Dr. Christine Pharr, recently retired president of Mount Mary University and BizTimes Media’s 12th Woman Executive of the Year, discovered early on in her career that she’s a person who gains energy from social interactions. As a woman in science, she realized that being in a lab setting was not the right fit for her. Her first venture into the world of education happened while she was pursuing her master’s degree in chemistry. At the same time, she was working as a teacher’s assistant.
“I loved it, and I just knew then that was sort of my calling,” Pharr said. “I think the more I got into leadership positions, the more I realized I could make a bigger difference.”
At the time, she and her husband were living in Idaho. She took her first teaching job as a professor at Lewis-Clark State College. From there, she worked her way up the ladder to becoming vice president of academic affairs at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, later moving to Milwaukee to become president of Mount Mary University in 2017.
“I wanted to work at a place where my personal ethos and values aligned with my job, because I never considered my job to be a job. I considered it to be a vocation,” Pharr said.
Her personal values were front of mind as Pharr led Mount Mary through several transformational projects. The project she is most proud of is the completion of Trinity Woods, a $45 million intergenerational housing complex for single mothers studying at Mount Mary. The complex also includes assisted living units for the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Pharr spent about 15 to 20 hours a week for a year and half planning for the project and led efforts to raise $2 million in funding.
“The rewards of it, I think, are going to be tremendous, and I’m very proud of it and happy that it came together,” she said.
Pharr also has a longstanding desire to promote women in science, which ties in nicely to Mount Mary’s mission of serving women. Pharr helped Mount Mary climb up the ranks to become the number one college in the Midwest on U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of top-performing schools for social mobility in 2022. During Pharr’s tenure, Hispanic representation among full-time undergraduate students jumped from 21% in 2017 to 31% in 2021. Black student population rose from 17% to 19%.
“We began to have a critical mass of students who saw Mount Mary as a place where they could be supported with wraparound services of all types. As that word got out in the community, we began to attract more and more students regionally,” Pharr said.
What’s more, she oversaw the creation of the President’s Emergency Fund, which provides financial assistance to all Mount Mary students who are facing financial emergencies that could interfere with their academic success.
“It was really to help students with any needs they had. Whether it was their car broke down, or they couldn’t buy books, or they couldn’t make their rent payment, whatever it was, we would make sure those weren’t the reasons students dropped out of school,” Pharr said.
The job of a president includes – among many things – both attracting and retaining students. With high school graduation rates declining in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of higher education is being forced to adapt.
To help attract students, Pharr hired a consultant to identify opportunities for new programs. This led to the creation of a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing program after the construction of a $2.5 million Health Sciences Center. Also during Parr’s tenure, Mount Mary introduced its Compass Year program, which serves first-year students whose major is undecided.
“When you become a (university) president, you have to think about much bigger things. You have to think about finances, relationships with alumni and donors, how to not only attract but retain students. It takes a little while to absorb all the important roles,” Pharr said.
There’s no question that Pharr has led numerous projects that have helped shape the identity of Mount Mary as an institution of higher learning, but she does not take all the credit alone. She attributes her successes to those who have worked with her and to the process of spending time earning the trust of both faculty members and students with each new role she’s taken on.
“I have this joke that what I want on my gravestone is, ‘She asked a lot, she gave a lot,’” said Pharr. “I hope people remember that I really worked hard, and I did ask a lot of people, I know that. This (Woman Executive of the Year) award, it’s honoring me of course, but no one is successful alone. We, together, accomplished a lot.”
On July 1, Pharr passed the baton to Mount Mary University’s 13th president, Isabelle Cherney, who spent the past two decades in academia, most recently as vice provost for graduate education at Merrimack College near Boston. Her academic research focuses on the effects of gender on STEM education and career pathways.