College head's resignation followed faculty unrest Notre Dame changes sparked opposition

March 04, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions about the College of Notre Dame, of Maryland incorrectly spelled the names of several people. Sister Rosemarie Nassif is currently president of the school, Mary Anne O'Donnell resigned last fall as dean of students, and Janet Marie Smith is a trustee there.

The Sun regrets the error.

The resignation of the president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland last week followed intense opposition by some faculty members who blamed her for resignations of two popular officials and did not believe she could lead the college successfully.

In October, the deans of academic and student affairs made public their resignations within weeks of each other. In addition, the college's president, Sister Rosemarie Noussif, dismayed many faculty members by revamping the school's administrative structure -- creating a layer of five vice presidents -- without consulting them.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Such tensions led to an unusual meeting at the turn of the year in which leaders of the Faculty Senate told trustees there had been a "pervasive loss of confidence in the president's leadership." On Wednesday, Sister Rosemarie told students, faculty members and employees that she would leave campus this summer, after only four years.

It remains unclear whether, as some professors contend, the trustees forced the president out, or whether she made the decision to resign independently, as Sister Rosemarie and board members insist.

Trustees praised her for giving the college a sound bottom line.

"You have to evaluate any concern about leadership style or personality by the faculty in the context of the big picture,"

trustee Jean Marie Smith said. "The board's primary responsibility to the college is a fiduciary one. She put the college on unbelieveably sound financial footing."

But the January meeting between senior trustees and faculty "threw the ball into the trustees' court," said Charles Ritter, a Notre Dame professor of history and political science. "After 3 1/2 years, it didn't seem like it was working out."

In 1990, Sister Rosemarie arrived at the Catholic women's campus -- at Charles Street and Homeland Avenue in North Baltimore -- as executive vice president and designated successor to Sister Kathleen Feeley, who had been president for 21 years.

Since becoming president in 1992, Sister Rosemarie is credited with helping the college, affiliated with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, boost its endowment from $12 million to $17.6 million and significantly increase the level of private gifts each year.

In talking with people affiliated with the college and in an interview Wednesday, Sister Rosemarie said she decided to step down in June solely because of a spiritual sense that the time was right for her departure.

Associates say Sister Rosemarie has said she also has been hobbled by tensions between the nuns who belong to the Baltimore province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and those, like her, who belong to the group's St. Louis province.

But several people at the college, including faculty and trustees who take opposing views of Sister Rosemarie, dismissed that suggestion. They noted that members of both provinces have worked at the campus for years.

"That seems clearly irrational to me," said Marie-Helene Gibney, a member of the trustee executive committee who said she is supportive of the president's leadership. "Whoever is making a comment like that seems to me not to understand School Sisters of Notre Dame."

Instead, interviews with faculty members, students, trustees and administrators suggest that dissent on campus reached a high point last fall, the result of what they termed missteps by the president that resulted in faculty mistrust.

An external consultant's report ordered by the president was highly critical of Sister Delia Dowling, the dean for academic affairs, and soon after it was completed last summer, Sister Delia tendered her resignation, effective at the end of the spring semester.

The report also said the faculty should be given a greater role in setting college policy. But some faculty members, and tenured professors in particular, were angry that the report did not criticize the president for shutting them out.

In late October, Marianne O'Donnell, the dean of students, told the campus she would leave Notre Dame to become director of Sarah House at Baltimore's Catholic Charities. "In my heart of hearts, I thought it was best to take [the job]," Ms. O'Donnell told Columns, the student newspaper. "I've done all I think I can here."

And when Sister Rosemarie announced that she intended to install the new administrative structure, with the five vice presidents, the dam burst.

Faculty members had already been critical of administrators' compensation -- $89,200 for Sister Rosemarie last year, and more than $70,000 a year for two top officers, according to the most recent tax documents available.

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