By Elisabeth O’Donnell
With one semester left as the acting president of St. Michael’s College, Dr. John J. Neuhauser sat at a round table for four in his Founder’s Hall office overlooking route 15 and the Green Mountains, what students know as the View. His tucked away office is the size of a standard dorm room, with a mahogany desk that is covered in papers. On the wall behind hangs a sepia photo of his farm from 1870. Despite his prestigious title, and suit and tie, the president carried himself with a laid back manner, quiet smile, and spoke candidly.
President Neuhauser arrived at the college in 2007 after a 37 year career at Boston College, beginning in 1977, where he acted as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. His tenure spans across a period of change for the college: fancy new residence halls, national financial struggles, political polarization across the country, and what he describes as a rough period for everyone at small liberal arts colleges.
Q: Can you recall any specific goals you had when you first arrived at St. Michael’s?
A: To improve the academic standing of the college, which would help make it more attractive to students, their families, make it have more of an impact on students and their lives. I continue to think that’s one of the principle jobs of a president.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: Get up around 6 or a little before. Until this leg injury, I would work out for about an hour at the house, have some breakfast, shower, change, get over here by about 8:15, 8:30, if I wasn’t traveling. Throughout the course of the day, there’s no question that you’re occupied by meetings. Also by reading and writing. You do more writing than people would probably anticipate, you write a lot of letters. I’m usually occupied with meetings and things until about 6, and then I get maybe two quiet hours to do some more work, it’s a good working time for me. I get home around 8:30. I almost always call my kid sister–we’re pretty close. I check in with my kids. Have a probably too late dinner, go to bed, and do it again the next day.
Q: What is it like living in that house across the street?
A: Lonely, lonely, lonely. I didn’t want to live in it at the beginning and I still wouldn’t want to live there. That house is really a place where social things happen so it’s not that important to me.
Q: What would you say was your greatest challenge?
A: No question, the combination of financial and demographic challenges. There just was no easy solution to the financial crises.
Some of the diversity issues did surprise me. I thought that we were a place that had gotten beyond that. It surprised me that people took such hardened positions across the political spectrum. If we can’t have [civil discourse] here, where in heavens can we have it? The name-calling and the shouting, in a sense, I find bizarre. You don’t have to agree with somebody, Lord knows even in our families we don’t agree with each other, but you don’t start throwing things.
Q: How can we challenge people’s views while maintaining civil discourse?
A: Classroom discussion plays a role. But I’ve heard from dozens of students on both sides of the political spectrum that depending on what class they’re in, they’ve learned pretty early to keep their mouths shut. Which I think is sad. It’s the faculty’s job to make them not feel that way.
Q: How have you approached national trends that affected the college’s financial health, such as the 2008 recession and the Northeast’s decrease in high school graduates?
A: We decided early on that we would try very hard not to lay anyone off. We did use some earnings on endowment for salary increases and benefits because I thought it was appropriate that people have some pay raises even if they were only keeping up with the cost of living. I don’t think any of us expected the recession to last quite as long as it did.
We certainly were aware of the demographics, turns out it’s pretty hard to beat the demographics.
Q: How can we bring more students in?
A: That’s a hard question. Once we have students visit campus, we do very well in having them apply and eventually accept admissions. I think we need to do better with our web presence. But we also have to make sure we pay attention to what happens to students after they graduate. Some departments do an extraordinary job of following their students, some don’t.
Q: You’ve said that you set out to cut the budget without having an impact on students. How did you decide where to cut down?
A: Certainly in the last four to five years one of the things that helped a great deal was the consortium with Middlebury and Champlain. That has saved us a million dollars. Also, if somebody left on the administrative side we just didn’t replace them. Most of the cutting we did, we tried to just be a little leaner and push people a little harder. You run the risk of really wearing people out. We tried to keep the faculty and student affairs people in tact because those are the people that have the most direct contact with students.
At the same time, we found that we had to invest more, largely in the areas of physical and mental health. There are just more students who are having all kinds of anxiety and other issues. More recently, we’ve invested in various kinds of career help; I suspect that will be a hallmark of my administration, although it’s in the early stages.
Q: Are you finding it difficult to leave when the college is facing financial issues?
A: Yeah, I am. This happens to be a rough period for everyone in my shoes at small liberal arts colleges. You’d like to have the time to straighten everything out, but that’s illusory. It’s also time for somebody to come in and have a different vision and different ideas.
Q: What is your favorite day of the year?
A: Academic symposium. I really like to ask the students how they’ve changed over the years, and the kinds of things they do.
Q: What would you say is your proudest moment?
A: Some of the graduations have been really outstanding, some because they were funny, some because you saw a student really shine who hadn’t been really positive initially. The best parts have been talking to students and watching how they’ve changed.
Q: What projects are you proud of?
A: Funding for summer research has been a big deal for me, which I think will continue long after I’m gone. If you do have that experience of working on a research project or working on some kind of project that lasts maybe even into the summer, that tends to have a huge effect. I wish we had found more people to give us more money to do this sort of thing.
The life after college initiative will be a very big deal over the next three to four years.
Q: How have you seen the student body change between 2007 and 2017?
A: I think students are now quite a bit more serious. It’s not that students don’t come here to have fun and have a good time and learn how to get along with people. But they’re much more serious about what’s next.
I hope students continue to see this as a place to try different things, to fail. There’s increasingly the notion that higher education leads to a job. It’s not entirely good because maybe you should spend your time at college trying crazy things and not being too worried about what your first job is going to be. Hard to say that, though, when you’re paying pretty hefty bills.
Q: Community is an important, ever-present part of St. Michael’s identity. How has it changed while you’ve been here?
A: I think that we’re extraordinarily good at supporting each other in times of difficulty. At other times, we haven’t been so good. We don’t, as a community, know how to disagree — to tell each other what we think the truth is and then still go out and have dinner together. To some extent, it’s easier to come together about a tragedy than it is about something that seems to be less consequential.
Q: Your office is physically removed from the hustle and bustle of campus. Where do you engage with the community?
A: I go to Alliot once a week. I go to a lot of sporting events. I walk across campus, I think it’s hit or miss [whether or not students see]. A lot of my interaction is casual conversations. I used to go and sit with students in Alliot, but it was clear it made them very uncomfortable, so I stopped. I then would ask Lou DiMasi to find three or four students who wouldn’t be uncomfortable in just having conversation. Some of that worked, but I also understand, having been a student myself, I wasn’t crazy about sitting with president or a faculty member.
Q: How do you think the student body thinks of you?
A: I guess I am disappointed in how the student body’s perceived me. I don’t blame them, I blame me. I’m a very shy person, so I’m not going to go out and give lots of speeches to students and things like that. Maybe the next president will be more forthcoming and find it easier to mix with students.
When I go to plays or movies on campus, I think a different president would get in the middle of a bunch of students and start chatting, and I wish I could do that. I tend to sit in a corner—which is not a good presidential thing to do.
On the other hand, if you wanted a recommendation to graduate school or something, and I knew you well, I would work for a weekend to write you a three-page recommendation. It’s just a difference in style.
You also tend to be protected by other people [members of the cabinet, certain faculty], which is protection you don’t really need. I don’t think they do it intentionally, but they tend to keep students away in the mistaken belief that conflict would be bad, but you have to learn how to handle conflict.
Q: How did you get to know the students you are closest to?
A: Sometimes they were in my office, sometimes they were in the SA and I just happened to bump into them and have lunch. There’s one student who’s a senior now, we had a terrible battle the first time we met. I mean, we disagree about everything. And now we have lunch every other week. We’ve actually become quite close. I really admired the way she stood up to me — she wasn’t going to let me push her around. I have tremendous admiration for her.
Q: How does running a small liberal arts college differs from running a giant research university?
A: The priorities are different. The faculty is very different. At a place like Cornell [for example], they’re much more oriented towards their profession. If they’re going to be successful, they need to pay attention to what other people in their fields think of them. I think where a liberal arts college is different is that they allow students who really aren’t sure what they want to work on, so faculty can really help them find a way.
You have a hard time hiding here, too. Somebody will notice if you miss classes or start fooling around. For most students, the small environment is better, but there’s no question it’s more expensive.
Q: What makes St. Michael’s different from other small, Catholic, liberal arts colleges?
A: I think it comes down to a combination of size, residency, and even the weather. It all creates a sort of intimacy between students. They are loyal to each other. People really do hold doors. If you go to other campuses like I do, sometimes they never hold the door. It’s also pretty imbedded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, which says everybody is created equal and we should respect that. Is it vastly different than another school? No. Is it a little bit different at the edges? Yeah I think so.
Q: Not everyone has always agreed with how you run things. How do you deal with that?
A: You try to listen. Ultimately your responsibility is to make a decision and hopefully you’re right more than you’re wrong. You try to get as much input as you can. Consult with people you’re close to. It’s not unusual for me to call other presidents and get some advice from them.
Q: Who are your closest advisors?
A: Certainly there are a few trustees who are very big advisors, the chair of the board, the previous chairs, you get to spend a lot of time with them. There are a few alums that are influential advisors. There are certain people on the cabinet — Karen Talentino, Bill Anderson, Father Brian, Father Steve, Tara, Patrick, Mike New. There are two or three relatively recent alums that I was close to who I will sometimes reach out to and say, “Hey, Trevor, what do you think of this?”
Q: When you were 20 years old in college, did you know that this was the career you were striving for?
A: Not in a million years. It was kind of an accident that I got into college teaching, a student convinced me to. When I started to teach, I never wanted to be an administrator, and not in a million years did I think I would be a president.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
A: To almost quote Derek Jeter, “I came to work everyday, put on my uniform and did my best.” It wasn’t perfect, but the community was able to stay together during some very difficult times. The management of the college, which I never thought I would be good at, was pretty good. The financial management allowed some things to happen that wouldn’t have been able to happen at some other schools. I wish we had been more creative in terms of curriculum, but that’s more of a faculty decision.
Q: What is the future for small liberal arts colleges?
A: I think a large number of them will go away. The ones that survive, and I suspect we will be in that group, will be stronger. I don’t think that will ever be the dominant force that we were in the 80s and 90s, the heyday of small liberal arts colleges is 20 years behind us.
Q: What is your hope for the next president?
A: I’d hope that he or she has an initial period of peace. It would be wonderful if we suddenly stumbled upon a few alums that we knew nothing about who happen to be gazillionares. I don’t expect that to happen, but it sure would be nice.
Q: What would you say to the future president right now?
A: At the beginning it’s a good idea to listen and remember you just came to a new place, so don’t assume that everything was done right at the place you left and everything was done wrong at this place. I think institutions are healthiest when they move incrementally to be better, rather than big wholesale changes.
Q: How do you hope students receive the new president?
A: I hope they’re accepting. They were pretty much for me, although it was a different era and the student association had a very different feel to it. Initially the students were very good about, “Let’s go here, let’s go there. Thursday night we’re going to have pizza you’re coming with us.” They felt it was their responsibility to bring me into the student community.
Q: What are your plans once you are done at St. Michael’s?
A: I’ve been in higher education for a long time, so I suspect I will do something in education, and probably something in public service. I’ve done a lot of work with the hospital, I would like to continue to do that. Who knows, my sister wants me to help her rescue dogs.
Q: How do you think you have changed since first arriving?
A: My background was very much in a research type place. [St. Michael’s] has made me appreciate other sorts of things that are not researched based, things like community engaged learning, MOVE or service trips. That has changed my impression of what a college can do for students.
Q: What are you going to miss most?
A: It’s the students you miss, that’s why graduation is such a sad time, you spend some time getting to know some people and all of a sudden they’re gone. I’ll miss some of the contacts with alums, who have become good friends, and some of the trustees too. Not all of these relationships will go away, obviously, but some have to go away. I have to get out of the way and let the people who are close to me now become close to the next person.
Q: What do you do when you’re not here?
A: The bank and I have had an old farm for almost 30 years. I try to keep it from falling apart. I like to be outside. When I’m done here I’ll go for long walks with my new dog and get back to the farm. I’m going to get a lab probably, but there are some people arguing for a golden retriever so we’ll see.
Q: Let’s say today is your last day. What do you want to say to the community?
A: Be kind and gentle to each other. Don’t yell at each other right away. Some people think if you find injustice you should shout and yell. I just don’t think that works.