‘Untapped potential’: New president sees challenges, but also promise at Monmouth

Patrick Leahy assumed the role of president of Monmouth University on Aug. 1 — following seven years in the same role at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. 

Leahy has a long history in higher education, having also served in senior leadership at the University of Scranton from 2004-2012. He also has a distinguished career as a student, earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Georgetown University, dual master’s degrees in business administration and labor relations at Cornell University, and a doctor of education from the University of Pennsylvania.

But, with Jersey being Jersey, there’s only one thing missing from his resume: time in the Garden State.

Or so it would seem.

Leahy, a down-to-earth, well-spoken and affable guy, joked that he earned some of his Jersey credentials by spending many of his summers in Avalon. Though, he admits with a laugh, such a Shore house may only give him cred in one part of the state.

“The Jersey Shore has a very special place in my heart and my family’s heart,” he said. “Unfortunately, for some people up here, I’m a Philly Jersey Shore guy. My father was originally from Philadelphia, so we migrated there, but I’m quite confident I can fall in love with this part of the Jersey Shore just as easily.”

Monmouth’s Jersey Shore location, he said, was one of the attractions to the job.

Woodrow Wilson Hall at dusk. The building was built in 1929.

“I’ve joked that, when the search consultant reached out to me about leaving a great situation I had in Pennsylvania to come here, I said, ‘Let me make sure I understand this: You mean I have a chance to do the work that I personally love and to do at the Jersey Shore?’” he said.

“I said, ‘Wow, how do I get into the search?’”

Leahy recently sat down with ROI-NJ to discuss all things Monmouth University and higher education. Here’s a look at the conversation, which has been edited down for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the most basic question: Why did you come to Monmouth?

Patrick Leahy: I always said I had a great situation at Wilkes, so it needed to be something really special to get me to give up what I had. I did not, quite frankly, know that much about Monmouth University when I got invited into the search. Once I got here, two things really spoke to me: One, I love the history of modern-day universities that started out with extremely humble roots, which this did in 1933. 

So, you think about Monmouth starting as a junior college in 1933 to what we have today. That’s such a rich history. We were founded in the throes of the Great Depression to provide academic opportunity to students who would not otherwise be able to access them because they couldn’t travel to places. And, through the years, as we’ve continued to grow and change, we still are very proud of the fact that we make a first-class private education accessible. 

But the thing that really attracted me is this: Every college and university president wants to go to a place that they believe has untapped potential. And, the more I learned about Monmouth, the more I thought this place is well-positioned to take the next jump — and what a delight for me to hopefully be the person that can help guide it that way.

ROI: Let’s talk about that jump. When you look five or 10 years out, where do you see the opportunities for growth and success?

PL: I see opportunities in our graduate programs, having additional master’s programs where they make sense to meet market demand. Higher educational institutions should rightly act like a business: Where are the holes in the marketplace, and are we equipped to meet them? I see opportunities on the graduate side.

I do not see a lot of growth opportunities at the undergraduate side. The biggest reason is this: The demographics are really moving against us. The demographers suggest that the number of traditional 18-year-old high school students applying to colleges is going to go steadily down over the next 10 or 15 years — and in a part of the country that easily is the most competitive market for higher education in the country, maybe in the world.

So, from a pure business standpoint, who would want to serve a marketplace that has way too much capacity for dwindling demand? It’s going to create a very interesting dynamic for higher education in Northeast. That’s why I’m not betting on growth at the undergraduate level. We want to continue to develop our undergraduate experience and hold serve there, while seeing if there are ways to grow our graduate programs. 

Woodrow Wilson Hall’s interior design was crafted by one of the first professionally trained African American architects in the United States, Julian Abele (1881-1950).

ROI: Some would say a big reason for the decrease in students is the price of tuition. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the cost of college is more than just a campaign issue. How does cost play a role at Monmouth?

PL: I have a lot of thoughts about this and I’m very sensitive to the issue, so I don’t want to, in any way, appear defensive. 

This is a big issue and I think we need to try to do two things. We have to try really hard to keep the list price down and keep the increases on the list price as reasonable as possible. It’s tough when 70% of most college and university budgets are tied up in human resources — 70%. Employees rightly need a cost of living increase every year. That’s only fair to them. So, if that’s the lion’s share of the budget, that obviously puts tremendous pressure on our list price. 

The other thing we need to do as much as possible is flood the system with as much aid as we can to take what is a very unreasonable list price and make it a much more reasonable net price. 

Monmouth is never going to be the low-cost provider, but we can be one of the high-value providers in our marketplace because of what we can offer. If we resign ourselves to the idea that undergraduate education is a commodity, then that’s going to be a real challenge for us and all private institutions, because we can’t price it as a commodity. My hope is that we offer an experience that is worthy of that incremental costs that you might get over going to a huge flagship.

ROI: I know you’re new to higher education in the state. Here’s what a lot of people say about it: Higher education institutions in New Jersey don’t work well together. There are silos instead of a sense of kinship — as you might have if the state had a state system. How do you hope Monmouth collaborates with others?

PL: This is a difficult situation. And it’s not just in New Jersey. It is everywhere. And, as much as private institutions talk about collaborating — and we do on certain things, especially when it comes to policy positions — it is a free market. Everyone’s in the fight of their lives for students. Schools might talk a good game about collaborating, but, right now, there’s not a lot of collaboration among academic programming.

When there’s a duplication of offerings, like any other business, there are going to be winners and losers. The good news is, this should be a positive for the consumer, which is the student: They’re either going to get better programs, better pricing or more convenient options. 

I think, in the future, given this demographic challenge that I mentioned, schools are going to be prompted to have conversations with each other that they’ve never had before. There will be collaboration out of necessity. There will be strategic partnering out of necessity. There will be merger-and-acquisition activity out of necessity, perhaps for the first time in the history of American higher education. As I like to point out, this is the only industry that I know of that has always expanded and very rarely contracted.

ROI: The search for students often leads overseas. Is that a way to stem the decrease in students domestically? Talk about the role international students can play at Monmouth?

Kessler Stadium at sunset.

PL: I support recruiting international students, because we want to try to create a campus that is a microcosm of the world which our students will join. So, it’s an educational imperative. And there’s the residual benefit of it being a secondary market. Simply, if we can’t recruit enough students in New Jersey, we could go to Pennsylvania or New York or Florida or to someplace such as India. It doesn’t matter to me.

But that’s getting more challenging. There just aren’t as many people coming from overseas to American universities. Some of that is because a lot of other developing countries are developing much better higher ed systems themselves.

ROI: Let’s move to another hot topic: athletics. You are moving from a Division III school to a Division I school. That means more money will be spent on sports. How do you see sports impacting a university?

PL: First and foremost, I’m a big fan of intercollegiate athletics because of the unique educational experience that it is. But here, we have the added benefit of a Division I program shining a spotlight on the academic program at our university that a Division III program could only dream of. That’s what athletics can do.

Every school believes they have something special at their university — and they’re desperate to have a spotlight shown on it. And Division I sports, even mid-major Division I, gives us opportunities that Division III can only dream of.

We have a lot to promote here at Monmouth. We have the Urban Coast Institute, the Kislak Real Estate Institute, the Institute for Health and Wellness, the Polling Institute and the Center for the Arts. We even have the Bruce Springsteen archives. We need to figure out how can we promote the Bruce Springsteen archives in a way that would get people thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s at Monmouth University.’ That could help shine a spotlight. Sports can help with that.

And it’s not just sports. Look at the Polling Institute. I can be sitting in my living room at night and hear the name Monmouth because of the Polling Institute. Do you know what a Division III school would give to be mentioned on TV just one time?

So, I always say to our faculty, a reasonable investment in athletics is a way to try to make it easier to grow our academic profile. That’s what we’re trying to do.

ROI: Speaking of finding a spotlight: The U.S. News & World Report rankings just came out. Monmouth was ranked in a tie for No. 28 for regional universities in the North, which means it is middle-of-the-pack. How important are rankings to you and to the school?

PL: The brutal fact is that it is very important to recruiting. You could argue that U.S. News & World Report oversimplifies the complexity of educating students in 2019 or that it doesn’t adequately reflect the quality and institution that we are at our number, but the reality is that it would just appear defensive. I understand that people care about that stuff.

I think the good news is that there are more rankings now, and some of them try to do a spin, so at least we’re getting a fuller assessment of what colleges and universities do. So, we need to keep an eye on them. And we need to improve the things that deserve to be improved. But my argument is to do this not because U.S. News & World Report demands it, but because our students and their parents demand it.

ROI: Talk about your relationship with the business community, specifically the business school? How important is it to work hand-in-hand with the business world?

The entrance to the OceanFirst Bank Center.

PL: I would suggest that we have six schools here at Monmouth, and every one of them needs to be engaged in their respective market, not just the business school. Our nursing school and health studies better be plugged into the health care providers around here. Our school of humanities and social sciences better have all kinds of corporate relationships.

One of the things we’re trying to do is educate students so that they can be well-prepared for their career. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we have relationships with our key employers and our industry partners. The ultimate goal of any university is not just to have businesses recruit at your school, but to have companies say, ‘We need some of our people near that university because the collaboration is so good.’ That is the home run.

But, I must say that I’m proud that Monmouth University feels very strongly about our general education curriculum, because I do firmly believe that there are skills learned in a general education curriculum that will make our students better professionals. And I think it’s becoming increasingly understood that businesses are looking for those skills. I’ve never met someone who has advanced in his or her career that did not say to me it was the human skills that helped them advance in their career, not the technical skills. 

I want them to say, ‘I needed the technical skills for my first job, but it was what I learned living in residence and working on teams and forcing me to unpack a Shakespearean sonnet or helping me to really fully understand the roots of the Civil War — things that forced me to become really analytical and not to settle for easy answers — that have proven to be really helpful to me in my career.’

As a liberal arts major myself, I wish we could convince more students to major in those fields. But I get that it’s just more comforting to say, ‘I’m going to get a business degree.’ For those families that are spending a lot of money, I can understand why they feel that way.

ROI: Tell me something about New Jersey or Monmouth University that has surprised you the most since you got here.

PL: I knew Monmouth had so much to offer, and I saw that during the interview process, but I never fully understood how great it is until I got here. One of the reasons I’m so bullish on Monmouth University’s future is the combination of our physical space, coupled with the strength of our balance sheet.

If you just walk around, you can see how the campus is first-rate. You can’t find deferred maintenance. We have fantastic facilities. I guess I didn’t fully understand how top-shelf the physical plant is and how relatively strong the institution is.

That’s why I feel, even though it’s going to bumpy in the decade to come, relatively speaking, we are in a very strong position moving forward.