Meet The New President of Milwaukee's Mount Mary University

Apr 26, 2017

The topic of leadership comes up a lot when we talk about education.

What makes a good school leader? What qualities should he or she possess, in order to take charge of staff, students, alumni, and a greater school community?

This is something the folks at Milwaukee’s Mount Mary University have thought a lot about in the past year. That’s because the Catholic, all-women’s school has been deep in the search process for a new university president.

And their search came to a successful conclusion with the hiring of Dr. Christine Pharr. She'll take over for current president Eileen Schwalbach, who plans to step down at the end of the school year.

The new "president-elect" comes to Mount Mary after nine years at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, NE. There she worked in a few different administrative departments, including academic affairs as well as alumni and donor relations. Before moving up the ranks of administration, Pharr taught chemistry for a number of years. 

A lot of the roles Pharr has played in the past will come in handy in her new job, she says.

"The beauty of being a president is that you get to have your fingers in a little bit of everything, and that's what I really enjoy," she says. "I really understand what it feels like to be in the trenches as a faculty member, working with the students, and I'm able to take the things that I've learned from being a faculty member and being involved in academics to donors and alumni."

"What I found as I moved into administration, was I still got to be involved with the students, but I had the influence to try and knock down walls and make things happen, and move the institution forward. That's what I really loved."

Let's get to know Pharr a little better...

On how she envisions her role as a university president:

"The job of the president is internal and external. And in a small university like Mount Mary, certainly probably your internal role might be a little bit bigger. The external piece is really about interacting with alumni, friends of the college and donors -- and also interacting with the community."

On her style of leadership:

"Leaders have to be good listeners, [and] they have to be able to take that information and make decisions. They have to be databased. I think they have to be willing to take at least some of the emotion out of it, and be willing to make hard decisions. What do you do when there's not enough resources, or too much work? What do you do when the students are struggling? Those are the kind of decisions that a president has to provide leadership on. But I also think that there are so many opportunities for rewarding people, for empowering people. And those are the really fun aspects of leadership."

On how she interprets-- and plans to advance -- the mission at Mount Mary:

"The mission of Mount Mary comes from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, which really has to do with the education of women, and also I think trying to serve the needs of the underserved in society. I think they truly promote leadership, and want women to find a place in society where they can have a voice. I think that mission is already very strong here."

"I would like to see the institution expand in size a little bit. I'd like to see us have a few more students...because I want to spread that mission further."

"I want Mount Mary to be a great community partner. I want us to be sensitive to the needs of Milwaukee and the surrounding areas, as well as the state of Wisconsin. And so I want to know what those needs are, I want to know how we can partner with those businesses. So all of those relationships require me to really be out in the community and get to know people."

On working in higher education during a time when the system faces criticism:

"There is certainly some truth to the fact that higher education is expensive. However, the data says that about 15 years ago, the average college graduate made about 64 percent more than the person who didn't have a college education. Today, that number is 98 percent. So the value of a college education -- whether you work in your discipline or not -- is really huge. You're going to be in much better shape to find meaningful work and to make a meaningful wage if you have a college education. So I think it's an investment worth making."

"I don't think that a college education is a training program. We are not training people to just do a job. We are educating that person, and that means we're preparing them for life. The average person switches jobs multiple times. Look at me! I started out with a degree in chemistry, and [now] I'm a college president. That PhD that I got in chemistry has almost nothing to do with what I do now -- except it has everything to do with it. I learned how to problem solve, how to think critically, how to work with other people. These are the things that a college education should do for people. It should prepare the whole person for a life that is meaningful and that contributes back to society."

On what excites her most about her new city:

"I think Milwaukee is a wonderful city. I think it has a neighborhood feel to it. It doesn't feel like a small rural place, and it doesn't feel New York City. It feels like a bunch of neighborhoods who have come together to form a big community, and I like that feel."

"Milwaukee has great food -- I love cheese! My husband loves beer! So there's really not enough that I can say. I think Milwaukee's going to be a place that can really feel like home for us."

On her message to Milwaukee:

"On behalf of Mount Mary University, we want to be your partner. We want to know what you need from us and what we can do to make Milwaukee an even better place than it already is. And we need your help too! We need you to tell us what we can do better. I am all ears, and I would be happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about Mount Mary."

Pharr's tenure as Mount Mary's 12th university president officially starts July 1.