Spring Hill College alumnus and former trustee Dr. Christopher P. Puto will be inaugurated Sept. 17, the first non-Jesuit selected as the college’s president. He was named to the post last spring.
“To be here is one of the most exciting things that has happened to me in my life,” Puto told Lagniappe last week. “I see a wonderful future awaiting this college and I am energized by the opportunity to participate in it.”
Puto graduated from SHC in 1964 with a degree in economics and went on to earn a master’s in marketing from the University of Miami and a Ph.D. in business administration from Duke University. He worked for such companies as Eastman Kodak, Bank of America and General Electric after beginning his career in business with the Burger King Corporation, even contributing to the “Have it Your Way,” campaign.
Puto served as dean of the business school at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He also served in academic and administrative roles at the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan and Appalachian State University.
Over the past few years, Spring Hill has been trying to rebound from an economic downturn that left the college with some financial problems. Puto said over the next several years he will institute an extensive strategic planning process. This will include reaching out to alumni and members of the community who Puto believes will help grow the college’s endowment. One of his immediate goals includes restructuring what remains of the college’s debt through the contributions of matching donors.
“I’m hopeful that my prior experience in all of these activities will accelerate my ability to participate here in fundraising,” Puto said. “I hope to be able to identify people — some of whom who went to Spring Hill College, others who many have not have … but who fully support and believe in the goals of Spring Hill College and who have resources they are willing to commit.”
Puto characterized the college’s current endowment, around $20 million according to U.S. News and World Report, as “small,” suggesting his aim is to build it over the next several years with the goal of providing revenue to alleviate the cost of tuition. He said one of the college’s biggest challenges is its relatively small alumni base, consisting of roughly 12,000 living members, compared to the 50,000 alumni a school like Georgetown would have.
“Part of the strategic planning process is looking at what we do now really well, what might we do better, and what are we not doing that we should be exploring,” Puto said.
Among the changes may be expanded and improved programs, including its pre-medical major, to make it more competitive against other institutions.
“Spring Hill College has been prominent in the Mobile community since its founding in 1830. I want everyone who is a citizen of Mobile to know that Spring Hill exists, that Spring Hill brings a very strong reputation to all of Mobile, that we are in and of the community, that our students are working to provide service where needed in the community,” Puto explained.
According to Puto, about half of the Spring Hill student body is already actively involved in the Mobile community and remains active after graduation.
“A great number of our students who come from other parts of the country stay in Mobile as citizens and have families that they raise in Mobile, and that will continue,” he said.
As the third-oldest Jesuit college in the United States, Spring Hill is founded upon the Jesuit ideal of educating the “whole person.” Though Puto is the first non-Jesuit president of the college, he joked that he is second-generation Jesuit educated and plans to enhance the Jesuit presence at the college, making it a place Jesuits want to serve.
“My ultimate goal is to actually not only sustain, but enhance our Jesuit traditions, and to enhance the Jesuit presence here,” he said.
An article published last month by Business Insider listed Spring Hill College as the most expensive college in Alabama, based upon average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board. However, Puto said this doesn’t surprise him, nor does it cause him concern.
“It’s not the cost, it’s the value of the experience. Our goal is to provide the best value of education to our students.”
At least 95 percent of Spring Hill students are on scholarship or receive some form of financial aid, according to Puto. This semester, the college welcomed its second-largest freshman class in the school’s history.
“Not only are they the second largest but they are the most academically qualified in our history, except for my class,” Puto joked.
Though this class is breaking records, he said, “We do not anticipate a significant change in the overall size of the student body. What we are targeting is a continuing series of classes approximately the size of this (freshman) class … What’s just as important, however, is our anticipated success in what they call student persistence or success to graduation.”
The college is now focusing on what Puto called “recruiting future Spring Hill graduates, not just Spring Hill entering students.”
Puto officially began his term as president on June 1, but he said as a former trustee, this is something he has been working toward for a number of years.
“When I was a student here, I never imagined I would be back here as a professor, or as a president. Yet now, as I sit here, I think about the time when I started as a freshmen, and all the things that have happened to me in my life: my business experience, my turning to become a professor, my then becoming an administrator, all of those things have actually contributed to preparing me for this role. So without knowing it, I have been preparing for it all my life.”
Spring Hill College will officially inaugurate Puto as its 37th president on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 4 p.m. in the Arthur R. Outlaw Recreation Center. There will be an Inaugural Mass of the Holy Spirit on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. in St. Joseph’s Chapel. The public is welcome to attend.