MILWAUKEE — When Mary Meehan was approached by an executive search firm to apply for the job of Alverno College president 12 years ago, she was surprised – and a little doubtful.

During Mary Meehan’s tenure as president of Alverno College, renovation of several buildings and beautification of the campus were completed, and the school’s graduate programs and enrollment in them increased. (Submitted photo courtesy Alverno College)

During Mary Meehan’s tenure as president of Alverno College, renovation of several buildings and beautification of the campus were completed, and the school’s graduate programs and enrollment in them increased. (Submitted photo courtesy Alverno College)

Then the vice president of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, Meehan was a New Jersey girl, born and bred, and she wasn’t looking for a new job.

“Milwaukee seemed very far away,” she said.

Still, Alverno intrigued her. She had studied the school’s ability-based curriculum and learning assessment model as a graduate student, and the idea of working at a women’s Catholic college appealed to her.

She visited the campus and endured a rigorous interview process. They offered her the job; she turned it down, but they persisted.

It was prayer, and consultation with her spiritual advisor, that led her to realize that “this was from God,” she said.

“It was quite a leap of faith,” she said. “I went back and forth in my head for a long time, and here I am, 12 years later.”

Meehan calls her time at Alverno “a wonderful journey” and “the best 12 years of my professional life” – but the time has come for her to move on. She announced last summer that the academic year of 2015-2016 would be her last as president of Alverno, and in June she stepped down to make way for Sr. Andrea Lee, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who most recently was the president of St. Catherine University in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

It was a decade of growth for Alverno, both physically and academically. There were aggressive campus renovation and beautification initiatives in 2006 and 2008, and in December 2014, the school successfully completed its $30 million capital campaign that will fund its most expansive enhancement effort yet.

Alverno’s NCAA Division III athletics program has grown to include seven sports and 80 student athletes. Most dramatic of all is the growth in the college’s graduate school, which includes 700 students studying for degrees that include an MBA.

“We’ve really moved much more into offering graduate degrees, not just undergraduate degrees, and that’s a fairly significant portion of what we do,” said Meehan.

The graduate school’s growth is a response to the changing needs of the college’s students, and shifting trends in the workforce, she added.

“Most of them will need a master’s degree, minimally, to move on in their careers. That wasn’t the case 20, 30 years ago.”

The college, known best in the 1970s for its innovative Weekend College for working women, has also become more attractive to younger students. The makeup of Alverno’s incoming student population is now more than 60 percent recent high school graduates. It was a change Meehan calls “organic.”

“While we still have those students, and are grateful that we do, I would say the shift has been more to high school aged students,” she said.

Sr. Kathleen O’Brien, senior vice president for academic affairs emerita, praised Meehan’s “transformative” leadership and said the School Sisters of St. Francis, who sponsor the college, will “miss her dearly.”

“She has been a steadfast leader in tough times as well as good times and never missed a chance to praise and celebrate the accomplishments of the Alverno community,” she said. “Her leadership has been consistently caring and always wrapped around the Franciscan values of hospitality and joy.”

Don Layden, chair of the Alverno board of trustees, said Meehan’s contributions to Alverno “are too numerous to count.”

“But the ripple effects from those contributions will touch the lives of women for generations to come,” he continued. “We have truly been blessed by her leadership, her dedication and her friendship, and we will be forever grateful for all she has done.”

Meehan demurred from taking too much credit for Alverno’s successes.

“As a president, it’s nothing you personally did, it’s what every body else did, and you get to really bask in their accomplishments,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s really the success of our students. So a student who never thought she could study math or science and she’s in medical school – that really excites me.”

She speaks glowingly of Alverno’s methods of educational analysis, which do not rely on letter grades but rather narrative feedback.

“Most employers bemoan the fact that students do not have the skills we have been teaching for over 40 years,” she said. “We were also one of the first colleges in the country to do systemic learning outcomes. In the past 20 years, educators from over 40 countries and almost every state in the U.S. have studied our model.”

Meehan, who will be 67 this year, said the time has come for her to “explore other things.” Though she calls it a “joyous job,” she admitted it was often a very demanding role.

“I just feel drawn to be back with family at this point in my life,” she said. “And I think for Alverno, new leaders bring new sparks of energy, and I’m really delighted with Sr. Andrea Lee, who will be my successor. She’s an amazing college president with a proven track record.”

Her tenure at Alverno was particularly fulfilling for her as a Catholic, she said. Before transitioning to academia in 1996, she spent the first 20 years of her career in health care, primarily in the mental health field – but always at Catholic institutions.

“My spiritual life is important to me,” she said. “To me, to be able to live your faith out loud is such a wonderful gift. So many people live their faith out quietly in the secular world, but in my world, I’m able to actually frame everything I do around my faith.”

She will return to New Jersey, but will serve as the chairman of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership based in Atlanta, and will continue her work as vice chair for two boards of higher educational institutions. She also plans to work for a consulting firm, doing executive coaching for new college presidents.

What advice would she offer to new college presidents?

“It will depend on the situation but I think in general if I were to give advice to any college president, it would be to always remember it’s certainly a privilege to serve in these jobs, but it’s not a privileged job,” she said. “And by that I mean we are servant leaders, and college is unlike almost any other organization. You have to be collegial, you have to really be able to work through consensus. They’re not top down organizations. You have to really build coalitions. It can be really challenging work but it’s also extremely rewarding.”