Celebrating 10 Years at Siena Heights, Sister Peg Albert Has Built Her Presidency Around Community, Relationships
Maybe it was a calling.
She likes to refer to it as a “nudge.” Regardless, accepting the job as President of Siena Heights University was something Sister Peg Albert, OP, PhD, felt compelled to do in the spring of 2006.
As she approaches her 10th anniversary as SHU President in July 2016, Sister Peg can’t imagine being any place else. An Adrian Dominican Sister who had spent most of her adult life around family and friends and working at ADS-sponsored Barry University in the warm and sunny comfort of Miami, Fla., she now has firmly established her legacy in southern Michigan.
And what a legacy it is. Over the past decade, Siena Heights has “grown up” in many ways. In a period that included the worst recession in decades, where many higher education institutions had to scale back plans, projects and personnel, Siena Heights has bucked the trend. Enrollment increased, facilities improved, programs and positions added and prominence amplified.
All this has occurred using a collaborative leadership style she calls “different” than many of her presidential peers. She focused more on facilitating change rather than imposing it. After 10 years, Sister Peg not only reflects on her time and experience at Siena Heights, but also indicates she remains focused on increasing the reach of the Dominican Catholic university’s mission and vision in the years ahead.
Sunny South to Wintery North
In the winter of 2005, Sister Peg happened be attending a meeting at the Motherhouse in Adrian when Sister Donna Markham, the ADS prioress at the time, asked to meet with her. Sister Donna said she had hoped to put forward a candidate from the congregation for the vacant Siena Heights presidency. Would Sister Peg be that candidate?
“I had to pray and think about it,” she said. “It was a big move for me, moving away from my family. Any move is difficult because you’re leaving what’s familiar to something that’s unknown. But I felt like God was really calling me to be here (at Siena Heights).”
She called the presidential interview process “daunting,” especially being peppered with many questions about her ability as a fundraiser. However, Sister Peg quickly became the favorite candidate of the search committee, and was soon offered the job of becoming Siena’s 10th President—and the first Adrian Dominican one in more than 30 years.
“I could tell it was a good community of people,” she said. “And that was important. I saw a lot of potential, not that Siena hasn’t been a great university all along. But what it could become.”
A “Can-Do” Attitude
While Sister Peg saw Siena Heights’ potential when she officially arrived on campus in July 2006, she also was staring at a large budget deficit.
“Siena was in worse shape than I thought,” she said of the University’s financial situation at the time. “I knew if we were going to succeed, we had to take some risks. You can’t do business as usual if you want a place to succeed. We had to change the culture somewhat.”
Bringing in a mantra of “Be Bold. Think Higher,” Sister Peg quickly addressed the “culture” that had crept into the thinking of many at the University.
“I remember sitting at a meeting and hearing over and over and over again, ‘We can’t do it because we don’t have any money,’ ” Sister Peg said. “I said, ‘We have to change our way of thinking. We have to dream of what we want to do, then let’s go find the money.’ Once we had some success with O’Laughlin Stadium and the Spencer Athletic Complex, then I think people started to believe maybe we could do this.”
Sister Peg’s first major “risk”: beginning a nursing program, one of the more intensive and expensive ventures as academic programs go. However, a federal grant and U.S. senatorial campus visits by Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow gave Siena Heights the financial jump start it needed to begin the program. Now fully accredited, Siena Nursing has quickly developed a reputation for quality and innovation.
“Higher education doesn’t just exist for itself, it exists for the community,” Sister Peg said. “We should be answering the needs of the community. When we look at new programs, we look at three things: Is it in tune with our mission? Is it needed in the community? And is it financially sustainable? The answer to all those questions (about nursing) was ‘yes.’ Unless you take those kinds of risks, nothing will happen.”
Those three questions were also successfully answered for other future additions such as football and band, and the latest being engineering, which started last fall.
Football was nothing but a rumor on the Siena Heights campus before Sister Peg arrived. Most probably presumed it would stay just that with an Adrian Dominican Sister as President. However, as one who was voted “Most Athletic” in high school, Sister Peg again displayed her boldness.
“I love athletics,” said Sister Peg, who was a high school tennis teammate of all-time great Chris Evert. “And I particularly enjoyed football. We looked at it from a number of different perspectives. I knew that the culture couldn’t change in a negative way because of who we are. Football just created a whole new spirit on campus. I’ll never forget that first game (in 2011). The spirit in that place… that place (O’Laughlin Stadium) became alive.”
But football, as well as the several other athletic programs Siena Heights has added since her arrival, also brought new students to campus. With an enrollment hovering just below 700 students on the Adrian campus when she arrived, SHU currently has more than 1,000 full-time undergraduate students enjoying new facilities and programs.
“Our focus right now is more on academics than it is athletics,” she said. “We grew the University through athletics, and now we want to grow the University more through academics.”
“We Just Won.”
Sister Peg calls that first football game during Home-
coming Weekend on a warm September day in 2011 one of her best moments at Siena.
“The spirit I felt that day and the presence of God and the goodness of the people who made it happen…” she said. “The variety of the people who walked out on that field, Olympic style, from the Sisters to the students…
it was just overwhelming.”
And if Sister Peg doubted the decisions to add these new opportunities, they were put to rest ironically during another football game – a cold, dreary Homecoming match-up against Taylor last fall. The Saints were trailing by a wide margin by halftime, and Sister Peg, who had left the President’s Box to congratulate the alumni award winners and athletic hall-of-fame recipi-
ents on the field, decided to meet the team as they exited the locker room.
“We were losing so bad, when the team comes out I’ll try to encourage them, probably just what they didn’t want to hear,” she said, laughing. “And this one big fella came up to me and was completely outfitted, including the helmet on his head. I couldn’t even tell who he was. And he said to me, ‘I just have to thank you for saving my life.’ I said, ‘What did I do to save your life? Tell me what you mean.’ He said, ‘My brother has been in prison for eight years, and if you had not started football, I would have been there with him.’ I gave him a big hug and I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it is all about.’
I went back to the President’s Box and I said, ‘I don’t care what the score is, we just won.’ That’s what it is all about, touching people’s lives to the core.”
Stepping Up ‘Big-Time’
New programs, plans and facilities need resources. And Sister Peg realized why there were so many questions directed to fundraising during her presidential interview process. For someone who has spent her life building community, Sister Peg now had to sacrifice some of that time to leave campus and “find the money” to help make many of these big ideas happen.
Enter Mary Spencer, another South Florida resident whom Sister Peg was introduced to early in her SHU presidency. The two developed a fast friendship that has meant the realization of many of the University’s hopes and dreams, including O’Laughlin Stadium, the McLaughlin University Center, the Spencer Athletic Complex and the music program.
“Mary has just been one of those donors who does believe in Siena Heights,” Sister Peg said. “Her sense of giving is such a beautiful sense of giving. She explained it as there are a number of people sitting around the table who are friends, and all their gifts are different. My gift may be the gift of implementation. Her gift is that she has the resources. So if she shares the resources with me, then I can implement them.
“Her generosity overwhelms me. She’s our angel in many ways.”
Sister Peg also credits many other “angels” who believe in the Siena Heights mission and have “stepped up big-time.”
“And big-time means is what big-time means to them,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t have the same amount of resources. If somebody gives us $100, that’s a big gift for them because of the kinds of resources they have. I never want to lose sight of that.”
The Future: Vigilant and Viable
Although much progress has been made during her tenure at Siena Heights, she remains “vigilant” to what she calls the “precarious position” of higher education.
“We don’t want to run off with this little trend or that little trend,” Sister Peg said, “but to keep looking at new directions that will call us to do things in different ways to make us much more viable in higher education.”
She said students remain at the core of her presidency, and she said she cherishes her relationships with them.
“I love being with them, and I think they sense that when I’m with them,” she said. “I find them very life-giving. I think students should get to know a president the best as they can. I know I’m gone a lot fundraising, but I think it’s sad when a student graduates from a college and never has seen the president.”
She also appreciates her leadership team, which is called the Executive Committee of the Administration (ECA).
“My team has been a wonderful team with whom to work,” Sister Peg said. “They are not perfect, and neither am I by a long shot. But somehow we’ve been able to get it done.”
She said the University’s vision of the future includes a new performing arts center, an admissions welcome center, a new science building, a fieldhouse addition and expanding enrollment and academic programs throughout SHU’s many campuses, including online.
“I see all that happening,” Sister Peg said. “But the most important thing I think as a Siena community is we need to deepen and grow. We need to remain faithful to our heritage and yet not be afraid to go out and do different things.”
A “Different” Kind of President
Sister Peg knows she is “different” as far as college and university presidents go. And she embraces it.
“I know that when I’m in groups of presidents, I see myself differently than some presidents,” she said. “And this is an assumption I’m making. I just see myself as a member of the community whose role is to be president. While a lot of presidents see themselves as ‘The President,’ and that is their role. My hope is that I can continue to grow in being a servant leader.”
She said she doesn’t do it alone; in fact, she doesn’t want to.
“There are many gifted people around me, and I delegate a lot to them because they have the expertise in those areas,” Sister Peg said. “My job is to facilitate it all. We make decisions together.”
Her faith also is what often sets her apart, especially being a member of the Order of Preachers.
“I know I could not do this job if I didn’t have faith,” Sister Peg said. “I know my faith and my sense of who we are and who we are called to be hopefully influences this institution in a positive way. We’re not afraid to tell people who we are. We’re not afraid to talk about our beliefs and values. We need to continue to deepen and grow in our sense of who we are as a Catholic, Dominican institution that is also accepting and welcoming of all faiths. That’s a continual thing. That never stops.
“I’ve learned a lot these last 10 years. Hopefully I can use some of that knowledge as we forge into the next 10. I think we have a wonderful future. And we have a lot of people to help get us there.”