Rhona Free | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rhona Free


For the 50 years since Radcliffe merged with Harvard, fueling the trend for women’s colleges to become coed, the University of Saint Joseph has remained an all-women’s institution. President Rhona Free talks about how she came to realize it was time for USJ, founded in 1932 by the Sisters of Mercy, to open its hallowed halls to male undergraduates. Connecticut’s last all-women institution of higher learning will begin admitting male students to all full-time undergraduate programs in the fall of 2018.

The Mistake:  

Applying a mission statement too narrowly

When I started here in 2015 I loved the idea of being at a women’s college and I interpreted the mission as a women’s college. After being on the campus for about a year and a half, I kept thinking of things I would like to offer to the women students and realized that the constraints were in many cases not financial. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the funds to create any program or another co-curricular activity, but rather that we did not have enough interested students.

To achieve the dynamic undergraduate experience I envisioned, we needed more students than were interested in coming to an all-women institution. Research indicated only 2 to 4 percent of students who take the SAT say they will consider a single-sex institution. Those statistics surprised me. I didn’t expect that it would be very high, but 2 to 4 percent was much less than I anticipated.

How could we open our door to those other 98 percent of students headed for college? Was I thinking too literally, interpreting that our mission was just for women undergraduates? 

Before approaching the board of trustees with any recommendation, we created a task force with twelve different working groups. Each of those working groups looked at what would be the impact of becoming coeducational and how it would relate to our mission. Would it push us too far from our mission? Would it allow us to support the mission?

The consensus from those groups was that there have been enough incremental changes at the University of Saint Joseph, so that becoming fully coeducational would remain within our mission. Men have attended the graduate school for almost fifty years and live in the graduate residence hall. Men are enrolled in the part-time program for adult learners and also attend classes on campus as part of the eleven-college Hartford Consortium for Higher Education. For example, students from Trinity College who want to get certified as teachers come to USJ to take Education courses.

You can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions.

The Lesson:

We came to realize our mission really focuses on educating a diverse student population to meet society’s needs, with an emphasis on developing the potential of women.  I think I (and others) had first thought, “Well that means undergraduate women,” but obviously when you read it more carefully, it doesn’t say to the exclusion of men. It just says that you will keep—and we will keep—that focus.

Changing from Saint Joseph College to the University of Saint Joseph a few years ago indicated that the board understood that you can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions. What if someone had said 50 years ago that this institution would be starting a school of pharmacy offering a doctoral degree? I think many people would have just said, "Oh no, that is not what we’re here for."

By opening this sense of what the mission is and not interpreting it too literally, the University of Saint Joseph remains consistent with the vision of its Founding Sisters of Mercy. We will have more resources and more students that will support activities. Right now our undergraduate enrollment is about 770. We’ll possibly go up to 1,000 but we probably won’t go beyond 1,000.

I’ve learned to keep a sense of what an institution’s mission is and allow for enough flexibility to respond to change in the markets and in external conditions, but at the same time not be so loose with interpreting the mission that you get steered into directions that are not ideal for the institution. The University of Saint Joseph has always had a pretty high level of expectations for student performance and preparation and that’s a part of sticking to the mission and the history that we didn’t want to change. 

Follow the University of Saint Joseph on Twitter at @USJCT.

Photo courtesy of Rhona Free.

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