By Bill Bowden
As he settles into his new role as Transylvania University’s 26th president, Seamus Carey exudes a calm and positive attitude about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. He took office July 1, replacing R. Owen Williams, who resigned after four years in office.
According to William T. Young Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, Carey’s extensive background in liberal arts and his teaching and academic administrative experience give him the tools needed to help Transylvania move forward.
“Dr. Carey is steeped in the liberal arts and comes to Transylvania out of an academic career in which he has done well,” Young said. “I think he has the right background at this point in time to step in and bring everybody together.”
Carey has held numerous leadership positions, including the chairmanship of the philosophy department at Manhattan College before going to Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He earned a bachelor’s in economics from Vassar College and a master’s and doctorate, both in philosophy, from Fordham University. He comes to Lexington with his wife, Noreen, and their three children.
Williams resigned after receiving a vote of no confidence from the faculty over charges of leadership deficiencies the faculty felt were harmful to the university’s well-being.
Carey, 48, thinks the best way to put those issues at rest is to focus on the mission of the college and involve the entire Transylvania community in plans for the school’s near-term and long-range future. He is seeking input from the broadest possible cross section of Transylvania faculty, staff, students, alumni and board members on a range of ideas and initiatives.
To accomplish that, he is beginning his tenure with a lot of careful listening.
“The best and most fruitful ideas are going to come from people in the Transylvania community,” Carey said. “Professors, for example, spend most of their lives thinking about education. One of my roles is to guide conversations, ask the right questions and encourage people to articulate their views. If I’m effective in that, we’re going to have a much bolder vision for the university than one that’s prepackaged from someplace else.”
History professor Melissa McEuen, who serves on the presidential transition team, has been favorably impressed with Carey’s approach toward learning from the Transylvania community.
“Dr. Carey has impressed faculty, staff and students with his ability to listen closely and with patience,” she said. “Any conversation with him reveals his genuine and deep commitment to the education of young women and men.”
Although it’s far too early in his tenure for Carey to articulate a specific list of action items, there is one program he has already brought forward that builds on Transylvania’s very loyal and accomplished alumni base. “100 Doors to Success” is an initiative to enlist alumni in a mentoring program, with each alum taking on three or four members of the incoming first-year class.
Carey sees this as one way of giving students an immediate sense of connection between the liberal arts and the world of work and careers.
“As our students study history or philosophy or literature, they can at the same time be getting coaching or guidance toward professional development and career life as a complement to their curriculum,” he said.
Marketing Transylvania in a very competitive environment for liberal arts education means taking advantage of strengths the university may have that other colleges of its type cannot offer. The university’s location in an urban area is unusual for small liberal arts colleges, and a feature that Carey feels strongly about. Being located in the same city as Kentucky’s flagship public university is also a great advantage, he feels.
“Our students can easily go across town to internships at the University of Kentucky, which also offers our students excellent law, medical and pharmacy school opportunities,” he said. “That’s a situation that liberal arts colleges located in rural areas can’t offer as conveniently.”
Carey inherits Transylvania 2020, a comprehensive seven-year strategic plan developed under the previous president’s administration.
Among the plan’s highlights are initiatives to grow the student population from its current average of about 1,100 to as high as 1,500 and create new campus infrastructure. The West Fourth Street Athletics Complex, opened last fall, is the first tangible evidence of the building plan. Another is a residence hall currently under construction.
“There are lots of good programs in the strategic plan,” Carey said. “I think enrollment growth is feasible and desirable. I don’t think it would negatively impact the dynamic of the classroom experience. A more diverse and broader student population would be an advantage.”
But Carey sounds a cautionary note about change that can come too fast, without the proper undergirding to make it last.
“In any organization, change has to be very deliberate. If you want it to be sustainable, you have to make sure each change can take root. If you move too fast, and the changes you’re making don’t take root, then you’re not making progress.”
Carey acknowledges that while considering the Transylvania presidency he weighed the situation the school is just coming out of, from a campus atmosphere of distrust from the faculty and a lack of confidence in the presidential leadership of the prior administration.
But he didn’t dwell on it, he said.
“I never want to minimize what took place, and I recognize that people have been through a difficult time, but I think it’s human nature to want to be focused on positive things,” he said. “One of my most important roles is to give people the opportunity to work toward their higher selves and for the institution to work toward the best manifestation of what it can be. If we do that, we’re going to be a special and unique place.”
Bill Bowden is a free-lance writer living in Lexington. He was most recently publications editor at Transylvania University.