Fairfield University is a campus busy with change — and Mark R. Nemec is busy newly leading it.
Having recently extended Fairfield Rising, the largest capital fundraising campaign in the school’s history, through 2018 with a target of $210 million and in the midst of a plethora of new construction and renovation projects, the Jesuit university started this academic year with a new president.
Nemec is the ninth person to hold that job and, notably to some, the first non-Jesuit priest to be named to the post in the private university’s 75-year history.
Allowing that no interview can go without mentioning that singular distinction of his, Nemec told the Business Journal during a recent visit that any trepidations about having a layman in charge of the school are ill-founded.
Having graduated from Loyola High School of Los Angeles, a Jesuit preparatory school, Nemec identifies himself as an Ignatian — after St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit religious society for men in the 16th century. All of Fairfield’s presidents have been Ignatians.
“Our core values will remain the same,” he said. “All this means is that those values may be interpreted from a slightly different perspective.”
“I see myself as a steward of those core values. Fairfield University has always maintained that education is not an end in and of itself. Giving students an education as individuals, teaching them how to think on their own and work with teams in a mutually beneficial way, is of utmost importance,” he said.
Speaking on a terrace outside the his office — “I like to get away from my desk whenever I can” — Nemec said the challenges faced at Fairfield “are the same as at nearly any university. Fairfield by definition has always been about developing students from a broader range demographically. We need to think more globally when it comes to our students and provide them with the skills that they’ll need as they join the workforce.”
“That’s not simply adding or expanding digital technology and online learning, but including more service learning — offering learning that is outside of the formal classroom, integrating community service and civic responsibility,” he said. “That’s what more and more employers are seeking from college graduates.”
Nemec finds the university that he has joined in a strong position. It has steadily grown over the past 20 years from about 700 graduate students to over 1,000 and its total student body stands at about 5,000. Over the past five years, the university has reported a 97 percent employment rate for its students after graduation.
Nemec succeeds the university’s eighth president, the Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, who left in 2016 to lead the LaFarge House Jesuit Community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was replaced on an interim basis by Lynn Babington, who had been provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. Babington left Fairfield this summer to become president of Chaminade University in Honolulu.
“My charge over the next five to 10 years is to continue building off of our legacy,” Nemec said. “We will still be a Jesuit university — that’s not subject to debate. And we will continue striving to maintain and elevate ourselves and our students.”
Nemec, who earned a doctoral degree in political science at the University of Michigan, was president and CEO of Eduventures, a Boston-based information services firm that provides research and consulting to the higher education community. He previously had worked on the executive team of Forrester Research, an international provider of similar services to the technology industry.
Prior to joining Fairfield, Nemec was dean of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago from 2014 to this year. Life there, he said, was akin to being in “a castle, where you pulled up the drawbridge and never went out.”
That will not be the case at Fairfield, he said. Nemec plans to take an active part in the university’s politics department as a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to be teaching classes and grading papers every day,” he said with a laugh. “Being president tends to not allow you the time for that.” He envisions he’ll give guest lectures instead.
As a Yale undergraduate — he graduated cum laude in 1991—Nemec said he “drove past Fairfield University many times” but was unfamiliar with the community until accepting the position. “It’s a hidden gem,” he said of the town. Nemec, wife Suzy and their four children are renting a house while the school’s presidential residence is being “updated” to accommodate their large
family, he said
“What I like about Fairfield is what a lot of our students like,” said the new president. “The proximity to New York, Boston, all of the Northeast, presents some unique opportunities that you won’t necessarily get elsewhere.”
“Fairfield University has always been a destination college, and it will continue to be so,” he said.