Meet the President An Interview with James H. Mullen, Jr.

By Kathy Roos

presmullenEven before Jim Mullen officially assumed the presidency of Allegheny College on August 1, he and his family seemed almost as familiar a part of the campus landscape as Bentley Hall. While the president’s house on Jefferson Street was undergoing extensive repairs to its foundation in July, the Mullens spent their first two weeks on campus literally on campus: in an apartment in the North Village residential complex. It was an opportunity the Mullens relished: a chance to get to know the College from a different vantage point, as part of the close community of students and guests who live on campus for all or part of the summer.

Dr. Mullen and his family – wife Mari, daughter Franki, son James, and presidential pooch Sonsy – made the trip from Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Meadville in the family van, with just enough belongings to last them till the moving van was to arrive two weeks later – or maybe not quite enough. He admitted to one new colleague, who couldn’t keep her eyes from wandering to Dr. Mullen’s loafered but sockess feet, that it wasn’t a fashion statement – he simply hadn’t remembered to pack socks and there’d been no chance to shop yet.

By August 2, only the second day on the job – and a Saturday at that – the Mullens turned out in force (and, by this time, in socks) to serve as carhops at the Market House for a community fund-raiser that re-created Johnnie’s Drive-In, a Meadville staple from the 1950s.

Dr. Mullen admits that he’s happiest when he’s in motion, when he’s out on campus meeting students, visiting with faculty, and greeting guests, but early in the semester we convinced him to sit still long enough to answer a few questions for alumni and friends.

So many people in higher education work in this field because they want to make the same difference in young people’s lives that a teacher or mentor made in theirs. Can you tell us about a teacher/mentor whose example led you to your calling in higher education?

At every step in my life, I have been fortunate to have teachers and mentors who have inspired me by their example. I attended a small public high school in Granby, Massachusetts in the 1970s. Granby High had some of the most remarkable teachers you could imagine.

Each of them was unique in his or her approach to teaching, but the common denominator was an ability to inspire students to achieve, to be more than any of us thought we could be. Most of all, they conveyed to us a sense of responsibility to use our talents and abilities in the service of others. I owe more than I could ever say to each of them: Mrs. Scherpa, who made literature come alive; Mr. Sarnelli, who gave up his Saturday mornings to help me in chemistry; Mrs. St. John, who was very demanding but inspired much of my love of history. I have always felt that the best way I can thank them is to try to help other young people realize the possibilities in their lives.

When you were introduced to the campus community on February 28, you mentioned in the talk you gave the influence of another mentor, Mike McGrath, who has been a visiting professor of chemistry at Allegheny and whose wife, Alice Deckert, is chair of Allegheny’s chemistry department. How did a chemist end up mentoring a historian/political scientist?

mullen-flowers Professor of Environmental Science Richard Bowden (left) Ernst Conservation Seeds horticulturalist Mark Fiely and President Mullen discuss the ecology of a wildflower demonstration site at the College.

The role that Mike McGrath played in my life really captures the magic of what learning on a liberal arts campus can be. My father, who passed away when I was seven, had been a dentist, and I simply assumed that I would pursue dentistry as well. I entered Holy Cross as a pre-dental student and met the legendary pre-med advisor Professor McGrath.

Mike was a larger-than-life figure at the Cross, having built a nationally ranked pre-med program. To be honest, I was scared to death when I went in to meet him. But, from the moment we first spoke, he became a true mentor to me. I think he realized from the start that I was pursuing dentistry for all the wrong reasons – also, I think after my third or fourth accident in lab, he realized that I could be dangerous treating patients. It was Mike who advised me to be a history/pre-dental major, and it was Mike who helped me walk through the process of realizing that I could pursue another career. Who would have thought then that it would lead to Allegheny and that he and Alice would be here?

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve received a lot of good advice from a lot of great people through the years. Probably the best, though, was from my mom, who would so often remind me to be myself, not to be what others wanted me to be or what I thought others would want me to be. I haven’t always been as good at this as I wish, but particularly as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what wonderful counsel it was.

And, if we do our jobs right at liberal arts campuses, we will help students understand who they are and to have confidence in who they are and help them to remain true to who they are in a very complicated world.

What are the challenges facing liberal arts colleges? And how does the mission of a liberal arts college change–if it does–in an era where students relate to one another and the world through YouTube, MySpace, and text messaging?

It has always been a challenge to inspire young men and women–and at times their parents–to see the utility of the liberal arts. In this country, there is the push for technical or job-specific skills. We need to continue to make the case for general education, for the advantages of breadth in learning, for giving students the chance to explore and to change their minds about who they are and what career they will pursue–but for my having done so, there would have been some pretty unhappy dental patients in the world! We also need to continue to make the case that the liberal arts are the best preparation for a complex, inter-related world where information is flowing and technology is changing. It is a world that demands that we be flexible, to be able to synthesize data, to make decisions, to articulate those decisions, and to build consensus among others whose cultures or worldviews are different from our own. The Allegheny graduate is uniquely prepared for that world–and we need to make the case for “why.”

We need to be relevant in this world where information comes at us so quickly and through so many different avenues. Too often, I think that some of us may fear this world because we do not understand it and, for that reason, we only see the downside of these modes of communication. I hope that we can set our fear aside and be open to the ways that YouTube, MySpace, text messaging, and other communication vehicles might enhance our learning possibilities. To do this means truly listening to our students and learning from them–something Allegheny has always done very well.

You’re the product of another historic, selective liberal arts college: Holy Cross. What do you think the best liberal arts colleges have in common?

First of all, they share an unyielding passion for academic excellence. They recognize that teaching and learning across the disciplines is the foundation for everything else, and they apply the necessary resources to achieve excellence. Second, the best liberal arts colleges recognize that teaching and learning occur most powerfully when there is a strong sense of community–when there is an environment that is open and supportive and energized by the free flow of ideas. Third, I believe the best liberal arts colleges embrace and celebrate their individual traditions, creating a spirit of intergenerational responsibility for alma mater. Fourth, they convey a quiet confidence about who they are. They don’t try to be someone else; they focus on who they are and what they do well. While the best liberal arts colleges are not arrogant, they are confident. And this confidence allows them to try new ways of doing business and to be on the cutting edge. And finally, I think that the best liberal arts colleges recognize that they are not islands in the broader community–rather, they seek to be active and cooperative participants in serving the world beyond their campuses. I would say that across each of these criteria Allegheny sets the highest standards.

mullen-school Dr. Mullen shares a story at the Meadville Co-operative Preschool, located in the Odd Fellows Building.

What do you think are the greatest challenges that face Allegheny in the next dozen years?

Allegheny is in a very strong position. Certainly, it has the challenges that every college faces, such as the need to build endowment and enhance resources for teaching and learning. These challenges are real and they will be central to our next strategic plan. But the great challenge, I think, is a wonderful one to embrace–it is to very strategically and in a manner true to our identity take the steps necessary to achieve national pre-eminence among residential liberal arts colleges.

All the pieces are here. Allegheny is already setting the standard of excellence in so many areas. As we point to our 200th anniversary, it is now time for us as a community to claim our rightful place among the very best institutions in the nation. When that is done, young men and women from all across this nation will look to this College. The opportunity to define such a vision of excellence at the moment of a college’s bicentennial is an historic privilege to this generation of Alleghenians. And to be president of Allegheny at this moment in its history is the highest honor for me.

You’ve said that “Allegheny has a singularly powerful story to tell.” What do you think is most compelling about Allegheny’s story?

Allegheny has a great story to tell, and I look forward to telling it. Across its curricular and co-curricular life, Allegheny at once invites young people to explore and to take risks while at the same time challenging them to assume the responsibilities that come with being a citizen of the world. There are liberal arts colleges that do a wonderful job in the classroom; there are colleges that have great co-curricular programs; there are those that offer terrific service programs. Allegheny does each of these at the highest level and, most importantly, connects them into a meaningful holistic experience. moreover, it does so with a great spirit of family–a quiet pride in who we are and what we represent.

At Trinity College you oversaw a nearly $300 million public/private partnership that revitalized the neighborhood surrounding Trinity’s campus. Meadville has its own economic challenges, and the College has partnered with the city to address some of these. What lessons from your experience at Trinity can help inform Allegheny’s partnership with Meadville?

Allegheny is already a leader in terms of reaching out to its surrounding community. I have been most impressed by not only the range of service programming in place but the deep commitment to Meadville that extends across faculty, staff, and students. As to the Trinity experience, I believe there are a couple of lessons for all of higher education. The first is that colleges and universities have a responsibility to their communities–a responsibility that not all have fully embraced. In my estimation, it is wrong to teach the liberal arts on campus while ignoring what happens beyond the front gates: How can a college call its students to engaged citizenship if it turns away from its community? Second, the Trinity experience reinforced for me the importance of partnership. In the learning Corridor Project, we partnered with Hartford Hospital, the Institute for living, the state government, the national Boys and Girls Club, and others. Third, the experience taught me that a bold, compelling vision can succeed and can make a difference. Finally, and in many ways most important, partnering in the community means listening to the community. I think too often institutions act like they are listening but in reality they are imposing their will. This is a recipe for bitterness and distrust that can last generations. Thankfully, this has not been the case at Allegheny.

mullen-inaug2You’ve taught both history and political science, with the American presidency the focus of some of your work. Are there lessons from your study of the American presidency–specifically the traits and practices that allow a president to succeed–that you think apply to college presidencies?

I think that one characteristic that successful presidents often displayed is a comfort level with who they were. In the modern era, for example, whether we are talking about the Roosevelts or Truman, or Eisenhower or Reagan, they were comfortable in their own skin; they didn’t seek to be or represent something they were not. That said, each of them had the capacity to learn and to grow in the office. For the most part, they were also curious and engaged students of the world. Kennedy, for example, endured tremendous failure at the Bay of Pigs early in his presidency but learned lessons from that failure that served him well during the Missile Crisis. They were also good listeners, able to hear the nuances of what was happening around them. Finally, they drew good people to them and built strong executive branch leadership. There is a lot in all of this that a college president can learn from.

What’s the oddest job you’ve ever had? If you hadn’t become an academic, what do you think you’re likely to have done with your life?

I was a security guard on the late-night shift in a parking garage while I was in graduate school at Harvard. Although I wouldn’t necessarily say it was odd, it certainly gave me a different look at life in Cambridge than that of my classmates. My first job after Harvard was as a management intern, then an assistant in the executive director’s office at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority is one of the largest public agencies in the nation, and I think I would have continued on in public service, perhaps considering public office at some point.

I am very glad life took me in the direction it did, however. Life on college campuses challenged me to use the full range of my abilities in a way that I find tremendously fulfilling.

What has surprised you most about your career path in higher education?

I have been very lucky to be part of some wonderful institutions at important moments in their history. Although not a surprise per se, I have been struck at every step of the way by how terrific the students are and by the power of their impact in my life and my family’s life. Without fail, they have inspired me to be better: I have fed off their energy and their passion; I have been given hope by their promise and potential. The chance to share a special time in their lives with young people has been a blessing to me, every day a gift that I cherish. I can’t wait to know the Allegheny students and to learn from them.

mullen-davies Dr. Mullen and community leader Ellie Davies. Meadville’s community center is named for Mrs. Davies’s late husband, Lew ’40.

How do you balance family life with such a demanding job?

It is a great challenge–one that Mari and I work very hard at. my first responsibility is to be a good husband and father. If I am failing at that, I’m not going to be a very good college president. I think I feel this responsibility even more profoundly because my dad passed away when I was seven years old. my mom was the best, always there for me, but I remember so many times when I really wished that my father could see me play in a game or share in a special moment. I don’t want my kids to have that feeling, so I do all I can to be there for games, plays, and just to share quiet family times. I have found that folks understand that and respect my commitment to family. And Allegheny is a family-oriented community where people do find balance. Quite honestly, that was a major part of the attraction we felt toward Allegheny and Meadville.

You and your family have a free weekend. What do you do?

We have so few free weekends that we try to pack in a great deal. If there are no college events and neither of the kids have a game, we love to explore. This past weekend, that meant going to Erie and Presque Isle. Generally, these weekends include a family movie (this weekend was Shrek III for about the fifth time!). Sometimes, it also includes a few holes of golf as a family or a family wiffle-ball game. Almost always, it finishes with a very tired family reading together in the evening.

How would your kids describe you?

Oh boy, that might depend on when you ask them! We are a very close family and we thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So I hope that Franki and James would describe me as someone who is there for them, someone they trust, and someone they can be proud of–and, of course, someone they love. They might also tell you that I am the soft touch–especially with Franki. mom is a better disciplinarian than I am–in fact, sometimes she has to discipline me right along with Franki and James.

If you could teach any course at Allegheny–even if that means creating a new one–what course would you want to teach?

I do plan on teaching. The political science department has been kind enough to invite me to do so; so, once I settle in, I will look forward to returning to the classroom.

My favorite course to teach is on decision-making by modern American presidents. I am fascinated by how presidents reach decisions, particularly on matters of foreign policy. My mentor at Harvard was the late Richard Neustadt, who focused on how presidents accrue and use power and how history influences their decision-making. This has always been of tremendous interest to me.

mullen-fans If McKinley’s were to offer a meal called the “President’s Special,” what would it be?

I better be careful here because someone will assess my answer according to the old saying “you are what you eat.”

I love to eat and am pretty open to anything–as long as there are no visible green peppers! My special favorite, though, is shepherd’s pie. You can bet if it’s on the menu, I will order it. I suppose that isn’t a surprise coming from an Irishman.

You’re a self-described sports nut. Just how bad is it?

It can be pretty bad, although I’ve mellowed with age! Seriously, I love athletic competition, particularly the way it is carried out at the best Division III colleges. Athletics reveals so much about a person: the ability to be part of a team, the quality of one’s character and integrity. If someone cheats in athletics, I’ve found that he or she will also likely cheat in business; if a person cannot be part of a team in sports, he or she will likely be a poor part of a team in life.

What is so great about athletics at Allegheny is that in addition to a distinguished record of championships through the years, the real focus is on life lessons and about using athletics to draw out the best character in every individual, allowing our students a means of self-expression and exploration. Whether it is athletics or theater or any one of our student organizations, that is the magic of co-curricular life at a residential liberal arts campus: the opportunity to challenge oneself and to share the best of oneself with others.

If you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?

I must confess that growing up I loved all the superheroes. If I had a superpower, though, I think it would be the ability to travel back in time. For someone who loves history, this would be such a privilege. of course, the temptation to intervene in historical events would probably be overwhelming–but it would still be an amazing experience even if “the rules” would only allow me to observe.

Did anyone warn you about Meadville weather?

I was told that the weather is very mild–soft winters with an occasional bit of snow. That’s correct, isn’t it?

This article was featured in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of Allegheny Magazine.