A year and a half after Dr. Christine Pharr became the 12th president of Mount Mary University, campus life has gone back to its day-to-day: events going on, students are studying and meeting in the cyber cafe, and professors are chatting with each other across office halls, but there’s something new in the mix of the mundane.
A sense of hope, intrigue, and anticipation can be subtly felt. These feelings emanate from anyone who’s come in contact with Pharr since she has became president in July 2017.
“She has a very strong, outgoing personality and it hasn’t wavered since she got here,” said Bryce Katuisimie, Student Government Association vice president and member for three years.
Pharr moved to Milwaukee from Omaha, Nebraska, and had to adjust to a new home as faculty and staff adjusted to their new president.
“I think one of the challenges is trying to represent an institution in a community where you come and you know not a living soul,” Pharr said.
Her first goal was to simply learn about the community, campus, staff and students and what Mount Mary is all about. Her approach: good old conversation.
Vicki Rydell, an eight-year Promise Program coach, can still remember when she first met Pharr.
“A few weeks after we met with her in person, she really wanted the board of directors to meet some of our students, so she brought all of them down,” Rydell said. “There were 30-some people in our offices. They listened to our students.”
Rydell talked about how some organizations weren’t able to provide different snack options to students with food insecurities. Within a couple of weeks, Pharr found funding that would be able to be used throughout the rest of the year for not only Promise Program students, but also two additional campus communities.
Tanya Keenan, an eight-year professor in the English Department, spoke on seeing Pharr involved in a number of activities on campus the moment she arrived.
“She makes an effort,” Keenan said.
After Pharr took interest in a particular event among many local events held on campus, she provided Mount Mary faculty like Keenan with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to attend the annual Fit to a Tea event, which was organized by Jasmine M. Johnson, senior manager at Pfizer and co-founder of 29Eleven.
In a room filled with pointy heels and extravagant, elegant hats, women of color network and discuss health disparities with women of color, while listening to powerful speakers and activists.
Pharr saw that a board member had sponsored a table for the event and decided to sponsor one herself, giving Mount Mary faculty a one-of-a-kind opportunity to attend.
“So I was able to go, I was so grateful…and Dr. Pharr was there,” Keenan said. “I think that was the first time that anyone had gone.”
Pharr shows her desire to engage with the entire campus by attending events such as the Promise Program soiree last year and forums where students, faculty, and staff can ask her questions.
“I’ve probably met with 160 people one-on-one and I have a half an hour conversation with them just to get to know them and learn about their role on campus,” Pharr said.
Though Pharr said that she’s far from done meeting with those who make Mount Mary special, she doesn’t see it as a chore.
Katuisimie commented on how she was positively surprised by the ability for her president to be so attentive in ways as seemingly insignificant as remembering all their names.
“We sent an email to her when she was on vacation at 6 p.m. and she responded at 6:10 p.m.,” Katuisimie said. “Even students aren’t that ready to respond to things so quickly!”
There are many things that the Mount Mary community has learned about President Pharr herself, in a year and a half, that can be attributed to the ways she’s made herself approachable and open.
On her blog that she tries to write every one or two weeks, The Pharr Side, she tells of some quirky things within her personal life which she has seen great response from.
“I will say that where I get the most positive feedback is when I write personal stories about myself,” Pharr said.
Students like Katuisimie have expressed their surprise at the president’s ability to be dedicated to a blog. Rydell also spoke about a famous story Pharr told of how she locked herself outside of her home at night in her pajamas at a time she didn’t even know her new neighbors.
Aside from stories and sharings of academic successes or administrative changes, Pharr believes in the blog’s way of addressing certain topics.
“I try and use (The Pharr Side) to talk about things that I think as a leader I should have a position on, and I should help people think about how they should look at some issues,” Pharr said.
When addressing certain events of controversy, whether it’s on campus, across the nation or around the world, the president acknowledges her duty to have an opinion and leads Mount Mary in an understanding of the standards that are to be held, which is what students such as Katuisimie think is the best thing to do in such situations.
“As a Catholic institution we should respect the individuality of every person, regardless of their race, their socioeconomic class, gender or religion,” Pharr said.
In acknowledging well-being importance and necessity of students’ wellbeing for a university to thrive, she expressed her intolerance of any sort of harassment to students that she knew of.
“We want people to feel like they’re in a safe haven no matter who they are,” Pharr said.
Pharr herself was welcomed in a momentous way. More than 18 School Sisters of Notre Dame from the area casually took her into a room across from her office to share a moment with her.
“They prayed over me, they sang songs, they gave me gifts, and I just sat there with tears streaming down my face … it was just like having God come into my soul and it made me understand how this institution was created,” Pharr said.
Pharr said that she’d never experienced anything such as that, and is reminded every day by the blue jar of kind words and prayers behind her desk.
Sister Joanne Poehlman, SSND, anthropology professor and faculty at Mount Mary for more than 12 years, thought back on leaders like Sister Ellen Lorenz who “guided faculty through curriculum change with our unique Search for Meaning at its core.” She acknowledged Dr. Pharr’s evident support of such things that represent the mission and purpose of Mount Mary.
Pharr, in what she called the capstone of her career, has her own goals to enhance the school while incorporating what Mount Mary stands for.
“Our campus has to be fluent, reaching out, and interweaving the community into our campus (by) getting the word out, and I see that happening,” Keenan said.
With weekly meetings involving faculty in the athletics department to increase team numbers, and with the university’s marketing team to increase graduation rates and finances, she has done her work. Even within SGA, she’s met with students to provide ways for engaging more students in campus life, all for the purpose of revealing to the world the power of students who get an education from Mount Mary.
“Why haven’t we been shouting from the mountain tops how truly special this place is?” Keenan asked. “I think with Dr. Pharr, we have this vocal voice now.”