Big Fish Q&A with Notre Dame of Maryland University President Mary Pat Seurkamp
Fifteen years ago, when Mary Pat Seurkamp accepted the president’s post at what was then known as the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the small Roman Catholic school — picturesquely sandwiched between sedate Roland Park and even more sedate Homeland in North Baltimore — smoldered with internal discontent. Not exactly what you’d expect from a decorous institution established by the School Sisters of Notre Dame — an order of nuns — as a women’s college in 1895. But the faculty and the administrative staff were still nursing an intense migraine from what they considered the four-year autocratic rule of Seurkamp’s predecessor, a member of the School Sisters who resigned suddenly amid the tumult.
The school’s first secular president, Seurkamp immediately set about restoring stability, prompting the head of the college’s faculty senate to tell The Baltimore Sun, “She’s really lifted the spirits of this place.”
During her stewardship, Seurkamp has helped to engineer a significant transformation of Notre Dame, which comprises an all-women undergrad division, plus co-ed graduate and continuing-studies divisions. Under Seurkamp, the institution has overhauled its academic structure into the schools of Education, Nursing, and Arts and Sciences; increased its emphasis on health-care education by creating a School of Pharmacy and enhancing undergraduate and graduate programs in nursing; established a doctorate in education; pumped $120 million into capital improvements; and guided the school through a hand-wringing name-change process, as it morphed from the century-plus-old College of Notre Dame of Maryland (delightfully naughty acronym: CONDOM) into the slightly less unwieldy Notre Dame of Maryland University this past September.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Chicago and South Bend, IN., Seurkamp earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Webster University in 1968, her master’s in guidance and counseling from Washington University in 1969, and her PhD in higher education from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1990. Upon completing her master’s, she embarked on what has turned into a live-long career in higher ed, beginning at Gannon University in Erie, PA., and moving on to the Roman Catholic-affiliated St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., in 1976. There, she served in a variety of administrative capacities — vice president for Institutional Planning and Research, vice president for Academic Services and Planning, and dean, among others — until she signed on at Notre Dame.
In May of last year, Seurkamp announced that she would step down as president at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, telling the school’s board of trustees, “Leadership requires us to build a strong foundation for the next generation of leaders…. I trust I leave to the next president core strengths from which new transformational steps will be taken.”
The mother of three adult children and grandmother of three, Seurkamp, now 65, lives in Roland Park with her husband, Bob, the former executive director of the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation — and soon-to-be former “presidential spouse,” as he sportively terms it in an online business-networking listing. The couple plans to retire to a home on Sue Creek, near Middle River, in Baltimore County.
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
Most problems can be solved by using our talents collaboratively and by trusting in God’s grace and wisdom.
When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?
In college I knew I wanted to work with young adults in higher education, and later I realized that my commitment was really to the education of students of all ages.
What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?
My husband reminds me every day, “Have fun in what you do!”
The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?
An advisor in college once told me there was no opportunity for women in higher ed. (Do you think I listened?)
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?
1) It is important to find meaning in your work.
2) Students keep you young.
3) Your pets can make any day better.
What is the best moment of the day?
Any time spent with my grandchildren — which I wish happened more often.
What is on your bedside table?
In all honesty, an alarm clock and a book (stacked up among many to read), plus a rosary that one of my favorite aunts gave me.
What is your favorite local charity?
Notre Dame of Maryland University — no surprise here! — and our partners at Catholic Charities, where many of our students volunteer.
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?
Get your doctorate, work hard, believe in yourself, and take advantage of every opportunity put before you.
Why are you successful?
I believe deeply in the importance of the work we do in higher education, which motivates me to be focused, committed, and, hopefully, strategic. None of it would have happened without a supportive family and great colleagues.
Locally, a trio of longtime women’s colleges — Hood, Goucher, Villa Julie (now Stevenson) — has switched to a co-educational format. While Notre Dame of Maryland University’s graduate and part-time divisions admit both women and men, its undergraduate program steadfastly retains an all-women status. Why? What are the inherent benefits of a single-gender higher education?
The education of women has been Notre Dame’s mission since our founding by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Although times have changed, the benefits of small class sizes, personal attention, and an atmosphere that encourages women’s intellectual and leadership potential remain relevant.
Research shows us that women who attend women’s colleges are more highly engaged and serious about their academic goals. They are also more likely to enter fields like math and science, and then continue on to graduate school. As a graduate of a women’s college, I can say that it was a place where I learned to trust my abilities and my instincts. I still see that strong sense of competence and confidence in our graduates today. They go out into the world secure that they will “get things done.”
Notre Dame is also a Catholic institution. Are such faith-based schools anachronisms in our multicultural society? What distinguishes them? Where do they fit?
Notre Dame’s mission and clarity of purpose are as relevant today as they were when we were founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame 117 years ago. There is nothing outdated about understanding that knowledge and faith are partners in pursuing truth.
We welcome students of all faith traditions — because we are Catholic. When you visit our campus, you will meet students of diverse religious affiliations and cultural backgrounds. They come to Notre Dame because they appreciate the values of compassion, responsibility, and service that are not just inherent in our mission, but also woven into our curriculum and programs. Issues of faith are freely discussed, especially about how our beliefs inform our choices. As well, our students learn that education is not just about their own development or about their career, but also about one’s responsibilities to serve others. There will always be a desire among students for an educational environment that incorporates faith and learning, focusing on the whole person.
You plan to step down as Notre Dame president at the conclusion of the current academic year. What is the single most important thing that you learned about higher education during your 15-year tenure?
What has been reinforced for me is that there is no other factor that has the ability to transform an individual or society the way education can. Spending time with our students is always inspiring.