TERRE HAUTE — David G. Behrs is making history at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Not only is he the first lay president, he also is the first male president.
“My head’s spinning,” Behrs, 47, said Monday after the college announced that he would become its 15th leader. “I’m so thrilled to have been selected. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful community there.”
He will begin his new duties July 1 and succeeds Sister Joan Lescinski.
Behrs currently serves as both the associate provost for university initiatives and the vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Dominican University of California, 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. He has more than 22 years of experience in higher education.
While the hiring of Behrs is breaking a longstanding tradition of women presidents, all of them nuns, “Our goal was to find the candidate with the best fit,” said Mary Barrett, president of the Woods’ board of trustees. “Behrs came out as a great fit.”
A Catholic, he embraces the college’s mission and is committed to a Catholic, liberal arts education, she said. He has a strong background in enrollment management and student life.
He received “rave reviews” from those who met him, she said. When his selection was announced Monday in the college library, “There was a big burst of applause.”
He was the unanimous choice of the board of trustees and Sisters of Providence General Council, Barrett said. His appointment required the approval of the General Council.
“I think we’re looking for really big things from him to take us into the future,” Barrett said. At the top of the list will be increasing both the enrollment and the endowment.
Breaking tradition and hiring a lay, male president was a difficult decision, said Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence, which sponsors the college.
Many issues were discussed, including role modeling and what kind of message it might send to women. “One sister said, ‘Certainly there are qualified women out there,’ and there are,” Wilkinson said.
But everyone agreed from the start, “We wanted the best possible person for St. Mary-of-the-Woods College,” Wilkinson said. “I really believe that we have found that person in David Behrs.”
That doesn’t mean radical changes for the college, Wilkinson emphasized. Certain things will not change. The campus-based undergraduate program will remain for women only; also, the college will remain liberal arts and maintain its Catholic tradition, she said.
Behrs has served Dominican University, an independent university of Catholic heritage, for the past five years.
His responsibilities have included fundraising, program development and planning, and student affairs and enrollment management. In his current position, he is responsible for managing a $6.5 million operating budget and an $11 million financial aid program.
Among his many accomplishments, he is credited with restructuring the student affairs and enrollment management division, resulting in the largest, most culturally diverse and academically qualified student body in the university’s history.
Behrs praised the leadership of Lescinski and said he hopes to build upon her accomplishments. “She’s done some remarkable work in the past nine years,” he said.
Behrs, who described his leadership style as collaborative and inclusive, said he’s excited about the challenges he’ll undertake and hopes to lead the college to national prominence.
He’ll work to secure resources to make it “one of the most outstanding educational opportunities for women in the country,” he said in a telephone interview from his office at Dominican.
He also will be looking for ways to increase enrollment, both in the campus-based women’s undergraduate program and the Woods External Degree program, which is open to both women and men.
Enrollment is something Behrs had success with at Dominican, which this year has the largest enrollment in the school’s history.
He’s also hoping to develop some international initiatives at the Woods that will lead to faculty and student exchanges.
“There are some significant challenges ahead, but I’m confident the college is positioned for wonderful things and new heights of excellence,” Behrs said.
One of those challenges is that only 3 percent of the college-bound market is interested in a single-sex institution, he said.
Barrett described Behrs as creative and innovative and suggested that his background in program development could help the college create some strong niches in the higher education marketplace.
A native of Binghamton, N.Y., Behrs has been married to his wife, Maureen, for 23 years, and they have two daughters, Beth, 21, and Emily, 14.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or email@example.com.
Behrs will make history as first non-nun to lead college for women
TERRE HAUTE — David G. Behrs is making history at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
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