Gamble presents 10-year plan for Mercyhurst College

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It’s a stock question many college graduates face in their first job interview, but also a query the leaders of Mercyhurst College have encountered again and again during the institution’s 85-year history.

Five years into his tenure, President Thomas Gamble, Ph.D., is crafting his own answer.

In late January, he presented to the Board of Trustees a 1,600-word preliminary vision for what he wants Mercyhurst to look like in 2020.

“At its heart will be a top-notch highly residential baccalaureate college of 2,600 students,” Gamble wrote.

In other words, much the same as it has always been, plus a stronger endowment, doctoral programs and additional campus facilities.

History of change

The founding Sisters of Mercy first faced the task of finding funding to build an infrastructure before and during the Great Depression. Back then, thoughts of the future were slightly cast aside in pursuit of merely enrolling enough women to pay tuition and help keep the doors open.

But as the educational experience within Glenwood Hills’ tudor structures stabilized economically, and then grew, past presidents’ thoughts inevitably turned to the generations of students yet to arrive.

By the 1960s and ’70s, Mercyhurst had transitioned into offering a coeducational experience, and presidents Sister Carolyn Herrmann and Marion Shane, Ph.D., led the college through an unprecedented time of change. Many of the college’s current academic structures opened, including Zurn Hall, and varsity athletics were gradually established as a way to grow admissions.

The Merciad, Sept. 12, 1975
A story in the Sept. 12, 1975 issue of The Merciad outlined a task force created by then-President Marion Shane, Ph.D., to determine what Mercyhurst College would become during the 1980s. The group, known as the Blueprint III Task Force, listed among its goals to increase college enrollment to 1,500 full-time students.

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William Garvey, Ph.D., brought the college further into its contemporary state from the early 1980s through 2005 when he resigned. He pushed forward the construction of the Ice Center and establishment of Division I hockey programs, the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center and the Audrey Hirt Academic Center.

University clarification

Gamble’s assumption of the presidency in March 2006 began another period of growth in college history. In January 2010, he announced Mercyhurst College would seek university status.

The Board of Trustees submitted a 102-page application for such a change to the Pennsylvania Department of Education in October. It remains under review but is expected to be approved in May.

Gamble views the university change as the first step in refocusing Mercyhurst’s current purpose in higher education. He said the perception of the college—previously as a baccalaureate institution whose main mission is to award undergraduate degrees—had become somewhat muddled during the most recent growth periods.

The college now offers six separate masters of science degrees, maintains four regional campuses (Erie, North East, Corry and Girard) and boasts a satellite campus in Ireland.

None of these traits are typical of small, liberal arts colleges. The title of Mercyhurst University, then, would be more apt, Gamble said.

Still, if university status is approved, he said, “If you’re a baccalaureate student at Mercyhurst in Erie, it’s going to feel a lot like it’s always felt.”

Reach for $50 million

While Gamble’s overall plan for the college’s growth is not grand or sweeping in scope, one aspect could carry major implications for Mercyhurst’s long-term staying power.

It simply must grow its endowment, Gamble said, to survive and thrive in the future world of private higher education.

“It’s a very competitive environment,” he said. “I don’t think all (private colleges) will survive the next decade. My job is to make sure we’re one of the ones that do.”

To do so, Gamble told the board the endowment will reach $50 million by 2020.

The college’s endowment in 2009-10 was $20.8 million, putting it alongside regional schools like the College of Mount St. Joseph and Ohio Dominican University in terms of available funds.

That mark fluctuates annually based on the number of scholarships awarded, the financial climate, construction projects undertaken and the overall operating budget. The higher the endowment, the more comfortable the administration feels with dishing out money in each area.

The endowment is on pace to grow toward the $30 million range this year—the highest in college history.

Gamble said the work of David Livingston, Ph.D., and his advancement office staff is behind this year’s growth and the ambitious 10-year goal.

Livingston, a former religious studies professor, joined advancement in August 2007 at Gamble’s behest.

“I figured if you can sell religious studies to college freshmen, you can sell anything,” said Gamble, laughing. “What he’s done is remarkable.”

Mercyhurst set records for most money raised in its history each year since 2007. The college is now averaging between $4 and 5 million in total annual donations.

Direct, face-to-face alumni contact stands as one tactic Livingston has employed successfully in his tenure. The advancement office strove to bring alumni back into the fold through dozens of events and through the admissions and career services staffs’ nationwide efforts at reconnection.

Prior to 2007, Livingston said, “It was less of a focus, especially on the national level.”

He said women who graduated in the college’s first 40 years possessed strong ties to the school, which translated well into donations. Graduates from the 1970s through the 2000s, though, didn’t possess the same tight affiliation.

Gamble, too, had recognized this downward trend.

“We had lost connection to our alums,” Gamble said. “It’s the alums and their connection to the school that turns into donations down the road, but if you don’t have them, then you’re in trouble.”

Livingston said if and when $50 million is reached, the goal shifts to the college’s centennial in 2026.

“The real goal is to have $100 million by the 100-year anniversary,” he said. “If you want a goal for the school, that’s the one. It’s going to be very challenging.”

Doctorates, facilities, prestige

The board extended Gamble’s contract for another five years in October, ensuring he remains at the helm through 2015.

Looking back at the first five-year crux, he paused when asked to pinpoint which of his administration’s accomplishments he was most proud of.

Mercyhurst’s “vigorous” study abroad program, which includes an opportunity for a term of study in Dungarvan, Ireland, would be at the top of the list, he said.

“I think a strong undergraduate education has to provide the opportunity to go abroad. Also, the four-credit interdisciplinary courses. One of those two things, I feel best about.”

But he also learned from one key misstep during his first half decade. It came to mind more immediately than any successes.

“I would have done the calendar change differently,” Gamble said. “That was a mess.”

During the 2006-07 school year, Mercyhurst proposed switching from a trimester system to a semester system; students openly revolted against such a move.

Gamble said he failed to work hard enough to inform his constituencies, particularly students, about the change’s details and benefits.

“We didn’t cover ourselves in glory on that one.”

In presenting a 10-year plan, he said he recognizes a greater need to keep everyone informed and involved at the beginning. When he spoke to the board and then wrote to faculty, he clearly outlined a set of goals and sought input.

Perhaps the most intriguing of those goals is the establishment of one or more doctorate programs, likely in the areas of archaeology, anthropology, education or intelligence studies.

Such terminal degree offerings are at least five years away.

Construction expansion, at this point, is more difficult to achieve. The college is landlocked by East 38th Street to the north, residential areas on the east and west and Mercyhurst Prep to the south.

Beyond the front of campus construction of the Center for Academic Engagement, which will house the intelligence studies and hospitality management programs, Gamble plans to look within campus boundaries for potential areas of improvement.

“At some point, we have to do something about Briggs and Lewis (Avenues) and the Highland Square area,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s not a good use of space right now.”

The college renovated Highland Square this summer after students consistently complained about living conditions there, but Gamble would also like to see a dining hall constructed on the east end of campus.

Plans featuring a type of falling water area and more vegetation are also in the works to enhance the grotto.

“It could be very dramatic,” he said.

Finally, he said, growth of the college’s national reputation and prestige remains the driving factor behind each portion of the 10-year plan.

“The best way for students to benefit is if the reputation and the profile of Mercyhurst continues to get better,” Gamble said. “If graduates can someday say, ‘I couldn’t even get in there now,’ that increases the value of their degree.”