When Glynis Fitzgerald was named the College of Saint Mary’s first new president in 26 years last November, the Roman Catholic women’s college seemed to be set to continue the work of the outgoing president, who was widely credited with helping to grow enrollment and pull the Nebraska institution out of deep debt.
Rick Jeffries, vice chair of the Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees, gushed about the selection of Fitzgerald on Twitter and described her as “a courageous, compassionate leader” who would carry the 100-year-old college “and its vital mission into its next 100 years.”
But less than three months later, the college is again searching for a president after Fitzgerald reneged on taking the job and decided to stay with her current employer, Alvernia University, a Catholic university in Reading, Pa., which recently announced she would become the university’s eighth president.
Declining a top position after previously accepting it is an unusual move in academe, given the limited opportunities to become a college president. And doing so not only raises eyebrows, but it can also raise questions about the candidate’s ethics and professional integrity.
“I’ve heard of people doing that once or twice, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Lucy Leske, a senior partner with executive search firm WittKieffer, which was not involved in the leadership transition at either college.
“I don’t want to say they’re doing anything unethical,” Leske said. “There could be many reasons why a candidate might change their mind.”
Fitzgerald changed her mind after board members at Alvernia learned late last month that the institution’s current president, John Loyack, wanted to “transition out” of the role, Gregg Shemanski, chairman of Alvernia’s Board of Trustees, said in an email.
Shemanski said board members had “fully supported Dr. Fitzgerald’s intentions to depart the university” and noted that Fitzgerald had “been transparent about her ambitions” to become a college president since arriving in 2019.
Fitzgerald said by phone that she wants “to be able to continue the very strong work” she’s done as senior vice president and provost alongside Loyack, who will shift to a new chief executive officer role. Fitzgerald will begin serving as president-elect today and will formally become president on July 1.
Shemanski said the decision to promote Fitzgerald was unanticipated at the time of her hiring by Saint Mary’s.
“The fact is, Dr. Fitzgerald has made significant improvements for our university, and when presented with this unforeseen opportunity, she couldn’t pass on the ability to finish the work she had started,” Shemanski said in an email.
He noted that her acceptance of the job at Saint Mary’s “did not influence the decision to open the dialogue for the transition plan.” The board’s priority was “to sustain the remarkable growth and success we’ve experienced as a university over the past four years under John’s leadership,” he said, and Fitzgerald “was presented at that time as an ideal candidate for the position of president.”
Leske said it’s not unusual for an institution to look inward to find its next leader and promote from within, even when that person has sought out leadership positions elsewhere.
“That happens a lot,” she said.
Susan Resneck Pierce, a former college president and current consultant to universities, said in an email that while boards of trustees “traditionally” have favored national searches, “some boards now see the value in appointing someone with a positive track record who knows the campus rather than spending months if not much of an academic year doing a search.”
Hiring someone from outside often means they will “spend months if not her/his entire first year getting to know the campus,” she said.
Although it’s relatively rare for someone who has been selected as a university president to pull out after accepting the position, it does happen. For example, in 2021, the reported top pick for president of the University of South Carolina, Mung Chiang, backed out within hours of being named in a published report. South Carolina never officially announced his selection. Chiang, at that time an engineering dean at Purdue University, cited a “focus on family and on current responsibilities at my home institution” for his change of heart. He was named Purdue’s next president six months later.
Fitzgerald, 51, said she had no reason to think the president’s job at Alvernia would open up when she applied for the job at Saint Mary’s.
“Our president was in a contract that carried through 2027,” she said.
Loyack’s shift was not announced as a retirement but rather stepping into a role “to continue community and philanthropic activities for the university.”
Fitzgerald will become the first female lay leader at Alvernia and the first woman to lead the institution in over 30 years. She said she opted to stay at Alvernia without even knowing what her salary would be.
“Financially is not my motivation here,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said growing up outside of Niagara Falls, N.Y., she dreamed of attending Niagara University, a Catholic institution. But she was a first-generation college student, and the tuition costs seemed out of reach. She attended a public college instead, Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, now known as PennWest Edinboro.
She said the belief that attending a Catholic college poses a major financial hurdle remains pervasive today. “It’s part of my mission” for others to see “Catholic education as a possibility for their families,” she said.
Fitzgerald praised Saint Mary’s and the current president, Maryanne Stevens, who has led the campus since 1996.
“It’s a wonderful place, led by a terrific president who has developed a range of programs that certainly addresses the needs of Omaha, and it would have been my honor to carry on in her tradition and continue the vision of the Sisters of Mercy,” she said.
The Saint Mary’s Board of Trustees “will consider a number of interim and longer-range measures” to fill the president position, Jeffries, the board vice chair, said in an email.
“We are optimistic, given the very high quality of candidates we attracted in our search, that we will find someone terrific to lead us into our next 100 years.”
Jeffries called Fitzgerald “a talented leader,” adding that “we are glad we met her.”