Setting a Course
Mary-Beth Cooper Takes the Helm at Springfield College
Mary-Beth Cooper says her dog, Dakota, feels right at home on the picturesque Springfield College campus.
The 8-year-old yellow lab — now sporting a tag, a gift from some friends, that identifies him as ‘First Dog’ — has become somewhat of a fixture at the school only a month or so after moving into the President’s House, she said, adding that he’s making friends quickly, especially with students and faculty who appear willing to share their lunch or afternoon snack with him. “He loves it here; he’s very comfortable with the new surroundings.”
And the same can be said for his owner, the 13th president of the 128-year-old school and the first woman to hold that title.
She told BusinessWest she was comfortable with the institution long before she actually toured it, and even well before her first two interviews for the position, the first via Skype and the second at a hotel at Bradley International Airport — although those sessions and her subsequent visit certainly reinforced her opinion.
She liked the feel and the fit so much that she quickly terminated a quest for another college president’s position to focus all her energies on this one.
The primary reason why is the culture that pervades the school, one summed up by its motto (“Spirit Mind Body”), she said, noting that she was aware of it from work she had done, first as a volunteer and later as chair of the board, with the YMCA in the city of Rochester, N.Y., where she served as an administrator at both the University of Rochester and, later, the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Springfield College and the Y organization share a unique history, she said, noting that the college was once known as the International YMCA Training School, and there is still a strong relationship today. From that connection, she became familiar with the college’s humanics philosophy to educate the whole person.
But there were other factors that made her comfortable with the school located on the shore of Lake Massasoit, she said, listing, for starters, many similarities between Springfield and Rochester, and also between the work done within the community at both Springfield College and the Rochester schools she served.
Both cities are former manufacturing centers still trying to reinvent themselves, she said, noting that, while Rochester once boasted such industry giants as Kodak, IBM, and Xerox, its major employers today are those aforementioned colleges and a supermarket chain.
At SC, this tradition is perhaps best exemplified by the recent Humanics in Action Day, during which students, faculty, and staff (including Cooper) performed a day of concentrated community service throughout Springfield involving roughly 100 specific projects.
“Some people do service because they believe it’s an obligation,” she noted. “Students here are drawn to service because it’s part of who they are. And they go on from their experience here and become involved members of the community where they live.”
As she talked with BusinessWest just a few weeks after taking the reins at the school, Cooper noted that her predecessor, Richard Flynn, had registered some notable accomplishments in recent years — everything from increasing enrollment to significant building and renovation projects on campus, to several new academic initiatives, including an MBA program unwrapped in 2011. Meanwhile, he established and strengthened relationships with a number of constituencies, including the YMCA and Springfield City Hall.
“He did a lot of the hard work and left me in a good position,” she said with a laugh, noting quickly that there is still plenty to do in the months and years to come.
At the top of that list is raising the school’s profile, she said, adding that, while it is well-known regionally, the college is far more of an unknown commodity in other parts of the country. Also, while enrollment has risen, there is still room for improvement, and also a need to broaden the applicant pool for this school known for everything from its affiliation with the Y to its diverse degree offerings in health and fitness, to its strong graduate programs.
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Cooper about her latest career challenge and how she intends to build on the progress recorded at this venerable Springfield institution.
Degree of Difficulty
Roughly five years ago, Cooper told BusinessWest, she decided that, from a personal- and professional-development standpoint, her next job in higher education should be as a college president.
However, her son, Calvin, was a sophomore in high school at that time, and she had basically already made another very personal decision — not to disrupt that important time of his life with a move to another part of the country, and to wait until he was at least a freshman in college to make such a career move.
Last fall, with Calvin firmly entrenched at the University of Delaware, she started looking at opportunities to lead a college campus, and was actually fairly deep into the process of applying for a job when friends and colleagues, including the director of the Greater Rochester Y, urged her to train her sights on the position at Springfield College she had seen posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
At the time, she was senior vice president of Student Affairs at RIT, a role she described as “responsibility for anything outside the classroom that doesn’t involve a transaction.”
That definition fits everything from sports — and she’s been involved with them for most of her career, and continues that pattern today — to what would be considered ‘town-gown’ activities and relationships.
Prior to that, she served as dean of students at the University of Rochester and vice president for Student Affairs at St. John Fisher College, also in Rochester.
This is not a traditional path to the president’s office, she noted, adding that many campus leaders today still come from the academic or development (fund-raising) realms. But she said her background has provided tremendous insight into how a campus functions and how a school can, and should, become involved in the community.
And she does have some background in academics, having taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education for many years.
Meanwhile, she has a strong track record of work within the Rochester community, working with both the YMCA and the United Way in that city, among other endeavors. In 2005, she was named one of the city’s “most influential women” by the Rochester Business Journal.
She said her work with the YMCA was particularly eye-opening, providing her with insight into the needs of a community and how an educational institution can help address them.
“As a member of the administration at the University of Rochester, I began to learn what that community needed,” she explained. “And for me, it was an opportunity to think about youth, families, affordable daycare, and the plight of a population much different than the students at the college. It was an interesting time for me, and it helped me understand the relationship between a school and a community.
“The core values at Springfield College could not have been a better match for me — it was a perfect fit,” she continued. “When I applied, I was hopeful that they would see it the same way.”
Obviously, they did, as she prevailed in what she called a “robust” search at Springfield College that involved more than 100 candidates, including some sitting college presidents.
She said she’s proud of being the first woman president at the school, and believes the choice represents another bit of progress when it comes to putting more women in the corner office on college campuses. But she contends that gender remains an issue in too many hiring scenarios.
“There are women in positions who are ready to take leadership roles,” she said. “Our workforce in higher education is like every other workforce; there are many people who are retirement-eligible, and when positions become available, you’ll see more and more female presidents. I don’t know how long it will take for real change to happen, but it will come.”
Since arriving on campus, she’s been very busy meeting with students, faculty, administrators, and other on-campus constituencies, and has met with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno to discuss the community and the school’s role within it.
She’s also taken in a number of Springfield College sporting events, including the recent gridiron triumph over Western New England University, attended the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last month (the game was invented at Springfield College, and the first hall of fame was located on the campus), and has commenced a search for a running club to join.
“I’m not very fast, but I can run long distances,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to getting out into the community in the months ahead and gaining a full appreciation of the challenges facing the region and the ways the college can help address them.
“People want my ear,” she went on. “So I’m trying to listen to our faculty, students, and staff and get their thoughts on what the college should focus on. And I’m trying to get out there.”
School of Thought
Since she first interviewed for the job — and especially since arriving on campus — Cooper said she’s been somewhat overwhelmed by the positive sentiments and equally positive energy that exists on campus, within the alumni ranks, and what could be called the Springfield College community.
“I’ve never been to a campus — and I’ve worked at several, big schools, small schools — where people speak so favorably about the institution,” she told BusinessWest. “Whether it’s alumni, parents, current students, staff, faculty … it’s almost unbelievable. And so something right must happen here in terms of what the experience is like.
“My hope is that I don’t become blasé about all this,” she went on. “My hope is that I continue to be amazed by the good will that goes on here.”
While it’s not her official job description, maintaining this steady flow of positivity is Cooper’s broad mission at the college. She said the philosophy she will take to this assignment is to resist resting on the accomplishments of the past several years and instead build on what’s been accomplished.
Efforts to continue growing enrollment are certainly part of this equation, she said, adding that, while she has no specific goals in mind, she believes there are opportunities to increase the numbers of both undergraduate and graduate students.
This can be accomplished through a combination of more aggressive marketing and awareness-building efforts, she said, adding that one of her priorities is to tell the school’s story through every vehicle available to do so, and especially ongoing efforts to anticipate the needs of both students and employers and then meet them through effective academic programming.
Elaborating, she said the school must maintain and sharpen its focus on properly preparing graduates for the rigors of the workforce and the specific challenges of their chosen fields.
And with that, she summoned the phrase “cross discipline,” which she used to describe the path higher education must take in the future.
Elaborating, she said that what students want — and need — today is the ability to couple study paths, such as a major and a minor, two majors, or a four-year degree with an additional one-year MBA, to enhance their odds of succeeding in a profession.
“The question is, what offerings do we provide for students that give them the most robust portfolio, a skill set to go out and be an entrepreneur, and understand the business side of a program as well as the content?” she said. “Cross discipline will be the key, and in fact, I’ve been blunt enough to stand in front of the faculty on my second day here and say, ‘the future of Springfield College really lies in your hands,’ because what we deliver for students is significant, and the experience we offer is stellar, and we must to continue to do that.”
And while focusing on what happens in the classroom, Cooper will also work to find new avenues to express that commitment to service that was one of the many factors that drew her to the school months ago.
“I’m going to examine our relationship with the community, and look at both what we’ve done in the past and what we might do in the future,” she said. “The community has incredible challenges, but so do so many other cities, in the Northeast in particular. We have to ask ourselves, ‘what is the role of this college, or any college, in dealing with these challenges?’”
Overall, she said, the challenge moving forward is to continually enhance what the the school can offer to students in terms of the “total experience,” but without eroding the traditions and programs the school is noted for.
“We have some terrific traditions,” she said, “and students embrace those, and they come here because of them.”
Summing up her first month or so on campus, Cooper said it’s been a whirlwind of meetings, large and small, with a wide range of constituencies that, as she said, want her ear.
Through all that talking and especially listening, she’s become even more convinced that she, the school, and its culture constitute a perfect match.
“I’m really glad to be here,” she told BusinessWest. “I think this is going to be a great time for me and the school.”
Like the First Dog, she’s very comfortable in her new surroundings.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]