that they can trust because of God's desire for a relationship with them.
Position: Ann McElaney-Johnson is the 12th president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles, a Catholic liberal arts institution and the only women’s college in the city. She is a member of several boards, including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Women’s College Coalition, and College of Holy Cross. McElaney-Johnson is also recognized as a thought leader on women's issues and a champion for innovative teaching and learning.
Career highlights: Vice president, Academic and Student Affairs, and dean, Salem College; associate dean, Salem College; associate professor, French, Ripon College.
Education: B.A., French language and literature, College of the Holy Cross; M.A., French language and literature, Middlebury College; Ph.D., French, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Family: Husband, David; and their daughters, Emma, Rachel, and Caroline, and grandson, Will.
Fun Fact: Enjoys hiking and sailing.
Q. You’re purposeful in cultivating a culture of innovation for excellence. Why is that so important?
A. Well, it’s twofold for us. One, in higher education now the landscape is changing so rapidly that I think all universities and colleges have to really think about, how are we prepared to educate students in the future? Are we using the best resources we have available to us? Are we open to new pedagogies, to new ways of learning, particularly for a generation of learners who will be coming, who have been connected to technology in a way that will only increase? Are we prepared? So, we made a commitment as part of the higher ed community. Are faculty and staff committed to being open to thinking about, how do we always teach better? How can we be more effective? And that means giving up old practices and bringing on new [ones].
We are a university that serves a predominantly first-generation population in our traditional undergraduate. Most of our students — about 60 percent — are Pell recipients or Pell-eligible. We really thought about, how do we provide that educational experience that in some cases gives them the foundation that perhaps through no fault of their own some of our students may not have had in their former education? But also, how do we educate the family? How do we bring people into this as a family unit when in many cases parents have not had this experience? We really have committed and have put together initiatives and experiences that are comprehensive for this new student. And, in many cases, to involve the family in the unit as well. That’s really important.
The other part of it is not only dictated by a change in higher education in terms of how we teach with technologies and with the changing demographics in our classrooms, and across the nation of college-age students. The other thing is that it really is in our DNA. We’re founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Their practice since their beginnings in the 17th century in France has been to meet the needs of the time. Across their history, they have [asked], what are the needs of today and how do we address those? To do that you have to be willing to be open to new ways of working, new ways of seeing, new ways of understanding. So that innovation for excellence really comes from our DNA, from the history of the Sisters. How do we innovate to make sure we’re meeting the needs of today rather than still meeting the needs of a decade ago? It’s both of those foundations — the higher ed landscape and the Sisters of St. Joseph — that call us and give us the imperative that we need to be open to working in the same way in order to be effective and to provide what students need.
How does that tie into your initiative to expand the university’s international presence? How do global partnerships such as the ones you have with China and Peru factor in?
That’s multifaceted as well. We’re located in Los Angeles, which is such a rich city culturally, with so many different populations and in many cases, the largest population [of people] outside the country of origin. So, we’re very diverse in where we come from and where we live. At the same time, we really believe it’s important for our students to have the transformational education that we commit to, that they expand even beyond our diversity and have the opportunity to interact with people from other countries — both here on our campuses through exchanges and recruitment of international students and also for our students to get a chance to go beyond our borders. That is a very intentional thing about enriching the conversation and preparing our students to understand their position and their role as a global citizen.
Of course, there are also populations of students looking for this kind of education beyond the traditional recruitment pool that we’ve had for years. I think lots of universities in the United States look to China, which has been very progressive in sending students beyond the Chinese university to access a top-rate educational experience elsewhere. But for us, it’s not so much about growing our numbers. It’s really about enhancing and strengthening the experience of all students who are here, whether they be domestic students or students from other countries. And so that’s very important to us. Our partnerships are really about that.
We also are looking more and more toward where we have partnerships that come easily out of our founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph. Some of our partnerships actually come out of interesting commitments of our faculty. We have a wonderful program in Peru now, working with Peruvian medical experts where our students and faculty go and are working on a program around breast cancer. They take a group of students who are working with women in Peru and are doing some cross-cultural comparisons about who accesses medical care. What are the reasons in Peru someone might not [access healthcare] in a small village? What are some of the reasons in their own community here in Los Angeles people might or might not be accessing healthcare? We really want our students to have that cross-national experience, and that has come out of — in that case — the deep research and field experience of a faculty member. So we’ve allowed those things to come forth and take life as well. It really is about preparation of students.
You’ve mentioned your founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Why is mission and identity so essential to Catholic higher education?
I think it’s what distinguishes our sector as Catholic higher ed. We approach the educational experience through the lens of our charism. Let me be more general for a moment, then I’ll get more specific. It’s very much a value-based education. It’s an education where we believe the responsibility and the opportunity of education obliges us all to think about what role we play in the world. How do we make the world better? And for Catholic higher ed, that’s a very explicit piece of how we do what we do. It defines it. I always think we could be a really good liberal arts university. But if we were not a liberal arts university founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, we would just be kind of a generic liberal arts university. And I don’t know if we [would] have a real clarity of purpose in the way we do being of the CSJ. So, for us, our founders — and I think every Catholic institution has this kind of history, whether it’s founded by a religious organization or if it has an archdiocesan relationship — it’s a very intentional relationship. It gives us meaning.
Our Sisters’ first ministry in France was in 1650. Six women came together, decided rather than go behind convent walls, they felt called to form a religious congregation within the community, to live in the community they would serve. It was unheard of at the time. They did that with the support of a really progressive Jesuit and they decided they would serve the needs of the people. But they would ask the people what their needs were. They realized that the people who are most vulnerable were women — widows, orphans, single women — who didn’t have the protection of a man and many of these women were falling into an exploitative life of prostitution. And so the sisters made this decision. They decided to teach women to make lace and then by that means they will be able to earn a living. They will then have a life of security and a life of dignity where they will be independent. And it won’t be selling your bodies anymore. It will be selling this piece of art.
That empowerment of women is who we are as a women’s university. We’ve always been about how we empower women and prepare them to be able to go out and live lives of meaning, lives of purpose, and that comes absolutely out of the CSJ connection. And so for us and for other Catholic institutions, Gospel values are not just something to keep on the side; it’s something we talk about all the time. We’re a community that is called to a high standard. We talk about what it means to be an authentic community. If we look at the Catholic Social Tradition, what does that look like? How do all feel connected? How are we as a university connected to the greater community because we feel called to that as well? I think in Catholic higher ed, it’s a gift of clarity that we know why we are doing what we do. And we know why we do it the way we do it. And we can all talk openly about that. It’s a very common and shared commitment that’s based in Gospel values.
You’ve talked about the empowerment of women and that seems to be the fabric of your university. You led the creation of the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California.” And I understand one of your goals is to establish the university as a national resource for women’s issues. What was the impetus for that? And, what do you hope to impart to young women?
We’re the only women’s university in Los Angeles and one of three women’s colleges in California. So, we thought about, as a university, how are we serving the greater community? We have a particular role we should play and feel called to play, which is engaging in research around women and girls and providing developmental programs for the community and for our own students, faculty, and staff. We really feel called to do this because of who we are as a women’s university. So eight years ago, we developed the “Report on the Status of Women and Girls.” (We’ve just had our last one. This coming March, our eighth report will be coming out.) We did that because we thought, no one is doing exactly this. We compiled a report and continue to do so, looking at gender gaps in our state, where there are consistent gender gaps across many sectors. It could be across education [or] even within education. Who’s studying what? Whether it’s STEM — in terms of career, in terms of corporate leadership, in terms of corporate boards, in terms of healthcare, incarceration. We’ve done a number of measures to see how women are doing. And then we disaggregate by race and ethnicity to see, as a white woman or a Latina or an African-American woman or Asian-American woman, how is my life different? And we’ve done that for a number of reasons. One, to provide real data that can drive decisions of legislators, nonprofits, [and] different corporations … that are looking to build a more equitable climate. We’re giving people the data they need to make the case. And we also did it because we feel that we have to talk about — particularly across race and ethnicity — the real disconnect and the real differences of women’s and girls’ lives depending on your race or ethnicity, and really bring that to light in a much more intentional way.
It’s also an incredible training ground for our own students. Now with our newly developed Center for the Advancement of Women, we’re involving our faculty and staff even more immediately in some of these research projects. And we want our students engaging in that, in formulating those questions and finding out, first of all, how do you find answers, how do you get good data, how do you interpret the data? And to really help them see that there are these persistent, pervasive gender gaps that often young women aren't as aware of because they haven’t actually been out in the job market [or] in the workforce in a meaningful way. So it’s a really important education for them [and] we’ve done it in a number of ways. We decided that we’re going to do research and we’re going to do programs. We have an annual leadership conference, which started out just for our students. Then we opened it up to women in the community and that has been a really important and well-attended event. But perhaps even more importantly, eight years ago, we joined a partnership with Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. We are the West Coast provider of their Ready to Run program, which is a nonpartisan campaign training program. And we do that because as we look at our research, we realized that the dearth of women at the federal level, the state level, and even local government is just unacceptable. We want to make sure women are getting the tools they need to make the difference that we believe they can make and should make for the benefit of our state and our country.
You’ve spent about 30 years in liberal arts education. Talk about the current public narrative on liberal arts. How should educators refocus or change the narrative in Catholic higher education?
I think it’s not just Catholic higher ed in this case; it’s liberal arts education. I think we need to stop sounding apologetic and try to explain it. Here’s how we view it at Mount St. Mary’s and here is how I personally view it: The liberal arts experience is the most practical education one could have. Because what it’s doing is preparing our students for careers across their lifetime. And as we look at the world and how it has changed, and how careers are evolving, and jobs that we don’t know about now — we haven’t even imagined — will be jobs our students might be trying to attain in a decade. We need to be preparing them to be nimble, to be creative thinkers, to be collaborative, to ask questions and figure out how to get answers to those questions, to understand the complexity of some of the questions that require a broad range of perspectives [from] a range of people that don’t think like them, that have a different experience than they have. They have to be really open to new ways of imagining things.
With liberal arts, we talk about critical thinking. But it really is about, how do you frame the inquiry that you need to follow in order to address an issue? How do you continue to learn and see yourself as a lifetime learner? And how do you express yourself so people can understand that you can be articulate and persuasive when you need to be, and clear, both orally and in writing? So to me, the liberal arts are all about connections across disciplines, across ways of thinking. And that’s exactly — now more than ever in our history — what our students are going to be called to do. They have to be nimble of mind and they have to be open in spirit. I truly believe this is the best education you can have. If you’re going to be a teacher, if you’re going to be a nurse, if you’re majoring in religious studies — all of those experiences have to be imbued with this same emphasis on thinking and articulation and collaboration and expanding your mind. And to me, that’s what the liberal arts are. Sometimes we get a little bogged down and we’re trying to apologize. Our outcomes will show, you get a job when you have this education. And we need to show outcomes. … But more importantly, our students are going to have a job a decade later because they’re not trained for one way of doing things. They’re trained to be ready to do things in new ways, and their minds are agile and open.
I think we have some work to do in terms of our articulation of the message. We’ve gotten a little bit defensive rather than passionate in terms of how this actually turns into outcomes that are very understandable. But you have to have both — the message and the outcomes are together.
Thomas (Tom) D. Mengler
Position: Tom Mengler is the 13th president of St. Mary’s University (TX) , the oldest Catholic university in the Southwest, a Marianist institution offering integrated liberal arts and professional education since 1852. He is also the 2018-20 chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities Board of Directors.
Career highlights: Dean, University of St. Thomas (MN) School of Law; dean, College of Law, University of Illinois; interim provost and vice chancellor, Academic Affairs, University of Illinois.
Education: B.A., philosophy, Carleton College; M.A., philosophy, University of Texas at Austin; J.D., University of Texas at Austin.
Family: Wife, Mona; and their children, Nathan, Michael, Madeleine, and Patrick.
Fun Fact: He is meticulously on time. From an early age, his father remarked that he had “an alarm clock buried in his body.” “I am a lawyer. Lawyers tend to be always on time.”
Q. In the last few years, St. Mary’s has received several distinctions of honor ranking it in the top 10. Can you sum up the unique Marianist advantage?
A. I think St. Mary’s as Catholic and Marianist has a number of advantages and attractions for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. I’ll focus, in particular, on our undergraduates. We have about 2,400 undergraduates. The Marianist charism has always emphasized the importance of growing closer to God, following Christ, and becoming closer to each other through community. And so the nature of our community has always been and continues to be life-giving. That’s really one of the most important advantages I think that the Marianist charism brings to the mission of St. Mary’s: a focus on community and coming closer to the purpose that we all have in our lives through engaging our neighbors around us. Those, of course, include fellow students, staff, and faculty. But the community more broadly is like all Catholic colleges and universities – our students are out in the community serving those who need our help. That’s certainly not unique to the Marianist charism and the Marianist advantage. But it’s part and parcel of what it means to grow through community.
You’ve traveled around the world in efforts to expand St. Mary’s reach, including to France, Spain, India, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, and Peru. What have you learned from your travels? And, how does that factor into promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue?
Well, the world is getting smaller and smaller. That’s certainly something that we’re all aware of. Our economies overlap and are linked more than ever before. Most of our students are regional – from San Antonio and south Texas. Most of them come from very modest backgrounds. More than 40 percent of our students are first-generation. The importance of engaging difference, engaging different cultures, engaging men and women of different faiths and of no faith, I think is part and parcel with becoming a contributing member of society. Intercultural, interfaith conversation and engagement, including by recruiting about 10 percent of our student body – our international students – that’s an important part of our educational process at St. Mary’s University and our educational goals. As an important Catholic institution, St. Mary’s also is and should be committed to promoting dialogue among men and women of different cultures and different faiths so that we can live in peace, security, and charity. There’s nothing more important for any Catholic college and university than graduating men and women who are going to go out into the world and bring peace. And peace requires understanding.
So, do you also want to talk about plans to establish a Center for Catholic Studies?
Yeah, that has many purposes. We are just launching a Center for Catholic Studies. We’ve hired a very able academic and administrator, Alicia Tait, who’s coming from Benedictine University in the Chicago area. She’s been a very significant participant in ACCU activities, workshops, and strategic planning. We’re excited to have her. The Center for Catholic Studies, from the beginning, I have always regarded as a key component to our remaining and growing in our Catholic identity, as the numbers of professed Marianists diminish. There are only about 300 Marianist brothers in the United States. And they’re aging. It becomes even more vital for us as a Catholic and Marianist university, for us as lay people, to take on the responsibilities that 25 and 50 years ago were largely on the shoulders of the religious men who taught, mentored, and worked at St. Mary’s. Now, it’s on lay people and that requires a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversation, a lot of education. So that’s one important part of the Center for Catholic Studies: It is to help organize our continuing development as a community of faculty and staff who understand the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, Catholic Social Teaching, and Marianist spirituality, and are able then to convey and live those identities day in and day out.
The second purpose really as a Catholic university is to contribute to the intellectual life of the Church and to promote that dialogue. So, it also can be an organizing and centralizing focus for the research activities, the programmatic activities, the outreach activities of faculty and staff at St. Mary’s that bring in scholars and experts. That’s how I see the important role of the Center for Catholic Studies going forward.
As ACCU Board chair, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing Catholic colleges and universities? Are you optimistic for the future?
I am optimistic about the future of Catholic higher education. It’s more important than ever. Catholic colleges and universities remain among the very few places where students are invited to reflect on what it means to lead a purposeful life. We’ve done it for literally centuries. There are fewer and fewer institutions of higher education in the United States where that’s happening and it’s at the core of what we do as faculty and staff and students at Catholic institutions of higher education. The challenge, I think, and the opportunity is maintaining that focus. I alluded earlier to the importance of the Center for Catholic Studies. I am a bit of, not a broken record, but I constantly repeat that the most distinctive feature of St. Mary’s University is that we are Catholic and Marianist – with all of the values and all of the gifts that a great Catholic college and university provides. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. I am quite optimistic because there’s a hunger in our world for that kind of education. So, I think if we position ourselves collectively to continue to focus on that important mission, Catholic higher education will be around for a long time.
The challenges are those that the presidents and all of us involved in Catholic higher education, including and especially those who are involved in ACCU, are aware of. Three of the most important initiatives of ACCU go to those challenges. One is the financial challenges that many of our colleges and universities are facing, particularly among the smaller institutions. As you know, one of the most important initiatives of ACCU is to assist colleges that are either in difficult financial circumstances or are moving into that to be strategic and collaborative, and to find those partnerships that will ensure that those institutions remain strong – some of which will remain strong in partnerships with other institutions.
The second is leadership. I think right now, well over 75 percent of the presidents among the 200-some Catholic colleges and universities are lay people – lay men and women – and that percentage will only increase. So the challenge of educating and fostering the formation of deans, vice presidents, provosts, and presidents – almost all of whom are lay people — in Catholic identity and the charisms that are so important to many of our institutions is key. So the leaders in Catholic higher education pose another challenge, but one that we are addressing. The third challenge, which is also an opportunity, is the helping our institutions understand both how to recruit, but also how to serve the growing college-age Hispanic population, who are the future of the Church. And, because of those numbers, they are largely the future of students enrolled at Catholic colleges and universities. That challenge is a sticky one because so many students at St. Mary’s – we are in a region that is 65 to 75 percent Hispanic – many of those families are economically modest. And so the challenge for Catholic colleges comes back to the financial challenge. Catholic colleges and universities are finding ways in which we can keep our educational offerings affordable, so young men and women of Hispanic descent can afford – and their families can afford to assist them in attending – our schools.
Statistics clearly show the value of a postsecondary education. Yet, overwhelmingly public misconceptions remain. How does Catholic higher education make the case for relevancy? And, are liberal arts studies and job preparedness mutually exclusive?
They are not. Almost all Catholic colleges and universities are liberal arts institutions. And liberal arts are routinely now taking bashings in the popular press and media. It’s an enormous misconception about the value of liberal arts education. Virtually all of the surveys of heads of companies, corporations, nonprofit organizations – if you ask them what they are looking for in new, young professional staff members, what they’re looking for in the graduates of our colleges and universities – they are looking for men and women who have the skills and the values that we pride ourselves in developing at our universities: the ability to learn how to learn, the ability to think, write, and speak well and critically. The ability to listen, the respect for others, compassion, honesty, integrity. All the things that we at Catholic colleges and universities seek to foster among our students, are those very skills and values that employers are seeking in new graduates. So the great irony is that private higher education and particularly Catholic higher education, because we are so grounded in the liberal arts, are harshly criticized for promoting skills and values that the smartest, wisest employers are seeking.
A new crop of Rattlers is about to matriculate full of hope and dreams. What is your vision for them?
We will be enrolling about 650 or so freshman, which is a nice big class for us. We have a number of transfers students enrolling and of course, law school students and new students in our graduate programs. Our vision for them is that they receive a very fine education while at St. Mary’s, that they grow and mature as young men and women who are prepared to leave St. Mary’s University to be men and women who are for change and for the betterment of society. Our vision also includes helping them to see their roles as grounded in their faith in God and reflecting on their roles in the world in which God has blessed us all.