A month ago today, I posed the question, “Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?” It’s a question still without an answer as word spreads this morning of the decision by the board of trustees at Our Lady of he Lake University to end the 11-year presidency of Dr. Tessa Martinez Pollack.
It’s safe to say that Pollack wanted to stand and fight for the school’s legacy – as well as her own. After the Rivard Report published the article as part of a larger look at the future, Pollack responded with her own article, in effect, a statement of commitment on behalf of the school and its leadership.
A lengthy statement by OLLU board chairman Roy Terracina contained in today’s press release indicates the University remains committed to a new strategic plan adopted in October and made public last month, even if divided trustees ultimately concluded that Pollack is not the president to oversee its implementation.
“Dr. Pollack has helped guide the University through a time of great change, and her many contributions are appreciated by the Board and the University family.
“With Tessa’s leadership, a new strategic plan was developed and the Board fully intends to follow it as we go forward. OLLU must improve its financial position and needs more collaboration to successfully implement the strategic plan.
“We are certain that the foundation exists for this university, with the support of the Congregation of Divine Providence and through the efforts of the faculty, administration, staff, alumni and Board working as a team, to continue its work – and provide its service – far into the future.
“Higher education is changing around the country, with many factors affecting all American universities. Both competition and costs are increasing, and the value proposition for students and their families has never been more important. Since 1895 when it was founded by the Sisters of Divine Providence, OLLU has provided extraordinary educational experiences for students and produced generations of leaders in business, education, humanities and both the social and natural sciences.
“Moreover, the ‘service-to-community’ ethic which is imbued in our graduates is unsurpassed. We are especially proud to be a Catholic institution with a strong record of taking first-in-family college students and helping them to develop and graduate with degrees which lead to good careers and fulfilled lives.”
Trustees face huge challenges in maintaining the university’s viability, and thus had little choice in pursuing a change of leadership. The OLLU community remains polarized over recent changes at the school, including the elimination of 12 degree programs. Without a change, the focus likely would remain on decisions already made rather than the future.
Tyler Tully, who also wrote an article for the Rivard Report, embodies the student dissent with the University’s decision to adopt a more market-oriented curricula and moving away from some traditional liberal arts studies toward more STEM majors. He recently posted on Facebook a challenge to OLLU’s decision to eliminate the liberal arts programs, noting that the top ten Catholic universities in the country all offer a robust liberal arts education.
Beyond those disagreements, however, lay the larger challenges: building enrollment, improving retention and graduation rates, boosting endowment, and providing something not available at the city’s two other Catholic universities, St. Mary’s University and the University of Incarnate Word.
“I think Tessa played the hand she was dealt as well as anybody could have played it,” said one of her fellow university leaders in San Antonio. “A change was probably inevitable, but it won’t postpone hard decisions.”
University presidents aren’t hired off Craig’s List, but if they were, the employment ad might read like this:
“Wanted: Dynamic Catholic university president who can raise tens of millions of dollars in endowment funds, and inspire a fractured community of trustees, administration, faculty, students and alumni. Must be an effective communicator comfortable with transparency and making all stakeholders part of the conversation before decisions are taken.
“Warning: University with long history in San Antonio is beset by enrollment challenges, low graduation rates, high tuition and fees, intense disagreement over recently eliminated degree programs, and strong competition for students and dollars from two other local Catholic universities. New president must be able to successfully implement new strategic plan that does not enjoy broad support within ‘The Lake’ community. Failure to succeed could place the future of the university in jeopardy.”
I wish Pollack well. I think any objective measure of her tenure will show she was a committed higher education leader who did her best to meet challenges that only extraordinary leadership can address. I don’t envy her successor, who not only will face these enormous challenges, but will undoubtedly inherit the current rancor and debate enveloping “The Lake.” The only certainty is that Catholic education here and elsewhere faces great challenges. Nothing about that changed with today’s news.
Related Stories on the Rivard Report:
OLLU President: ‘The Lake’ is Strong and Strategic January 2013
Amid a Host of Parents, a Catholic School Thrives January 2013