Saint Mary’s administrators confront Cervelli resignation, introduce Nekvasil as interim president
Jordan Cockrum | Monday, October 8, 2018
For the second time in the last three years, Saint Mary’s has a new College president.
In an open letter to students Friday, chair of the Board of Trustees Mary Burke announced the resignation of President Jan Cervelli and the appointment of former Provost Nancy Nekvasil as the Interim President of the College.
“I wanted to make you aware of an immediate change in our Saint Mary’s family,” Burke said in the letter. “Earlier this week, President Cervelli informed the Board of Trustees of her intent to resign. We appreciate all that she has contributed to Saint Mary’s during her tenure here and we wish her the best. We are grateful for her leadership and devotion to the Belles. Her on-campus camaraderie and interactions will be missed.”
Interim President Nekvasil, who will serve in this role until the summer of 2020, said her focus will be to promote the values that encompass Saint Mary’s during this transition.
“I am humbled and inspired to work with our entire campus community to uphold and strengthen Saint Mary’s and ensure continuity in this time of transition,” Nekvasil said in an email. “In my three decades as a faculty member and administrator, the constants have been the educational and spiritual values that distinguish the College, creating a supportive environment in which students can meet the challenges inherent in an excellent education.”
This is the second time in the College’s history that an interim president has been appointed, the first being Sister Alma Peter. Peter served as interim president from 1970-1972 following the sudden death of College President Emeritus Monsignor John J. McGrath, the College’s sixth president.
Cervelli took over the role of president in the fall of 2016 after the retirement of College President Emerita Carol Ann Mooney. Cervelli was known on campus for her connection with students. In an article published May 19, 2017, at the end of her first academic year in office, Cervelli told The Observer, “I have fallen in love with the Belles here.” Cervelli did not respond to a request for comment following her resignation.
This year, Cervelli established office hours to give students the opportunity to speak with her individually in 10-minute sessions. The first of these sessions occurred Sept. 20, and the second was set for Oct. 2. However, the Oct. 2 session was abruptly canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances,” according to an email from the President’s Office that day.
Burke spoke with The Observer on Saturday regarding the resignation of Cervelli and the future of the College. Burke said the Board of Trustees was made aware earlier this week of Cervelli’s intent to resign and the board was not aware that her resignation was a possibility prior to Cervelli making her decision.
Rather than having one specific answer, Burke said there are likely several reasons for Cervelli’s departure, and the Board of Trustees is choosing to respect her privacy rather than divulge those reasons.
“Why does anybody resign?” Burke said. “I just think she probably had a number of different factors that she weighed, and this worked best for her. So we have to respect that. If we didn’t respect her as a person, and as a woman, we could’ve handled things very, very differently.”
However, Burke did address several rumors regarding Cervelli’s resignation. Burke said it was solely Cervelli’s decision and not the result of internal pressure to resign.
“There’s probably lots of different pieces to it,” Burke said. “So, it was her decision, her decision alone to resign, and we respect her privacy as to why the reasons were.”
Burke said while she cannot say with certainty Cervelli did not leave due to health reasons, she appears to be in “good health.”
“I’ve spoken with her, she sounds in good health, she says she’s in good health, but who knows why?” Burke said. “There’s probably a thousand reasons to pull together, and I think we have to respect her privacy on it as well.”
Cervelli was formerly a dean at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture from 2008 to 2016. In March 2018, Cervelli joined another former dean in filing a lawsuit against the University of Arizona alleging discriminatory pay. Cervelli argues she did not receive a single pay raise during her time as dean while the men working as deans received $80,000 more on average per year than she did.
Burke said she finds it extremely unlikely this lawsuit would have factored into Cervelli’s decision.
“I would be really surprised if that had something to do with it,” Burke said. “I could be wrong, but that would surprise me. That was a separate decision to get involved with that she had.”
Burke also said the College is in good financial shape and has been during Cervelli’s tenure as president. She does not believe this related to Cervelli’s decision.
“[Cervelli] brought in a really good class this year,” Burke said. “You know, 406 [students] is a really good entering class. So the budget’s in good shape. Financially, we are in strong shape.”
Saint Mary’s does not make full financial reports publicly available.
Along with the Interim President, the College has appointed Jill Vihtelic as Interim Provost and has asked vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson to postpone her retirement in order to assist with the transition.
“I am grateful to be able to support Saint Mary’s and Interim President Nekvasil,” Johnson said in an email. “Retirement can be saved for another time.”
While Johnson had already announced her intention to retire, Burke said Nekvasil was also considering retirement. However, both women decided to continue working at the College in order to ensure a smooth transition after the departure of Cervelli.
“Think about how strong of a school we are that we have two women who were thinking of retiring — Karen and Nancy — who have said, ‘I want to be here, I want to help. I want to keep moving us forward,’” Burke said. “And they came back. I think that speaks volumes, they’re long-term employees.”
As for policy initiatives and goals for Cervelli’s administration, Burke said all milestones reached at the time of Cervelli’s resignation were met. Nekvasil will be working on her own goals in the weeks to come.
“There were no milestones that were not met by President Cervelli,” Burke said. “I think over the next couple of weeks you’ll hear some milestones and some initiatives that Interim President Nekvasil will be launching, and then we can measure those.”
The College is not currently in the search for a new president, Burke said. The search for a new college or university president is formulaic and takes place over the course of a year. Due to Cervelli’s departure mid-semester, Saint Mary’s is unable to complete a search for a president until the summer of 2019.
“We are not on the cycle right now, because it’s October,” Burke said. “So that’s why I announced yesterday that Interim President Nekvasil will be here until the summer of 2020. So we’ll start a search in the summer of 2019, we’ll then have us a new president by the spring to summer of 2020.”
In the summer of 2019, the College will begin the search process. This includes posting an advertisement in higher education periodicals, collecting resumes and conducting interviews with potential candidates, Burke said. The search will be open to all — both current Saint Mary’s faculty and administration, and those outside of the Saint Mary’s community.
“There will be characteristics and qualities, skill-sets that we are looking for, and it will be open,” Burke said. “Anybody can apply, as we did the last search.”
Assistant director of media relations Haleigh Ehmsen said the two-year process Saint Mary’s is utilizing with their search for a new president is standard within the world of higher education.
“It’s kind of like a formula process that everyone follows,” Ehmsen said. “It’s the same with hiring faculty.” (Editor’s note: Ehmsen is a former Saint Mary’s Editor of The Observer.)
Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame both have Board of Trustees meetings this coming week, Burke said. The immediate goals for the transition are to prepare Nekvasil to meet with both boards.
“We’re making sure that Nancy is prepared for the board meeting, comfortable with the agenda,” Burke said. “[We’re] working with her on the agenda because she is the president and just kind of business as usual to move us forward.”