Mary Pat Seurkamp has heard it from any number of students and professors over the years, and she knows exactly what they mean. Because she too felt at home the moment she set foot on the campus of Notre Dame of Maryland University.

"You can't put your finger on it," she says of the connection. "But it's there."

Seurkamp, 65, is now coping with the sadness of severing that bond. She will retire this month after 15 years leading Notre Dame, one of the longest tenures of any college president in the state.

She was the first layperson to lead the Catholic institution, and oversaw an era of diversification and expansion. Students have looked up to her for her public poise, openness and sharp sense of fashion.

"I think she's one of the classiest women I've ever met," says rising Notre Dame senior Rachel Jones of Westminster. "That's a great face for our university to have out there."

Seurkamp came in at a time when women's colleges were on the endangered species list in Maryland. Goucher and Hood had both moved to full coeducational models, and there were serious questions about the long-term economic viability of single-sex colleges.

Under Seurkamp, Notre Dame addressed such questions by reaffirming its commitment to the all-women's undergraduate experience while expanding its coeducational offerings for graduate students and evening and weekend learners. The institution unveiled its first doctoral program, in education, and created a school of pharmacy from the ground up. In recognition of the new complexity, it was rechristened Notre Dame of Maryland University last year.

"I think the perception of Notre Dame was always to think of it solely as the women's college," Seurkamp says. "And I do think that's different today."

The 500 students in the undergraduate women's college are now greatly outnumbered by those in the night, weekend and graduate programs. But the women's college is still Notre Dame's identity for many alumni and community members.

The balancing act between tradition and growth has been a defining theme of Seurkamp's tenure, and admirers say she has handled the issue with aplomb.

"She's very widely respected among other presidents," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. "She has found a way to have a viable women's college co-exist with other elements of a university."

"People would ask me: 'Why are you giving to a women's college? They can't make it,'" says philanthropist Mary Catherine Bunting, whose $2.5 million gift launched Notre Dame's school of pharmacy. "But she has managed that blend of keeping the women's college with expanding along other avenues. You can't stay so narrow, because then you really might not make it."

Bunting says Seurkamp was a major reason she gave to Notre Dame.

"I normally don't get to know someone who's asking me for money," she says. "But I really admire her and the way she has kept that school constantly moving forward."

As Seurkamp reflects on her 15 years at Notre Dame, packing boxes are visible in the corner of her office in Gibbons Hall. Most students have left campus for the summer, but Seurkamp's schedule is still cluttered with meetings and will be until her last day, June 30.

The final weeks of the academic year brought a succession of emotional goodbyes, though she notes that her voice didn't crack until the end of her remarks at commencement, where she was named president emeritus.

Seurkamp came to Notre Dame from St. John Fisher, a small Catholic college in New York. Though she had attended a women's college, Webster University in St. Louis, she had only worked in coeducational environments.

In her early days as president, Seurkamp was struck by the familiar comforts of a women's college: the relative lack of vandalism, substance abuse and distractions from academic life.

Though she quickly felt comfortable, the college community's comfort with her had to grow over time. The place had always been led by one of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, so people often slipped and called Seurkamp "Sister." And they had no idea what to make of her husband, because the campus had never had a first spouse. (Seurkamp jokes that he's now more popular than she is.)

"Any time there is a change from what people are used to, there is a time of figuring out how that's going to work out," she says. "In my early work, I had to show a deep commitment to the foundation of the university and its core values."

Seurkamp has banked many memorable experiences in her 15 years, from re-planning reunion weekend on the fly because of Tropical Storm Isabel to spending spring break sleeping on the concrete floor of a Mexican orphanage with student service workers.

She has always professed her strong commitment to the women's college even as she pushed for new coeducational programs. Given enrollment growth each of the last two years, Seurkamp says she's confident in the future of single-sex education at Notre Dame. "One simply has to be comfortable being small or relatively small in that area," she says.

Seurkamp's successor, James F. Conneely, will probably face an even larger adjustment as Notre Dame's first male president. Some alumnae expressed frustration when the choice was announced in February. But Seurkamp says he will simply have to do the same things she did.

"His focus in the first year will have to be addressing the issue," she says. "I spent a lot of time on the road so the alumni could get to know me. They just need time with him."

Seurkamp says she'll be around to help Conneely whenever he calls, and she will also lead a training program for new college presidents at the Council of Independent Colleges.

Asked her best advice for the next generation of presidents, she says: "They have to think about the deeper values that motivate them. That's what gives you the energy. If it's solely a job, it's not worth it."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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