Challenge is no match for Iona College President Joseph E. Nyre, PhD, whose tenure has revived campus morale and strengthened community relationships. Perhaps most significantly, Iona has earned back respect within, and outside, its locale.
Less than one month after his July 2011 inauguration, Nyre learned from employees that Iona had falsified various data to its accreditor, the US Department of Education, and state agencies. Following Nyre’s immediate response, Iona adopted a transparency policy and effected corrective measures to safeguard the integrity of student data.
A review and subsequent inquiry by an outside law firm and an auditor revealed the college’s former provost, Warren Rosenberg, a 30-year Iona veteran, had falsified and manipulated data, including acceptance and yield rates, SAT scores, and alumni giving rates. “It wasn’t how I intended to transition,” the soft-spoken Nyre, 45, says of his early days as Iona’s eighth president. “Transition is how you lead, build trust and momentum, and reflects how you enter a new situation.”
Though Nyre believes succeeding Brother James A. Liguori as Iona’s first lay president begins a new chapter in the college’s 74-year history, he still has some nostlagia for the past. In his first few days at the college, Nyre put Brother Driscoll’s (Iona’s sixth president from 1971 to 1995) desk in his office, and made sure to keep Liguori’s negotiating table in the President’s office. “It’s an immense responsibility, to all of us, to ensure commitment to the Christian Brothers and their commitment to service,” says Nyre, who, along with Iona Board of Trustees Chairman James Hynes, hosted a dinner for about 30 Christian Brothers at their St. Joseph’s Residence in New Rochelle in February. A devout Catholic, Nyre believes people and situations are drawn together for a purpose. “We’re exposed to challenges in life, and are brought to where our skills are needed.”
Those skills were put to use early, as Nyre overturned financial and legal snafus during his first two years. Still, Nyre says his biggest test is “the stress and resulting change in the higher education sector” by way of money, technology (online education), and changing demographics. Yet he’s managed to grab students’ attention via more than 30 campus-wide town-hall meetings, improved town and student relations, and intra- and inter-college communications since taking office. “Without question or hesitation, the most enjoyable part of being a college president is leading, participating in, experiencing, and witnessing the transformative nature and power of education on young men and women,” Nyre says.
Despite Nyre’s immediate action and subsequent positive results—the school’s endowment had increased by 75 percent; its annual giving by 66 percent; and Iona Forever, its largest campaign supporting scholarships, endowed professorships, academic programs, and improved facilities, was under way—Iona was still excluded from Forbes magazine’s 2013 rankings of America’s colleges and universities.
“Joe stepped into a situation that had some challenges but also a lot of wonderful people to work with,” says Baylor University Associate Professor Eric L. Robinson about his longtime friend. “He’s a genuine person, and has the leadership skills people look for.” The two met while pursuing their PhDs in school psychology at the University of Kansas. After Iona chose Nyre from more than 60 candidates, Robinson took a one-year leave of absence from Baylor to become his chief of staff and aid his transition.
Engaging; trustworthy; present to the students, faculty, and staff; and an academic leader, Nyre has a willingness to “roll up his sleeves and implement strategy,” which are hallmarks of his presidency, Trustees Chairman Hynes says.
Seniors Andrew Casalino and Student Government Association (SGA) President Jaclyn Shearer watched the campus become more student-centered under Nyre. “We feel more informed and involved,” Shearer says. Casalino was invited to dinner at Nyre’s New Rochelle home and was impressed by his concern for students and the campus community. Their guitar duet at the Office of Mission and Ministry’s biannual Coffee House in February 2013 received thunderous applause. “Dr. Nyre had seen me play on campus and reached out to me, and we planned it within a few weeks,” Casalino says.
“Through his initiation, Dr. Nyre never failed to stop and ask how things were going, how he could do better,” Shearer says, crediting his compassion and support for guiding the school through trying times. “We’ve gone through a lot during his tenure—hurricanes and a student dying [fall 2012]. It could have brought the campus down, and didn’t.”
A personal triumph over stuttering helped frame his career and exemplifies Nyre’s strength and courage. “As a young child, I prayed to God at night about jobs for people who struggled greatly to talk,” he recalls. “If I told you back then I wanted to be a college president or a child psychologist, well, it wouldn’t have been a wise choice.”
Luckily for Iona, the Wisconsin native never gave up his dream, first earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse before moving on to obtain an MA in Educational and Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri, then finally receiving his PhD in School Psychology from the University of Kansas. “One of his sayings is, ‘It’s not that we have problems, it’s how we overcome them and rise to the challenge,’” says Senior Policy Advisor and Chief of Staff MaryEllen Callaghan.
Prior to his post at Iona, Nyre was president of The Hope Institute for Children and Families in Illinois, providing services to children and young adults with multiple developmental disabilities. He helped grow the institute into a 31-agency and university consortium serving some 300,000 people. Two years ago, the nonprofit center named its first on-campus residence Nyre Home in his honor.
Iona has grown physically, intellectually, and culturally, “and that’s what colleges strive to do,” Professor Robinson says. He described Nyre’s willingness to hold frequent meetings with faculty, staff, administrators, and students “as somewhat rare, but refreshing and very important.
In 2013, Iona, which boasts more than 4,000 students, experienced one of its largest incoming classes in the past 10 years— reversing a six-year undergraduate enrollment decline—and broke the top 100 in the PayScale 2013 national ranking of colleges and universities based on ROI (moving from 166 up to 88).
Incoming freshmen last year paid less money out-of-pocket than the previous year’s freshman, and Iona gave $42 million in scholarship money this year. One of Nyre’s goals is to increase the speed of degree attainment, whereby students finish college in three or three and a half years.
Master plan projects approved by the Board of Trustees include a new building for the Hagan School of Business, expansion and renovation of the science building, creation of a performing arts venue, and an expanded and reconfigured sports complex. Last fall, the college purchased adjacent property at 654 North Avenue (Cannone’s Pizza and Campus Wings USA), and, more recently, acquired The Mirage Diner (formerly the College Diner) and an adjacent parking lot with plans to turn the space into a new residence hall/mixed-use commercial facility.
Senior Director of Marketing Communications Todd Wilson, who’s worked with several colleges and universities in the last three decades, thinks it’s one of the most ambitious plans he’s ever seen. “Iona is positioning itself to meet students’ needs now and in the future,” he says.
Last July, the college opened the first and only Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) program at an academic institution. Six months later, Iona realized a satellite campus at Rockefeller Center, which is just one of six public relations degree programs accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) in New York State, and the only graduate program between Washington DC and Boston that offers a degree solely in public relations.
“Satellite campuses invest resources in the local community so the college can benefit while rejuvenating and revitalizing the area,” Nyre says. When one of Iona’s Gael Express Shuttle buses was removed from the budget last year, “Dr. Nyre met with me,” student Shearer says, “and outlined specific steps, a diplomatic approach, for getting it back.”
As chair of the Westchester County Association’s Higher Education Committee, Nyre believes service impacts the community. “Whether doing midnight runs to feed the homeless or installing a water-purification system in Africa, we want our students engaged in service,” he says.
Despite professional demands on his time, the father of four balances work with family time. “My wife is an art-history buff, and when my then-youngest son was 3, we went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,” he recalls. The Big Apple, Nyre says, is “an incredible place. There’s no place like it on Earth. Frank Sinatra had it right.” Relaxing for Nyre means “going some distance away from the area—skiing, Cape Cod, which my children love.”
His day begins with a 5:30 am alarm, which allows private family time before a daily conversation with Chief of Staff Callaghan. “We touch base on the day and priorities, and our call eases my commute from Somers,” she says.
“Our [college’s] response was exemplary of its mission integrity,” Nyre says of the challenges that greeted his presidency. “We’re doing well now, so, in a lot of ways, it was a call to management.”
Janie Rosman, freelance writer and enterprise reporter, believes everyone has a story and needs someone to tell it. She chronicles the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project at Kaleidoscope Eyes (www.nykeypad.wordpress.com).