FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
MERRIMACK FINDS THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS FOR ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE
Higher education is changing. We hear that all the time, as a justification for any number of sudden shifts by any number of institutions striving to stay relevant to a declining pool of 18- and 19-year-old high school seniors.
Higher education is changing, though, and in very specific ways. Federal funding cuts could mean less support for public institutions, and also less aid for students interested in attending a private institution. An effort to curb federal regulation could trim costs—estimated by the Boston Consulting Group at up to 11 percent of an institution’s budget, taking up to 15 percent of faculty and staff time—but could allow a host of new for-profit, online institutions to enter a crowded marketplace and create a different kind of competition.
The institution that thrives in this era of uncertainty will be that which builds upon a solid foundation of strategic planning, a deeply supportive alumni community, a strong faculty, a history of success—and a genuine story to tell about adding value to students’ lives.
It will be the institution that has built its reputation in the realms of higher education and ideas, of creating a thriving residential community and teaching the skills and reinforcing the values of its students—one that knows what it does best and then does it very well.
In short: Merrimack College.
“Merrimack is an institution bucking all the trends, in all the right directions,” said Christopher E. Hopey, Ph.D., president of Merrimack since 2010.
The college has clearly been on an upward path for the past several years: Total enrollment, once less than 2,000, now approaches double that number, including more than 575 graduate students; the college is on track to enroll its second-largest freshman class ever in fall 2017. Merrimack has added more than 70 full-time members of the faculty, built two new residence hall complexes and in fall 2017 will open a new academic building, the first since the early 1990s, along with a new athletic stadium; two more academic and administrative buildings will follow.
And the Merrimack community has certainly been supportive and responsive to the momentum: Together for Good, the $50 million capital campaign launched with great fanfare in 2016, has already raised more than $38 million.
None of this happened by chance. It required diligent, strategic planning, overseen by the president and involving trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and students.
“Success doesn’t come from short bursts and midnight inspiration,” said Hopey. “Merrimack’s way forward has been, and will continue to be, part of a planning process that takes into account this institution’s great strengths and core competencies, the evolution of society’s expectations for education, and the best wisdom about our shared future.”
Merrimack’s 10-year Agenda for Distinction broadly laid out the college’s road in 2011, allowing for flexibility along the way. Hopey’s assembly of a seasoned senior leadership team has implemented the agenda while working together proactively to keep it, and Merrimack, on track.
The vision was divided into five strategic priorities, each with a set of specific tactics and goals to move the college forward:
- Create a modern academic enterprise grounded in innovative teaching, learning and scholarship.
- Develop a contemporary Catholic mission.
- Create an intellectually vibrant, socially engaged, entrepreneurial student experience.
- Inspire and engage our people, culture and community.
- Strengthen our value proposition and competitive position.
ACADEMICS ARE AT THE HEART OF WHAT WE DO
Investments in academic resources are at the forefront of Merrimack’s reputational success. Creating an academically respected and intellectually vibrant institution has heightened the college’s appeal to prospective students and future employers, and added value to alumni degrees.
“From the day the Agenda for Distinction was created, it has been our mission to ensure that students attending this institution are doing so not solely to graduate, but also to have the opportunity to develop as individuals with the creativity, imagination and knowledge to change the world,” Hopey said.
The elements comprising Merrimack’s academic success have been strategically chosen, carefully assembled and assiduously honed. They are: expanded program offerings, an outstanding and passionate faculty, new centers of learning and support, investments in technology, experiential-education opportunities and respect for our Augustinian roots.
With regard to the first “element,” Merrimack has introduced 11 new undergraduate and 20 new graduate programs during Hopey’s presidency, in areas such as business, engineering, and education and social policy. This has enabled the college to secure its place in the market while meeting emerging needs and preparing its students to address urgent global issues. Case in point: two new online master’s programs, in data science and business analytics, designed to give data scientists and business analysts the knowledge and skills they need to take on critical management positions in their rapidly growing field.
Central and most critical to the success of Merrimack students are the faculty who devote themselves tirelessly to provide life-changing learning opportunities. Since 2011, the institution has increased its full-time faculty ranks by more than 60 percent, with a goal of reaching 230 full-time faculty by 2021.
To support these professors in their work, Merrimack in 2013 created the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Through fellowships, teaching circles, workshops and conferences, the center assists faculty in developing and implementing creative, effective and innovative teaching methods that enhance student learning and support academic success. Today, the center stands as a national model and resource for similar institutions, particularly the community of small Catholic colleges and universities, to adopt and develop best practices in teaching and learning.
In the classroom, Merrimack is incorporating more digital tools, online resources, collaborative learning spaces, 3-D printers and state-of-the-art equipment. As part of these efforts, the college rolled out Mobile Merrimack, a program that equips faculty and new students with iPads in order to enhance the learning experience. Students can move from the classroom to the workplace and beyond, becoming proficient with mobile technology as an information literacy and collaboration mechanism.
On a much larger scale, the School of Science and Engineering recently received a $500,000 grant that will fund purchase of a confocal imaging microscope, ICP spectrophotometer and bone densitometer for use in a new interdisciplinary imaging and analytical science lab. The equipment will greatly expand the analytical foundation for Merrimack students in their preparation for careers in the life sciences, officials said.
Outside of the classroom, Merrimack is devoted to providing innovative resources and programs to help all students reach their full potential. One notable example is the Academic Success Center, a modern and spacious facility on the third floor of the library, which provides students with one-on-one coaching, test-prep help and tutoring in math and writing, and houses the college’s novel bridge programs, Compass and Promise. The center is even set up to assist students who have mobility issues or other health challenges.
Reaching success doesn’t only happen on campus or in the classroom. Integrated into the curriculum and the fabric of the institution is experiential education, a formal program that emphasizes experience at its core. Through co-ops and internships, student-faculty research, service learning, semester-long and short-term study abroad, practicums, fellowships and more, students forge the connection between classroom theory and real-world practice, and broaden their global perspective.
“When students come to an institution, they’re looking for the whole experience—something that is meaningful. And Merrimack delivers.” Hopey said.
The business school’s Mucci Capital Markets Lab, which provides cutting-edge resources for students interested in careers in finance and investing, may epitomize Merrimack’s commitment to global learning.
“We help them understand how a change in our political system impacts the markets—what it means and why it’s important,” Hopey said. “Merrimack is doing a tremendous job with some of these things. And, of course, we want to do even more.”
The college’s tripartite motto gives equal weight to three crucial goals of a Merrimack education: enlighten minds, engage hearts, empower lives. That means not only laboratory and classroom learning—coupled with experiential education—it means embracing Merrimack’s Augustinian roots by working toward a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.
Virtually every day throughout the year, you can find a Merrimack student helping to better the lives of the world’s poor and underserved. Through Hands to Help, they tutor aftercare students in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During alternative spring break, they rebuild homes in New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina. As part of Mack Gives Back, they clean up parks and stock shelves at food pantries in the Merrimack Valley. At Thanksgiving, they deliver turkey dinners to needy residents. And at Christmas, they buy gifts for underprivileged youth and families.
“Augustinian values stress not merely moral behavior, but creation of community wherever a student finds him- or herself,” Hopey said.
Investments in academic resources are both human and capital. The North Campus Academic Pavilion, future home of the Girard School of Business, is one such example. The 50,000-square-foot building, scheduled to open this fall, will house 14 flexible learning environments, the Mucci Capital Markets Lab, the Comprehensive Business Advising Center and the Financial Capability Center, making it an ideal focal point for academic and social growth.
“It is not the construction of the building, or what will be housed within its walls, but the opportunity it will offer our students to use additional resources on campus where they may come together to learn, grow and develop into leaders,” Hopey said.
Further enhancements are already in the works. By 2018, the president said, Merrimack will establish a School of Health Sciences, renovate buildings to support science and engineering and make improvements to current academic spaces for majors such as communications, psychology and the performing arts.
Taken together, Merrimack’s many successes in the academic arena are cause for contentment, but not complacency.
“The college’s reputation has never been stronger, its position in the competitive New England higher-education landscape, never more favorable,” Hopey said. “But we have mountains yet to climb. We have successes still not dreamed of.”