Kevin J. Manning, PhD, is turning heads in Baltimore’s higher education community. Hailed by The Daily Record as an “Influential Marylander,” the president of Stevenson University has spearheaded a major makeover of the college—beginning with its name change—since taking over former Villa Julie College in 2000. He’s turned it from a tiny commuter college to a primarily residential university and doubled its undergraduate student body while maintaining its focus on career readiness.
An enlarged endowment of $55 million helped drive the school’s expansion, and the school also raised $20 million, undertaking between 2005 and 2009 its largest fundraising push ever. The campaign received leadership gifts from The France-Merrick Foundation, Joseph Keelty, members of the Stevenson board of trustees, key alumni donors, and several federal and state agencies.
Recently, we chatted with the 45-year higher education veteran. He shared the whats and whys behind the sweeping changes he’s overseen at the school, how Stevenson gets students to start thinking about life after graduation — as soon as they get to college — and more.
You have a B.A. in theater from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. How’d you end up a university president?
I’m a New Yorker, but I went to Webster University in the 60’s as it was completing a theater building that would become the St. Louis Repertory Company. There are three or four of these buildings built in the 60’s by well-known theater designers. I was a founding staff member of the company, where I did both administrative work and some acting. I graduated in 1967 and taught theater at Webster. After I got married, I decided it was probably not realistic to stay in theater. Since then, all I’ve done in one form or another was to be in higher education administration.
Your tenure at Stevenson University has been marked by change. Did you know from the start that you would be leading so many transitions at the school?
When I came to Stevenson, keeping in mind this [higher education] is all I’ve ever done, I knew if we stayed the way we were we’d go out of business. Small commuter colleges just don’t have the resources that universities do.
Your mission to increase the size and scope of the college has come to fruition on many different fronts. Since 2001, enrollment of full-time students has jumped from 1,648 to 3,326; the endowment has risen from $24.6 million to $56.3 million, the sheer size of the school has jumped from 66 acres to 168 acres, and the number of staff has increased from 185 to 502. What’s been the impact of these expansions on interest from prospective students?
Between 2001 and 2013-14, applications have gone from 1,000 to nearly 6,000. And we now have record enrollments.
The new $7 million dollar, 3,500-seat football stadium that Stevenson erected—on its new Owings Mills campus, former site of the Baltimore Ravens training camp—clearly was part of an effort to transform the school from a commuter college into a residential university. What can you share about other aspects of Stevenson’s athletic programs?
We have a rather expansive extracurricular sports program. Over 750 students are involved in intercollegiate sports. We also have intramurals, probably 100 or so groups.
What are some lesser known innovations the college has undergone since you’ve been at the helm?
We’ve added a $2 million state-of-the-art mock courtroom and nursing simulated nursing laboratories. We just offered our first MOOC, a massive online open course. Started at Stanford, MOOCs are free courses. We offered a non-credit MOOC in forensic studies. We haven’t considered giving credit for MOOCs, but we have roughly six or seven masters and doctoral degrees online, in a hybrid model.
How has the university managed to expand during the period of fiscal uncertainty?
In 2008-2009, we froze all our budgets. We did not give salary increases. Everything’s related to enrollment or grants. Things are going well for us. It looks like we’ll be expanding next year. We would like to get to about 4,000 full-time students over the next five years.
Ever since Stevenson University was Villa Julie College, it’s been considered a ‘career-oriented’ school. How has the school maintained that reputation?
We hired a design and innovation consulting firm, IDEO. Business Week calls them the most creative firm in the world. Engineers and industrial designers, they worked to help us completely redesign our career architecture program. We teach students to design careers. We start by talking about liberal arts values, then career values. Our Career Services office has 12 people working in it. It offers online career tests and year-round career fairs. We’re totally focused on careers. Here, when you pick a major, normally it’s going to be career-related. We also have a notion of theory, practice, and mentoring: We try to get students into practical experience and mentored by either a faculty member or an organization. We place about 92 percent of our graduates in grad school or jobs.
Stevenson University sponsors a well-regarded lecture series featuring renowned global opinion leaders that has included the retired president of Greece and former South African President F.W. de Klerk. What can you tell us about that?
We’re part of the Cambridge Speakers Series. There are only about six colleges nationwide that do it. We sell out every speaker. Last year I had the pleasure of introducing Bill Clinton. Then I sat down and interviewed him. Some of the speakers are able to come on campus afterwards and meet with the students.
How will Stevenson continue to succeed in this market, with so many other universities in the area and rising concerns about college tuition (2013-2014 costs for Stevenson, a private university, were $27,082 for full-time students, not including housing and meal plans)?
Stevenson will continue to do well because its DNA is in adaptability. Organizations that adapt are those that continue to sustain themselves. One of the things that is important to us is to be distinctive relative to our competition. To our knowledge, today we’re the only college in the U.S. that has a career architecture program.