The President Looks Back: An Interview with Dr. Thomas Powell

Photo of Dr. Powell
Photo courtesy of Andrew McDonald

Mountain Echo editors Nicholas Schreiber and Ryan Golden sat down with outgoing university president Dr. Thomas Powell on Feb. 16, Presidents’ Day, in order to discuss the highs, lows and legacy of his 11-year administration.

When asked about which initiatives and accomplishments he is most proud of, Powell pointed to his work on improving student life.

“When I got here we had 150 empty beds. Now we’re full, and I built 200 more beds. We also didn’t have an RA program to speak of; a lot of our halls didn’t have RAs. We built an RA program so that they can be better prepared and get compensation for their work.”

Under the same category, Powell highlighted the growth of programs in campus activities, including the renovation of Purcell Hall into Club 1808 and extra staffing within the department of intramural sports. He also emphasized the improvements made to Patriot Hall and dining services during his presidency.

“When I first visited the school during the time of the presidential search in 2003, we posed as interested parents of a potential student and paid attention to the dining areas,” Powell said. “I remember saying that I wouldn’t let my daughter eat there.”

Powell acknowledged the work of those whom he has hired in various positions of leadership on campus, including Provost David Rehm, Vice President Dan Soller, Ms. Pauline Englestatter and Fr. Brian Nolan.

“He has built such a great team in Campus Ministry,” Powell said of Nolan, “and you won’t find a more gentle, accepting person.”

Powell regrets that he was unable to see through to the demolition of Memorial Gym, and would have preferred to see a new athletic practice facility built closer to the Knott ARCC and athletic complex, where the university’s NCAA Division I teams currently play.

“We need to do everything we can to improve our club sports as well, especially our successful men’s and women’s rugby programs,” he said.

On the topic of the Mount’s Division I sports teams, Powell noted that, “When you look at other Division I programs in the United States, we don’t have much revenue coming in. It’s a huge tax on each and every one of our students to produce those 16 sports.”

Powell wished that he had spent more time finding donors to support and lessen the cost per student to run D1 athletics. This led to the cutting of men’s soccer, as well as men’s and women’s golf, a decision that Powell still faces criticism for today.

“The cutting of soccer and golf was to shore up some of our academic programs; we needed to make $1.4 million in cuts. We put the money we saved into improving men’s and women’s lacrosse, adding full time coaching assistants and more scholarships.”

The 24th president gave a strong reaction when asked about some of the university’s infrastructure problems, indicating dissatisfaction with academic spaces in particular.

“I remember when my son-in-law [a graduate student at the University of Florida] took a tour of our science buildings. When I asked him what he thought, he said they were ‘cute,’” Powell recalled. “We have strong scientific programs, but we need state-of-the-art labs to support them.”

Powell called the Knott Academic Center a “horrible, horrible building,” noting that its outdated architecture and mechanical problems are frustrating for students, staff and faculty.

Residence halls weren’t spared either. While the president does believe the renovations to Terrace and the construction of Bicentennial Hall were successful, he called the built-in furniture fixtures in Sheridan Hall “disgraceful.”

“We should never stop redoing our spaces,” Powell said. The president believes that his successor, President-Elect Simon Newman, should attempt to expand the cottage model. This references the cottages built in 2013 on the east campus.

On the subject of rising tuition costs, Powell maintained that the Mount offered a significant amount of academic aid to subsidize the cost for students, but also stated that he understands the challenges facing middle-class undergraduates.

“The cost of higher education in this country is outrageous for most families,” he said, “but I’ve always tried to keep our cost in the middle of two extremes.”

For now, Powell edges closer to his exit from office on March 10, when Newman will begin his transition as the university’s 25th president. Powell will focus on family life at his Gettysburg, PA home, but still hopes to contribute to the university’s mission after his presidency.

Leave a Reply