It’s Tuesday morning, still early enough that the hallway outside the Office of the President is quiet.
Andrea Lee, IHM, and her team are gathered next to the reception desk, discussing the day ahead. The eighth president of Alverno smiles widely. Walking past the open door, two passers-by slow their pace and peek in. They turn to each other.
“That was her,” one remarks to the other.
The fact that where she’s standing is cause for conversation is amusing to Sister Andrea. Keep in mind that this is the woman who offered her cell phone number to 3,000 people during a May commencement speech at Marywood University in Pennsylvania and distributed it via email to Alverno faculty and staff her first day on the job in July. (For the record, she received 120 texts before she returned to her seat the day of that commencement speech.)
After 18 highly successful years as president of St. Catherine University, Sister Andrea is thrilled to embrace a new challenge at Alverno. Her eyes and ears are open.
"Some doors will close behind you before the next one opens," she explains. "It’s like being on a trapeze. You have to let go of the bar you're on, and there’s that time in the air before you grab the next one coming to you. The key is to see each opportunity as an invitation. You have to jump in and assume you’re going to be a learner and a doer. Or a learner and a creator."
Sister Andrea has been all. She began her career as an elementary school teacher, eventually accepting the request of her religious Congregation to move into higher education at Marygrove College in Detroit. During her 19-year tenure, she served as the grants officer, dean of continuing education, CFO, executive vice president and interim president. Under her leadership, Marygrove became a pioneer in developing allied health programs and innovative adult continuing education and employment training certifications.
The next opportunity was at St. Kate's in the Twin Cities, where as president she led a 30 percent increase in enrollment, brought the women’s college to university status, and helped attract $250 million in private investments to fund growth of academic programs, student scholarships and facilities.
And, now, she will lead Alverno at a time when women's colleges continue to decline in number, despite the research showing that graduates are more likely to assume leadership roles, excel in traditionally male-dominated fields and earn an advanced degree.
"I ask myself: 'Where do I want to put my energy and time?' " Sister Andrea says. "Always, it’s in a place like this."
The Alverno community is already deeply embedded in a strategic planning process, led by the new president, the first step of which occurred in August as part of Institute, an all-college event for faculty and staff. In her remarks, she reminded the college that any work must start with the student and work backward.
To her, success means offering curricular and co-curricular experiences that students need and want, especially ones that prepare them for their lives and lead to higher retention and completion rates. It means looking at new and repackaged degree programs at every level and considering stackable courses and learning experiences. It means a robust career development and internship program tied closely to the workforce needs of Milwaukee, the region and beyond. It means laser focus on mission.
“At Alverno, we believe that women’s voices and women’s ways are essential to good life for people everywhere. That belief absolutely defines us,” she says, noting that innovation might just be the college’s unspoken ninth Ability.
She chooses vibrant words when describing how the college might continue to do so. “Doing innovation well requires dazzling intelligence, courageous risk and intuitive artistry,” she says.
Sister Andrea's family has already visited campus, including her son Lahens (pronounced Lyons), whom she adopted from Haiti when he was 11. Lahens St. Fleur was part of a dance troupe from a Haitian orphanage performing at Marygrove in 1995. When Sister Andrea learned he needed medical care, she approached her religious superiors to allow her to bring him back to the United States. That permission led to his formal adoption, which was finalized in the United States in 2000 with the concurrence of the IHM Sisters and Haitian government.
Haiti remains close to Sister Andrea's heart, and she hopes to take students there in the future.
For now, though, her focus is on Alverno and Milwaukee, where she's eager to expand the college's impact and continue to help students open their own doors, personal or professional.
"I pledge my best efforts to create the Alverno of your most expansive dreams," she says.