As Brother Ronald Gallagher prepares to leave office in June, he shares some thoughts with us on his time as president
What do you think will be the hallmark of your presidency?
Recognition for the College. If there’s something I set out to do eight years ago, it was to make sure we’re more visible for our own strengths and for the quality of education, and that has happened. We’re recognized as an institution that really understands the role of community service and our impact on society. And we’re known for being a great liberal arts institution with very committed students, faculty and staff.
What are the most significant changes you’ve seen at Saint Mary’s in the eight years since you became president?
There’s a greater mission consciousness. More faculty and staff are intentionally participating in our mission, and I think that mission consciousness has really motivated people. The students as well are eager participants in mission activities, both curricular and extracurricular.
Another significant change is the implementation of the Core Curriculum because it requires that we think about educational outcomes, not about what course to take. There has been improvement in the Seminar program, where we’re also looking at outcomes. And there has also been improvement in services that help students and faculty to be successful—human resources, advising and institutional research, which helps us track success.
Athletic success is another thing that wasn’t necessarily anticipated in so many sports. The academic success of our student—athletes remains very high. They have made Saint Mary’s visible and recognizable for all the right reasons.
The College seems to have weathered the financial storm of the past few years very well. How was this possible?
Four years ago we really had to look at staff reductions and reductions in budgets. What we didn’t foresee was the number of students who would choose to come here. Our enrollment has gone to the highest it ever has been for undergraduates. That’s an effect of the financial crisis on the state and on the West Coast. We didn’t cause that effect, but we were prepared for it when it happened. We thought clearly about how we maintain quality education and keep it affordable. So we’ve increased our financial aid and we’ve looked for other income sources.
With cutbacks in state assistance for education, can Saint Mary’s continue to serve the needs of students of limited financial means?
Serving needy students will always be a challenge. We have to increase the giving by corporations, by foundations, by individuals to really help finance the education. And we have to continue to be efficient and economical in our approach to administering the College. The next challenge will be to try to keep it affordable to students so they don’t leave here with a huge amount of debt and still receive a quality educational experience.
Private colleges are seeing an increase in applications as state colleges wrestle with funding cutbacks. What impact has this had on Saint Mary’s?
Because of cutbacks, the big universities in the Cal State system and the UC system have to really limit what they can offer. It’s taking longer for students to get out of those schools and it’s harder to get in. So I think people are looking for a set of values for the money they’re going to spend. And this is a great value opportunity for us because students who come here are going to get a great education on time, they’re going to get the classes they need, and they’re going to come into a Lasallian community that pays attention to them.
The College and the Presidential Search Committee have indicated that it’s possible Saint Mary’s may have a lay person rather than a Brother as the next president. Why is this option being considered at this time?
It’s not the first time we have considered it. We changed the bylaws maybe 10 years ago to recognize the fact that there are a diminishing number of Brothers. We are not getting the vocations the way we did 30 years ago or 50 years ago. This change has already taken place in Lasallian secondary schools and it has happened in many Lasallian universities. Just in the United States already there are two lay presidents out of six. We certainly would like to have a qualified Brother, but if we don’t find one, we need a qualified Catholic lay person.
What are the most difficult challenges you’ve faced?
We have gone through a time of pretty difficult uncertainty about the economy and the future, and I came in at a moment in the College when we had had a major setback in advancement and there was very low morale. That was certainly a challenge, but I think that people here have stepped up to it marvelously and some of that is getting the right people in the right places.
What personal qualities or experiences have helped you get through the challenges you’ve faced?
Personally, I think my experience in the Middle East (as the leader of Bethlehem University) and internationally with the Brothers has assisted us. It helped me to understand that you should be ready for the unexpected. One of the sayings that popped up about four or five years ago was “What’s the new normal?” We can’t expect things to be normal any more.
I also learned a lot of diplomacy on that job, dealing with 20 different countries and different aid groups. I was meeting the pope, I was meeting high officials in Europe and the States, so that provided me diplomatic experience that I think has helped me in making sure that Saint Mary’s is visible and a player nationally and internationally.
Were there any other personal qualities that you developed there?
Yes. Deep prayer. I couldn’t do that job without that. It’s the same here—even more necessary, I think. You need to keep things in perspective. That requires personal humility and deep spirituality.
The experience also fostered some growth in terms of caring for a community. It was a humbling experience because people so depended on you for their livelihood and the students depended on you for access to a stable future. We were invited to leave a lot of times when it got dangerous. They’d say, “We’ll escort you out.” And we’d say, “We’re not leaving. We are here for these people.”
As part of the Core Curriculum revision, the College is adopting a more global perspective. Why is this important?
First of all, we have a very diverse student population, and they represent many nationalities and cultural experiences compared to college students 25 years ago. They themselves are helping to bring a global perspective into the College. And the modern economy, modern communication, the media have brought us closer to things that happen all around the globe on an instant basis, and I think we have to prepare our students to live in a global society.
How do you see the graduate programs fitting into the Saint Mary’s experience as a whole?
I think the leadership in both the School of Education and the School of Business has really taken seriously what our mission should be in terms of affecting the common good and getting involved globally. The School of Education has really renewed its efforts to make sure it can serve some of the inner-city needs in education, and certainly the School of Economics and Business Administration has looked broadly out toward the Pacific Rim. Programs like LEAP and the MFA programs are also terrific. Across the board, the quality of programs, whether undergraduate or graduate, is very, very high.
What are your fondest memories?
Getting connected with so many alumni around the world has been an exciting experience for me. Their enthusiasm for Saint Mary’s, I think, has grown. Seeing the quality of community we’ve become is really a pleasure, too. I enjoy walking across campus and stopping to chat with students, faculty and staff.
Also seeing the success of so many programs, like the School of Science Summer Research programs; how the performing arts have really expanded in quality; some of the great successes in our athletic programs, and the way they really generate more people who are interested in the College. And especially, seeing how many people come here and want to participate and embrace the mission. It’s one of the more positive signs of a healthy place that understands itself.
And the Gaelebration experience was absolutely terrific. So many people participated and stayed all day. It showed how much people appreciate what goes on here, how much the students like it. And the wider community got a chance to get a peek at what quality experiences —teachers, students and staff—we have.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t had much time to plan it out. I’ll be doing a sabbatical. I’ll continue to work in development at Saint Mary’s. And I’ll be teaching; I miss that kind of contact, working with the students. I’m also looking forward to broadening my perspective out into the international scene again. I’ve already taken a position on the board of the international Catholic universities. That’s a way to connect the Lasallian experience into a global group.
What are the major challenges awaiting the next president?
On one side, the affordability question. Another challenge will be how we keep up with technology and learning. Also, how do you preserve the momentum in student success, recruitment, getting people to embrace the mission? And if it’s a lay person, it’s going to be how do you understand Lasallian at the College and in higher education?
It will also be a challenge to maintain the viability of a residential college, especially given the push toward online education. The challenge will be to maintain the quality of personal experience, as opposed to a virtual experience, that people have here.
Assisting the students in their spiritual and faith development is also very important. We have to look for people who are interested in it and schooled in the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Catholic sense in higher education is a search for truth and at the same time an understanding of faith. That whole relationship of faith and reason is important to keep in mind.
How do we ensure that Saint Mary’s continues to deliver a quality education?
I think we have tremendous momentum. We still have challenges, but we’ve got great momentum in the public interest in the College, the private interest, our visibility and the quality of our programs.
The most important thing is respecting the individual student—the student is the center of this whole thing. In De La Salle’s theology, that’s where we find God. God comes to us through our students. That’s a radical vision. That’s what has to motivate us. And all things will follow.