Cover Story

Connecting the Dots

Jim Mullen Wants The Elms to Branch Out

Cover 12/26/05Since assuming the presidency of tiny Elms College in Chicopee in July, Jim Mullen says he’s spent most of his time listening — to students, faculty, staff, the alumni, and area community and business leaders. This is a key element in his strategy to build new and stronger partnerships in the community and take the school’s mission well beyond its walls.

Jim Mullen calls it “management by walking around.”

That’s how he describes the style he brings to the president’s office at Chicopee’s Elms College, a post he assumed last summer. And there’s more to it than merely patrolling the school’s tiny 21-acre campus.

He makes a point of eating at least one meal a day in the dining commons and sharing a table with students. He’s also been known to join in touch football games in the quad, and he even works out occasionally with members of the school’s baseball team.

“That’s a pretty humbling experience,” he told BusinessWest. “I usually have to peel weights off the bar to handle the repetitions.”

But he says such exercises give him energy — literally and figuratively — and a stronger connection with the campus community.

It’s all part of Mullen’s ongoing efforts to continuously monitor student and faculty thoughts and concerns at the 77-year-old school, which he believes is at a critical juncture in its history. Whether he’s throwing batting practice to those assembled for an impromptu pick-up baseball game or grabbing a quick lunch in the cafeteria, Mullen is also listening.

That’s what I’ve spent a good amount of my time here doing,” he told BusinessWest. “Often, when I’m eating with students, I’ll hardly say a word; I’ll just sit there and listen.”

And by listening to students, faculty, alumni, and the public at large, Mullen is helping to shape a course for the school. It’s not a new course, he stressed repeatedly, but merely an attempt to re-emphasize the school’s mission — educating and inspiring young people committed to serving their community — while also creating some new manifestations of that broad purpose and generating greater awareness of the college.

Which brings him to something called the ‘Elms College Community Spirit Service Day.’

That’s a new program he initiated this fall that addresses all those goals by having students take a day off from the classroom and go out into the community.

Specifically, groups of students ventured to sites ranging from the Chicopee Department of Public Works to the Emergency Food Pantry in Springfield; Girls Inc., to the Open Pantry Teen Living Program.

Duties included everything from helping young people with homework to painting the walls at several area shelters, said Mullen, noting that more than 200 members of the college community participated, a number he expects will grow each year.

Service Day was created to give students a taste of community service and awareness of its importance to quality of life in the region, while also providing the Elms, its students, facility, and staff with greater visibility.

It’s part of Mullen’s enhanced partnership- building initiatives, or work to “connect the dots,” as he put it, within the Western Mass. community.

Such partnerships include a tutoring/mentoring program that involves students of the Holy Name school located across the street from the Elms campus, and an ongoing collaboration in which drama students at the college help students at Holyoke Catholic High School stage productions like the recent Dead Man Walking. There’s also a venture called the Quest Program, which brings area middle school students to the Elms campus each summer.

Doing so introduces them to the school, but, more importantly, it often inspires participants to pursue a college education.

Looking to the future, Mullen said Elms administrators want to build a new science center, a necessary step toward expanding some of the school’s most successful programs, such as Nursing, Chemistry, and Speech and Language Pathology, and also build new athletic facilities to facilitate growth of programs that have helped attract and retain many students.

The more immediate goal, however, is to build more of those partnerships that Mullen believes will take the school to the next level.

“Our mission is not only to provide a great education,” he said, “but also to inspire connections.”

School of Thought

When asked how he arrived at the Elms, one of the smallest schools in New England in terms of both acreage and enrollment, Mullen said it was a case of “as natural a fit as one could ask for.”

Elaborating, he said that, as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a post he assumed in 1999, he would often get calls from a variety of search firms. “The conversations usually started with, ‘would you interested in becoming the president of ….?’ The answer was usually a qualified ‘no,’ he said, adding that he did consider some of the positions. But none as seriously as the Elms, which presented a chance to come home — he was born in Granby and lived in the Greater Springfield area for many years — and raise his family in the environment he enjoyed.

Meanwhile, the Elms presidency presented a chance to work for and within an institution that has played a big role in his life — the Catholic Church — while also giving him the challenge and opportunity of making Elms a stronger, more vital force in Catholic higher education.

“It is a perfect fit for me professionally and personally,” said Mullen, who attended a Catholic college, Holy Cross, and has spent the bulk of his career in higher education, establishing a reputation as a hands-on administrator specializing in building bridges between schools and the communities in which they are located.

At UNC Asheville, for example, Mullen created a program similar to Elms’ service day. Called ‘Bulldog Day,’ it involves freshmen performing thousands of hours of community service.

Meanwhile, at Trinity College in Hartford, where he served in a variety of positions, Mullen was executive director of an initiative called Project 2002, a $300 million public-private revitalization project that has transformed the neighborhood surrounding the college into what is called the “Learning Corridor.”

Mullen wants to continue that pattern at the Elms, a school founded in 1928 by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Located near the Chicopee-Springfield line in a mostly bluecollar neighborhood, the originally allwomen school has historically provided opportunities to those who might not otherwise enjoy a college education.

“Many of our students are the first in their family to attend college, and the vast majority of our students receive some form of financial aid,” Mullen explained. “These are individuals who haven’t had all the opportunities that others have.

“Our goal is to prepare such students for success in their chosen field,” he said, “but also to make them responsible citizens of the world.”

In an effort to diversify and grow its enrollment, the Elms went co-ed in 1999, a move that met with resistance from many students, faculty, and alumnae. Ultimately, the move has proved successful in boosting enrollment, and now roughly one-third of the school’s 1,200 full- and part-time students are male.

The Elms boasts a wide variety of programs — many of them involving service — including Nursing, Education, Social Work, Criminal Justice, and others.

Work in the classroom is complemented with service within the community; students are required to complete a minimum of 30 hours of community service to meet what the school calls its “service-learning requirement.”

Students volunteer time with such groups as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the Springfield Library & Museums, and others.

Aggressive Course

Moving forward, Mullen said he wants to increase enrollment, and the broad strategy for doing so is building awareness of the school and its many programs, both in this region, home to the vast majority of current students, and well beyond.

The school has embarked a moreaggressive marketing initiative, one that involves print, radio, and television, but the awareness-building efforts go well beyond advertising, said Mullen.

Indeed, it is grounded in the relationship- building efforts he described and creating greater visibility. Some of the initiatives are small in scope — such as an effort this fall to encourage Chicopee-area businesses to reach out to Elms students and welcome them back for the new semester; the campaign resulted in signs in many storefronts that were not seen in years past. Others, such as the Quest Program are broader.

Quest was designed to introduce young people to the idea of college education — it is still a foreign concept for some population groups, Mullen explained — and then encouraging students to get and stay on that path.

“We would naturally like these people to come to the Elms,” said Mullen. “But the important thing is for them to go to college — any college.”

Quest, the drama partnership with Holyoke Catholic, the tutoring initiative at Holy Name, and other ventures are all part of the ‘connecting-the-dots’ philosophy that Mullen brings to Elms. He told BusinessWest that colleges cannot be islands in their cities and towns, merely taking in students to attend classes.

“Schools can’t be insular, they can’t put up gates and hide behind them,” he said. “Here, we’re about knocking down gates and reaching out.”

By doing so, the school can meet a number of goals — everything from better preparing students for careers in chosen fields, to familiarizing area young people with the Elms — which will naturally help with enrollment.

“All colleges get interested in people when they turn 17,” he told BusinessWest. “Through many of our partnerships, we show that interest much earler, and that helps us create more opportunities for people.”

As for enrollment, Mullen said he does not have a magic number in mind, but would like to see steady increases without impacting one of the school’s better selling points.

Indeed, the small size of the school is one of its strengths, he said, noting class sizes that generally run between 12 and 15 students, and also a close-knit community that isn’t found on many campuses.

“Here, if you’re having a bad day, someone’s going to take notice,” he explained.

“It could be another student, a faculty member … it could be me; and they’re going to ask what’s wrong and offer to help.”

Another of the school’s strengths is its status as the only Catholic college within the Diocese of Springfield. This gives the school a strong base from which to recruit, said Mullen, referring to the many Catholic high schools in the region, including Holyoke Catholic, Cathedral in Springfield, and St. Mary’s in Westfield.

Overall, however, the policy is one of inclusion, he said, noting the school strives to create diversity within the faculty and student body.

Meanwhile, it is working hard to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status within the higher education education community.

“People will often say that they’ve heard of The Elms, but that they didn’t know all that it does,” he explained. “That’s something we want to change, and to do that, it all comes back to partnerships.”

Class Act

As he talked with BusinessWest in his spacious office in Berchmans Hall, Mullen said he likes his new digs. “But I’m just not in them a lot.”

Instead, he’s taking in one of the drama projects conducted in partnership with Holyoke Catholic, or watching one of the school’s 16 sports teams, or trying to get a curve ball past a student in a pick-up baseball game.

That’s ‘management by walking around,’ and it’s the M.O. that Mullen will employ in his efforts to help the Elms branch out – becoming an increasingly larger, more visible part of the community.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]