First person singular:

An interview with Dr. Joseph Lee,
13th President of Saint Joseph's College

Dr. Joseph Lee was named President of Saint Joseph's College in May. Interim president of the college for the year before that, Lee has a 35-year background in higher education administration and a doctorate in the field from Boston College. Before coming to Saint Joseph's in 2005 as a consultant in the role of Vice President for Enrollment Management, he was president of Thomas More College in Kentucky. Lee, 64, also served as dean of admissions and vice president for student services at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and later as the head of student life at Manhattan College in New York. He will be inaugurated at Saint Joseph's on October 24.

“We had the supreme luxury of experiencing Dr. Lee as an interim president. He has a genuine, caring presence for this entire community and a clear understanding of what needs to happen to bring Saint Joseph’s into the future.”
—Dr. Margaret Hourigan
Presidential search committee member and Chair of the Nursing Department

In what ways does having a background in student life shape your presidency?

In my view, student life is a perfect background from which to become president. The college exists to educate the mind, body and spirit of students, and from the student life vantage point, you have likely participated in every aspect of the student/college relationship. You've had the phone calls at 3 or 4 a.m., you've worked with faculty, athletics and any variety of student groups.

How would you describe your management style?

I want to be as transparent as possible ... to get as much input as possible from the entire campus community. When I make a decision, I'll have reached out to as many people as possible.

Budgets are the hot button on college campuses. But if everyone knows the pushes and pulls of budget-making, they will understand the decisions. Process is critical. If you have input, you can get broad buy-in. Making important decisions this way might take an extra week or two, but broad understanding and buy-in are worth the time.

Strategic planning is a big part of your first-year focus. What about after that?

We will focus on implementing our strategic plan, which I am confident will have as one component the matter of faculty and staff compensation. I also expect to continue to meet face to face with as many alumni and other friends of the college as possible. I will work closely with Institutional Advancement as I do this. You know, fundraising can be as much as 50 percent of a president's job, which always must be balanced with program development and management of ongoing operations.

What is one of the biggest challenges that you face?

The overarching challenge of independent higher education is always financial, and that is especially true for colleges like Saint Joseph's that are enrollment-driven. Our endowment is modest, and I am committed to increasing it significantly during my presidency. I will emphasize the point that a $1 million gift will truly make a difference at Saint Joseph's, while at well-endowed institutions it would be only the proverbial "drop in the bucket."

How will you build the endowment?

The proven best way to build endowment is through bequests and other planned gifts. Although some of the bequests received by the college over the years resulted from the work of previous presidents and advancement officers, many have been donor-initiated. We need a more formal planned giving program, and I will work with the Institutional Advancement office to employ a director of planned giving in 2009.

What is your favorite part of the job?

That's easy ... our students. I lived on campus for a year and a half and interacted with students every day. I find them to be open, honest and from the heart. They rarely have a hidden agenda, and it's refreshing. In response I am honest with them and try to be as open as possible.

You have a degree in French literature. Are you fluent in French?

Yes, and I'm trying to learn Spanish. It's critical to try to learn Spanish given the demographics of the country. I listen to tapes in the car.

What are your views on Catholic higher education?

As a Catholic college in the Mercy tradition, we are held to a very high standard in terms of mission, core values and excellence of program. We must be true to our Catholic heritage and articulate the Mercy values in word and deed.

Along with an excellent Campus Ministry team, we have invocation, grace, and liturgy on campus. And I'm so proud of the Catherine's Cupboard food pantry that we started. If we're not doing anything differently as a Catholic school, then shame on us.

Catholic is a way of life for me. We need to look at our Catholic identity and how to promote and live it.

You saw the Pope when he addressed presidents and educators from Catholic colleges. What were your impressions?

His presence is genuine, and he appears to be a true scholar. It was also clear to me that he wants to preserve academic freedom.

It was a thrill to be at his Mass at Yankee Stadium with some of our students and Campus Ministry staff, too.

What about diversity at Saint Joseph's?

Saint Joseph's is the least diverse campus I've been associated with, largely because of its location. It's easier to be diverse in other places. We would all benefit from greater diversity of several kinds, such as geographical diversity. We'll be reaching out to high schools across the country in ever-widening circles. We will also seek to develop greater cultural diversity, and we also need to be prepared for that by having greater diversity among our faculty and staff.

What's it like to be back in Maine?

It's fabulous to be back in Maine. I grew up in the small town of Bath, Maine, and there was lots of unstructured play with family and friends. As a young professional, I dreamt about coming back. When I heard about the consulting job at Saint Joseph's, I jumped at it. I couldn't be happier. I still have many family members here. It feels good to come home.

How did you get from college student to college president?

When I was at St. Michael's College, I asked the dean for a letter of recommendation to go to a graduate program at the University of Maine, but he offered me a job as an admissions counselor. So, initially, becoming dean of admissions was my first aspiration. Then as I gained more experience, I really thought about being a president. You think about your abilities and you observe presidents. I knew I needed a Ph.D., and that's when I went to Boston College.

The search committee was pleased and excited to present Dr. Joe Lee by unanimous choice. Dr. Lee met or exceeded all our criteria. He came to Saint Joseph’s as an experienced and competent leader in Catholic higher education. His collaborative style has earned him the respect of the entire college community, and his vision for the continued growth and success of Saint Joseph’s is aligned with the Mercy mission that guides all of us in our strategic planning.”
—Michael Shea ’72
Chairman of the presidential search committee and Chairman of the Board of Trustees

How do you relax?

I'm loving golf. I've played off and on for 20 years. It also assists in fundraising. Even on the golf course, I'm still the president. It's a great way to make connections.

Are you a true extrovert?

I am now. I wasn't always, but my mother always believed you should be able to talk to anybody. At this point, I'm an extrovert.

How do you find the demands of this job?

I love what I do. I couldn't do it if I didn't love it, and I feel I'm where I'm supposed to be right now. But I don't have much downtime. Balance in life is important, and I need to work on that.

How would you describe Saint Joseph's?

We're old-fashioned in the sense we still do what we say we do. People love the supportive environment. I tell parents: We won't do their homework, but we'll know if they're not doing it. People aren't just doing a job here. Faculty members, staff and administrators really care about students and the mission of the college. It's a values-centered place.

At the student awards banquet, you were given the Fortitudo et Spes award, which goes to a person that embodies the college motto of "Courage and Hope." What was your reaction to that?

It was humbling; I had no idea it was coming. It touched and moved me; it made me feel like people really know me and what I'm doing and how I'm doing it.

The First Year

What is on the agenda for your first year?

At the top of the list is strategic planning. We will review our present plan, which was developed several years ago, and update it thoroughly with broad participation. That process will lead to a new strategic plan, which will guide us toward our centennial celebration in 2012.

My view of the planning process is really pretty simple. First, we analyze our current position, i.e. what we are doing across a broad spectrum of the college's programs and activities and how effectively we are performing, seeking to identify and eliminate inefficiencies. Second, we establish relatively few, but crucially important, broad institutional goals and assign primary responsibility for achieving them. Third, we charge responsible parties the task of developing tactical goals necessary to achieve strategic goals. Fourth, we monitor progress regularly and hold people accountable for progress toward meeting their goals. And, we revisit and update the strategic plan every year.

In that first stage of planning, we will really look at everything, such as the use of our buildings and other facilities, administrative and faculty budgets, ways to conserve energy, etc. I believe that we can operate much more efficiently, and it is strategically essential that we do so.

While I do not intend to be a micro-manager, I do intend to monitor what's going on. The strategic plan will help me to do that, while also helping the Board define its role more clearly.

We will have a strategic planning committee in place by September and the committee will go to work immediately, attempting to complete its task within six months.

Profile of Dr. Joseph Lee

  • Likes to be called Joe
  • Prefers telephone to e-mail
  • Grew up in Bath, Maine, as one of six children
  • Has three sons: Christopher, 12; John, 22; Joe, 26
  • Enjoys sports; favorite team is the Boston Red Sox
  • Played football and basketball in high school
  • Second SJC president to graduate from Morse High School
  • Knows every word of the Morse High School fight song
  • Accomplished ping-pong player
  • Golf handicap: 22
  • Former altar boy
  • Favorite junk food is nachos
  • Takes great pride in making his mom's cake frosting recipe
  • Of his brothers, he was the tamest of the lot
  • When a teenager, he worked summers at Hermit Island Campground