How Dr. Mark Reed is building St. Joseph’s University into a 21st-century learning institution

By Marc Kramer 

In 2015, the board of trustees at St. Joseph’s University elected Dr. Mark Reed as the first lay president in the Jesuit institution’s 165-year history. A 1992 graduate of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, Reed received a B.S. in mathematics from Fairfield University in 1996, a master of education in secondary educational administration from Boston College in 1999, an MBA from Fairfield in 2002, and a doctorate of education in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. In his time leading the university, Reed has found quick acceptance among the faculty because of his energy, directness and always present sense of humor. Here, he discusses his vision for St. Joseph’s, and how a 21st-century university can best serve its students.

What was your first professional job?

Reed: I was a high school teacher. I taught math and computer applications. I was teaching Microsoft Office. They needed someone young who might be familiar.

Did you always want to go into education?

Dr. Mark Reed

Dr. Mark Reed

Reed: No. I thought seriously about law school. I applied to work in a management consulting firm. I would have done that, but I got this job teaching. And it just continued from there.

What is the best part of being a college president?

Reed: The diversity of people that you meet and the diversity of issues you deal with. You meet some interesting and smart people. I also have the privilege of hearing students, parents and alumni tell their stories about their experiences. They often say thank you to me, and I tell them I’ll pass the thanks along to those who deserve it — the faculty and staff [who] helped them along the way.

What is the most difficult part of being a president?

Reed: People assume that you have the ability to do things and have a certain level of power that doesn’t pan out. I am not a general or a corporate CEO. There is a limitation to the “power” of a college president. Universities are like small municipalities, with multiple constituencies. Balancing the time demands and expectations can be challenging.

What is your vision to make St. Joseph’s University a national and maybe an international attraction like Drexel, Temple and Penn?

Reed: A couple of things. I don’t generally accept the premise of differentiating between operations and strategy. When you are responsible for operations, you have a strategy you have to achieve. In other words, operations are a means to an end, and that end of course is a vision or strategy that you want to achieve. At SJU, we are not seeking to be like Drexel, Temple or Penn. There are many ways we admire them, but as a Jesuit, Catholic university, we have a particular and special mission that is focused on whole-person development, with teaching and high levels of faculty-student engagement at the core of everything we do.

We also are a comprehensive university where our graduate programs are primarily at the masters level, which again combine great teaching with practical application and research to support practitioners. My vision for SJU’s future starts with laser-like focus on academic quality, improving student selectivity, and a transformative student experience. As a Jesuit university, we are arguably part of one the best brands in American higher education.

But we have to carve out our own niche. SJU has a history of finding opportunities in which to excel — our long-standing academic program in food marketing, strong tradition in the natural sciences, a fast-growing program in risk management and insurance, and a summer scholars program that pairs faculty with student researchers in multiple disciplines. We have institutes and centers of distinction such as the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support, and the Institute for Clinical Bioethics, which are making a major difference in the greater Philadelphia area. My vision is to build on our core strengths, while conducting an honest assessment of our weaknesses and addressing them. We have not been as good as we need to be in telling our institutional story. I firmly believe that outcomes are what matter most to students and parents. The first job is important, of course, but it’s the career and life trajectory that matter most. We do well with the first part — as any university of our quality should — but I posit that we are really good at the second part, and harnessing the power of our alumni to advance our university into the future is a critical element of our vision and future success.

When I think of our strategic assets, it starts with our faculty and includes our location (the only university in the area that literally straddles Philadelphia and the suburbs), a campus-wide ethos of community service and engagement, a proud sports tradition and platform, and diversified revenue stream of undergraduate, graduate and online programs. We have much to build from and upon. Our vision and future will, I hope, be characterized as a Culture of Excellence, a Culture of Innovation, and a Culture of Collaboration. This does not mean we will try to be all things to all people. Rather, grounded in the best that our 460+ year old tradition holds, we accept that higher education has undergone major change in recent years and that the future is not about trying to make the former model work again, but instead being a leader in embracing a new model for the future.

What makes St. Joseph’s University unique?

Reed: Well, in the area, we are Philadelphia’s and the region’s Jesuit university, and our mission and identity drive everything we do. As I mentioned, academically we have a very strong business school with several highly ranked programs. But all of our students are grounded in a strong liberal arts and sciences curriculum. It is one of the reasons our business school graduates, for example, are well-prepared for their careers and successful. There is a high level of personal attention at SJU. We truly care about each student’s experience and their academic, social, physical and spiritual development and formation. Our size and scale allow us both to provide such a personal experience and offer the plethora of academic and co-curricular experiences of a much larger institution.

Will the cost of higher education slow down?

Reed: Yes. I believe it already has. Many institutions have slowed the rate of their annual tuition increases and increased the amount of institutionally-funded financial aid awarded. However, this has placed real strains and constraints on net tuition growth for institutions, including SJU. The cost on the expense side has also slowed down as a result. Institutions, including SJU, have made reductions in administrative staffing levels, sought ways to address escalating compensation costs, particularly with regards to health benefits, and made other expense reductions. There are many reasons why higher education costs have grown so significantly over the past 25+ years. Higher education seems, in part, to work against standard economic theory. Competition in many cases has driven up the cost, not reduced it.

What should employers and students expect from today’s university?

Reed: Minimally, students and employers should expect that universities will teach students not only basic and fundamental knowledge and skills but also the ability to think analytically and creatively, write effectively, work in teams, and develop the capacity for continuous, life-long learning. I believe Jesuit universities, and SJU in particular, does a good job in this regard. Additionally, however, I think it is good and healthy for universities today and in the future to resist the push by some to become essentially employment training centers. Education is more than this, and some of what students learn in college has a delayed impact that is not immediately appreciated or relevant upon graduation.

What is the profile of the type of people you look to hire?

Reed: I like to hire smart people, people who are intellectually curious, self-aware, practice self-reflection, can digest a lot of information quickly, and have strong analytical skills. I like to hire people who think differently than I do which, in turn, challenges my own thinking.  I look for team players, committed to a shared vision, supporting common goals, and accepting of joint accountability.

Are there any books you read that you would recommend to other leaders?

Reed: I read a lot of non-fiction history. I just finished Citizens of London, which tells the story of what life and circumstances were like in England through the lens of several prominent Americans living and working there during the World War II period. I’m currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit. One of my favorites is her Team of Rivals.

Marc Kramer, author of six books, is the executive in residence at the Erivan K. Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University and executive director of the Private Investors Forum. Contact him at marc@kramercommunications.com.

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