After a long career in higher education, Mary Pat Seurkamp felt ready for the challenge of a college presidency. She consulted mentors, made connections and got herself on the radar of head hunters and started looking around for institutions where she thought she might be a good fit. When she first set foot on the campus of what was then the College of Notre Dame, she wasn’t there for a formal interview — actually, she was in the advanced stages of consideration for a job at another school. She quietly made her way to the chapel where she spent time in prayer and meditation, thinking about where the right place was for her. She quickly realized that she and found it. She went back to Rochester and told her husband, “That’s where I need to be.”
Fortunately for her, and for Catholic education in Baltimore, Notre Dame’s trustees felt the same way. Her appointment in 1997 marked a major departure for the college, which was the first Catholic women’s institution in the country to award bachelor’s degrees. She was the first permanent lay leader for Notre Dame, and the change was, if not exactly controversial, at least an adjustment; students kept calling her “sister” for her first months on campus. But during her long tenure there, Ms. Seurkamp demonstrated that her faith and values aligned perfectly with Notre Dame’s long tradition, and that her vision and leadership were up to the challenge of extending that legacy into the 21st century.
“She’s a person of enormous vision and energy,” says Fr. Brian Linnane, the president of Loyola University Maryland. “She is an almost natural leader who inspires people to understand her vision and come to support it.”
Notre Dame has thrived since Ms. Seurkamp arrived in 1997, but a lot of schools like it didn’t. Small liberal arts institutions have faced increasing pressure to stay financially viable in recent years, and for a small, Catholic women’s college, those pressures were even more intense. Ms. Seurkamp says if necessary, she would have advocated for going co-ed in Notre Dame’s undergraduate college rather than closing altogether, but her leadership made sure it never came down to that.
“Mary Pat was steadfast in her commitment to remaining a women’s college,” says Pat Bosse, a Notre Dame alumna who was one of Ms. Seurkamp’s first hires. “That is not an easy decision. There are many presidents and boards who would say forget it. … She saw that it was worth working harder and smarter to maintain that mission.”
Ms. Seurkamp conducted a capital campaign, developed and executed a facilities master plan to renovate old buildings and construct new ones, expanded Notre Dame’s nursing program and created a doctorate-granting school of pharmacy. By 2010, she was ready to lead the institution to its most public transformation — a change in status and name to Notre Dame University of Maryland. To a great extent, the school was operating as a university already, but the name change really helped the public and prospective students understand what it had become, says P.J. Mitchell, a Notre Dame alumna who served on the school’s board throughout Ms. Seurkamp’s tenure.
“She worked to maintain the heritage of Notre Dame’s founding but understood that it needed to have a broader vision to progress,” Ms. Mitchell says.
Ms. Seurkamp brought that same sensibility to the cause of broader Catholic education in Baltimore through her service on the archdiocese’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the region’s Catholic schools under the former Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien. Her leadership in that effort was of existential importance to the Catholic school system, says Frank Bramble, who chaired the commission.
“She is a strategic thinker, a very gracious person but very serious about moving the ball forward,” Mr. Bramble says. “We had some really tough work to do, and she was always a leader in making the tough decisions. What she recognized is if we didn’t become more accountable both from an educational perspective and a financial perspective, there was going to be no Catholic schools.”
Ms. Seurkamp didn’t start out wanting to be an educator (she was briefly a theater major) but through her work with an Upward Bound program while in college, she discovered that education was her mission — specifically the kind of values-driven education a Catholic institution imparts, and the kind of experience a women’s college provides. People think of women’s colleges as providing a protected environment, but it’s actually the opposite, Ms. Seurkamp says.
“Students can’t hide,” she says. “Everyone could be called on all the time. You have to be prepared, be informed and take on leadership. It leaves students with no question in their minds what they can achieve and take on.”
Her personal example leaves no doubt of those things either.
“She has a tremendous legacy,” says Archbishop William E. Lori. “She was a transformative president of Notre Dame of Maryland. Be brought a real spirit of forward-thinking leadership. She is personally a great administrator, has wonderful insight into people, she sees opportunities to grow and expand. Notre Dame thrived under her leadership.”