New Transylvania president plans to listen, make changes slowly at a campus in need of healing

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 18, 2014 

Earlier this year, Seamus Carey received two job offers to become a college president — one from Transylvania University and one from a school closer to his home in New York.

In the end, Transy and its staunch adherence to a liberal arts education won the day.

"I really like the way they articulate the mission of the school," Carey, 48, said during his third week on the job. "The history of the place is pretty phenomenal, the size of the school is ideal, and the fact that it's a liberal arts school in a city is highly unusual. All those factors came into play as I started to look at the position."

As higher education struggles to find its place in a technology-driven world, liberal arts has come under increasing criticism from those who want to see students with more job-ready technical skills than deep knowledge of English or political science.

As Carey visited Lexington in anticipation of his July 1 start date, he began thinking about liberal arts and careers, especially in light of Transy's enthusiastic alumni base. He calls his new plan 100 Doors to Success: matching every freshman with a Transy alumnus who can guide each student from a liberal arts education to a career.

The mentors — many of whom work within a few miles of Transy — could introduce students to their networks and confer professional advice for whatever careers the students seek.

"They could work with a student over the course of four years," he said. "Not only does it help them prepare for professional life; it helps us preserve liberal arts education," because the faculty can focus more on teaching and less on career coaching.

That's one program Carey sees starting immediately, but he plans on more listening than action at first. He talks in a low, quiet voice, part of his role right now as soother-in-chief, repairing a fragile campus that has been through several years of tumult.

Carey replaces Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with a doctorate in history who brought an ambitious agenda to Transy, including a larger, more diverse student body and property acquisition, including new playing fields that recently opened on Fourth Street.

Williams, however, had problems interacting with faculty, who complained about his leadership style, calling it harsh and dismissive, particularly toward women. After he rejected a faculty recommendation for a professor's tenure in May 2013, the faculty voted 68-7 to express no confidence in Williams' leadership.

Williams agreed to leave the school, but he stayed on for the 2013-2014 school year.

Carey understands that the faculty, staff and students need to move forward, said Ben Hawkins, presiding officer of the faculty.

"We clearly need some healing, and he has said as much," Hawkins said. "He certainly has a long view, but he's not coming in with an agenda. I think he has good ideas and he's a listener. I couldn't be more optimistic."

Carey has an extensive background in liberal arts: He majored in economics at Vassar College, then was hired by Fordham University straight out of graduate school with a doctorate in philosophy. He taught at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and at Manhattan College before being named the dean of arts and science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., in 2010. A Bronx native, he has never lived far from the New York metropolitan area.

Carey — with his wife, Noreen, and three children — arrives in Lexington at a time when schools such as Transylvania must stand out in a crowded and competitive field. Transy's enrollment this year will be flat at about 1,100 students, and the lack of growth hurts small, private schools that depend on tuition revenue.

"I think my first priority is to make sure there is a common sense of purpose, that everybody on campus is focused on why we're here, and around that building a really strong sense of community," he said. "The economic stressors are real, but the most effective way to combat that is to have a really strong spirit on campus."

Transy, which is building two more dorms, needs curriculum upgrades, Carey said, but it also needs to get more publicity about its relative affordability and generous financial aid compared with other small private schools.

He said the school could grow by 400 to 500 students, but much more growth than that might hurt the small student-teacher ratio that so many prize.

Change should be incremental rather than revolutionary, he said.

"Lasting and sustainable change has to be built on smaller changes along the way; you want that change to take root," he said. "If you try to change everything at once, a lot of that stuff doesn't take root, and you're fumbling around wondering what's the next step."

Most of all, Carey said, he wants to build on the school's strengths: assets such as the Center for Liberal Studies, which has become a national training center for liberal arts faculty, and the Henry Clay Center, which trains high school students in current events and diplomacy.

"That's a really good example of how you build what are central qualities of liberal arts education, but at the same time make it relevant and applicable for students," he said of the Henry Clay Center's summer program. "These students were debating real-world issues but learning about diplomacy and politics. That's taking what's central to a liberal arts education and showing them how they can use it when they get out of college."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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