McNamara Transforms a College

McNamara Transforms a College

Now in her 34th and last year on the job, Dr. Julia M. McNamara is the longest-serving college president in Connecticut — and among the top 12 nationwide. During her tenure at Albertus Magnus College, beginning in 1982, crosstown neighbor Yale has had five presidents. She has five years of seniority on Quinnipiac University's marathon man, John Lahey. (click to original article)

Longevity aside, it would be difficult to find a college president who has had a greater impact on an institution than McNamara has had on the once-struggling, very Catholic, women only, strictly liberal arts school that Albertus Magnus was long ago.

It was in debt, enrollment was declining, and the future looked grim. Its facilities were meager and older than the school itself, which was founded in 1925 by the Dominican Sisters of Peace in an old mansion atop Prospect Hill in New Haven. One major student complaint was sheer boredom, according to an accreditation report from the early 1980s.

Now decidedly in the black and coeducational, Albertus Magnus has more than doubled its enrollment to 1,270 students, offers modern academic and athletic facilities, has 10 masters programs, competes in Division III athletics, and recently was named one of the 50 most technically advanced small colleges in the nation.

But the most telling change of all is that Albertus and McNamara have welcomed with open arms the most diverse student body imaginable — it certainly wasn't imaginable 34 years ago. They come in assorted ages, incomes, colors, creeds, nationalities, and academic credentials. The college accepts 87 percent of those who apply, and nearly two-thirds of enrollees qualify for federal Pell Grants for low-income students. Four-year day students pay $29,650 in tuition and fees annually (add $13,608 for room and board), but financial aid is given to 91 percent of these traditional enrollees and averages more than $16,000 a year per student.

But the traditional four-year Albertus student of yesteryear is now in the minority. Today the educational goals and academic regimens of the college's scholars are as diverse as their demographics. The majority are older and part timers; many have jobs and are seeking to improve their career prospects. Some are parents preparing to return to the workforce. Most are night-schoolers, some at a satellite campus in East Hartford. Connecticut residents can earn some bachelor degrees online. Some attend Connecticut community colleges with which Albertus shares its bachelor's programs. Call it education a la carte, if you will.

It is a brave new world that McNamara has helped to nurture. The vocationally focused masters programs, for business administration and criminal justice and the like, are offered at night and dominated by adult learners. But even the liberal arts baccalaureates are a mature cohort — with 20-somethings mingling with 60-somethings. The average undergraduate age is 34.

This hybrid academe is not only unusual, it also may have saved the school, according to Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University. "A lot of small private colleges like Albertus have gone out of business or have merged with other schools and lost their identity," he said. "But Julia has succeeded in continuing its mission of educating traditional 18- to 22-year-olds while also serving new adult learners, which requires a whole other academic model and delivery system. Most schools do one or the other, but Albertus does both better than any college I'm aware of."

McNamara, who has so dramatically raised the profile of Albertus Magnus College, also has succeeded, ironically, in flying well below the radar despite being involved in myriad New Haven community boards and activities for decades.

She has chaired — and still serves at this writing — on the boards of trustees of Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Yale-New Haven Health Services Corp. She is a proprietor of the New Haven Green, the first woman to be named to that historic governing quintet. There is an exhausting list of boards that she no longer serves on. She is 74 and retiring, after all.

For all of that, she doesn't have a Wikipedia page, and doesn't covet one. She's not active on social media. When asked if she cares about the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, she answers quickly: "No!" One got the impression that she acceded to being profiled in this magazine with the enthusiasm of someone agreeing to oral surgery. Nonetheless, in person she is charming, engaged, and forthright. Her energy is palpable. When the subject of French literature was broached, she lit up like Christmas tree.

Julia McNamara was born in the Borough of Queens, into a "very Irish" family (her father was born in Ireland), and she attended a Dominican high school in Manhattan. She studied French and French literature at Ohio Dominican University, Middlebury College, and Yale, where she earned a master's in philosophy and a Ph.D. in French Language and Literature. Beginning in 1976, while at Yale, she was a guest lecturer in French at Albertus.

She earlier had entered the order of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, the founders of Albertus Magnus, and was still a nun in 1980 when she became dean of students at the college. She left the order in 1987. "I did not feel that I was worthy of it anymore, and did not want to do it for rest of my life," she said. "It was purely a personal decision. I did it for a long time, but I needed to move on."

At the time, her job as college president was all consuming. Albertus had taken the giant step of admitting men in 1985 and was already starting to court adult learners. A new athletic center was being planned. Somehow she managed to be busy off-campus as well, rubbing elbows with community and business leaders. She realized that people in New Haven knew next to nothing, if that, about Albertus. She aimed to change that.

Barbara Pearce, the Realtor, McNamara and several other women were members of the mostly male New Haven Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s. "Julia loves the theater and all of us women would get together and drive to New York City, shop, have lunch and see a show," she said. "I think she was still living on campus at that time. She's great fun to be with and has been a very passionate supporter of New Haven."

"She is utterly brilliant but also has uncommon common sense," said Lynn Fusco, who is a friend and an Albertus trustee. "She can see down the street — and around the corner, too. She greets the world with such enthusiasm and zeal — it's almost tangible."

Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale-New Haven Hospital, has known McNamara for more than 25 years. "Julia is an extraordinarily smart person — and she is a wise person, which is sometimes more important than just being smart," she said. "She has a depth to the way she thinks about things. She's an extraordinarily nice person, with a very generous spirit. She takes her volunteer work seriously."

She takes her day job seriously, too. The life of a college president is invariably relentless — even when things are looking up. In the 1990s, Albertus' debt was paid off (never to reappear), and there was money to improve the campus, hire faculty, and offer more programs for both traditional and non-traditional learners. But there wasn't much time for the French authors she loves to read, like Marcel Proust, whose works she devours in the original French.

In 1992 she married Richard Lolatte, who then worked for the college, and the newlyweds moved to Old Saybrook, providing her with a degree of separation from campus and the tasks at hand. The couple belongs to The Kate and she works out periodically with a strength trainer at a local fitness club. She and Richard also grab a week or two here and there to visit Ireland, among other places.

But at one point, some 20 years ago, McNamara pondered a complete separation from the rigors of leading Albertus. She polished her resume and sent it around. "There were a couple of places I was looking at seriously," she said. "But when push came to shove, I decided I really wanted to stay here. Albertus is a Dominican institution, and I really found my place working with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. It is such an important focus for me."

Her moment of doubt over, she never looked back again, at least until her decision to retire. It was announced last fall — without fuss or fanfare, of course.

So what will she do starting July 1, with all that time and energy? She smiles: "I want to brush up on my French," adding, as if it's the most glaring omission imaginable: "You know, I have never taken a course on Dante."

She and her husband had recently returned from Ireland, and in a Galway bookstore she had come across a collection of quotations by Pope Francis. She purchased numerous copies, and gave one to this reporter, who had just confessed to being a lapsed Catholic.

"Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air," she proselytized. "He is the surprise that Catholics have long been waiting for. The theme of his U.S. visit was, 'Move forward with your life.'"

It is time for the Catholic Church to move forward as well, she feels: "I am a great believer that women should be ordained in our church, it should happen. It shouldn't be that hard."

McNamara is moving forward with her life. There will be time now for reading, reflection, and contemplation. She has seen the power and the joy of education in her own life, as well as in the lives of countless eager students. She fervently hopes ever more people will have that same opportunity: "It is important for the federal government to continue to support and fund financial aid programs for students. We need the students who are first-generation college graduates in their families, students who are burdened by the shadow of debt. We need to help those people get an education so they can improve their lives."

The search for her successor is on. It is a tall order. Lahey said that the first call he received when he was named president of Quinnipiac was from McNamara, whom he calls both a friend and a mentor.

"She really is irreplaceable in terms of what she has meant both to Albertus and to greater New Haven," Lahey said. "Unfortunately there aren't any more Julia McNamaras out there."