For a Practiced President, Another Small College to Turn Around

Robert Charles

Sister Mary Reap
May 12, 2014

Before she became president of Elms College, in July 2009, Sister Mary Reap, 72, served for nearly 20 years as president of Marywood University, where she helped place the institution on a stable financial footing. Now, at Elms, she has had to figure out how to turn around another struggling college. Here is her account of those efforts, as told to Taylor Harvey.

Like many small schools, Elms College was financially fragile. If you have a small endowment and are heavily tuition-driven, and prices get to a point where many students cannot afford to attend, you are creating a perfect storm.

Elms, for a 10-year period, had a lot of turnover in the presidential position. A lack of a consistent leadership always hurts an institution. People don’t get an opportunity to work together toward a goal because everything seems temporary.

At Marywood, the route to our success was finding new opportunities and running with them. Our opportunity there was expanding graduate education.

I always wondered if the skills of a leader are transferable. Can you repeat what you did in one place at another institution? My answer is yes, you can.

When I left retirement to lead Elms, the college had already begun some collaborative partnerships with community colleges, particularly in nursing. So we began to really focus on the adult market as part of our mission. We now have six off-site collaborative programs, in which students who have two-year degrees can earn bachelor’s degrees from Elms by taking courses on their community-­college campuses.

Our full-time faculty teach students on those campuses on Saturdays, and some of the coursework is offered online. We have wonderful support systems in place, with academic advisers and a coordinator available to students at each site, an entire unit here at the college that enrolls the students and helps them through the financial-­assistance process, and an online tutoring component that is there 24/7 for them.

Our retention rates and success rates to graduation in those programs are very high. The students know what they are sacrificing to do this and how important this goal is for them, so they are determined and very dedicated to academic success.

The partnership has added a good number of students to our base, and the additional tuition revenue has helped us turn around financially. That success has done a lot of good things on the campus in terms of morale and has given us money to invest in some strategic initiatives.

For a long time, Elms wanted to build a new science center, and now we have, with the help of donors. It’s been transformational for us to move from rather old and ineffective labs to really cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, beautiful lab facilities.

As a leader, if you are not investing, if you are not looking for the next opportunity, then there isn’t much future. No money, no mission.