Recently, HYPE members had the opportunity to hear from Rhona Free, President of the University of Saint Joseph, a private non-profit institution founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1932. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dr. Free was the child of parents who had very little growing up in Europe after the second World War. This instilled a sense of innovation and creativity in her parents, who were very entrepreneurial. Because they were accustomed to having little to lose, Dr. Free’s parents were risk takers in the world of business, eventually closing down a successful business to move to the States when she was just 7 years old. This move was an inevitable culture shock for Dr. Free, who quickly learned to adjust, a skill that has served her well in her life. She credits her comfort with being in new cultures and organizations to her move to America as a child. Of fitting in, Dr Free says this “doesn’t mean you have to give up who you are or what you value;” instead, it allows you to find common ground with a wide range of people.
After her first year in the States, Dr. Free joined the Girl Scouts, which would lead her to her lifelong passion for riding and training horses. By the age of 12, Dr. Free was riding horses for much of each day, working in the stables through middle school with an adjusted class schedule to allow for her riding. This passion would follow her into high school, where once again she would take an adjusted class schedule, working on packets of information from home instead of in an actual classroom. By the time she was applying to colleges, she had her own show barn and decided to go to Sarah Lawrence because she could continue to ride while going to school full-time. Riding was still Dr. Free’s priority and passion, and she planned to make a career out of it, but at Sarah Lawrence the path of her life would change. There she met Frank Roosevelt, the grandson of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who encouraged her to write more and think critically about economics and politics. Around this time, Dr. Free also began to realize that while her passion was with horses, her skill level was not as high as it needed to be in order to have a successful career. She also began to lose her nerve when competing, worrying about injury.
Through Roosevelt’s mentorship, Dr. Free applied and was accepted to a graduate program on political economy at the University of Notre Dame. In her time at Notre Dame, Dr. Free married and had two children before entering a job market that had very few women with PhD’s vying for employment in economics. This served her well, as she accepted a faculty job at Eastern Connecticut State University. Thinking she would stay for a few years, Dr. Free spent 25 years teaching at Eastern, loving the support there and the ability to do research while teaching. After a new president was hired, Dr. Free became the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost. This move from faculty to Provost was unusual, as most often there are other required steps in between. Eastern Connecticut State President Elsa Nuñez saw something in Dr. Free and was willing to take the risk in promoting her directly. After seven years in this role, Dr. Free left Eastern to become President of the University of Saint Joseph.
Not one to shy away from risk, Dr. Free understood there would be challenges running the University, as she is the first non-Catholic president in the school’s history. She learned to “just ask people” when there was something she didn’t know or understand, especially related to the Catholic Church service. In her time as USJ, Dr. Free has once again put her people-reading skills to use, observing the culture of the University to understand how it worked before implementing any changes. Understanding that in leadership positions you will always make decisions that are unpopular to some, Dr. Free advised attendees to “make sure you have a strong base of people who support you.” Your supporters will continue to stand behind you if they know you are making the decision for the right reasons.
Dr. Free stressed the importance of having mentors, but suggested that finding sponsors is even more powerful. Both Roosevelt and Nuñez acted as sponsors for Dr. Free, actively making calls on her behalf when needed. While reluctant to give advice, Dr. Free does actively work to be a mentor and a sponsor to those around her. She also credits the Sisters of Mercy, the founders of the University, as mentors, calling them the “most practical people I know,” and valuing their straightforward and honest insights.
When asked about the difference between teaching and administrative roles, Dr. Free relates her advice back to horses. When training horses, you don’t know what you will get; you have to work to discover the personality of each, as well as their strengths and how to nurture these strengths. It is the same with students and faculty. You must figure out what each person needs individually for success, and "what makes them perform at their best." It is then up to you to give them what they need to bring out their best. Dr Free also encouraged attendees to be aware of their own shortcomings, and to find others to work with who excel in the areas where they are weak themselves.
Dr. Free was asked about both the challenges of the cost of higher education and the challenges facing the University in the future. Across higher education, increased expectations and requirements for student services, faculty and staff salary and benefit costs, and increases in the average length of time it takes for many students to complete college has driven the costs up, with competition between schools to have top-of-the-line facilities only increasing these challenges. The University of Saint Joseph faces the same challenges as the rest of higher education and has to focus on establishing a reputation that is broader than it has currently. She spoke about the need for new marketing to provide a fresh look at all the University has to offer. With an increased focus on encouraging students to spend more time in the City of Hartford, Dr. Free and her staff hope to position the University to have more of city feel and to engage students in all that Hartford has to offer.
Thank you to Dr. Free and the University of Saint Joseph for hosting us! Check out Facebook for more photos!