Mary Meehan, Ph.D., recently announced plans to exit her role as president of Alverno College in June 2016. BizTimes conducted a Q&A with Meehan as she approaches her final year of leadership:
Mary Meehan, Ph.D. president of Alverno College
Institution address: 3400 S. 43rd Street, Milwaukee, WI 53234
Industry: Higher education
Number of employees: 391
Why is it the right time for Alverno College to undergo a leadership transition?
“Knowing when is the right time to leave an organization is a critical question all leaders must one day face. I have felt so fortunate to serve at an institution that I have admired and respected long before coming to Milwaukee so this has been a particularly difficult decision for me, but reaching retirement age has made that a bit easier! When I began as president, the board of trustees had prepared an agenda that included some rather bold, long-term goals. Over the past 11 years most have been accomplished, including a number of new ones, and it is now the right time for the board and the campus community to determine an agenda for the next leader.”
Looking back on your years of leading the school, what have been your top accomplishments?
“Alverno enjoys an international reputation which is what brought me here, but in the local community not too many people really understood the college. A recent awareness study clearly demonstrates that we have moved the needle on the perception of the broader community. I am also proud of the financial support we have received from both alumnae and from the corporate community. Our facilities are now those that fully support 21st century learning. For five consecutive years, US News and World has recognized Alverno as a national leader in undergraduate teaching and learning, and number one in Wisconsin. Alverno has also increased its total enrollment over the past decade, and increased graduate enrollment from approximately 100 students to well over 700. As women’s colleges continue to struggle all over the country, I am proud that Alverno has been able to demonstrate the relevance and impact of a women’s college on our students and on our community.”
What challenges have you had to maneuver as president of Alverno College?
“One of the most daunting challenges all college presidents face today is proving the value of a college education. Many people question the cost of a college degree, but few acknowledge that a college graduate earns at least one million dollars more than a high school graduate over the course of a career. The average debt load for a student completing a four year degree in the US is roughly $25,000—the cost of a car. A college education is an investment, and too few people recognize its true and long-term value. As financial support for students is constantly under threat, this has been, and remains my biggest challenge.
“It is also impossible in today’s climate to provide a fair and decent salary for faculty and staff. Many mistakenly think college faculty are well paid, but do not take into account the workload, as well as the hours a typical faculty member spends with students outside the classroom on preparation and student feedback, scholarly research, administrative tasks, and community service. In other parts of the world teachers are revered, but in the Unites States that is sadly not the case. This lack of respect and understanding of the vital role teachers play in our economic well-being has also had an impact on the career decisions of our young people. Our country will find it increasingly difficult to compete in a global market if this trend is not reversed.”
What do you hope to accomplish on campus before you depart in June 2016?
“I have a long list of goals to complete before I leave next June. While not all of the goals will be completed, I hope to make sure a number have a strong foundation. For example, there are only two women’s colleges in the country that have AACSB accredited business schools. This is not surprising as only 5 percent of all business schools have that particular accreditation. I would like to see Alverno one day become the third women’s college in the country to earn that distinction. It will take some time, but we are off to a great start. We are also building on over 40 years of service to adult students through the creation of ability-based degree completion programs that are now offered in more flexible, yet still rigorous delivery models. Our Joann McGrath School of Nursing has a new simulation center and this will provide even more opportunities to develop graduate degrees that meet the needs of our local community. I also hope to continue our fundraising efforts to provide more scholarship funding for our students who lack other means of financial support.”
How effective is higher education in preparing the next generation workforce? How could higher education be made more cost effective for students?
“The United States remains the envy of the world for its higher education system, but for the last two years fewer high school students have attended college than the prior year. This is the first time this has occurred in American history. I know colleges and universities respond to changing needs because I see it every day. For example, more students in America are majoring in health care-related fields than any other field of study. In Milwaukee there are countless examples of ways in which colleges and universities have responded to the needs of the region. From the Pharmacy School at Concordia to the Schools of Public Health and Water at UWM, institutions are developing both research capacity as well as programs that directly meet the needs of public and corporate communities. One example at Alverno would be the development of a graduate nursing degree in mental health. With fewer than 15 mental health nurse practitioners in all of Wisconsin at the time of implementation, this program directly and dramatically expands services to those with behavioral health problems.”
What role should the business community play in preparing the next generation workforce?
“The business community plays a vital role in preparing students for the workforce. One critical need for all colleges and universities is meaningful internships for our students. At Alverno, all students are required to complete internships, and many complete two or more. I know this is why we boast of an over 90 percent job placement rate within six months of graduation. Mentoring is also a way employers can both assess the strengths and fit of potential graduates, while also providing the role models and advice students need for success.”
How does Alverno College distinguish itself from other institutions, particularly others located in southeastern Wisconsin?
“Since 1970, Alverno has been teaching eight core abilities—the very ones employers say are most needed – critical thinking, global perspectives, communication, problem solving, to name a few. Colleges and universities from all over the world visit us regularly and in many countries, our curriculum is their model. In the past 10 years alone, more than 40 states and 25 countries have sent academic leaders here to learn our model. In fact, the college won the MacArthur genius award for the curriculum. Several years ago, a contingent of Japanese CEO’s came to Milwaukee with the expressed purpose of purchasing our curriculum at the request of the Japanese Ministry of Education. Lucky for them, we give it to anyone who wishes to use it! And as evidence that the model works, we can boast that over 90 percent of our students are employed within six months of graduation. I am always so proud when people in the community tell me: ‘You can always spot an Alverno alum.’”
Do you have a business mantra?
“I wouldn’t exactly say I have a business mantra, but I would hope my campus community would say that I try to model what I believe – ‘Work can’t always be fun, but it should always bring joy and fulfillment to those whom we serve.’”
What was the best advice you ever received?
“One of my high school teachers, Father Paterak, would tell us: ‘When you go home every day ask yourself two questions: What did you learn today? And did you do your very best?’ After over 40 years, I still ask myself those two things and I am always surprised by the answers. While I hope most days I have done my best, there are times when I know I could have done more or better. On those days, I also promise myself I will try not to make the same mistakes the next day.”
What is next for you?
“I am not sure what will be next for me. In my earlier career I worked in the behavioral health field and I am passionate about advocacy and comprehensive services for those living with mental illness. I hope I can spend some time in that area. I serve on the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership Board, and I am hoping to have more time to promote this most important leadership practice. I firmly believe that all good leaders whether they know it or not, are servant leaders. I have always been open to new adventures and I am sure my biggest challenge will be what it has always been – finding the time to do all the exciting things that present themselves to me.”