Continued innovation ahead for Alverno College
By Kay Falk, for SBT
As Sister Joel Read retires after 34 years as president, Alverno College plans to remain a vibrant force in higher education
While colleagues of Sister Joel Read, decades-long president of Alverno College, talk about her legacy as her upcoming retirement approaches, Read doesn’t see it that way.
"Legacy is not personal," she emphasizes. "The legacy is really the approach to education that has been developed by the faculty over the past 30 years. There’s a very collaborative spirit here. We’re able to discuss things, in great depth if necessary. That’s not exactly a widespread attribute of higher education. Because we have a matrix organizational structure, people work together across their disciplines as well as within their disciplines. This collaboration doesn’t mean we can’t be critical, but we can do it in the spirit of improvement and trying to serve students better."
Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of academic affairs and a member of the presidential nominating committee, puts it this way, "Sister Joel is good at making sure the legacy she’s established can continue. She has things well-oiled so we know what we’re about," O’Brien says. "She’s worked tirelessly for almost 35 years to create a vibrant institution. One of the marks of this vibrancy is that it can succeed her tenure as president."
Renewed approaches to education
Both women believe the new president’s job will not be to lead Alverno in a completely different direction. "The new president will bring a shift in style, energy and personality at the top, but our college will continue to build on the national and international reputation for innovative curriculum established under Sister Joel’s leadership," O’Brien points out.
That reputation concerns an ability-based, assessment-as-learning curriculum that stresses abilities over grades, as well as opening the doors of the college to nontraditional and part-time students before other higher educational institutions thought of doing so.
The innovation continues today. "For example, there’s a diagnostic digital portfolio that still needs a lot of work although we’ve raised several millions for it," Read says. "When it’s fully developed, it will be a very major contribution to the education of students at all levels, not just in higher education."
She also points to a national project. "The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has between 600 and 700 institutions involved in an effort to provide data on how students learn while in college," Read explains. "That project has decided now to document colleges that have exceeded expectations both as to their levels of achievement and their graduation rates. They have selected 20 of the participating colleges, and Alverno is one of those. We exceed both baccalaureate colleges to which we’re compared by significant percentages and the whole group of colleges together."
Both Read and O’Brien realize an important duty of the new president will be fundraising so current endeavors and programs can continue and new ones that benefit students can be launched.
"I hope the new president will see herself as the major fundraiser for this college," Read says. "This school has a modest endowment, which it does a great deal with it. People who come here think we’re heavily endowed, but I say we’re conceptually rich. That’s how we do what we do."
She continues, "I’ve told both finalists that we must have support for what the faculty has done here. The faculty, staff and college have made a major contribution to women and minorities and their educations. When you can get people succeeding at very high levels, the importance of support can’t be underestimated. I think the candidates know that."
O’Brien agrees. "The nominating committee is looking for people who can size up our institutional picture and know how to see it will continue," she says. "The new president will need to enhance enrollment, facilities and physical resources. Our approach to developmental learning has won awards and doesn’t need to change. We’re looking for someone who can renew our approach, provide resources and make the college even more visible."
The replacement search
While O’Brien admits filling Read’s shoes is not an easy task, she says the general nominating process is spelled out in the college’s bylaws.
The 10 members of the presidential nominating committee began meeting more than a year ago. "We did some ‘prethinking’ and worked with Sister Joel to time her announcement last November," O’Brien recalls. "We hired a consultant who has participated in more than 100 searches in the past. He’s steered the committee since November."
An initial pool of more than 100 has been narrowed to two finalists, Mary J. Meehan, vice president for administration at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran, a vice president at Salem College in North Carolina.
The week of April 27 through May 3, the two candidates visited the campus to meet with alumni, students, trustees, faculty, staff and community representatives. "Each of them was here for three days, and during that time we held a series of three (for each candidate) open Alverno Community Forums where the students and public were welcome to meet and ask questions," O’Brien said. "The candidates also met individually with Sister Joel and other key staff, and there were breakfasts for selected students, so there were multiple opportunities to meet these two women."
The nominating committee has read written feedback from the candidates’ visits and met to discuss this feedback. A recommendation to hire one of the candidates was presented to the board of trustees for its May 14 meeting.
"The board has already met with each of them about a compensation package, so we’re hoping once an offer is made, we’ll be able to quickly announce who the next president will be," O’Brien says.
Whichever candidate is selected, "I believe the future of Alverno College is very bright," O’Brien concludes. "It’s a wonderful place, and as one candidate told me, ‘It’s a plum of a position.’ These two women are not interested in being caretakers of what we’ve done in the past; our new president will be someone who will care for the legacy, bring all voices together and put her stamp on the process of leading Alverno into that bright future."
For Read, one honor of many stands out
Sister Joel Read has earned countless awards, honors and honorary degrees over the course of her almost 35 years as head of Alverno College. They all have had great meaning to her, but one that stands out in her memory was the Anne Roe Award from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She received it in 1980.
"It was a very moving experience because Anne was still alive at that time," Read recalls. "I was the first to win the new award in her name and she attended the presentation event."
Anne Roe, the first tenured woman at Harvard, spent her career studying the nature of work. "She focused on work as a stretchpoint in people’s lives, not just a job from which you earn your living," Read explains. "Work is how you come to define yourself."
She continues, "I had access to some of her works at the time, so I titled my talk in receiving the award, ‘An institution with stretch.’ We had a wonderful exchange after the award ceremony and that was very moving for me. Just the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with her was great honor for me. We stayed in touch until her death."
May 16, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee