Home » One-on-One: Dr. Seamus Carey

One-on-One: Dr. Seamus Carey

By Mark Green

Seamus Carey became the 26th president of Transylvania University in 2014 and has undertaken major building projects – construction of three new residence halls and renovation of the iconic Haupt Humanities Building. He also initiated the 100 Doors to Success Mentoring Program to help students transition to the workplace, and Project One, a diversity and inclusion initiative. Dr. Carey previously was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He was chairman of the philosophy department at Manhattan College, where he was director of the Center for Professional Ethics. His numerous articles and books focus on the intersection of philosophy, parenting and family life. Carey is an avid Transylvania athletic teams supporter, having played basketball at Vassar College as well as Irish football and hurling.
Seamus Carey became the 26th president of Transylvania University in 2014.

In 1780, the Virginia legislature set aside 8,000 acres of confiscated British lands in the County of Kentucky for “a public school or seminary of learning.” Transylvania College in Lexington received a charter in 1783 to become the first higher educational institution west of the Alleghenies.
With law and medical schools, Transylvania rivaled Harvard and Yale in the early 19th century as one of the nation’s leading universities. The fifth oldest U.S. university has been a private liberal arts college exclusively since 1915 and maintains a reputation for rigorous academic excellence.

M a r k Green: What are your top challenges as president?

Dr. Seamus Carey: My top concern is making sure we get our enrollments where we want them to be. Last year we did very well, and this year we’re on t r a c k to do very well. But the demographics are against us, as they are against all schools. There’s a declining high school population, in particular in Kentucky. And families are price-sensitive, so we are conscious of that. The enrollment is No. 1.

We have a really attractive campus that works, but I would love eventually to get a new student center because we’re primarily a residential college. Our students spend about 15 hours a week in class. The rest of the time I want them to be engaged in intellectual activity generated out of their class conversations. I want us to provide the best spaces possible for them to integrate, work together, really enhance the academic experience while they’re here. And spaces can be really powerful things for doing that. We have a lot of old buildings – our Mitchell Fine Arts Center is a great building but needs to be upgraded. So where are you going to find the resources to do those things? That’s a big concern. And so a capital campaign, if we were to get to one, would be big.

One of our biggest challenges is getting people to know about us. When students come to visit us, they tend to enroll. Our challenge is to get people to come to Lexington, Ky.; to put Lexington on the map in a way to get into the consciousness of people, to say that’s the destination I want to go to for my liberal arts college experience. And that’s a challenge. In the Northeast, there’s a plethora of liberal arts schools – Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, even into Ohio, you’ve got a lot of really fine schools. And how do we get into the consciousness of students and their families to say, hey, there’s something really unique here? Because there is.

There are only about seven or eight liberal arts schools in metropolitan areas in the country. The combination of what we offer academically with what’s going on in Lexington as a city – which I see as a really growing, vibrant city with a lot to offer college students – that they can walk to, is a huge, huge selling point. We do have some things to get past because people don’t typically think of coming to Kentucky for a liberal arts experience.

MG: What is Transylvania University’s current size? And what is the goal for the next five to 10 years?

SC: Right now we’re just under 1,100 students, and that is relatively stable. We had a little dip a couple years ago. We’re back on an increasing trend. And we would like to grow but not enormously. One of the assets of the school is that we’re a close-knit community, and we want to keep it that way. But we can do that and grow probably up to around 1,250 to 1,400 students in the next five to 10 years.

MG: How many students live on campus?

SC: We are a residential campus. About 76 percent of the student body and 92 percent of first-year students live on campus.

MG: What is the size of the faculty and staff?

SC: We have about 90 full-time faculty and 204 full-time staff. Those are stable numbers. The faculty/student ratio is about 10.5 to one.

MG : What is your student-body composition?

SC: About 42 percent of our student body is male, 58 percent female. Fifteen percent are students of color, 4 percent are international, and about 22 percent come from out of state. We’d like to increase the number from out of state, and we’d certainly like to increase our diversity. We are investing time and resources into increasing diversity.

MG: How does Transylvania recruit students?

SC: We do all the traditional things. We visit communities where high school students are. I visit as many communities – in particular communities in Kentucky – as possible to get to know the families and the high school counselors. We invite counselors to visit our campus and go back and share with their students. Our alumni share stories about Transylvania. Our most effective recruiting tool is to have students and their families visit campus. Students and their families pick up pretty quickly how supportive and integrated and close-knit the faculty, student and staff community is.

MG: How do you reach out-of-state students?

SC: Admissions counselors are on the road throughout the fall, visiting high schools we have relationships with and new ones as well. Our athletic coaches are visiting prospective high school students who can play for them. We engage supplemental communication companies that help us target audiences suitable for our student body; they communicate through email, texting and various avenues to let them know about Transylvania. And print – we have brochures and mailings that tell our story as well.

MG: What about faculty recruitment?

SC: Every full-time faculty position goes through a national search. The faculty drive that process. Advertisement goes out to national media. Faculty go to their association meetings; schools typically interview at those meetings where there are lots of young Ph.D.s. We attract really strong faculty. The faculty is our strongest asset. Three essential elements of our faculty’s job description are: service, teaching and scholarship. Our faculty strike a really good balance. We have a lot of faculty-student research projects, especially in the sciences. We have first-rate scholars in numerous departments. They are incredibly dedicated to the school and work really closely with our students. That’s one of the real distinctive aspects of a school like ours.

MG: How many Transylvania students stay in the community or state after attending?

SC: I’ve noticed a really strong presence in Lexington of highly successful alumni running all sorts of businesses, law firms and so forth. But we have alumni in all 50 states and in 76 different countries.

MG: What are the primary reasons students say they choose Transylvania?

SC: It’s a combination of the strength of the academic programs and the personal, supportive feel of the community. Students know they’re going to be challenged academically, but they also know they’re going to be supported to meet those challenges. That extends into Student Life: all the clubs and associations and ways of engaging in the campus community available to students from the day they get on campus.

We have “August Term” for first-year students. They spend three weeks on campus before the rest of the student body gets here, working with the faculty and with Student Life. We bring them into the city. They know all the ins and outs of campus before anybody’s here. Student Life staff is phenomenal about supporting students to become engaged, and when things go wrong, they’re there to reach out to help students through those times.

MG: Tell us about Transy’s recent capital projects.

SC: Right now we’re finishing up two new residence halls. We have one that’s finished and then two that will be fully operational by next January. Each residence hall has about 144 beds. We took down two old residence halls, and two of these new buildings are replacements for those residence halls in Back Circle.

We renovated Alumni Plaza here (behind the Old Morrison administration building), which was an initiative undertaken by our alumni association, and it turned out to be a beautiful renovation of an open space. It’s amazing. When you build the appropriate types of spaces, the students and faculty come there and work on a regular basis when the weather’s beautiful. We renovated our library last year, so we have a new, updated, modern library.
And we’re designing a renovation for Haupt Humanities Building, our main academic building. We have a lead gift from an alum, Pete Carpenter, and his wife, Marilyn, who made a really generous gift of $2 million, and it will be called Carpenter Hall when it’s finished. We hope to undertake that project next summer.

MG: In its earliest years, Transy had professional programs including a law school, medical school and seminary. Since 1915 it has been a liberal arts college. Might any of those professional programs ever be reinstituted?

SC: Graduate programs are not in our immediate future because the University of Kentucky has a wide array of graduate programs, and it doesn’t make sense to duplicate those in most cases. I wouldn’t say never, because as we innovate the curriculum who knows where those might lead. We are, however, in the process of developing articulation agreements with UK’s graduate programs. We already have an agreement with the engineering program; we’re about to do something very similar with about eight other programs. Students who come to Transy will have the opportunity to be fast-tracked to the UK graduate programs. If they want to come get the experience we offer – a really close-knit community, intense work with faculty – while at the same time being focused on a particular career, they can do that and then head straight into a UK program.

MG: What are the most popular or most sought-after degree programs?

SC: Business administration is our most popular program … exercise science, accounting, psychology, biology; those are our five biggest majors. A lot of students do double majors, or do a major and a minor.

MG: Transy indicates 100 percent of its students recommended to law schools are accepted, and 90 percent of those recommended to medical programs are accepted. How do you achieve that level of success?

SC: It is the faculty’s close-knit relationships with the students. If students are interested in medical school or law school, from the first year they’re here they get the coaching and advising they need from the faculty members who run those programs. In addition, our programs are rigorous. Medical schools and law schools know that when they get Transy students, they’re well-prepared.

MG: How does Transylvania maintain communication with employers regarding the education and skills needed in today’s workplaces?

SC: We started a mentoring program last year called 100 Doors to Success that has over 200 mentoring relationships – all people from industry. We talk with them on a regular basis; our students talk with them on a regular basis about their professional worlds, about the people they interact with. People on our board work with cutting-edge technology companies, cutting-edge medical research companies. They they talk to me, and say, hey, what about this? Those are ideas we’re trying to infuse into what we offer our students. We never stop reading on what’s taking place. All those things play into how we keep in touch.

MG: What is Transylvania’s tuition level now?

SC: It’s right about $34,000 annually, but we’re rated in the top 25 schools in the country for best value.

MG: How price sensitive are today’s students?

SC: For students, parents and families, this is a big investment, and families look at more schools today than in the past to compare price. Every school has to publish their costs online, so it’s not hard. Families compare the financial aid packages. You really have to have value if you’re going to attract students. Price sensitivity comes into play with the vast majority of students. They have to be convinced that what you’re offering is worth more money.

Now, we cost less than a lot of liberal arts schools that are ranked among in the top 100 in the country. Our cost ranks near that of the college my daughter is attending, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate (Geneva) New York. That higher cost is not atypical for schools in the Northeast. They’re over $60,000 in tuition, room and board. We’re around $45,000 now with tuition, room and board. And then when you take our financial aid packages, on average our students pay less than 50 percent of that.

MG: How much financial assistance do Transylvania students receive from the school and other sources?

SC: This year our students got over $18 million in institutional scholarships and aid from Transylvania: 274 will receive approximately $1.3 million in federal grants, which includes Pell, STEM and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants; 362 students will earn about $450,000 in work study; 752 receive approximately $3.2 million in state grants and scholarships; and 159 will receive about $550,000 in outside scholarships and other sources of aid. And I think it’s 98 percent – it might be 100 percent – of our students receive some kind of financial assistance.

MG: What is Transylvania’s annual budget?

SC: The annual budget is in the neighborhood of $45 million.

MG: What are your revenue sources beyond student tuition and fees?

SC: We do well with grant money. We’re not a Research I university, so we don’t get their type of grant money, but we get grant money. And we have a very generous donor base; our alumni are really committed to the school so fundraising is the other major source of income for us. We have among the highest participation rates of alumni donors in the country. The percentage is in the 40s.

MG: How does the trend of decreasing public funding for public universities in Kentucky and elsewhere affect private institutions such as Transylvania?

SC: Whenever funding is cut from higher ed, it affects all of us. A large portion of our student body receive federal aid, but obviously the state schools are getting hit much harder; that’s a tough situation for them to be in. As of now, it doesn’t affect us that much, but that could change in the future. We do have some overlap among students who are looking at us and at public institutions. If the issue for families is price and they’re in-state students, UK is going to be less expensive than us. For the out-of-state student, that will affect them. We would be very comparable price-wise to UK’s tuition and room and board for out-of-state students. If you consider not sticker price but our aid packages, our students are paying $20,000 to $22,000, on average, for room, board and tuition.

MG: What is the status of Transylvania’s endowment, and what does Transy use endowment funds for?

SC: We’re at about $170 million, maybe $165 million. We’re fortunate to have savvy board members taking care of that. Some of it’s used to help annual operations, but some of it’s dedicated to supporting faculty teaching, faculty research, faculty-student combined research. Some of it’s used to support diversity initiatives. Some of it’s earmarked for those types of initiatives.

MG: Does Transylvania offer distance learning options?

SC: No, we do not have online classes. We are really interested in technology and digital learning and the ways in which the humanities and the liberal arts in general are going to be enhanced by digital practices and digital innovation; that’s something we want to integrate into the curriculum. But that’s not the same thing as delivering an online course. Enhancements might morph into some online interactions and courses, but I don’t see us doing much distance learning because what’s really unique about us is the community aspect of learning.

MG: What impact has the digital information revolution of the past few decades had on your operations?

SC: We’re about to invest in software that will help our backroom operations gain incredible efficiencies. We can streamline admissions processes, which will work in conjunction with the registrar’s office, which will work in conjunction with financial aid; things like a campus calendar to schedule events on campus. All those need to be streamlined. Technology can really help us there. Down the road, there might be ways to find efficiencies with other institutions, for example, using technology across campuses. Not necessarily with courses, per se, but for operations things.

MG: Do you anticipate significant changes near-term in the college experience at Transylvania or will it maintain its traditional structure?

SC: We’re going to maintain what’s really strong and traditional: community, close interaction, close relationships amongst students and between students and faculty and staff. But we’re also going to innovate. Any responsible educational institution today has to make sure students are well-versed to deal with things they’re going to encounter when they get out of school. So while we still want students to be really powerfully strong in history and literature and all the traditional disciplines, we want them to be able to do that in a way that matters and makes them easily able to participate in society and the economy when they get out of here.

We’re still going to read Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Shakespeare. Our students are going to master those texts. But there are things that they can do, with technology for example, to look at those texts in different ways. There are multidimensional things we can do in this really strong, deep, liberal arts curriculum in a way that those students also develop the skills to do anything they want when they get out.

MG: How would you characterize Transylvania’s relationship with the city government?

SC: It’s really good. We don’t have a formal channel of communication, but we interact. The mayor and I have a really good relationship. He’s delivering our commencement address this year, actually, in May. We do a lot of outreach for the local community, especially elementary-school kids here in the community.

While we really work hard at supporting the community, it’s important for people to recognize that we’re in a challenging environment, and we would benefit from the support of the community as well as times. What I mean is, you can’t take a place like Transylvania for granted. If you look at what’s happening in higher education, some of the analytics and projections of schools our size are not good.

MG: Is it a competitive economic advantage for Transylvania to be in Lexington, Ky., rather than the Northeast, which has a higher cost of living and operation expenses?

SC: Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re able to offer it at a lower price. Compare housing, for instance. If you work at Transylvania, you can afford housing in really nice places as compared to working at the same job in the Northeast where you just can’t do it. The wages aren’t actually that different. People can do well here because of the cost of living.