From the beginning, the trustees of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland wanted a new leader who belonged to the Roman Catholic religious order that founded it and who would carry on its tradition as a women's school -- an increasingly rare distinction in higher education.
The trustees found her in Sister Rosemarie T. Nassif, 50, who will become the ninth president of the college. She will succeed Sister Kathleen Feeley, who is retiring after 21 years in that job.
The trustees announced the appointment today. It will take effect July 1.
"This is a prime moment in history to be a women's college," said Sister Rosemarie, especially as so many historically single-sex colleges have gone coeducational. "It's a wonderful legacy to be coming into."
Notre Dame was founded in 1896 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. It was the first degree-granting Catholic college for women in the United States.
James T. Brady, a managing partner of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm and a member of the search committee, said the search began about two years ago after Sister Kathleen told the board of her intention to retire. The board chose Sister Rosemarie in late 1990, he said, when it appointed her executive vice president of the college.
The work and influence of Sister Kathleen are a daunting legacy to follow, Mr. Brady said. "We wanted someone who would fill those shoes, but who was in no way a mirror image of Sister Kathleen."
Sister Rosemarie expects to take full advantage of that legacy and to expand on it.
"Some say this is not the moment to be a college president -- that higher education is in too deep a state of disequilibrium," she said today at a news conference at the school. "However, there is much in my favor. Sister Kathleen leaves the legacy of an institution in high positive momentum -- a position envied by other institutions."
She said she wants to look into ways of sharing with co-ed secondary and elementary schools what Notre Dame knows from experience about how young women learn. She also wants to work on attracting more students and faculty from international and minority groups.
"I would like to expand our ability to provide a more diverse campus setting," Sister Rosemarie said. "By that I not only mean living multiculturally but thinking multiculturally, forming partnerships with other institutions and interacting with our community."
Her discipline is chemistry, a background that she will use "to empower women more and more in science as a viable career," she said.
The college under her leadership will continue to stress moral character formation within its academic training, she said. And in these times of budget austerity, she wants to explore sharing some academic programs with other colleges, as a way of saving on the costs of expanding or maintaining the curriculum.
One possibility Mr. Brady mentioned would be sharing current Notre Dame programs, such as the one in nursing, with two-year community colleges in the area. Students who have studied at those colleges in programs designed by Notre Dame might be enticed to finish a four-year education at Notre Dame.
Sister Rosemarie joined the college board of trustees in 1988 and still holds the administrative position of executive vice president.
This year, she has been away on a fellowship with the American Council of Education, which is designed to train educators for university administration. She is working with the president of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, an elite college for women.
Sister Rosemarie has a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Notre Dame College in St. Louis, a religious order college that closed in 1977, and a doctorate in physical chemistry from Catholic University in Washington. She has taught at the University of Missouri and at Notre Dame in St. Louis and has served in administrative leadership positions with her order and in the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Notre Dame has about 600 women in its full-time undergraduate program. But men take graduate courses there and are among the 1,500 students enrolled in the weekend college degree program.
Tuition is just under $10,000 a year, something of a bargain as private college costs go. Keeping it that way, she said, "is not only a desire, it's a real need."
Sister Rosemarie is described by herself and others as outgoing. Trustees see that as an asset in dealing with the business community, potential donors and Notre Dame's constituencies, which include men and women who attend Weekend College, the Renaissance Institute and the English Language Institute.