After nearly a decade of leadership, Dr. Suzanne Mellon is preparing to retire and return to her home city of Detroit. We sat down with Carlow’s 10th president to talk about her tenure, her legacy and what the future holds.
What initially drew you to Carlow?
It wasn’t just one thing. At the time, I had already been in Catholic higher education for some time, and I was drawn to a private institution. In fact, I already had some experience with the Sisters of Mercy while at the University of Detroit Mercy. Carlow’s commitment to the liberal arts and its reputation in the health sciences and social justice were also important.
That Carlow sat in an urban area was important to me, and Pittsburgh was well known for its strong “eds and meds” economy, and as a city that worked well with the private sector.
Has your view changed since then?
Not in the least. I’ve heard others say that Pittsburgh is a big little city, and I find that holds true. You can’t really grasp that until you live here. It’s always been a place that’s willing to take risks and do things in new ways. Pittsburgh is flexible and innovative. People here are genuinely willing to work together to advance the region. This city does collaboration well.
Working closely with the community has been a staple of your leadership. What other achievements come to mind as points of pride?
When I think “achievements,” I always keep in mind that rarely do people achieve anything by themselves. When you can hang your hat on something, it’s usually because of a collective effort. In our case, achievements belong to Carlow as a whole.
In that case, which team efforts shine brightest?
The growth in academic excellence and community engagement come to mind. Carlow’s talented staff, faculty and alumni have all played leading roles in attending to the needs of our students while also being responsive to the community. The Sisters of Mercy have always taken this to heart, asking, “What does the community need right now?” And our Carlow community responds. A great example is the mobilization of our community for the common good during the pandemic. Our University worked hard to ensure that students stayed on track. In fact, we celebrated 871 new graduates during this time.
Tell us more about your academic approach
Academics is the heart of the University. I’ve remained focused on assuring we have a strong liberal arts foundation embedded in all of our curriculum. It’s important to ensure that our graduates have the essential competencies and critical thinking skills needed for success. We are also very focused on building high-quality programs that align with the needs of the workforce, while also grounded in our mission. Values-based education produces terrific leaders.
We’ve made strategic investments that have allowed for significant program growth at Carlow.
Apropos to that are our four new graduate health science programs. These new programs build upon our strengths and position us to offer a growing portfolio of options to students. We must always be looking at where we want to be five, 10 years from now.
Forward thinking has also allowed you to swiftly address social justice issues.
That’s right. We built up the Social Justice Institutes, established the Atkins Center for Ethics, which provides students with an important framework, and established the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Equity work is something we take seriously. It’s vital that we continue to push and really advocate for underrepresented populations. We recently elevated this to the board level by creating a Special Board of Trustees and Presidential Strategic Planning Antiracism Task Force strategic plan to develop a long-term strategy for Carlow to lead on these issues
Part of your legacy will include capital improvements on campus. How has this impacted the University?
I’m especially gratified by the results of our enhancements to the campus. I underestimated the “power of place.” The University Commons, for example, was our former library. In its transformation, the building was essentially gutted and has become the center of campus life. Similarly, the renovation of St. Joe’s Hall is just beautiful and has added a contemporary athletic and fitness center for students. It is used by all our students, from the children at the campus school to our many athletic teams.
I would also be remiss if I left out our state-of-the-art Celtic Simulation Center for Innovative Learning, which offers valuable simulation labs for our nursing students. Providing this sort of realistic training gives Carlow students a competitive edge. Once they enter the workforce, they’ll already be familiar with scenarios they may encounter in a hospital environment.
You’ve also placed significant emphasis on growing Carlow University athletics.
I have, and it was the impetus for the new fitness center. We now have 14 men’s and women’s sports teams but do not have fields of our own. We’re a small campus, which is part of the trade-off. I believe athletics creates a pathway for undergraduate students who want to continue experiencing the connection of sports during college, including those who are not on teams but want to take fitness classes or work out. It fosters a tangible sense of camaraderie and connectedness, and athletes tend to be very good students.
Moving forward, what do you feel is most vital for Carlow?
As we emerge out of the pandemic, we’re in a time when universities will need to continue responding to an accelerating pace of change and be willing to transform themselves to use new technologies and address changing student needs. It’s essential to be nimble when pursuing our goals and engaged in the community to understand the workforce and the community. I’ve always enjoyed this part of leadership—the push forward to advance Carlow’s mission.
A favorite quote of mine is by Cardinal John Henry Newman—“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
What will you miss most about Carlow?
Being with students, alumni, faculty and staff in person. Our community. While this time has been transformative in a lot of ways, I think we’ve all experienced the loss to campus life this past year. Before the pandemic, I would regularly head to the cafeteria and have lunch with students. It was great to hear what was on their minds, and I’ve really missed this.
What are your plans for retirement?
As those who know me well have noted, I have a lot of energy and need to be engaged and productive. I will continue serving on several boards, be active in higher education and do some executive coaching. Like everyone else I have some catching up to do with my family coming out of the pandemic, and I’m really looking forward to spending time with my children and grandchildren. I’ll be returning to my hometown in Michigan where I have friends and family and many interests I’ve put on the backburner. I’m looking forward to it. Friends have suggested I avoid rushing into too many commitments. I think I’ll take that to heart.
“Dr. Mellon has been the epitome of a servant leader. She came to the University and immediately analyzed what we needed, and then promptly developed a strategic vision to propel us to the next level of achievement. She worked very hard to become integrated into the City of Pittsburgh and the Southwestern Pennsylvania region and to become an influential voice. Through her skilled and impactful leadership, she elevated the University’s profile in areas in which we excel academically, and she advocated our Mercy mission beyond our traditional reach. She always leads by example and is dedicated in her commitment to our students and their academic and workforce successes…continued ” — Dorothy A. Davis, JD ’78, Chair, Board of Trustees
“Dr. Mellon is leaving an indelible mark on the University, having impacted every area of the institution, from the physical campus, to the academic colleges, to athletics, the endowment, and our community. The focus of her agenda has always been our students and assuring them of a high-quality education and 21st-century skills infused with Carlow’s Catholic Mercy values. She is a woman of deep faith and integrity, and she not only sets an example through her leadership, she raises the bar for all of us. We have been guided by her conviction that our values and our community are our most critical asset. They enable us to prepare Carlow students to navigate the complexities of the modern world and to contribute to making it a better place. I know she has made all of us better.” — Shawn Nelson, Chief of Staff
“I have appreciated how much Dr. Mellon values the input of the students here on campus, whether they are undergraduate, graduate, adult or transfer students. She wants to make sure our voices are heard, and I was excited that she asked me to be on the Strategic Plan Innovation and Renewal Committee. Typically, universities don’t ask students to take part in this type of committee, but she felt it was important to have student input. Thanks to Dr. Mellon advocating for student involvement, I had the opportunity to be exposed to new learning opportunities, and I gained experience that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.” — Yousef Tamimi, Senior Biology Major