President finds shift to Catholic scene easy

Mount St. Mary's chief seeks to raise enrollment and quality of student life

November 30, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- It was 32 years ago, when he was attending Holy Trinity High School on Long Island, that Thomas H. Powell last found himself studying or working at a Catholic school or college.

Now, he's the president of one.

Powell is in his first semester at the helm of Mount St. Mary's College, the 195-year-old Catholic college and seminary set on a hillside in Emmitsburg, in northern Frederick County. He previously was president of Glenville State College in West Virginia, and his earlier stops as a dean and professor also were secular: Winthrop University in South Carolina, Montana State University, the University of Connecticut and Vanderbilt University.

But ask Powell if he feels the need for any major adjustments in taking charge of Mount St. Mary's -- home of the third-largest seminary in the country -- and he smiles no.

"I've been a Catholic my whole life, so [taking over at Mount St. Mary's] has been a joy," said Powell, a straight-talking 50-year-old whose academic background is in special education. "The only difference here is that I get the chance to walk to Mass rather than drive to Mass."

As Powell points out, the challenges he faces at Mount St. Mary's are similar to those confronting the leaders of many of the state's small, secular colleges.

He must revise the school's budget to make up for the loss of $700,000 in state funding, the result of cuts last year to the program under which Maryland sends taxpayer dollars to private colleges.

He hopes to increase enrollment from its current 1,500 to 2,000. Last year, the college received 20,000 inquiries from high school students, but received only 1,800 applications for admission to the school, where tuition is $21,000 a year. That number needs to grow, Powell said -- no easy task for a rural college 60 miles from Baltimore, the nearest big city.

Attracting more students is inextricably linked to what Powell sees as the central goal of his presidency, improving the quality of student life and getting students more engaged in their entire Mount St. Mary's experience, not just their classwork.

Among other things, he would like to see the college make better use of its setting for hiking and other outdoor activities, and he'd like to see more trips to cities such as New York.

Integrating lessons

Even more, Powell wants to find ways to better integrate the lessons taught in the classrooms and chapel -- the values of a Catholic education, most notably social justice -- into everything that students do while at the college.

He's still working on the specifics, but he'd like to see "service" mean something more than just a few hours put in at the local soup kitchen. He'd like to see students doing foreign study programs in Liberia, not just Europe. He'd like to see students marching for causes dear to many Catholics, such as the recent feeding-tube controversy in Florida.

"I want us to be known as a Catholic school that's serious about social justice. I want it to be part of what we're doing every single day, not just episodic," he said. "How do we give our Catholic faith action? It's not just about going to Mass, it's about what you're doing in the service of other human beings."

One side benefit of greater student engagement is that it could help combat excessive drinking, a problem that can be particularly acute at remote campuses with few entertainment options. In a single weekend in December, four Mount St. Mary's students were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning.

Powell said he is hoping to reduce binge drinking by encouraging students to police themselves, rather than by clamping down with strict enforcement. It seems to be working, he said. "I've always found that if you treat people like adults, they rise to the occasion," he said.

In his bid to build trust with students, Powell has been trying hard to get to know as many of them as possible, an effort that's been noticed. Student government President Henge Sedghi said that Powell's predecessor, George Houston, who retired after nine years, was a "great" leader, but was "more involved on the administrative level."

Powell, on the other hand, "is definitely trying to get to know students on a first-name basis," said Sedghi, a political science major from Annapolis.

Powell also has impressed faculty, who welcome having a leader with strong academic credentials. (Powell, whose interest in special education has been spurred by his disabled child, has written four books, including Brothers and Sisters: A Special Part of Exceptional Families.)

"He seems to be energetic and a person with clear vision," said Chris Blake, the director of teacher education. "Houston did a good deal for external relations, and while [Powell] will continue that, he'll also ask searching questions on our internal operations."

Academic initiatives

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