Across america, the average age of a university president is 62. Dr. Mary B. Marcy, the recently inaugurated president of Dominican University of California, is only 47 years old.
Yet you can’t say she has been living on the fast track. Marcy, who has a doctorate in political science, grew up on a ranch in Hay Springs, Nebraska, with 32 students in her graduating high school class. When she entered University of Nebraska, the pace of her life began picking up. Following graduation, Marcy was accepted to both Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Oxford University, choosing Oxford because it offered her a scholarship.
Since she’d never before traveled outside the four states of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota, Marcy was in a bit of culture and academic shock studying in the United Kingdom. Eventually, however, she not only survived but thrived, making the basketball team, joining the strategic studies club and learning how to really study. “Over time, I found my own identity and developed my intellectual curiosity; attending Oxford was a transforming experience,” she says.
After receiving her advanced degree, Marcy worked in public and private universities, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. In 2003, she was hired by Bard College in Massachusetts and eventually served as provost and vice president until earlier this year, when she accepted the presidency of Dominican University of California — and Marcy, her life partner and their loyal cat moved to Marin. “Because I grew up in Nebraska and spent time in Seattle, the West feels like home to me,” she says. “And Marin feels like the best of the West in every possible way.”
What attracted you to Marin County and Dominican University? A strong commitment to students was apparent in my first conversation with the university’s search committee. I saw Dominican as a very nimble and yet ambitious institution. Another appealing factor was the campus culture. I felt a sense of accomplishment as well as aspiration. Dominican has some very strong academic programs; it is a school that is small enough to have a common vision, but large enough to do significant projects — and we are already starting to do that. Finally, I liked the fact that Dominican is the county’s only four-year university; that means it is the cultural and intellectual center of the Marin community. I see this happening through programs like the Leadership Lecture Series, last year’s governor’s debate, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and various internship programs. I love the things Dominican University does in Marin County. Last year, for example, students contributed more than 8,000 hours of service to local nonprofit groups through our Service-Learning Program. Currently, this program is working in partnership with 20 community organizations and county agencies.
For those unfamiliar with Dominican University, please describe it. Our campus, which is just off Grand Avenue in central San Rafael, was founded in 1890. So it is a very established and yet alive and vibrant environment. We have just under 1,500 undergraduates and just over 600 graduate students, along with a Pathway Adult Learning program with more than 200 night students. Twenty-nine percent of our undergraduates are the first in the family to attend college; 39 percent are of African American, Hispanic, Asian American or Native American heritage; and while tuition is $36,900 (comparable to other private universities), more than 85 percent of the undergraduates are on scholarship or receiving financial aid of some type. Our faculty numbers almost 200, which allows for an average class size of 14 students. More than 500 students live on campus, while others live in nearby homes and apartments. We compete in NCAA Division II in men’s and women’s basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, tennis and cross country and in men’s lacrosse. Dominican University is an open campus, and most visitors find it to be a delightful college environment. I know I do.
What are the primary strengths of Dominican’s academic program? Ours is a classic university approach that features a strong undergraduate academic experience, one that is also applied outside the classroom. One thing that defines Dominican’s academic program is that every freshman is required to take a comprehensive first-year experience course called Big History. Big History is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the origins of the universe and the complexity of its development, from the Big Bang to the future of the planet, mixing topics that at many colleges would be covered separately in courses on biology, physics and philosophy, among other fields. Another distinguishing feature is that before earning a bachelor’s degree, students must have three experiences outside the classroom that put their learning into action. This can be a local internship, a community project or an international experience. No other university in the country requires this. Our largest enrollments are in psychology, business and nursing, while biology is quite strong and growing. In fact, in the past few years, the science program has grown significantly (from 28 undergraduate students in 2000 to more than 220 graduate and undergraduate students in 2011) as we’ve developed working partnerships with Novato’s BioMarin and the Buck Institute.
Can we expect any changes under your leadership? I think any changes will be a natural evolution. I am inheriting a strong, vibrant institution that has seen considerable growth in the last decade. My role will be to integrate that growth by focusing and further defining our areas of strength.
If you had one thing to say to people in Marin, what would it be? We are your university, and our relationship is indeed a partnership. As stated earlier, Dominican University is more than 100 years old, so we are part of the fabric of the Marin community. In a sense, we’ve matured together. We are Marin’s university, and you are always welcome on campus.