Faculty give opinions of Gamble era, successor

The search for a new Mercyhurst University president has begun in the wake of the Oct 13 announcement that President Tom Gamble, Ph.D. will retire at the end of May 2015.

Three university faculty members, Michael Federici, Ph.D, JoAnne McGurk, Ph.D, and Mary Hembrow-Snyder, Ph.D, along with President Gamble have given their opinions on the highlights of his tenure as president, along with their opinions the next president’s preferred qualities.

Federici and McGurk, the former and current presidents of the Faculty Senate respectively, recognize the reforms which took place during Gamble’s administration as some of the most important actions of his time. Changing the academic calendar from trimesters to semesters was recognized by both professors as an important achievement.

“That’s something we’ve been trying to do [for over 20 years],” said Federici.

McGurk emphasized the relative ease with which the transition of the calendar, as well as the core curriculum, was accomplished. “[Changes to calendar and core] are processes that an institution cannot go through lightly, but we were able to go through them quickly and with relatively little pain.”

The change from a college to a university was also mentioned as a high point, but it happened at the same time as a low point. Not long after the switch to university status, the Middle States Commission for Higher Education placed Mercyhurst in warning status for failing to meet the standards for assessment.

“We had a plan for assessment,” McGurk said, “but we hadn’t gotten far enough in it to satisfy Middle States. We had less than a year, about nine months, to implement the entire plan and then have evidence to show Mercyhurst, which we did.

“When the site team came in September of this year to assess what, if anything, would be changing in our status; would we still be on warning or not, would we have the opportunity to be removed from warning; the team said we had done ‘nine years of work in one year.’ We received commendation on parts of the plan and its implementation,” she said.

Hembrow-Snyder, Gamble, and Federici all placed emphasis on the programs which have been instituted over Gamble’s tenure.

“Quite a number of programs have been added to the list of majors and minors,” Federici said, “especially at the graduate level.” New programs, including the first Ph.D in archaeology and anthropology at Mercyhurst as well as a Physician’s Assistant’s program, Public Health programs, have been part of “tremendous growth.”

Hembrow-Snyder noted her appreciation of the growth of programs, such as the Center for Mercy and Catholic Studies, which allowed for “a creative way to bring Catholicism into the mainstream of the university.” She also said that Gamble had done more to promote the “Mercy and Catholic identity” of Mercyhurst than she had seen in her 27 years here, and that he has been “indefatigable in his support” for that identity.

Gamble himself said that the “new academic programs are the most exciting” aspect of his presidency. His goal when he was elected to the presidency was to “unleash the creativity of the faculty,” and “encourage the faculty to use their creativity to enhance the school.”

Gamble was lauded for his style of leadership as well.

In an approach which might be described as “hands-off,” the three were appreciative of Gamble allowing them to “take the lead,” as Federici put it. “[He’s] very well-suited to being the steady hand on the wheel,” Federici also said, while McGurk called his style “collegial and collaborative,” and Hembrow-Snyder said that “he’s always encouraged faculty to think outside the box.”

One critique of Gamble’s presidency from Hembrow-Snyder was about the lack of women in key leadership positions of his administration. While there are several women in the administration (Laura Zirkle, vice president of Student Life; Jane Kelsey, vice president and treasurer; Jeanette Britt, chief information officer), she thinks “that over the course of 10 years, more women could have been appointed.” Five positions at the vice president level or higher at the Erie campus are occupied by males. A male is in charge at Mercyhurst North East.

Gamble, in response to the critique, said that “she is correct and I also think we’ve taken steps to address it. We’ve created a task force on women in leadership. …There’s been a lot of movement in that direction. That critique was probably stronger earlier in the administration.”

The faculty also voiced concerns regarding the current financial situation and the decline in enrollment as they figure into the the search for the next president of Mercyhurst.

“The decrease in enrollment leads to budget concerns and unfortunate cuts,” Federici said. There was consensus among the three faculty that the future president would have to be capable of effectively fundraising in difficult economic circumstances.

McGurk also said, “We need to be able to devise strategies that are going to be responsive or even proactive in terms of the picture of declining enrollment.”

Hembrow-Snyder, while stating her desire for the next president to “be a Catholic who has a lively, deep, and open understanding of the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the heritage of the Sisters of Mercy and their main institutional concerns,” as well as demonstrate “gender equality and collegiality in decision-making and power-sharing,” agreed with Gamble about the continued need to emphasize the liberal arts at Mercyhurst.

“Strong liberal arts, strong professional preparation, hands-on experience, that trio is really important. That’s what’s going to set the Mercyhurst student apart,” Gamble said.

He is continuing to push for academic quality at Mercyhurst, which he views as the thing which sets the university apart from other small, competing schools. He said that during this economic period, “there’s going to be a shake-out in the business, but those schools who stick to their mission and survive are going to be stronger.”