Education

Mount Mercy president plans to leave next year

Hamen oversaw construction, new programs at Cedar Rapids school

Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen speaks during a grand opening ceremony for Mount Mercy University’s Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, September 30, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen speaks during a grand opening ceremony for Mount Mercy University’s Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, September 30, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The average tenure of an American collegiate president is down to just 6.5 years, and Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen will be right there when she departs the campus on June 30, 2020.

Hamen, 59, announced Wednesday in an email she won’t renew her contract when it ends. The Twin Cities native, who began at the Cedar Rapids school in 2014, said she and her husband plan to return to Minnesota and be nearer to four of their eight grandchildren. Hamen said she plans to develop a nonprofit organization there, though she didn’t provide details.

“The decision to leave this remarkable university was difficult,” Hamen wrote. “However, having served colleges and universities for nearly 35 years, it is the right time for me to pursue new opportunities.”

Mount Mercy’s Board of Trustees meets June 7 and begins the process of searching for a replacement, said board Chairman Charlie Rohde.

The Catholic liberal arts school offers degrees in over 45 programs in eight departments.

Its fall 2018 enrollment of 1,835 was down a tick from its 2017 enrollment of 1,849. Most students — 1,229 — came from Iowa.

When Hamen started as Mount Mercy’s president, she became the first female leader in 37 years for a school founded by women — the Sisters of Mercy had established Mount Mercy Junior College in 1928.

Although earlier presidents served longer terms — with Sister Mary Agnes Hennessey lasting 16 years and Thomas Feld staying 22 years — Hamen’s more recent predecessors averaged seven years each.

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And so Rohde said he wasn’t entirely surprised when Hamen notified him she’d be leaving next year. A recent study by the American Council on Education pegs her tenure at the national average of 6.5 years. That’s down from 8.5 years a decade earlier.

Hamen didn’t respond to a request Wednesday for an interview.

Rohde said she has faced a lot of the same challenges her peers face elsewhere — especially at private institutions.

“I do know that finances are tight — just like at many private and public institutions across the state,” Rohde said. “And Mount Mercy is a tuition-driven institution. We don’t have the ability to go to the state Board of Regents to have them lobby the Legislature for more funds.

“Our funds come from tuition and alumni and other public gifts.”

Mount Mercy’s tuition and fees have increased from $25,400 in the 2012-13 school year to $31,598 this year. Out of 32 private colleges in Iowa, it was the 12th most expensive in the 2017-18 school year. In terms of students receiving state aid through the Iowa Tuition Grant, Mount Mercy’s $3.2 million that year ranked No. 3.

Rohde said Mount Mercy will end this year “in the black” but “not as good as we hoped.”

Hiring and retention also have been difficult, according to Rohde, who said Hamen has an entirely different administrative cabinet than when she started.

He said the campus would like to have more tenured professors.

Student recruitment also has been challenging, he said, especially for an institution reliant on a fairly stagnant population of Iowa high school graduates.

When Hamen started at Mount Mercy, she told The Gazette she wanted to grow enrollment.

In fall 2015 — after a full year under Hamen’s leadership — undergrad enrollment saw a surge from 1,444 to 1,543, following years of declines.

That spike was driven by a jump in first-year undergrads, according to Iowa College Aid data.

But enrollment has leveled off since.

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Rohde told The Gazette that Hamen specifically told him her departure is not related to the recent controversy over her decision to cancel a drag show on campus.

In April, after Mount Mercy’s Student Government Association and Alliance Club distributed flyers promoting a May 3 drag show, Hamen met with the students to tell them the event was off.

In an April 24 email to campus explaining her decision, Hamen said the school is “committed to the value of every human person in our distinct Mercy context and to ensuring that every person has an educational context of mutual respect, compassion, and success.” She noted the school also functions “in the context of our Sisters of Mercy and Catholic heritage, so respect for all of these aspects of our campus community is crucial to our success as an institution.”

Her decision incited some criticism, including from a student government leader who noted it was to be a fundraiser for Iowa Safe Schools.

Rohde said the issue was a challenging one.

“But that’s part of being a leader,” he said, and he praised Hamen for being a “great” one.

She oversaw construction of a new athletics complex and the addition of new programs and online offerings.

Rohde said he doesn’t expect Hamen — known for trotting across campus in her running shoes — to take them off soon.

“She is going to have her running shoes on for the next year, managing in the classy way that she has so far,” he said.

Molly Duffy of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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