On July 1, Isabelle Cherney will take the reigns as the 13th president of Mount Mary University. Cherney has spent the past two decades in academia, including her most recent role as vice provost for graduate education at Merrimack College near Boston and a 15-year stint at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Her academic research focuses on the effects of gender on STEM education and career pathways. Cherney succeeds Christine Pharr, who is retiring after five years as president. With family ties to Mount Mary and experience launching new degree programs, Cherney steps into her role at a pivotal time for higher education. She recently spoke with BizTimes Milwaukee associate editor Maredithe Meyer about her ambitions.
What drew you to this role?
“Mount Mary was familiar to me for many, many years. My husband grew up a block away from here. The first time he took me home to meet his parents, the first thing I saw was the bell tower. His oldest sister graduated from Mount Mary and was a trustee. She passed away many years ago but always had fun stories about Mount Mary. … In a way, it’s almost like coming home.
“One of the people from Creighton who nominated me for this job emailed me when she saw the job posting, and at the same time, I got the alert about the new opening. It didn’t take me two seconds to say, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve worked for my whole life.’ My research over the years has been around why women don’t go into STEM positions, in particular looking at early childhood, and how that affects careers. Having an all-women undergraduate university blended with the type of research I do and my passion for social justice and diversity and equity, I thought, ‘Wow, if they want me, I would love to come here and do my best to further the mission and vision of Mount Mary.’”
What are your top priorities?
“Growing the graduate programs is going to be one of my priorities and seeing what kinds of academic programs we can launch relatively quickly. But also looking at alternatives like certificates, transfer students and making it easier for them to come here, looking at badging for pathways to professional degrees, … also looking at opportunities for students to do internships and practicums, hopefully with Milwaukee institutions nearby that would want to work with us. And then to get to know a lot about Milwaukee … to see how we could create synergies between various colleges in town but also industries, organizations.
“And then fundraising will be a priority, finding scholarships. We have a very diverse group of students, and not everybody can afford the excellent education that they get, so we need to find ways to get more scholarships. … There’s also this beautiful building, but it’s 100 years old, so it needs improvements. Capital campaigns will be important to figure out how we can insulate it better, make it sustainable and make it an even better space for students, faculty and staff.”
What are the greatest challenges facing higher ed right now?
“Higher ed is changing faster than it ever has. It has a 600-year history, and it’s always been the same, basically. We find ourselves reinventing what that might look like, and I think technology is playing a big role, more so now than ever. In part, being able to have courses and whole degrees done online. In the past, that was a real challenge for faculty to think that it might be as good as in-person education.
“COVID moved the needle tremendously in one direction, which is faculty are (now) a little more savvy and are able to move between in-person and online. Students the same. What we see now is (students) want a ‘just in time’ type of education: ‘I want to take my course now, not wait until it’s offered in six months.’ ‘I want to graduate as fast as possible.’ …
“So, the question is, is higher ed as a whole doing the best they can for students’ sake? Do we have enough access for all students? It’s expensive, so how do we manage that access to all and make it easier for students to come (to Mount Mary)? The challenge will be to retain students. The challenge, with demographics, is to find new ways to attract students because no matter how you look at it, degrees matter. (People with degrees) have higher incomes over time. … So, the challenge is how do we become more nimble, more flexible to adapt to student demands?
“But then it’s also, what are some of these careers and career expectations? We can develop critical thinkers, people who can work in teams and communicate. Those are the skills that will be outstanding no matter what type of job you’re going in to. The current generation (of college students) will be changing jobs at least 11 times in their lifetime, so what does that mean for education? How do we prepare students and adult learners to do that?”
Milwaukee-area companies need talent. What’s your role in strengthening the pipeline of graduates to local employers?
“The vision of the School sisters of Notre Dame is to build community. (Mount Mary) would not be here if it weren’t for the community of Milwaukee. The majority of our students are commuter students, so they have families here. … We’re still relatively regional and even more constricted in many ways – the majority of our students are from around here. So, absolutely, that is who we are. That is who Mount Mary University is. That partnership with the business community is certainly a priority. And if (students) can find a job that they want here, there’s no need to go anywhere. Milwaukee is a great place, and I’m excited to hopefully find good partners and have the talent stay here because brain drain is a real problem, and I would love to contribute to retaining the talent in town.”