Succeeding a living legend

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm

Mary Meehan moved to Milwaukee in May with the realization that she was being asked to succeed a living legend. Meehan follows Sister Joel Read, who retired after 35 years of serving her community and pioneering new styles of education as president of Alverno College. Meehan is immersing herself into that community Read so deftly understood and is plotting the course for Alverno’s future. Meehan recently discussed her transition with Small Business Times reporter Rebecca Wolfson. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: How do you like Milwaukee?
Meehan: "I like it very much. It’s a very nice city, a friendly city. It has anything anyone would want in a metropolitan area, minus the traffic, a particular love of mine having lived near Manhattan."
SBT: After spending 10 years of your career in health care, what made you want to get into higher education?
Meehan: "I hadn’t thought about it. That’s what makes it so interesting. I had been on the board at Seton Hall University, but when the president asked me if I would be willing to be vice president, I did a lot of soul searching as to whether this was really where I wanted to go. I was happy in the hospital world, but it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to do something different. I have always tried to be a lifelong learner. Even when I was in the hospital world, I saw how important education was in everything we did and how important it was for all of our employees to continue in their education. I hadn’t planned on changing jobs when the search firm called me about the position at Alverno. So, after the search firm asked me, I initially came out of curiosity because I really wanted to see the school. Everything I read about the school turned out to be true, and more, and that’s frankly why I agreed to do this. I had always thought I would be born and die in New Jersey. So, it’s just been very, well, I guess you can call it serendipity. But, here I am."
SBT: By succeeding Sister Joel Read, you are replacing a living legend. How do you feel about that?
Meehan: "Well that’s absolutely true. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Sister Joel. She was the architect of this great institution. The old saying goes that we hope that we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us so that we can see into the future. I think that’s very much the case here. I think each of us brings our own gifts to an institution, and certainly Sister Joel brought an immense treasure chest of gifts to this school. And I have a responsibility to do my best to bring my personality and my leadership style to this school and make sure we preserve what has been done here. I believe in everything that happens here. I have no desire to dramatically change anything we’re doing. I think an educational model that over 30 years has stood the test of time has been proven to be a very effective one. Most people’s advice has been don’t try to be someone else, be the best person you can be."
SBT: You said you don’t want to dramatically change anything, but are there any improvements you would like to make?
Meehan: "We certainly need to be financially stronger. We are the lowest-cost private college in the state of Wisconsin, and that’s really by design. We try very hard to be affordable, and that’s a challenge given that our model is very faculty intense. Making the college more fiscally sound is one of my goals, so we can have the excess cash to do some of the projects we need to do. I also think we need to move into the graduate area. We currently offer one degree in graduate education. We are at this point considering a master’s (degree) in nursing and possibly several others."
SBT: Have you been able to begin implementing any of these changes?
Meehan: "I’ve tried very hard at this point just to understand the culture better, to understand the city of Milwaukee. We need to reflect on what we need to do to be a stronger college, but we also need to know what we can do to make a stronger community. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time there. One of the first things we need to do is sit down and talk about our future internally. There are things I would like to work on, but it’s important to hear what students and faculty have to say."
SBT: What has been your biggest surprise coming here?
Meehan: "I have been so overwhelmed by the hospitality of everyone in the city. Also, the incredible generosity of the faculty. Colleges all over the country will often comment on how faculty are spread out in so many directions, and teaching is not their main focus. It is just so wonderful to be in a place where faculty really care deeply about their teaching and spend time reflecting on it and talking about it and finding ways to respond to student needs."
SBT: Do you think your background in sociology has helped you think in a certain way?
Meehan: "It makes me more curious. Also, being in the mental health field, I tend to look at the psychological and sociological perspective on things."
SBT: As president, how much of your job is fundraising?
Meehan: "It’s a huge percentage. I mean, most people would tell you it’s 60 to 70 percent of the time. If you’re not actually fundraising, it’s always in the back of your head. It’s more challenging when you’re a women’s college. It’s more challenging when most of your graduates over the years have been nurses and teachers. They may be as generous as they can be, but they’re not CEOs of big corporations."
SBT: What do you hope your legacy will be as Alverno’s seventh president?
Meehan: "To maintain the treasure that Alverno is and ensure that it thrives into the
Mary J. Meehan, Ph.D.
PROFESSional experience:
Seton hall university: Executive vice president for administration (2001-2004), vice president and assistant to the president (1996-2001).
St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic, N.J.: Executive vice president and chief operating officer (1993-1996); vice president for Mental Health (1983-1988).
St. Vincent’s Medical center in Harrison, N.J.: Administrator and CEO (1988-1993).
Seton hall university: B.A. in sociology; master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling; Ph.D in higher education administration
new york medical college: Master’s degree in health policy and management
August 20, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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