Harry Dumay Takes the Reins at Elms College
Soon after Harry Dumay reached that point professionally where he determined he was ready and willing to pursue a college presidency, he did what many people in that situation do.
He put together a wish list, or a preferred list, if you will, of the type of institution he eventually wanted to lead. And he did so because, in such situations, as so many eventual college presidents have told BusinessWest over the years, ‘fit’ is all-important — to both the candidate and the school in question.
When asked about what he preferred, Dumay ran off a quick list:
• A Catholic institution would be ideal — he had already worked in high-level positions for two of them, Boston College and St. Anselm College in New Hampshire;
• A sound financial footing was also high on the list — and there are many institutions not on such solid ground;
• A commitment to strong academics was a must; and
• Above all else, he desired to lead a school with a strong track record for diversity — not merely ethnic diversity (although that was certainly important), but the broad range of student and educational diversity (he would get into that more later).
Because Elms College in Chicopee could check all those boxes and others as well, Dumay not only desired to fill the vacancy to be created by the announced retirement of Sr. Mary Reap last year, but he essentially made the nearly 90-year-old school the primary focus of his presidential aspirations.
The more I started looking into Elms College, the more I started to become fascinated by it, and I just fell in love with the place.”
“The more I started looking into Elms College, the more I started to become fascinated by it, and I just fell in love with the place,” he told BusinessWest.
Dumay, who was serving as vice president for Finance and chief financial officer at St. Anselm when Elms commenced its search, said he was quite familiar with the school through another role he has carried out for several years — as a member of the New England Assoc. of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.
He knew, for example, that not long ago, the school wasn’t on that sound financial ground he desired, and that it was only through a significant turnaround effort orchestrated by Reap that the school was no longer on a list of institutions being watched closely by NEASC for financial soundness.
“Sister Mary has essentially completed a turnaround of the financial situation at the institution over the past eight years,” he noted. “She took it from numbers that were not satisfactory to having successive years of positive margins and putting the college very well in the black.”
But as she put Elms on more solid financial footing, Reap also maintained and amplified what Dumay called “an entrepreneurial spirit” that manifested itself in new academic programs and construction of the Center for Natural and Health Sciences, which, when it opened in 2014, was the first new academic building on campus in more than 30 years.
And she led efforts that enabled the school to make great strides in what has become a nationwide focus on student success and, overall, greater return on the significant cost of higher education.
As he talked about his goals and plans moving forward, Dumay, who arrived on campus July 1, said his immediate assignment is to meet as many people within the broad ‘Elms community’ as possible. This means faculty, staff, trustees, and area business and civic leaders, he said, adding that his primary role in such meetings is to listen to what such individuals are saying about Elms — its past, its present, and especially its future.
This listening and learning process will continue at a retreat next month involving the school’s leadership team, he went on, adding that his broad goal is to attain a common vision concerning where the school wants to be in the years to come and how to get there and execute that plan.
But in most all respects, Dumay said his primary focus is on keeping the school on the upward trajectory charted by Reap. For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Dumay about that assignment and his approach to it.
A Stern Test
As he prepared to sit down with BusinessWest on a quiet Friday afternoon earlier this month, Dumay was wrapping up one of those meet-and-greets he mentioned earlier — this one a quick lunch with trustee Kevin Vann, president of the Vann Group.
As noted, there have been several of these sessions since he arrived, and there are many more to come as Dumay continues what could be described as a fact-finding, opinion-gathering exercise concerning not only Elms College but the region, and students, it serves.
As he mentioned, Dumay already knew quite a bit about Elms — and most of this region’s colleges and universities, for that matter — before arriving on the Chicopee campus. He is determined, though, to add to that base of knowledge.
He’s learned, for example, that nearly a third of the school’s students are first-generation, meaning that they’re the first in their family to attend college. Dumay said that statistic certainly resonates with him — he, too, is a first-generation college graduate — and that his career in some way serves as a model to the students he will soon lead.
A native of Quanaminthe, Haiti, Dumay came to the U.S. to attend college, specifically Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., a historically black, public, land-grant university founded by African-American veterans of the Civil War.
He graduated magna cum laude, and would continue his education with a master’s degree in public administration from Framingham State University, an MBA from Boston University, and a doctorate in higher education administration from Boston College.
He would put those degrees to use in a number of different positions at some of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
He worked as director of Finance for Boston University’s School of Engineering from 1998 to 2002 (he was hired and later mentored by Charles DeLisi, who played a seminal role in initiating the Human Genome Project), before becoming associate dean at Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work from 2002 to 2006, a rather significant career course change — in some respects, anyway.
“From engineering to social work … those are vastly different worlds,” he explained, “but my job was essentially the same: working on aligning resources —— technology, processes, and people — to support the work of the faculty.”
Dumay then took a job as chief financial officer and associate dean at Harvard University’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2006, and served in that capacity until 2012.
That timeline is significant because he was at Harvard at the height of the Great Recession, which took a 30% bite out of Harvard’s huge endowment and not only prompted the delay of an ambitious initiative to expand the campus into Allston — a plan that included the School of Engineering — but also brought about campus-wide efforts to create greater operating efficiencies. And Dumay played a significant role in those efforts.
“That was some of the most rewarding work I’ve been part of,” he said. “And there were some great opportunities for learning how organizations can structure themselves to be more efficient.”
He then took another significant career course change, moving on to St. Anselm, where, instead of working for a specific school or division, he become CFO of the institution and later became senior vice president and, in many respects, the right hand of the president. In that role, he played a key role in developing a new strategic plan for the school.
After nearly two decades of work in higher education in these leadership roles, Dumay said he considered himself ready, professionally and otherwise, to pursue a presidency.
And others were encouraging him to take that next step.
“For a while, being a number two on a campus seemed to be very satisfying and very appealing,” he explained. “But, progressively, my former president started to encourage me to seek a presidency, even though I had been thinking about it as well.”
At the advice of his former president, he attended a year-long program sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges designed to help individuals discern whether they have a ‘vocation for a college presidency.’
“Those are their words,” said Dumay. “They want people to think about this not as a job, not as a step in one’s career, but as a vocation, as a calling, because there’s a certain work to be done as a college president.
“It eventually became clear to me that the influence that I wanted to have and the way I wanted to contribute to higher education, a presidency was the best position, the best vantage point to make that happen,” he went on.
While many who reach that point where they can truly say this is a calling cast a somewhat wide net as they explore and then pursue opportunities, Dumay took a more specific focus. And when Reap announced her intention to retire last year, Elms became the focus of his ambition.
“This was the one search I was seriously involved in,” he said.
School of Thought
What intrigued him was the institution Elms has become over the past 89 years, and especially the past few decades — one that could easily check all those boxes mentioned earlier, and especially the one concerning diversity and the many forms it takes here.
The student body is just one example, he said, adding that it has historically been ethnically diverse and added a significant new dimension when men were admitted for the first time in 1997.
But it is diverse in many other respects as well, including the depth of its programs and the nature of “how teaching happens,” as Dumay put it.
“Elms College has a diversity of formats in which it provides a strong Catholic liberal-arts education,” he explained. “It happens on campus, it happens through online education, it happens with the residential population, it happens with people who commute, and it happens off campus through a number of sites. That’s a broad definition of diversity that appealed to me.”
Beyond the diversity, the school also has that solid financial footing that Reap had created, momentum in the form of new programs in areas from health sciences to entrepreneurship, and something else that Dumay identified — “courage.”
He used that term in reference to the school’s decision to admit men 20 years ago, but said it has been a consistent character trait.
“Institutions that have made big shifts like that … to me, that shows resiliency, forward thinking, and courage,” he explained, “because it takes courage to change an institution’s trajectory like that and make decisions that will not be popular with all constituents. To me, that was impressive.”
Equally impressive has been progress at the school in that all-important area of student success.
I’m not sure how that effort is going to continue with the current administration, but higher-education institutions have, in general, taken that message to heart. Instead of getting that mandate from the federal government, this sector has been telling itself, ‘we’d better to be able to prove ourselves … we need to show how our students are receiving value for the dollars they’re investing in their education.”
This isn’t a recent phenomenon, he noted, but there has been considerably more emphasis on ROI as the cost of education has continued to climb.
The Obama administration made that focus a priority, he went on, adding it worked to put in place measures for how well a specific school’s degree programs were translating into success (salary-wise) in the workplace.
“I’m not sure how that effort is going to continue with the current administration,” he went on, “but higher-education institutions have, in general, taken that message to heart. Instead of getting that mandate from the federal government, this sector has been telling itself, ‘we’d better to be able to prove ourselves … we need to show how our students are receiving value for the dollars they’re investing in their education.”
Measures created or emphasized in this regard include everything from graduation and retention rates to the starting salaries of graduates in various programs, he continued, adding that Elms has achieved progress in this regard as well.
“Sister Mary had started an initiative to really focus on student success as part of our strategic plan,” he explained. “And as part of that, there is a plan to create a center for student success, and she started a campaign to raise funds for it.”
That facility will likely be ready by the end of summer, he said, adding that the school’s commitment to not only enrolling students but giving them all the tools they will need to graduate and achieve success in the workplace was another factor in his decision to come to Elms.
Moving forward, Dumay said that, after several more meetings like the one he had that day, and after the leadership retreat in August, and after gaining a better sense of where the college is and where it wants to go, he will commence what he said is the real work of a college president.
“That is to ensure the coherence and the articulation of a common vision, so we can all be pulling in the same direction,” he explained, adding that this is the essential ingredient in achieving continued progress at any institution. “Anything that anyone has been able to do has begun with getting everyone in the same frame of mind and saying, ‘this is what we’re going to do.’”
As he talked about that process of getting everyone at an institution of higher learning on the proverbial same page, Dumay acknowledged that this can often be a stern challenge in this sector.
“The theory is, higher education is like steering a car on ice,” he said with a smile on his face, adding that such work can be made easier through clear articulation of a vision and the means through which it will be met.
And this is the essence of a college president’s job description, he said, adding that, back at that year-long program for aspiring college presidents, he definitely came away with the sense that he did, indeed, view this as a calling, or vocation, and not a job or stepping stone.
And Elms, as he noted, was the natural landing spot.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]