Portrait of a Presidency

"Through the years, together we have worked hard to pursue our mission and to become the best we can possibly be.”
—Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J.
31st President of the College of the Holy Cross
October 2011

For the 11,000 young men and women who have been Holy Cross students over the course of Fr. McFarland’s presidency—from the academic year that began in 2000 through the end of the 2011 fall semester—he has been “their” president.

Most are now among the 30,000-plus members of the Holy Cross alumni family—a group whose bond with their College has been shaped and strengthened by critical strategic decisions made during an eventful 12 years.

And for the 1,000 Holy Cross faculty and staff, a number of whom have worked alongside him during his entire tenure, the years with him have been marked by significant changes to the campus landscape, new perspectives and lasting memories.

As you may glimpse in his official portrait, previewed for the first time on the cover of this issue, our College has been blessed with a visionary and highly intelligent leader, a humble man, an inspiring and caring educator, a scholar and nationally recognized expert in ethics in the information age. Our 31st president is a priest who has presided at weddings and funerals, whose homilies are quoted and remembered. He is a Jesuit who sees God in all things, who has a scholarly and critical outlook, and a drive for the more, the magis. Look again more closely at the portrait, and you may also glimpse that the serious demeanor belies a fine sense of humor, expressed in his rich, resounding laugh … his cheers (and, occasionally, jeers of frustration at a referee’s call) from the stands of Fitton Field and the Hart Center … and his pure joy upon hearing about someone else’s success and good fortune.

In the past 12 years, Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., has worked—as he always emphasizes—together with a committed Board of Trustees, talented colleagues among faculty and staff, devoted alumni and friends and extraordinary students to help build a foundation that has both honored Holy Cross’ history and mission and set the stage for our future.

As he departs Mount St. James, the community he so loves has joined together to bid him Godspeed in numerous and varied ways, while reflecting on how Holy Cross has grown, changed and prospered during his tenure. From the naming of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture in his honor (see Page 6), to tributes by students at the halftime of a December basketball game to his last Midnight Breakfast in Kimball, to impromptu and more formal farewell gatherings—the well-wishes and memories have flowed.

Throughout, and, as Fr. McFarland himself notes on the eve of leaving campus to his successor (see Page 27), it is the people he has met in the greater Holy Cross community that deserve praise and gratitude for 12 years of accomplishments.

The respect and gratitude have been mutual.

Talking about his presence on campus and attendance at a multitude of events, games, student presentations, Paul Maloney ’12 observes: “He really wants to be part of the community rather than overseeing the community. And when that mentality comes from your leadership, it just transcends all aspects of campus.”
Senior Vice President Frank Vellaccio, who, along with Jacqueline Peterson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, has been part of Fr. McFarland’s leadership team since he arrived in the summer of 2000, views his impact on campus from an even longer lens.

“The effectiveness of Fr. McFarland’s leadership is best reflected in areas where there is a complex relationship between understanding the numbers and strengthening the mission,” says Vellaccio. “That’s particularly true in terms of the Integrated Science Complex and financial aid for our students. The decisions in these two areas during his presidency required his sharp grasp of balance sheets and long-range planning assumptions combined with his keen understanding of what is required to teach undergraduates science and to keep Holy Cross accessible and affordable.”

Peterson, who arrived on campus in 1997, says that his leadership style is also distinguished by an ability to listen and connect with students.
“I vividly recall my very first meeting with Fr. McFarland when he arrived at Holy Cross as president.  He wanted to know what I had identified as the needs for improvement from listening to students,” Peterson says. “The operative word was listening. When I think about his leadership style, it is the invaluable quality of truly listening and being present with others.”

Vice President of Administration and Finance Michael J. Lochhead, who received his MBA from Boston College and worked at another Jesuit institution, the University of San Francisco, before joining the Holy Cross staff in 2004, agrees that Fr. McFarland’s continual focus on mission was not only distinctive, but directive.
“During his tenure, the importance of ‘mission’ permeated the institution so much that when NEASC was conducting its accreditation review in 2010, the team commented that they had not come across any other college where the mission is so apparent across all aspects of the institution,” says Lochhead. “They saw this as a core strength of Holy Cross. I believe Fr. McFarland was the key factor in making that happen.”
Vellaccio, who has a combined 37 years of teaching and administrative experience at Holy Cross, including two years as acting president, described Fr. McFarland’s deep understanding of Jesuit education as inspiring.

“I always loved and was motivated by the words of the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, who said: ‘Our prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God … men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors.’ I didn’t truly understand what those words meant until I worked for
Fr. McFarland.”

Rev. Paul Harman, S.J., vice president for mission, says Fr. McFarland has been quick to support and encourage whatever might help to strengthen and deepen the Catholic faith among the majority of Holy Cross students, and to find ways and means to support the faith development of students from the other religious traditions represented among the student body.

“In welcoming new programs and initiatives that have taken place during his presidency, he has always called attention to the ways in which they carry forward Jesuit principles,” Fr. Harman continues. “His interest in dialogue with other cultural and religious traditions flows from his grasp of the contemporary mission of the Society of Jesus. Plus, the establishment in recent years of both the College Committee on Mission and Identity (made up of some 30 faculty, students and administrators) and a Trustee standing-committee on Mission and Identity have provided means for the ongoing promotion and assessment of the Catholic and Jesuit nature of the College.”

Fr. Harman adds: “I believe his own personal hope was always that the Holy Cross community could be a model of commitment and openness, witness and dialogue, faith and critical inquiry.”

Peterson echoes that view. “He has been committed to building a community that understands that we are all better for our diversity; that understands it is part of our mission as an institution to prepare all students for a very global, diverse world,” she observes.

Balancing strategic priorities, overseeing a complex organization and promoting Jesuit and Catholic identity hasn’t always been an easy mix, especially when the past dozen years included the attacks of September 11, 2001, two recessions, and what is still a highly uncertain economy.

When the credit markets were in crisis in 2008, Lochhead says Fr. McFarland made an unforgettable impression.

“He was a bit like Tom Brady from the New England Patriots—calm, cool and collected as the pocket was collapsing around him, then delivering a precise strike,” he recalls. “Fr. McFarland was very discerning in listening to the various proposals for cost-saving opportunities and continually insisted that we not sacrifice quality in pursuit of bottom-line savings. I found him to be a very steady hand during this difficult period.”

Lochhead ticks off other numbers that paint a picture of the presidency. Since 2000, the College endowment increased 61 percent. The operating budget increased 62 percent (or 27 percent in “real” inflation-adjusted terms). Holy Cross earned operating surpluses that totaled $47 million. The College’s debt rating from Moody’s was upgraded in 2002 to a highly regarded “Aa3,” where it has since remained.

Beyond the numbers and the physical changes on campus (from new buildings to renovations to other capital improvements as itemized on the preceding pages), the enhancements to curricular offerings during this presidency have been remarkable. Timothy R. Austin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College, highlights both the high-profile Montserrat and the incremental improvement to the educational infrastructure in his essay on Page 26. In addition, the list includes (among so many other initiatives) the Donelan Office of Community Based Learning; the Ciocca Office of Entreprenurial Studies; month-long study abroad programs; and three new majors: Italian, computer science and Chinese.

And the work extends beyond the gates on College Hill, most notably with the opening of the Nativity School of Worcester in the fall of 2003. To date, six successful classes of boys from Worcester’s most vulnerable neighborhoods have graduated from the all-scholarship Jesuit middle school. Nativity graduates attend 12 different colleges and universities—including Holy Cross.

Mirroring the priority Jesuits worldwide have for environmental issues, Fr. McFarland was a founding signatory to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) in 2007. Two years later, the College announced a goal of reducing its carbon emissions 20 percent by 2015. By fall 2011, the reduction has amounted to 28 percent. Holy Cross aims to become carbon-neutral by 2040.

With that forward-looking goal, perhaps it is most appropriate to evaluate this presidency by quoting the president himself. In October, he addressed members of President’s Council and ended his remarks with characteristic eloquence, clarity and inclusion:
“Through the years, together we have worked hard to pursue our mission and to become the best we can possibly be. We strengthened our student body, our educational program, our facilities and our faculty. Through it all, we celebrated and emphasized our Catholic and Jesuit values, the foundation of this College.”

How has the work of the last 12 years built a foundation for strategic priorities ahead? Read Fr. McFarland’s essays on various areas—from residence life to athletics to Catholic and Jesuit identity—that Holy Cross will be focusing on in the coming years. Links to his essays—newsletters to President’s Council members—are available in this issue’s Web Exclusives.

Photos by Patrick O'Connor

Next: "My Favorite Moments with Father McFarland" with his executive assistant, Ruth Ann Elias '76.