Mount Aloysius College
State of the College
Thomas P. Foley
August 16, 2010
Thank you and welcome to this 71st academic year at Mount Aloysius College. It is my honor and privilege to be among you today, and it is my hope that in the weeks, months and years ahead, you will all feel that the Conference on Mercy Higher Education, the Mount Aloysius Board of Trustees (led by Joe Sheetz), and the Presidential Search Committee (led by Dan Rullo and on which at least five of you sat) made the right choice.
I want you to know that I haven’t been poked and prodded that much since I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the midst of its troubles in the late 70s. But at least this time the prodding was all intellectual and all in good form—-though at times I still felt like I was back in the moot court competition in law school. Your search committees scoured my resume, read up on my writings, tracked down my associates going back 35 years (thank goodness they didn’t call any of my brothers or sisters), and in general put my brain, my bio, and even my bloodlines to the test. Let’s hope they continue to hold up.
I have wrestled for some time with this challenge of delivering a State of the College Address to all of you—who have invested so much in the success of this very special institution for so many years—on what is for me the 16th day on the job. I can imagine that a few of you are already thinking “some presumptuous fellow that Foley.” But never worry, this isn’t going to be like the graduation speaker who stood up, announced that quote “we have given you a perfect world, now don’t screw it up” unquote and then proceeded to sit down. I am going to use my time, some of it anyway!!
I finally decided that I might usefully offer some comments in three areas—carefully chosen so as to protect my ignorance and preserve your patience:
First, a few words about the recent past, and the enormous legacy of Sister Mary Ann Dillon and all of you who worked so closely with her.
Second, some comments about the present, a sort of nuts and bolts update on change and challenge over these last few months at the College.
And finally, a few thoughts about the future, what brought me here and what I find most compelling about higher education and Mount Aloysius College-- here at the summit of the Alleghenies.
A look at the Recent Past: The Dillon Years
And here is love
Like a tinsmith’s scoop
Sunk past its gleam
In the meal bin
In Mary C. Sullivan’s edition of The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, she opens her introduction with these four lines from Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s poem Sunlight:
It is 157 years since that love—“like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal bin”--first showed itself in the Laurel Highlands, at the very moment when seven Sisters of Mercy welcomed 22 young girls to Saint Aloysius Academy in Loretto. It is 113 years since the Main Building opened its doors as Mount Aloysius here in Cresson, over a 100 years since Charles Schwab financed the construction of Alumni Hall, and almost 90 years since Pittsburgh architect John Theodore Comes drew up plans for the striking, Lombardy-Romanesque Chapel Building. All of that we might describe as the first metamorphosis of the College, a time for planting both spiritual roots and red brick buildings.
It was almost 50 years later that the second metamorphosis took place, when the original McAuley Hall appeared as the first free standing structure on the campus, quickly followed by Ihmsen and the old original Cosgrave—all precipitated by the move from academy to college status.
Though it is too early to comprehensively assign her legacy, this much is for sure: Sister Mary Ann Dillon, Sister Ginny Bertshi and all of you who were their partners here these last 13 years surely ushered in another metamorphosis of Mount Aloysius College. Let me see if I can describe that metamorphosis, roughly over the last decade, with some numbers, some prose and finally some pictures.
First, the numbers--
That’s a lot of numbers, and they only begin to capture the highlights of the last thirteen years. Perhaps the most significant metamorphosis has been in the physical plant itself. The following areas have been transformed or are in the process of being transformed:
It is perhaps too early to assign a legacy to Sister Mary Ann (she’s too young for one thing), and the majority of you who know her well understand that she would oppose to the nines putting her name in the same sentence as the word “legacy”, let alone putting her name up on the pedestal with the co-founders of the Cresson Community--Mother Mary Gertrude Cosgrave and Mother Mary DeSales Ihmsen, and the co-founders of the college--Sister deSales Farley and Sister Silverius Shields. But I suspect that is exactly where we will find her name when the history of this period is written. And I would like to say thank you for the example of public leadership and private humility (traits not often found together), for the model transition she effected on my behalf, and for the record she has written here at Mount Aloysius College these last 13 years. Thank you Sister President Mary Ann Dillon.
Up to the Present: Progress and Prospects at the College
So much has happened in the last thirteen years. Well, I want to tell you a lot has happened in the last six months as well, since you last received one of these formal reports. Let me see if I can break this update into ten nuts and bolts highlights:
On Enrollment and Finance (an area of widespread concern in higher ed): “Mount Aloysius is clearly a fundamentally sound institution.”
On Assessment (an area of some concern in the initial MSCHE report): “Mount Aloysius has to an impressive extent become an assessment-rich institution, governed by systematic planning. Assessment at Mount Aloysius is now a model of how it should be done, proving that small private colleges can indeed attain the standards established by the MSCHE.”
The MSCHE panel’s overall conclusion is equally affirmative: “The recommendations of the 2004 Evaluation team have been met. Mount Aloysius College is in good shape. It is well managed, purposeful, resourceful and poised for greater success in the future.”
And finally, “A new President has now assumed leadership of a stable, even improving, institution with a viable plan to carry the college forward in the years ahead.”
Let me thank personally the key players in preparing the response—Virginia Gonsman, Brian Pearson, Dave Haschak, Linda Gaston, Donna Yoder, Drew Tatusako, and Ron Cromwell--and applaud all of you in the audience for the record you have written here in the Dillon years.
That concludes my summary of progress and prospects—recent activity at the College. Let me conclude with a few remarks about my experience here so far, and what drew me in the first place.
Looking to the Future
When I first interviewed for this post, I found myself reverting to two words—those words were value and values. I was struck by how this College has managed the inflation in higher education costs—the value--and equally impressed by all the indicators that something larger than just education was going on here—the values.
Nothing I have seen or read or experienced since that first conversation almost six months ago has changed my view. You are doing something extraordinary at Mount Aloysius College, producing graduates who are “job-ready” on day one and what I call “community-ready” as well. Going the extra mile to help students overcome their challenges, and succeed beyond their parents’ expectations or sometimes their own dreams. You are not only teaching them how to earn a living, you are teaching them how to live a life. And I found and find that tremendously appealing and I hope that you all find it tremendously rewarding. Let me elaborate.
It begins with the original mission statement of the College—“to respond to individual and community needs with quality post secondary programs of education in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.” Students at Mount Aloysius are encouraged (this is right off the website) to “synthesize faith with learning, to develop competence with compassion, to put talents and gifts at the service of others, and to begin to assume leadership in the world community.” Those are strong statements, heady words, powerful and somewhat unique in the field of higher education—and they are all over the website and every document that attempts to describe or strategically plan for the future of Mount Aloysius College. So the “something special” begins with the mission.
And it continues with the Sisters--the foundresses, the leaders of the Academy, then of the first women’s Junior College, down to those who carry the mission and the history around with them every day in these corridors. I had the pleasure of six separate visits from Sisters of Mercy on my first official day here—Sister B.J., Sister Eric Marie, Sister Charlene, Sister Nancy, Sister Giuseppe, and of course Sister Helen Marie. Every one of them told me that they were praying for me, Sister Giuseppe even said she had done a novena for me to St. Ann. And of course I responded to all that prayer the way any red-blooded young Catholic man who had spent a fair amount of time doing penance after Saturday afternoon youthful confessions would—I started wondering what I had done to need all these prayers!
So it extends down through these marvelous Sisters of Mercy with their brave history and their focus on mercy and justice, hospitality and service. That plays out in this institution today through the Mount Aloysius Advanced Academic Preparation Program (MAAPP), through an office dedicated to Retention efforts, through a Vice President whose job title is VP for Mission Integration. Don’t just talk about the mission and trot it out on noble occasions. Integrate it, make it integral. Institutionalize it in the daily work, in and outside the classroom, in the very curriculum. And you have.
And in the end, it only works because you all here endorse it as well. There are a few of these Sisters left in the area--Sisters whose lifetime of self-sacrifice is so evident--and their numbers aren’t increasing. But I have already encountered several examples of people who work here every day living out the mission—in the way faculty department chairs gave up one of their very last Fridays in the summer to come in and meet individually with a nervous group of adult learners; in the way the student mentors and RAs responded so quickly to the first call for help; in the words Kristen Scott spoke to you in her graduation speech just three months ago, and in the way so many of you offered help to Michele and I with housing suggestions, restaurant suggestions, shopping suggestions, even where to flyfish.
Like you, I come from a long line of hard workers and I don’t plan on changing now. My Irish grandfather was a bartender for 50 years—worked in only two places all that time—back in the days when bartenders worked 70 hours, six days a week. My other grandfather was a night watchman at a wire factory, and both my grandmothers cooked dinner for other people’s families, and took care of other people’s homes for a living. None of them had the benefit of a high school education; my grandfather’s birth certificate is marked with an X. My parents are high school grads, both probably smarter than most of the 12 children they raised, all of whom at their insistence went for higher education. No prouder place in my parents’ home than the wall with all the framed diplomas—not all the sports trophies or other awards—it’s the diplomas that share the spotlight on their family room wall.
At Mount Aloysius, we are all about hard work and hard working people, about building careers in nursing and the allied health professions, in cutting edge technology and criminal justice, in public service and private markets. Today, as your new President, I share with all of you at this college a responsibility to educate, train, support, place and improve the lives of our students and help them to build legacies that extend to their families and their communities. I relish the opportunity and the challenge.
Let me finish where I started--with the letters of Catherine McAuley. The editor of that compilation writes that
“What is most moving about the letters of Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, is not any gleam of overt or expected virtue, but everyday love immersed deep in the human grain of her friend’s and coworkers’ lives.”
She goes on to say that
“Catherine wrote not from a script but from her heart—to offer affection, to give encouragement, to cheer, to affirm the demands of justice, to console, to incite laughter, to express gratitude, to keep playfulness alive.”
I have seen a bit of each of those attributes in my first 16 days, and in several visits before, gifts of time and unblemished affection, laughter, some discussion about justice, gratitude, even playfulness from the Sisters of Mercy and from so many others on this campus who endorse these core values of justice, hospitality, mercy and service.
I feel very at home here. And I thank you for that.