MU's McNairy to retire early '13

Sunday News

Dr. McNairyMU's McNairy to retire early '13

An awesome journey' The next chapter Transformed campus in nine years, but molding young people was her goal.

By Mary Beth Schweigert, Sunday News Staff Writer

Millersville University President Dr. Francine G. McNairy has raised money, buildings and enrollment.

But her most meaningful success is one she's witnessed thousands of times: the evolution of a wide-eyed, nervous freshman to a confident graduate.

Now McNairy is the one moving on. She announced her plans to retire, effective Jan. 30, 2013, in an email sent Saturday to students, faculty and staff.

"I will always treasure these years with you and what we have accomplished together," she wrote.

"This has not been an easy decision, but it is the right decision. The time is now right for new leadership."

McNairy took office as MU's 13th president in 2003, after nine years as provost. She is the first black woman to lead a Pennsylvania state university.

In an interview with the Sunday News late last week, McNairy reflected on her nearly decade-long tenure overseeing a university with a $136.3 million annual operating budget, 890 employees and 8,715 students.

McNairy, who does not give her age, decided to retire after "a lot of prayer." Her announcement comes as MU embarks on an effort to redefine itself for the next generation of students.

"You know in your heart it's time," she said. "I appreciate that a new set of lenses and energy for new directions is what the university deserves."

McNairy, the daughter of a steelworker and the first black woman to lead the Pittsburgh School Board, began her career in higher education nearly 40 years ago.

Under her leadership, MU marked its 150th anniversary, reached record enrollment -- including record numbers of minority students -- and introduced new academic, distance learning and international programs.

Ongoing construction projects have transformed dorms and academic buildings. And MU strengthened its ties to the surrounding community with its high-profile acquisition of performance space in downtown Lancaster.

"She has moved the university from a very good state university to perhaps one of the best in the [state] system," said Michael G. Warfel, chair of the MU Council of Trustees.

Those successes come against a backdrop of slashed state funding, including recent 18 percent cuts, which McNairy has called "disheartening."

Warfel and other higher-education leaders describe McNairy as a visionary leader with a strong work ethic, contagious optimism and sincerity that resonates with students.

"You feed off the energy that she creates," Warfel said. "She's an extremely warm and caring person. ... If you watch her interact with the students, she lights up."

Dr. John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said McNairy is a remarkable example of leadership in action who always puts students first.

"If you want a 'better-than-textbook' example of how to deal with challenges and still be perceived as a leader, just watch her," he wrote in an email.

McNairy, a columnist for the Sunday News, said she will miss students' greetings of "Hi, Prez!" and screaming herself hoarse in the stands at basketball and football games.

"[The students] touch your life," she said. "It's a gift."

She has no specific future plans beyond tackling the stack of books she's neglected for years. A national search for the next president will begin soon.

McNairy, who is known for working long days, won't spend her last year as president running in place.

She will complete an $85 million capital campaign and lead the first steps in "transformation," MU's effort to reinvent itself to ensure student success in a rapidly changing world.

"We want to provide services students of all ages will require," McNairy said. "Not just today's students but the students of the future."

McNairy's "awesome journey" at Millersville began in 1994, after a combined 21 years at Clarion and West Chester universities.

High expectations followed former MU President Dr. Joseph Caputo's long and successful tenure, trustee Warfel said, and McNairy rose to meet them.

"She is a strong leader," he said. "She's a visionary. ... She's able to communicate ... a message and get people to buy into that message."

Declining state support has led MU to increasingly rely on alumni, grants, corporations and philanthropists. McNairy's second capital campaign, "Soar to Greatness," already has raised $80 million for endowment growth, facility upgrades and other projects.

"Fran lights up the room," Vice President for University Advancement Gerald C. Eckert said. "She articulates well the university's programs and directions, which results in others investing ... in the university."

A campus building boom under McNairy includes a $35 million renovation and expansion of the Student Memorial Center and a $26 million renovation to the Visual and Performing Arts Center, scheduled for completion later this year.

But McNairy's contributions go beyond brick and mortar.

She has worked to increase diversity of both students and faculty. Minorities now make up 11.4 percent of the student body. Retention and graduation rates also are up.

McNairy bolstered MU's reputation for a highly talented faculty that challenges students, Cavanaugh said. "She created a strong legacy in moving academic programs to even higher levels of quality."

MU introduced new programs, including master's degrees in emergency management -- which is fully online -- and social work, offered jointly with Shippensburg University.

McNairy also expanded online and other offerings to attract nontraditional students. MU now partners with 15 international colleges and universities.

Closer to home, she cemented MU's bond with the Lancaster community, including the recent purchase of the Ware Center, 42 N. Prince St. In 2010, 4,600 students contributed almost 200,000 hours of community service.

When state funding was cut, McNairy managed to reduce costs while preserving academic quality and her own clear principles, Cavanaugh said.

"She has always been a true champion of students, and they remained her top priority," he said.

McNairy influenced senior Sarah Darling's decision to pursue a career in higher education. She was especially inspired by watching her mentor make tough choices, which included cutting staff and course offerings.

"Her leadership has been impeccable when hard decisions have to be made," Darling said. "Her faith and confidence in our university -- never is that questioned."

Buildings and programs don't make McNairy's own list of greatest accomplishments.

She names less tangible successes, like former meteorology students who work for NASA and the Weather Channel, or a math major who helped organizers of a Mass with the pope figure out how to serve communion to 40,000 people.

McNairy recalls the time leaders of a conference were so impressed by a group of MU students, they called and told her to take them to lunch.

When McNairy did, she was equally impressed.

"I was speechless," she said. "Every time I have that experience, it reinforces why this career has been such a blessing for me."

McNairy lives in Tanger House, a three-story brick home near the pond, her favorite spot on campus. She deliberately stays visible, walking through areas where students gather and eating in the dining halls.

Darling, who is past president of the Student Senate, said McNairy makes time to meet with students both one-on-one and in larger groups.

"Dr. McNairy has truly been the face of our campus," she said. "That smile that can light up a room is seen around campus often."

McNairy has built a strong cabinet, Warfel said, which will allow MU to move forward once she turns off the lights at Tanger House for the last time.

"When you have a great leader, it's hard to let them go," he said. "But it's time for her to write the next chapter of her life."

The presidential search will begin during the spring semester, Chancellor Cavanaugh said, with the next leader ideally chosen by early to mid-fall.

McNairy hasn't decided what she will do or where she will live once her presidency ends.

"I'm going to take some time to think and read and breathe a bit, smell the roses, travel some, learn to cook," she said. "I don't have to hurry."

For the first time since she was 14, McNairy won't have to follow a schedule someone else created.

It will be a big adjustment, but she's up for the challenge.

© 2004-2012 Lancaster Newspapers
PO Box 1328, Lancaster PA 17608, (717) 291-8811
Terms of Service Privacy Policy