On December 14, the Mount St. Mary’s University Board of Trustees shared that Gerard J. Joyce, Ph.D., has been named as the 27th President of Mount St. Mary’s University. Dr. Joyce sat down for an interview with the Record the day after the announcement to share his vision for the Mount.
Dr. Joyce, please introduce yourself to the Mount.
My name is Jerry Joyce. I have been selected as the 27th president of Mount St. Mary’s University. I’ve spent my entire professional career and my undergraduate career at my current institution, which is DeSales University. I have an undergraduate degree in finance. I received my masters in higher ed administration at one of the state schools here in Pennsylvania—Kutztown. I did my doctoral work in the Department of Education at the Catholic University of America and received a Ph.D. with focuses on education and policy studies.
Careerwise, I thought when I went off to college that I was going to go into the business world, which is why I was a finance major, and as I experienced my undergraduate opportunities, I realized you can actually work at a college. And as a student leader at the time, being a part of SGA, being an RA, I thought “this is what I want to do.” So I kind of switched gears and still finished with a finance degree because it comes in handy in all venues with any career you’re doing but then I decided to go into the higher ed route.
My first job was in residence life as hall director. My goal was to be a dean of students. For my first full time job I was the director of student activities, and it was my first professional job. Loved it. Once again, I’m going for dean of students and then the president of the time, Father Gambet, came into my office and said “I have this real need in conference services and auxiliary services.” He was a president you couldn’t say no to. As much as I didn’t want to do it because I thought I was going to lose the student experience, I told him I’d do it as long as I could manage the Student Union. If I can manage the student union then I’m going to have student interaction. And so we decided to do that. We did that for a couple years. He comes back two and a half years later, and he says, “Jerry, I need you in enrollment.” Oh, that’s not where I’m going. I don’t want to do enrollment. I’m not a salesperson. And once again, he was the type of president that’s just a legend here at the DeSales. Couldn’t say no. So I said, “okay, I’m gonna do this until you find somebody else.” So I became the dean of Enrollment Management. And then he retires and a new president comes on, more of a mentor to me. And he says to me, “Jerry, there’s going to be a time in the near future where these really good Catholic liberal arts institutions are going to need good Catholic lay presidents. So you need to get a Ph.D.” Gavin, I’ll tell you at that time I was about to get married, school was in the rearview mirror. I had the master’s degree but I went.
So when I came back he appointed me as the Vice President for Student Life that included Student Affairs, athletics, enrollment, financial aid and international learning. From 2005 until 2017 that was the role I was in. I finished up my dissertation during that time I and we had babies; I was young in my career. So I’d work all day, I’d go home so I could be there with the family for dinner. And then I’d literally come back to my office and write until one, two in the morning.
In 2017 I got a call from the chairman of the board at the time asking me to serve as the interim president for six months, something that they had to actually board vote on because the charter said it had to be an Oblate priest. So I was the first interim, first lay person, for six months. I used to joke that my job was to keep the lights on until Father Jim got here. But I had every intention of returning to student affairs and I thought I’m gonna go back to my VP role, but Father Jim had a different plan. This was the third president with “Jerry, can you do this?” And I said, “okay.” And that’s how I ended up in this executive vice president role with the daily operations, but also still having oversight with enrollment and international programming. Then we added marketing. My most recent addition is institutional investment and fundraising. So I oversee all of those areas.
I don’t do it alone. I have a lot of really good people that that kind of really help in, you know, making sure we reach our goals and especially what’s laid out in our strategic plan. But also this position allowed me to be at a level where I really enhanced my relationship with faculty. You know, we have a committee structure here, where faculty serve on committees from the different divisions, but there’s no way I could be here for so long and not have the relationships I have because I’m not an anomaly. People stay at DeSales. And I get the sense people stay at the Mount a long time, it really just becomes a vocation. So I’ve never described this as a job. I’ve always described it as a vocation.
Given that long-time connection to DeSales, what brought you to Mary’s mountain?
I was absolutely not looking to leave DeSales. I thought I’d retired from here. It’s in my blood.
I received a phone call. Someone had nominated me, which forced me to take a look. The little that I knew about the Mount started to grow. And after having conversations with the lead from the search firm, he encouraged me to send my resume and apply. And I will tell you that during the beginning process, I was like, “well, I’m not sure.” And that was, I’ll be vulnerable, a little scary. When you work in a place for 33 years you know the pain points. I’ve looked under the hood.
So to go someplace it had to be the right fit from a mission perspective and from a culture. I wasn’t looking to be like a stepping stone to something else. That’s not how I’m made. It has to have meaning. And the more I dove into this, and your mission, and your service to God and others—it’s all things that I think I’ve helped contribute a little bit to with some of the successes here at the DeSales. The major difference is the age. DeSales is 54 years old. The Mount is a little bit older. So it’s steeped in history. It’s steeped in tradition. But probably most importantly, it had to be the right Catholic liberal arts institution where I knew that I could kind of contribute to not only someone’s success in their chosen craft or or vocation, but also in life, And I think that the Mount has the good bones in order to really impact students.
On the topic of impacting students, what do you think is the responsibility of a Catholic University to her students when it comes to moral formation?
Well, I think the first thing when it comes to formation is you have to listen to people because everybody comes at it from a different perspective. I’ve used an admissions analogy. You never look at an admissions applicant when they complete their application as compared to somebody else. Because they don’t, they may have gone to the same high school. They may have the GPA, but it’s the person that you’re looking at as a whole. And I believe it’s important to really not only recognize but celebrate the dignity of each the dignity of the human person. And so I think it’s a Catholic college’s responsibility to make sure that you have the mechanisms for people based on listening to them and where they’re at in their spiritual journey. And we also recognize that some people aren’t on a spiritual journey right now. Or maybe they were and they’ve kind of stopped that spiritual journey. But I think it’s a Catholic institution’s role to make sure that everyone’s heard, that everyone’s recognized, and that you have the structure in place to kind of walk along with them wherever they are.
Not force, it should not be forced. I can’t not refer to something that’s Salesian: nothing through force all through love. And that is something that’s really, really important to me. One of the images I’ve used, I believe it wholeheartedly, is the beauty of the human heart. And we have a lot of people with different backgrounds and we have a lot of people that bring different perspectives to a situation. But the one thing that’s common among all of us is our hearts. Hearts speak to hearts and I think that that’s a real important piece—reminding people of that, whether they subscribe or not. And like I said I don’t believe in forcing people, you have to walk with people. And so that’s my approach to this. It might be a little bit more student development type of approach but that’s my training.
And if at the end of four years, when a student graduates, and you’re at commencement, for me sitting on that stage and watching that student, who who may have had bumps in the road along the way, or may have been the go getter from the beginning, and you feel like, “okay, maybe I contributed this much.” That means the world to me, and it feels like I’m making the world a better place.
As you enter into this new role as President, your understanding of the nature of a Catholic university is going to be an essential part of how you’ll lead. What is, in your view, a Catholic university?
A Catholic University is a university that operates within the teachings of the Catholic Church, but recognizes not all people subscribe to that teaching.
So make sure that you don’t box those people out because it’s very easy. I think that there are two modes of thought here. There’s a very conservative—I’ll use the typical jargon—right wing type where the only thing that matters is everything is strictly Catholic by Catholic doctrine. And then you have the progressive, left wing, where they’d like the Catholic Church to change teachings. I’ve heard that. That is just from my experience. I haven’t and don’t live in either camp. And the reason I say that is because from my experience with that has turned into at times is hate coming from both of those areas. And that’s not an environment I think that the Catholic Church wants to be in. They want to be in a welcoming environment. They want to be in an environment that values the Catholic teaching, yet understands that not all people that join their lives with a Catholic institution are going to truly believe that.
But also there’s going to be people that join that think that you should change the Catholic teaching. Myself, Gavin, anyone at the Mount, we’re not changing the history or the teachings of the Catholic Church. And sometimes you get a sense that people are pushing me in that direction. That’s how I feel about what the Catholic university should do.
And it should have things like theology courses and philosophy courses that expose students to our Catholic faith, I think are really important. And you have to remember the Mount is not just a university. It includes the seminary, it includes the beautiful grotto—wonderful sacred spaces for people to explore that spirituality. I believe, because I’ve not been told otherwise, they’re open to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are. You could be in those spaces if that’s where you’re on your journey.
I also think that the Mount is ahead of their game because of the people that I’ve interacted with. And I think that they tend to be people that want the university to thrive. They want the whole experience to be for all their students, all their faculty, all their staff. They want people to feel a part of something larger than themselves. And sometimes that’s difficult with young people. I’m still contributing to the formation of my own children. So that’s another piece as to why I think it was really important. It had to be the right fit. It had to be the right environment for my family.
In your introduction video you spoke of the Mount’s storied past. Can you please elaborate on how our history informs your vision for the Mount’s future?
I really clung on to the service to God and others. I think those are really the key words of your mission statement. Because it removes it from the person. What the experience is, in my opinion, it’s not about me, it’s about something larger going on here.
The special place of the Mount, in terms of how that was created, and its history—Father John Dubois was a visionary. He came there. He put this cross up that eventually became this incredible place. The grotto gets over 600,000 pilgrims a year. It it was that key moment—we weren’t there, none of us were there—but in my mind it takes on something larger than us. There was a reason that was supposed to happen. There was a higher power at hand that in 2023, 2024 we’d still have young men and women who were coming to this place in order to experience that spirit.
It was the last interaction I had before the decision was made for who they were going to select. We ended with lunch at the President’s House with President Trainor and Mrs. Trainor and we got in the car and my wife Erin said “so what next?” I said “what do you think about going up to the grotto?” And she said “I was hoping you would say that.” And it wasn’t for anything specific but to walk through and take on this environment. And that symbol of the cross that he built, and those early days, it was a little overwhelming to think about if he could be here right now to see. He didn’t probably think he was doing it for anything that we experience today but for over 200 years it has sustained itself and grown.
And I think today it’s a school that young people need. There’s going to be people that find that this resonates with them, even despite the coming years with an enrollment cliff where there’s less high school graduates and the same colleges and universities are going to be fighting for the same students.
If the Mount had a resume, and the Mount is going in for a job, their cover letter is things that aren’t going to be found at other institutions. They’re going to talk about the spirituality and they’re going to talk about why they are the ideal place for students to go. I am really excited to be a part of that future, never forgetting the past and making it relevant in 2024.
In your view, what are some of those things the Mount is uniquely able to offer compared to other schools? What strengths of ours should we be playing on?
This might be a little bit more of a difficult question until I get there. And I said from the beginning it’s not going to be a marathon. It’s going to be a sprint when I arrive in July. Because I have to listen because a big part of the Mount, as I keep saying, is that you have a mission and you have a spirit that is coming from the people that make up the Mount; the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni. I need more stories. I want to be part of the fabric of the institution.
You have strong academic programs, and we’ll start there. You have wonderful people. If the people I’ve met are a true example of the people that teach, administer—and even the one student, Andrew, that was on the search committee—if that’s an example of the type of people that are part of the Mount it only validated that it was the right fit for our family.
I have to be there to get deeper. You gave me the appetizer, and I’m waiting for the main course. And the appetizer was so good. I want more appetizers, but I’ll wait for the main course.
Can you speak to the challenges the Mount is facing and whether you think there is a tension between bringing about financial stability and remaining faithful to our Catholic mission?
One of the greatest challenges really is on the operational side and that is enrollment and revenues. We have to pay attention to the business side of the house at the same time as nurturing the mission. They need to go in tandem because if you don’t have the strong mission and cultivating that mission and nurturing that mission to continue what it’s doing right now, you’re gonna have a hard time recruiting students if mission becomes espoused and not lived. I believe the Mount is a lived mission, not necessarily an espoused mission. You may find some colleges and universities where they have a mission, but it’s not the priority because it just hasn’t been cared for. And I think that it needs to be cared for so it never actually diminishes.
The challenges are to make sure that the institution is financially stable. And we know that President Trainor has done a phenomenal job stabilizing it. I’d like to be able to build on that grow it, and be able to have the revenues and the resources to maybe explore more academic programs and some things that are needed for the future.
The enrollment piece is going to be a challenge and it’s going to be a challenge for all institutions of higher education. That’s where I think some of my experience at DeSales focusing on enrollment is going to help there. The Mount’s also in the middle of a $50 million capital campaign, and they’re about halfway there. The key to a successful capital campaign is aligning those donors with the mission and the vision of the Mount. If you look at the enrollment piece, you’re trying to sell the Mount and what it means and how that student can bring their lives into into the lives of the university and be successful for the rest of their lives. On a capital campaign when you’re talking to donors, or you’re talking to alums, they’re already bought. They for some reason are connected to the Mount because they went to school there or they have some sort of other connection and they really are supportive of the Mount. And so the key there is to align them to their passions with what the Mount’s strategic plan is. So those will be two of the big challenges moving forward.
Also, I want to make sure that we’re retaining and attracting—definitely retaining—the best faculty possible. In the strategic plan they have a goal of being the number one regional institution in the area. And I think that’s an attainable goal. But it’s not just because of your numbers. It’s not just because of your bottom lines. “Oh you brought in the biggest class ever”; “you completed your capital campaign.” It’s about the people that are delivering the education there. And I’m a big believer that education doesn’t just occur in that classroom, obviously, coming from student life. You have to rely on a lot of people on your campus to contribute to the success of that student.
A long-standing part of the Mount’s institutional mission has been to defend a certain conception of human dignity, as is the case for most Catholic schools. There is often disagreement about what protecting human dignity requires. What would be your approach to navigating those types of disagreements on campus?
I think that we start with the recognition that each person has human dignity. Everybody comes with a different perspective, or they’re bringing something unique about themselves. And I’ve always respected that. I am not someone that’s going to have someone fit into a box that they’re not ready to go into or they will never go into. That’s a personal decision. But I think that having the campus community understand that in a Catholic college you’re respecting the person. And so I think making sure that there’s a culture of recognition of the human person is extremely important.
Do you have any role models who inform your approach leadership?
I don’t have national role models. I wouldn’t say that I have that. You know, I bought into the mission of the DeSales University a long time ago because of people that were living the Salesian spirit through their work. There was a woman who hired me for my first job as a residence hall director. Her name was Marga Kender and she was the Vice President for Student Life and she passed about a year ago. It’s interesting and it’s ironic.
Her husband Joe, who is a professor here at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, is a graduate of the Mount. And Marge, who became a mentor of mine, spoke about the Mount regularly in our discussions about what we were doing here because DeSales is young. So a lot of what she drew from, she loved the Mount she would share things with me from the Mount. At the time I was young in my career, I wasn’t thinking, “oh, I’m gonna be president of the Mount someday.” It was something specific to the job I was doing in student development. I always said she was a mentor.
I thought about her the last several months because she would have been the one person I would have loved to have this conversation with as I was discerning this whole opportunity, and unfortunately, she’s not with us anymore. But I did have the opportunity to text her son actually this morning and share this news because I knew that he would find it ironic. The anniversary of her death was just last week. I said “I’ve been thinking a lot about mom,” and I told him why and he wrote back and said that mom and dad would be really proud that you were going to the Mount. So it’s not a national figure, but it’s something that’s very personal to me.
You were successful in growing enrollment at DeSales. What will be your approach to admissions at the Mount? Do you have any other ideas for the university, whether they be academic, financial or spiritual?
Academic would be to take a look at what are some of the new programs that might be on the horizon that could potentially add to the beauty and the mission of the institution?
Financially, looking at the adult and graduate populations and how we could best suit delivery of those programs. The industry is saying that students who fall into graduate programs are looking for asynchronous education, which means they’re taking it when they need to take it. I completely understand that being the father of five, it’s very difficult to figure out when to be online for a class. So I think looking at some of those things that I know the Mount, has made some strides there but I know they have some work to do there.
Spiritually I just think they should keep doing what they’re doing. Maybe when I get there I find that there’s other things that we could do. But from a Catholic perspective it would be really nice to work towards having as many partnerships with the Catholic high schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and the D.C. area. I’ve had some experience building those partnerships where we’re getting students exposed. For me, it’s getting students exposed to my current institution, but the same could hold true for the Mount. When you have a captive audience, and those partnerships allow you to do that, you have a better chance of exposing them to what could be for them where they decide to spend their college and university.
I’ve been successful in building some partnerships where students at the high school where they’re taking honors or AP courses, we allow the highschool to submit the syllabus for the year and credentials of the faculty member teaching it and it’s evaluated by our division heads. If the learning outcomes of a particular course at the Mount, for example, are met in that year-long course, we will provide three credits to them at DeSales University. And what that does is it allows us to do presentations about what this institution can do for them. and we get a captive audience and the students get three credits. And it seems to be really popular. And that’s really paid off for us, having students actually take a serious look. So I would love to be able to bring some of those types of programs to the Archdiocese of Baltimore Catholic schools in order to get at the enrollment cliff that’s coming.
I know I’ll have a lot more ideas when I arrive. But I want to listen first. I want to hear first what people really enjoy. What do the students really enjoy? I’m so looking forward to meeting students and getting to know them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.