Out of the RedJul 07, 2015 12:59PM ● By Judy Horan
Nuns get a bad rap in Hollywood.
“The image is we’re fluffy and don’t have a brain in our head, like The Flying Nun,” says Maryanne Stevens, RSM, Ph.D., president of College of Saint Mary.
Yet nuns are CEOs at Catholic hospitals and small private colleges like the one she leads in Omaha.
No one would ever call Stevens fluffy. When she first arrived in 1996, College of Saint Mary was struggling financially. Now the school’s balance sheet shows no debt.
Stevens has business acumen, says Richard Jeffries, chairman of the college’s board of directors. “During the time Maryanne has been our president, she has put the college on a very sound financial footing,” says Jeffries, partner with Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather. “At one point the college had mortgaged its land and carried substantial debt. Today we’re debt-free and able to operate on the tuition revenue our enrollment generates.”
His co-chair, Kate Dodge, president of NEI Global Relocation, agrees: “Along with being a strong intellectual with a deep spiritual background, she brings an important business perspective to her position as president of CSM. Dr. Stevens is key in the critical fundraising for the university.”
Stevens’ first sight when walking on campus 18 years ago was a lawn made up of weeds. She saw the straggly lawn as a deterrent to enrollment. “Curb appeal is essential to attracting students.”
She realized campus buildings also needed attention when she walked into an office that had a broken window and no air conditioning.
Fast forward to 2015. Construction on a new residence hall for single mothers, a student commons, and two buildings have proceeded without debt collectors lurking at the college doors. Construction financing is all backed by pledges from donors.
Under Stevens’ leadership, innovative programs were developed, including a special residence hall allowing college-age single mothers to live with their children on campus.
“I got the idea in 2000 when a student living in the hall told me she was pregnant and didn’t know how she could finish her education unless she brought her infant to the residence hall,” says Stevens. “The first year, there were eight mothers with their children. Now there are 35.”
Stevens also launched Marie Curie science and math scholarships funded by the National Science Foundation for women and began an unusual online doctoral program for educators in the health professions.
A unique physician assistant program allows students to start as a college freshman and attend for five years. “That can save students a significant amount of money,” says Stevens. “One of my big concerns is how to make post-secondary education affordable.”
Stevens raises about $1 million a year to support scholarships and athletics in addition to capital fundraising. College of Saint Mary has solid support from women in the community.
“They see a college for women as a valuable resource for the community, “Stevens says. “People know there’s a number of first-generation college students who thrive in a small, rather than large, environment.”
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Stevens moved with her Air Force family from southern California to Omaha when she was a high school sophomore. As the oldest of eight children, her future as an educator was foreshadowed.
“We used to play homework after school, and I was the teacher for my younger brothers and sisters,” says Stevens.
She joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1966 as Sister Maryanne after graduating from Mercy High School. After graduation from College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa., she taught high school math in Joplin, Mo. Stevens earned a master’s degree in theology from St. Louis University and a Ph.D. in religion and education from Boston College.
The college president taught theology at Creighton University for 10 years before joining College of Saint Mary.
Jeffries says Stevens is a tenacious fundraiser. “Thanks to her efforts, CSM is now in a position to deliver life-changing education to women well into the future.”
Stevens has great leadership skills, says Dodge. “I learn something from her at each committee or board meeting that I attend. Maryanne is a teacher, a philosopher, and a business woman. She is extraordinary.”