DALLAS TWP. — Michael A. MacDowell remembers his first visit through the majestic archway on to the Misericordia University campus in the fall of 1997.
He was a presidential finalist then and vividly recalls a maintenance building with a coal smokestack in the heart of the small campus. He was not a fan of the eyesore.
“I came back a second time a few months later and that smokestack was gone. I was pleased,” he said with a laugh. “I saw there was great promise here.”
Nearly 16 years later, MacDowell is about to leave the school he’s led through enormous changes, and he believes that Misericordia is better than when he arrived. Like the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library that now stands where that maintenance building once did, plenty of things have changed for the better at the Back Mountain university — including the school’s name. What was once College Misericordia has since attained university status.
Since MacDowell became the school’s 12th president, there have been lots of changes including: new academic programs, dozens of new or renovated buildings, increased enrollment, an annual operating budget nearly triple what it was only 15 years ago and an endowment that increased nearly five-fold.
And the institution has added a football team.
“As a person who grew up in Dallas, I have had the opportunity to interact with the Misericordia community for most of my life,” said Hal Flack, an area businessman who serves on the university’s board of trustees. “Under the tenacious and astute leadership of Mike and Tina MacDowell, the transformation of College Misericordia to Misericordia University has been an amazing phenomenon to witness.”
Among the changes since MacDowell was hired:
• The number of campus buildings went from 13 to 25 and the campus has expanded along Lake Street.
• The school’s endowment stood at $ 6.3 million in 1997; by the time MacDowell leaves it will be close to $30 million.
• Total enrollment climbed from 1,650 to close to 3,000.
• The annual budget jumped from $20.5 million to $54.4 million.
“The growth of our student body in not just quantity, but quality has been driven by an exceptional educational experience and an incredible expansion of campus and facilities while maintaining the charisms of mercy, service, justice and hospitality enshrined in the institution by the Sisters of Mercy since the beginning,” Flack said. “The MacDowells figured out quickly how to combine and balance all of these key components to create the magic that has led to incredible growth.”
Monsignor John Bendik, who was on the board when MacDowell was hired, said he had one of the presidential finalists in mind until MacDowell told the hiring committee about his unannounced visit to campus in November 1997 during a trip back to upstate New York from Washington, D.C. MacDowell talked to those on campus, got a feel for the school and did it without fanfare.
“That scored major points for me right there,” Bendik said. And all of a sudden he found himself supporting the hiring of an Episcopalian to run the Catholic college.
MacDowell showed he understood the need to balance the school’s mission with the need run an educational institution of higher learning in the 21st century, Bendik said.
“He came willing to learn but willing to teach also,” said Bendik. “I think the hallmark of his presidency was that he kept us faithful to who we were as an institution.”
MacDowell said what he did was made people on campus and in the community believe the school could improve. “It was better than people around here thought it was,” he said. “All we had to do was increase expectations.”
While MacDowell said he’s proud of accomplishments including boosting enrollment, keeping tuition the lowest among the four-year private colleges in Luzerne County and adding programs to the school’s College of Health Sciences, the one he considers his most important was “helping the institution realize that it could do more than it was doing.”
“They’re all important, but getting those expectations raised here was the most important,” MacDowell said.
When MacDowell announced this academic year would be his last, he said he did so knowing that it was a hard decision but one that needed to be made. “Fifteen years being college president is just a long time,” he said. “I have very few regrets about leaving.”
One involves the football team, which played its first season in what turned out to be MacDowell’s last year at the school. “I would have liked to have won something more in a football game than a coin toss,” he said, before noting that the school won three of those this season.
Bendik said the inevitability that MacDowell, 66, would leave one day became an annual fear that board members talked about. “We looked at it with great angst,” he said. When the president made his announcement, Bendik said members of the Misericordia community “were all disappointed.”
But with the reality now about a month away — MacDowell steps down June 30 — the monsignor said the time is not to focus on the disappointment but the success MacDowell has had at Misericordia and the hope that his successor, Thomas J. Botzman, will continue to improve upon the foundation MacDowell has built.
“He had a vision and he fulfilled that mission; he had goals and he achieved those goals,” Bendik said. “This is a dream come true for us in a way.”
Knack for fundraising
Known as a dogged fundraiser, MacDowell will be fair game during a farewell roast Saturday intended to honor him and his skills. It’s been dubbed, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, the “Watch Your Wallet Roast, ” and the $150 ticket cost will go toward the Dr. Michael and Tina MacDowell Endowed Scholarship and the First Lady’s Campus Beautification Project.
MacDowell joked that right up to his last day, “Mikey will be on the phone trying to put those last funds in (the 2013-14 budget).”
He knows the final day will “be a little emotional, a little sad,” but there will also be “a good feeling of satisfaction.”
Once July 1 comes, the university will be Botzman’s to skipper.
In retirement, the MacDowells will split their time between Florida and Harveys Lake, where they own a boathouse. But even off campus, Michael MacDowell will still be part of campus, at least in name, thanks to the three-story Michael and Tina MacDowell Hall, the campus’ newest dormitory that opened last fall.
The board pledged $1 million to name the structure in honor of the MacDowells and to recognize their impact on the institution.