Thomas Gamble, Ph.D., is retiring as president of Mercyhurst University after almost a decade of service in office.
He will retire from the presidency at the expiration of his contract on June 30, 2015, marking nearly a decade of service as president and a 30-year affiliation with the institution. Prior to his selection as the university’s 11th president in 2006, Gamble was vice president for academic affairs/chief academic officer at Mercyhurst. He is a tenured faculty member, the founding director of the Mercyhurst Civic Institute, and founding director of the former Mercyhurst Institute for Child and Family Policy.
Growth within both the academic and mission-oriented spheres of Mercyhurst was the touchstone of Gamble’s presidency.
“I think overall the 10 years have been an interesting, growth-oriented time at Mercyhurst. We did a lot of things on the academic side that were valuable. And then on the Catholic and Mercy side as well. I’m pleased with some of the things we were able to do on those ends as well.” Gamble said Monday in an interview with The Merciad.
During the interview, Gamble touched on multiple topics – the expansion and establishment of several programs at the university, the change to a semester system, a changing enrollment climate, the financial challenges, meeting the Mercy mission, and the changing nature of college presidencies in today’s world. (Questions for the interview were submitted in advance.)
The expansion of several programs at Mercyhurst came during a period of financial uncertainty. The university cut 20 positions in 2014 due to a need to reduce expenses. Despite that, Gamble said, the university still needs to expand to avoid worse financial straits.
“You have to keep expanding because you have to be able to keep moving into new markets. As the world evolves, the future enrollment is going to come to Mercyhurst through public health, through physician assistants, through data science, so if we didn’t create those things, if we didn’t do those kinds of things, then the future would be far bleaker than we think it will be with those things,” Gamble said.
He said that the success in recruiting a capacity class for the Physician Assistant program shortly after accreditation demonstrates the viability of expanding into new, in-demand programs, even in sparse times.
“You have to expand in direction of growth. We can’t simply reduce expenses. You have to reduce in some places and grow in others. It’s painful for the organization, it’s painful for the individuals, and it’s terrible that it has to be that way, but it has to be that way.
“We cut 14 people, but we cut 20 positions during that time to reduce expense. You reduce expense, but then you try to do something creative. You have to do both to ensure the future of the organization,” Gamble said.
Another aspect of Gamble’s presidency affected the way Mercyhurst students learn over the course of the school year: The university switched from its traditional trimester system to a semester schedule. This was done to give more time for students to learn and retain information, but also to help put Mercyhurst students on a more level playing field with other university students, Gamble said.
“You retain information when you learn it over a longer period of time, as opposed to a shorter period of time. Another reason is that when our students are doing internships, or they’re doing study abroad, or they’re doing other kinds of things, for us to have a very unusual calendar interfered many times with our students being able to get certain kinds of internships and so on,” Gamble said. Gamble also said that the retention rate among students after the switch is a sign that the semester system is working and that students appreciate it.
“Students vote with their feet to some extent, and we have a high retention rate, so that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s worked out pretty well,” Gamble said.
The switch from college to university also offered opportunities which were impossible under the old systems, according to Gamble.
“With a complex institution like Mercyhurst going into the future, we were able to organize it in a better manner as a university. Now the university has three colleges: college of associate, college of baccalaureate, college of graduate studies,” Gamble said.
Within the baccalaureate college, there are now separate schools of study in those colleges, with deans atop each school.
“None of that structure existed prior to university status, and over time, deans will become increasingly responsible for academics, enrollment, and marketing and fundraising, all those things within their areas, which is what Deans do. When we were just a college, we had no capacity for those kinds of roles,” Gamble said.
The new organizational structure allows the deans to play more significant roles in the futures of their schools than previously possible, Gamble said.
Gamble also assisted in the expansion of the partnership between Mercyhurst and Dungarvan in County Waterford, Ireland, a sister city of Erie.
According to Gamble, the program has three pillars, which consist of the study abroad program, as well as being the headquarters of the Intelligence Studies program in Europe and partnerships with other schools in Ireland, such as the Waterford Institute of Technology.
“Now, certainly the student piece is going great. We never have enough spaces for all the students who want to go. We’ve expanded it a couple of times and we now have two opportunities to go a year. The Intel piece is going to take off, (and) we’ve got the Global Forum this year,” Gamble said.
The study abroad program has grown from non-existence prior to Gamble’s presidency, and developed a model which allows students to study with the same professors both at Mercyhurst and in Ireland. Students originally had to use a program through Syracuse University due to the lack of a program at Mercyhurst, Gamble said.
“When I was in the (Academic) Dean’s Office, before I became president, a lot of students wanted to study abroad, but couldn’t go from Mercyhurst. So they’d go to Syracuse. A lot of students went abroad with Syracuse, so they were getting money from Mercyhurst and using it to pay Syracuse. I like Syracuse, but I didn’t want to give them our money. So we were able to create this new model, where our faculty members take students abroad. Mercyhurst can use its resources that way and students have the experience of having their own faculty over there,” Gamble said.
Changes in students
Demographic shifts in United States, specifically a decline in the number of people aged 18 to 22, particularly in this region, affected the enrollment numbers at universities across the nation, Joanne McGurk, Ph.D., and president of the Faculty Senate said.
“The present situation that we have is that a traditional age population that is declining. There are simply not as many people aged 18 to 22 as there used to be. But there are more universities that are competing for that declining pool of students. So institutions that are going to thrive and prosper are going to have to do things differently,” McGurk said.
One of the programs at Mercyhurst which caters to a select population is the Asperger’s Initiative at Mercyhurst. Bradley McGarry created the program and Gamble helped oversee its expansion.
“The demographics have declined for high school students, especially in this region, but the number of young people with Asperger’s or Autism has expanded dramatically over the past 15 years. These young people, many of them, are what we call high-functioning. They have high IQs, great capacity to learn, and to apply knowledge. But they have certain challenges they have to face, just like any handicap. But it’s a market that we think has real potential for Mercyhurst,” Gamble said.
The program’s formation required the assurance that the faculty, student academic support and student life support would be ready to accommodate the challenges these students face, Gamble said. However, the program has been successful for the university.
“They asked me to help expand 15 more spots for the fall. I asked, can you get them? They said, we have a waiting list for it. It’s a program that will expand somewhat, because there is such a need,” Gamble said.
One need which Mercyhurst attempted to meet during Gamble’s presidency was fulfilling the mission of the Sisters of Mercy that goes back to the university’s founding in 1926: providing an education to those unable otherwise to receive one.
”The essential mission of the Sisters of Mercy was essential opportunity education, to provide educational opportunities in a religious setting for those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to achieve it. Often it was women, exclusively at the founding,” Gamble said.
Mercyhurst expanded, but the mission to provide educational opportunities became lost as the university became more selective and expensive. The Booker T. Washington Center in Erie fulfills the mission, using the Mercyhurst North East model to enable impoverished students to access a college education, Gamble said.
[The Booker T. Washington Center] expands educational opportunity right into the heart of the inner city. It’s 20 blocks from here, but it’s a world apart. Many don’t feel comfortable in North East, or lack transportation, but if you bring education to them, they really responded,” Gamble said.
The center has graduated many students, with some of them moving into the baccalaureate program at the main Mercyhurst campus.
“We’ve made a deal that if they perform really well academically, they can come to the Erie program for the same price they’re paying [at Booker T. Washington], which is about half as much [as Main campus], assuming there’s financial need,” Gamble said.
The Carpe Diem Academy uses the same idea to reach young children and prepare them for future grades, Gamble said.
Expansion of Catholic
and Mercy identity
The Catholic and Mercy identity of the university also expanded under Gamble’s presidency. The reason for this expansion, which came in varied forms such as the restored chapel, the Sister Joan D. Chittister Lecture Series and the program for Catholic and Mercy studies, comes from his personal Catholic faith, but also from respect for the Sisters of Mercy.
“I believe that the faith is important. I believe that the 2000-year legacy of the Catholic Church is very valuable and should be transmitted to each new generation. Also, it’s a unique feature of Mercyhurst and it’s a matter of respecting the founders of the institution and what they wanted,” Gamble said.
Different type of president
The nature of being a college president has also changed over Gamble’s presidency. The days of the traditional college president, who was perceived a senior scholar, are over, according to McGurk.
“It’s an interesting time to be thinking about becoming a college president, because it’s not like it used to be. You were the chief kind of academic, you were a scholar and you led a community of scholars. Those are not the requirements for a university or college president today,” McGurk said.
The focus has shifted from academic inquiry to ensuring a successful financial future for the university. McGurk said that presidents nowadays should have or be able to access skills useful in fundraising and securing revenue.
“Or at least, if you don’t have those skills yourself, you can assemble a team who does and you know how to take their advice and put into action what the plan is. You know how to go out and tell the story of the institution to potential donors, and how to get alums to want to come back, not just to give money, but also to be involved in the future of the institution,” McGurk said.
Gamble acknowledged the shift in the type of individuals who hold the post of college and university president.
“I am maybe one of the last old-school presidents, a member of the faculty who assumes this job for a while and then returns to the faculty. It is decreasing in college presidents. The competition is stronger than it has been in the past. Things have changed. I do think folks like me are less likely to be the university president. It will be a different breed. And maybe circumstances require that,” Gamble said.
Keeping core values
However, with the shift from academic inquiry to ensuring a good financial footing, there is the possibility that Mercyhurst could lose its core values. The institution must attempt to keep the separate pieces of its identity in balance and intact in order to prevent that, Gamble said.
“Mercyhurst has always been made of a few pieces, a few threads that make the rope up,” Gamble said.
The threads Gamble mentioned included the Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, professional preparation, the Catholic faith and hands-on engaged learning.
“If they stay in balance, I think Mercyhurst is going to be great. We will face challenges, but we have to stay true to those four things. I think the current shift away from the intellectual curiosity, the liberal arts is not going to remain. And I would hate to see us jump ship only to find out three years later that that was the right ship to be on,” Gamble said.
Adjustments for the future
Even though Mercyhurst should attempt to stay true to its core values, it must still prepare and adjust to the needs of the future, Gamble said. He cited the Intelligence Studies, Public Health, the Masters in Physician Assistant and the Data Science program as examples of such adjustments.
A notable expansion on campus tied closely to the creation of the Tom Ridge School was the construction of the Center for Academic Engagement (CAE), the idea for which came early in his term.
“I was meeting with Bob Heibel and Jim Breckenridge, and we made a commitment together that we needed an Intel building on campus. We started to develop the idea, we started to go out and raise some money,” Gamble said.
Mercyhurst received $3.5 million from the state of Pennsylvania, and an equal amount from donors. The university also provided $3 million for the construction in 2012. The CAE was also crucial to founding of the Tom Ridge School.
Gamble said that he considered Intelligence Studies to be a signature program for Mercyhurst, and having a building to house that school benefitted Mercyhurst by appealing to visitors.
Members of the Ridge School drove its creation, Gamble was more involved in the creation of the Public Health program.
“Public Health: I recruited Dave Dausey to come to Mercyhurst and create a public health program. Then asked David, would you, with me, create a school for health sciences, health professions. I was a little more hands-on on that one. So it depends. The idea is to support, to use your office to support things you think are really positive for the university going forward,” Gamble said.
Gamble issued a piece of advice for the future president, which was to keep the four aspects of Mercyhurst intact.
“Remember all four strands of that rope that make up Mercyhurst. It is the liberal arts which incorporates the Catholic intellectual tradition. It is professional preparation. It is hands-on, engaged learning. And it is the Catholic and Mercy foundation.
“Keep all four of those in some kind of reasonable balance, if you can,” Gamble said.