First First Ladies (and Gents)

As lay presidents have multiplied at Roman Catholic colleges, their spouses have found themselves defining a role without precedent on campus.

February 11, 2013

WASHINGTON -- When Terry Aretz’s husband became the first lay president of Mount St. Joseph College, in Ohio, Aretz stepped into a job with no salary, no clear job description and no precedents: she was the first “first lady” of the Roman Catholic college, which was founded and led until 2006 by an order of nuns.

The role of a presidential spouse can be fraught on many campuses, as past conceptions of the (traditionally female) role collide with modern realities. On Catholic college campuses, the wives and husbands of new college presidents frequently confront the opposite situation: a lack of preconceptions, precedent and tradition.

Until recently, those colleges’ leaders were more likely to wear a clerical collar than a wedding ring. But as the ranks of religious orders dwindle, lay presidents now outnumber members of religious orders, a trend that is especially pronounced at smaller colleges. Often, those presidents come with a spouse who must figure out what is essentially a high-profile, unpaid balancing act with few precedents.

“I’m the first spouse they’ve ever had, and they didn’t know what to do with me,” said Aretz, whose husband, Tony Aretz, has led Mount St. Joseph for five years.

The turn away from vowed religious leaders began in the 1960s, but has accelerated in recent years. More than half of all Catholic college leaders now come from the laity, not from the religious orders that founded most of the colleges. Since the lay leaders are more likely to be men than women, it’s largely the wives, like Aretz, who must figure out the role of “first lady” at a college that has never had one before.

This year, for the first time, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities offered a “spouse’s track” at its annual convention -- common programming for many higher education associations, but a first for the Catholic colleges, who have been watching the growing ranks of presidential spouses for several years. In meetings, a small group of spouses discussed their unique positions on campus.

Some of the questions were common to both religious and secular colleges: How should presidential spouses deal with faculty who try to use them as a shortcut to the president? (In one case, a spouse said, a faculty member started a conversation with, “I know you sleep with the president, so could you just whisper this in his ear?”) How should they handle the intense interest in the president’s house, particularly if the house itself is on campus?

But others were more specific to Catholic colleges: What role does a spouse play in maintaining and supporting a college’s religious identity -- particularly if the spouse is a symbol of the change away from vowed religious leadership? How does fund raising change when nuns or priests are no longer asking for the money, and how does the president’s husband or wife fit into that new reality?

“My job is to set the standard and to figure it out,” said Tim Blattner, whose wife, Nancy Blattner, is the first lay president of Caldwell College, in New Jersey. Female lay presidents are still relatively uncommon at Catholic colleges -- women make up about one-third of Catholic college leaders, but half of them belong to religious orders -- and Blattner, who described himself as Caldwell’s “first ‘first gent,’ ” was the only man at the conference’s gathering of 13 spouses.

Many of the spouses said the campus community has been welcoming, if curious -- despite occasional hiccups, such as questions over whether the president’s spouse can be issued an ID card to access campus buildings after hours. Still, the roles they play vary significantly.

When Aretz’s husband became president of Mount St. Joseph, he told her that he didn’t think the college was ready for the president’s wife to be a visible presence on campus. Among the faculty, there were fears that the wife might be a “co-president,” wielding too much power without a paid position, she said.

So while she maintains a low profile on campus, with the exception of a few events such as the graduation banquet, Aretz’s main role has been as an ambassador to the community, she said. She has a background in nonprofit management, and when she works on campus, it is primarily with the development department on fund-raising. She also said she and her husband discuss how to reflect the college’s Catholic identity, including joining and being active in a local parish.

For other spouses, the role requires even more of a balancing act. Fran Pestello, whose husband, Fred Pestello, is the president of Le Moyne College, is also a sociology professor there. When Pestello was hired, the Jesuit college in Syracuse bought the president’s family a house off-campus, but continued to employ the staff that had planned events for previous presidents -- although Pestello said she plays more of a hosting role than her predecessors did.

As a faculty member, she said, “There’s always this sense of, what role are you playing? What’s my entrée to this event?”

Over time, though, most have begun to settle into their roles. When Aretz first came to Mount St. Joseph, she decided she did not want her business cards to say she was the college’s “first lady” -- a term that seemed a little too loaded. Instead, they said “Spouse of the President.”

But as she distributed them Monday, she said the term no longer bothers her. When she runs out, the next cards will probably say “First Lady,” she said.

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