School of Thought
Marymount University president Matt Shank pitches service, worldliness and the occasional curveball.
MATT SHANK had never even heard of Marymount University until he met one of its alumna at a Christmas party in Ohio in 2010. Soon after, in an odd bit of serendipity, he was contacted by a recruiter about a job opening at the school. The position? President.
A native Midwesterner, (he grew up in St. Louis and lived in Cincinnati for 20 years), Shank was serving as dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Dayton when he got the call.
Three months later he was in Arlington, forming a task force of more than 300 students, faculty, staff and alumni to discern Marymount’s core values and vision. Just how would the Catholic school, founded by nuns 64 years ago, continue to define and distinguish itself? The task force agreed upon three pillars: intellectual curiosity, service to others and a global perspective.
As the sixth president in the university’s history, Shank is now pushing that agenda. In 2012, Marymount introduced a study-abroad program that has taken biology students to Belize, art students to Greece, forensic psychology majors to London, education and nursing students to Costa Rica, and psychology and sociology students to Kenya. This fall, students in the program will study in one of nine different countries, from Argentina to the United Arab Emirates.
In July, the university instituted a philanthropic paid time-off policy that encourages faculty and staff to volunteer in the community. Shank leads by example, serving on 11 different boards, including those of Leadership Arlington and the Arlington Community Foundation.
Marymount has come a long way since its founding in 1950. Back then, the historic “Main House”—which now contains Shank’s office—housed the entire campus community, including 13 female students and the nuns who taught them liberal arts and secretarial skills. (One of the founding nuns still lives on the top floor of the Georgian-style manor, which was originally the home of Teddy Roosevelt’s personal physician before it became collegiate property.)
Today, the 21-acre campus off North Glebe Road also includes a gym, a restaurant, a library and 10 additional buildings that serve as classrooms, offices and dormitories for nearly 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
Shank is no slouch on the academic front. He holds a B.S. in psychology from the University of Wyoming, as well as a master’s in psychology and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He lives within walking distance of Marymount’s campus with his wife, Lynne, and their twin 7-year-old daughters, who attend McLean Montessori School.
What is a typical day like for you?
That’s hard to answer because every day is different and there are so many constituent groups that I interact with. Those include staff, students, business and government leaders, prospective students and their parents. Four to five nights a week I go to events that are either direct fundraising events or events that are going to help produce connections for Marymount. I try to work out in the fitness facility on campus between my last meeting and the evening event.
Marymount didn’t become coed until 1986. What’s the gender ratio now?
Today our student body is still about 70 percent female. A third of the population in this region doesn’t know that we’re coed, according to our latest marketing study. There are still a lot of misperceptions about Marymount, the number of programs we have and the number of students we have, so a big part of my job is to try to generate more awareness.
What are you doing to attract more male students?
We’re adding men’s sports, for one thing. We’ve added baseball. I’m a little bit of a baseball fan, in case you can’t tell.
The memorabilia in your office kind of gives that away. Did you play in college?
I was a starting pitcher at the University of Tulsa (which I attended for one year) and then at the University of Wyoming.
What’s your favorite MLB team?
The St. Louis Cardinals. There’s not even a close second. I root for the Nats too, since they are in a different division. I only root against them when they are playing the Cards.
What’s your most prized possession?
The baseballs signed by Hall of Famers certainly have monetary value, but I’d have to say it’s a baseball signed by the entire Marymount baseball team. It was used in our first win in the history of the program—a 3-0 win against Averett University in the second game of a double-header. Spring 2014 was our inaugural season for baseball.
You also added men’s volleyball this year, correct?
Yes. And we added men’s and women’s triathlon. Marymount is a Division III school, but we’re the first in the country to add triathlon at any division. The way it works is that once there are 15 varsity triathlon teams, the NCAA will start to have championships. Right now we compete against other colleges, but they’re not varsity teams.
They’re similar to club teams. However, there’s been lots of discussion and I’m sure some of the other schools will soon take the plunge.
Are there other benefits to introducing more sports on campus?
Most of our athletes are great students with high incoming GPAs and high SAT scores. Athletes are retained at higher rates, meaning they’re less likely to transfer. Student-athletes also tend to be leaders on campus in many ways. We are raising more money for athletics than ever before.
Can you elaborate on Marymount’s vision of service?
Service to others is paramount to any Catholic university. We especially want to encourage our students, faculty and staff to serve the community. That community could be Arlington or it could be the region or it could be the world. This year students, faculty and staff will participate in Volunteer Service Day, an on-campus event on Aug. 23.
We are going to make 2,000 care packages for foster care students around the country. We also have a number of service-abroad programs, volunteer programs and classes that integrate academic pursuits with service to the community.
Marymount was named in a 2014 list of “Best Colleges for Veterans” by U.S. News & World Report. How so?
This recognition is based on the assistance we provide to veterans and their family members to make the transition to university life as smooth as possible. We offer a broad range of career services, and we are raising money to promote veteran scholarships. Today I’m meeting with Robin Kelleher, president and CEO of Hope for the Warriors.
Marymount students hail from 70 different countries. Is that the result of a concerted effort?
Historically we’ve not really been proactive in recruiting international students, but because of our location and word of mouth, they come to Marymount. Those students have a good experience and spread the word, so our graduates end up doing a lot of the recruiting for us.
What percent of your student population is Catholic?
About 53 percent. However, we have students of every ethnic background, every religious background. We are the second most diverse regional university in the South after UNC-Pembroke [per U.S. News & World Report].
Do you go to church?
My wife and I belong to Saint Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, but we attend Mass at Marymount’s Sacred Heart of Mary Chapel. I usually start each day at 7:30 a.m. Mass. The chapel is attached to my office building, so I don’t even have to walk outside.
That makes it harder to skip Mass.
Yes, it is hard to miss. Talk about Catholic guilt.
Upon arriving on Marymount’s campus for this interview, Arlington-based freelance writer Jenny Sokol got a kick out of informing the guards at the gate that she was, “Here to see the president.” To learn more about Marymount’s historic Rixey Mansion (aka the “Main House”), visit www.arlingtonmagazine.com/July-August-2012/Rixey-Mansion.