In a challenging time for liberal arts programs across the country, Spring Hill College (SHC) believes it can move forward under the direction of President E. Joseph Lee II, whose vision for the school aims to balance 189 years of Jesuit tradition with the expectations of modern institutions of higher learning.
Lee was brought on to serve as SHC’s interim president in 2018 — just a year after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges moved to lift the probationary status of the school’s accreditation due to improvements in its financial stability and increased enrollment.
The school returned to full accreditation in 2017 under the leadership of outgoing President Christopher Puto, but Lee was brought in afterward with the specific goal of making SHC more fiscally sound. After a year on the job, Lee was hired on a permanent basis by SHC’s board of trustees last week.
Afterward, Board Chairman Jack McKinney said the board believes Lee has “the vision and track record to serve as the next president of Spring Hill College.”
“He embraces our mission, which is the core of the College’s Jesuit, Catholic identity and future growth,” McKinney said a written statement. “We truly believe Dr. Lee will lead Spring Hill toward even more successful outcomes for our students, faculty and staff.”
The board’s decision might be seen as a vote of confidence in Lee’s leadership so far, but speaking with Lagniappe, Lee said it should also be an indicator of his belief in the school’s current direction.
“I would not stay here if I didn’t feel that the trajectory was continuing to move upward,” Lee said. “One of the reasons that I was hired was to get our financial house in order, and while some steps had already begun when I got here, I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the past year.”
Other than retooling the budget, Lee said his administration has focused on three key areas: increasing student enrollment, expanding the school’s graduate and online programs and marketing.
Low enrollment was one of the key drivers in the financial instability that led to SHC being placed on probation in 2016, but since that probation has been lifted, those numbers have been trending upward. According to Lee, SHC started the new school year last month with around 1,350 students overall.
That represents a 6 percent increase in “new students” from the previous year, which includes freshmen, but also a large chunk of transfer students.
In fact, the number of students transferring into SHC has risen by about 125 percent since 2018, and Lee said that is a result of an active push to make the college as “transfer-friendly” as possible through established agreements with other schools.
“We want to make it a seamless transition to Spring Hill for students,” he said. “We’re thrilled by the numbers [of transfers] this year. It’s the highest we’ve seen in at least five years.”
That said, the enrollment staff is still working to bring in new freshmen by bulking up SHC’s marketing and recruitment efforts. Lee said SHC representatives visited “every Jesuit prep school in the country” last fall to strengthen old relationships and let them know “Spring Hill is alive and well.”
The school has refocused its efforts in cities with established Jesuit prep programs like Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Houston and New York — places it has drawn students from for decades. However, it’s also made more of an effort to tap into Coastal Alabama’s Catholic communities.
This year, SHC started classes with 11 students from McGill-Toolen and three members of the first graduating class from St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope. Though it accounts for a small portion of the student body, Lee said that “local market” is important to the college.
“We’ve been doing this since 1830, and yet, I still hear people say we’re the best-kept secret in Mobile. We’ve got to change that,” he said. “We have a great story to tell, and we have a great history here.”
Another thing that has helped with SHC’s efforts to market itself nationally has been becoming a Division II school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). From recruiting student-athletes to simply getting SHC’s name out there more, Lee said there’s a certain “cache” to being in the NCAA.
“It’s hard to get direct revenue in Division II, but let’s talk about marketing,” Lee said. “You’re not going to make money at the gate, and you’re not going to have a big TV contract, but you are going to get exposure, and that’s going to work in tandem with your marketing efforts. They feed off each other.”
Some of the significant changes Lee has overseen have been the push to expand graduate programs in areas like business, nursing and education as well as developing online classes.
While some of those changes weren’t the easiest to sell at a school with nearly 200 years of established tradition, Lee said he believes offering online classes gives students flexibility in scheduling and could generate revenue for SHC down the road. Still, he said SHC will always be a “face-to-face” college.
That said, Lee offered Newbury College in Massachusetts as a cautionary tale of institutions reluctant to adapt to changes in higher education. The private liberal arts college closed in May, and two things its outgoing president said it should have done differently were offering online courses and graduate programs.
As someone who comes from a Jesuit background himself, Lee said he views it as one of his roles to maintain the “delicate balance” of keeping the traditions that set SHC apart and adopting some of the 21st-century business models colleges around the country have in order to remain financially stable.
“We have 500 years of tradition going back to St. Ignatius. That’s what we’re based on — our commitment to service and justice. We never want to lose that, but by the same token, it’s OK to be a little forward-thinking,” he said. “Graduate programs, online courses: Those are not bad things, but that mindset wasn’t here in the past.”
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