The view from atop a mountain of mercy
President Laurie Hamen speaks
By Dan Russo
This article is the second part of a three-part series on the presidents of the Catholic college and universities in the archdiocese.
CEDAR RAPIDS — Laurie Hamen has a sign on her desk that reads: “Do not be afraid or dismayed, be firm and steadfast” (Joshua 10:25). She draws inspiration from this bit of Scripture as she goes about the day-to-day business of leading Mt. Mercy University.
In her two years serving as the first lay female president of an institution started by the Sisters of Mercy, Hamen has relied on courage and faith as she serves about 1,900 students.
“I look at that (sign) on a very regular basis because I think sometimes people believe leadership is about knowing all the answers,” she reflected. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s about being able to ask the right questions and being able to risk and chart a path for your institution with others that will be beneficial to the institution in the end.”
Mt. Mercy, one of two universities in the archdiocese, is situated on the highest point in Linn County in Cedar Rapids, hence the “Mount” in its name. “Mercy” comes from the order of women religious that founded the school in 1928. The community, started by Catherine McAuley in Ireland, spread worldwide and is responsible for building many hospitals and schools. Mt. Mercy began as a women’s junior college used primarily to educate sisters to fulfill their missions in healthcare and education. Over time, it expanded to a four-year college. In 2010, after beginning a graduate school program, the institution became an accredited university. For about two years now, they’ve also been offering online degree programs. Throughout all these changes, Mt. Mercy works to stay true to its roots. A Mercy sister still works as a vice president in the institution and there is a convent on campus.
“I think any president always goes to their new assignment wondering mostly how they may be able to enhance the mission of the institution,” explained Hamen. “If you boil the mission of Mt. Mercy down to two things it would be academic excellence and compassionate service. The Sisters of Mercy have always felt that our commission to love God and love our neighbors was the number one priority.” Hamen herself has a strong foundation in Catholic education. Originally from Minnesota, she earned her bachelor’s degree at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. “When I was at St. Cate’s that was a time of really extra special growth in my life of faith,” she said. “Coming to Mt. Mercy, you always ask yourself the question, how can a person who comes to a Catholic institution really integrate their life of reason and their life of faith. How can we make sure students, even those who (are not of any religion) — how can we make sure they are exposed to a life of reason and a life of faith? That’s what I think our responsibilities are at a Catholic institution,” she said.
After earning a master’s degree from Winona State University, she was working on a doctorate in education when her career and growing family took her away from studies. She worked at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota before accepting a position at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, near Chicago, where she stayed for 18 years. Once her three children were grown, she decided to go back to school at night when she was 48-years-old.
“I promised myself I would go back to school,” said Hamen. “I went back to school to get a law degree when my youngest child was a freshman in college. “I think in some ways God has an interesting way of assembling circumstances. To lead an institution like Mt. Mercy, which has a number of non-traditional students, particularly women returning to college after being in the workforce or raising their families, it’s actually a very wonderful perspective to have done it.”
Hamen, who now enjoys spending her free time with her four grandchildren and husband Bill, spends her work days figuring out how to enhance the university’s mission. Of the current student body, about 50 percent start as traditional students, and about 50 percent of undergraduates come in as transfer students. There are about 400 graduate students. There is also a degree completion program for non-traditional students who have the option of taking classes on evenings and weekends. About 125 students are now in the university’s online program. Like most university presidents, Hamen has spent time responding to some of the major challenges affecting higher education. For all institutions, there are several common issues. The first is demographics.
“If you’re a tuition driven institution, which all of the Catholic colleges in Iowa are, the population of 18-22-year-olds is diminishing,” she said. “That’s really the case all across the country except for in the Southwest,” said Hamen. Another challenge is addressing the idea being advanced recently that a higher education in no longer worth the money. “I think if you look at the actual facts … that a person’s well being and earning power over their life time is enhanced by college, it’s probably not true,” Hamen said.
She acknowledged that the problem fueling this rhetoric is the massive debt with which many are graduating.
“People are concerned about debt related to school,” she said. “We do our very best to bring that cost down, and in fact, at the Catholic colleges and universities of Iowa, the average debt of our graduates is lower in most cases than the University of Iowa and Iowa State,” she said.
According to statistics compiled by the Iowa College Aid Commission, in 2011, the average debt upon graduation for graduates of the state’s three regent (public) universities was approximately $27-29,500. For Mt. Mercy, graduates averaged a debt of about $24,000 in 2011. The university tries to assist students with grants and scholarships. It has also recently started a program, the Catherine McCauley free tuition scholarship, which is offered to students whose families make $45,000 a year or less. This effort is in line with the Mercy Sisters charism, which focuses on helping the poor.
“We’ve only had this program for two years and we have 67 students in that program already,” said Hamen. “We know if they are first generation (to go to college) that if you are coming out of a school like Mt. Mercy and you’re a nurse, you’re making more money than both your parents together. That changes a family’s life. We think Catholic education should do that — change a person’s life for the better.”
Catholic higher education faces another unique challenge — the effort to maintain its heritage of faith and pass it on to another generation. For the first time in nine years, Mt. Mercy recently added a priest as the university chaplain. Mass is offered every day, and the chaplain, a native of Ghana, also teaches. The university offers a program each fall that features lectures relevant to faith, such as a recent talk on the pope’s latest encyclical. Next fall the lecture series will focus on new Americans, keeping in line with the sisters’ dedication to helping immigrants. The student body is 40 percent Catholic, and also includes students of other Christian denominations, other religions, or no faith.
“We are seeing more individuals come to school who might not be Catholic but also might not have any religious faith at all,” she said. “(We want to continue) to uphold our Catholic identity and to make sure students see that as a very vital part of their potential life, even though it might not be a part of their life right now. We could see it as a negative that people are coming that don’t have a religious faith in their life, but also see it as a golden opportunity to uphold the Catholic nature of our institution and allow people to see Jesus on our campus.”
Mt. Mercy attempts to expose its students to many different cultures and perspectives, hosting about 70 exchange students and regularly expanding the number and types of courses offered. The institution also focuses on inculcating a passion for service in its graduates. “It’s incumbent upon us to go back to the (Mercy Sisters’) charism, understand it and live it,” said Hamen. “We are interested in passing that on to another generation.”
Photos: (l to r): Students Nakola Nyambe, Christopher Ailes-Jones and Kendall Clark speak with Mt. Mercy
University President Laurie Hamen (second from left) in 2015 at Rohde Family Plaza on campus in Cedar Rapids. Photo 2: Laurie Hamen headshot. (Contributed Photos)