A wry sense of humor, an impeccable resume, and an appreciation of community
by Will Lindner
John J. Neuhauser, the president of St. Michael’s College in Colchester, jokes that he’s probably never applied for a job in his life. Indeed, called to be interim president in 2007, he has stayed on, to the delight of those who know him.
John J. Neuhauser’s admirers in the St. Michael’s College community in Colchester frequently express a sense of gratitude, bordering on amazement, that their college’s president would deign to lead a small, Catholic, liberal arts college in northern Vermont after a 37-year career at Boston College, one of the largest and most successful Jesuit institutions in the United States.
As the former academic vice president of an urban university with a 14,000-student enrollment, Neuhauser, 70, is something of a big fish from a big pond. But the simple answer for anyone wondering why he would accept what he considered an interim appointment at St. Michael’s in 2007, and stay put ever since, is that he likes it here.
“I had driven through Burlington a lot in the past,” says Neuhauser, “but I had not spent much time. I hadn’t had the leisure to watch the sun set over the Adirondacks. There are days when it’s drop-dead gorgeous. I had underestimated how much fun Burlington is: There are great restaurants, great art, the Flynn Theatre, walking and biking along the waterfront. I will never tire of driving to the harbor in Charlotte, just to see it, and then turn around and drive back.”
Certainly it’s not only these lifestyle attractions that interest Neuhauser. It is the special nature of a college that fosters a sense of community and cohesion by requiring students to live on campus (exceptions can be made for married students and a very few others), a goal at the heart of the dedication, in October, of the new Dion Family Student Center and Quad Commons Residential Hall.
“It’s a magnificent building, and it was Jack’s vision,” says Ernie Pomerleau, St. Michael’s Class of 1969 and president of Pomerleau Real Estate, who serves on the college’s board of directors and chaired the three-year construction project. “Jack saw the student center as a place to bring people together and create a greater sense of solidarity on campus.”
Neuhauser is further inspired by the challenge of guiding St. Michael’s successfully through what he describes as a transition — perhaps even a shakeout — in American higher education. Factors that might be considered “disadvantages” in any such competition are that St. Michael’s is relatively small (2,000 undergraduates); that it’s situated in the demographically challenged Northeast (a declining population of 18-year-olds); and that it offers a liberal arts curriculum in an era emphasizing more practical pursuits.
“The Obama Administration is looking at a number of scorecards” for assessing colleges and universities, Neuhauser explains. “One of the things they look at is starting salaries for graduates. If you have as many English and philosophy majors as we have, you don’t expect them to have high starting salaries. You’re trying to teach people about an entirely different way of life.”
Poignantly, Neuhauser adds, “A lot of the people who are most content by far are not the wealthiest people I’ve met.”
Being (even reluctantly) a big fish in an intimate community has its disadvantages. It can be like living in a fish bowl. “There’s always somebody who knows who you are,” he laments. “By nature I’m not a very public person.”
Somehow his notoriety is more palatable in Guilford, in southern Windham County, where he has owned a farmhouse and 70 acres since the 1980s, using the property as a weekend retreat. “There, I’m just known as somebody who doesn’t know how to take care of a farm.”
Such self-deprecation is Neuhauser’s stock-in-trade.
Neuhauser grew up in Elmont, N.Y., just over the border from New York City in Nassau County, where his family moved when he was 6. He attended grammar school in Elmont but returned to Brooklyn every day by subway to attend Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, graduating in 1960. His fondest memory of the daily commute was working on the Herald Tribune crossword puzzles, an easy distraction from his Latin homework.
He went on to attend Manhattan College (“which is in the Bronx,” he points out), and became a physics major because, he claims, someone in high school had told him he should. That led him into mathematics, and to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he earned a doctorate in operations research and statistics, and was offered a job after graduating.
“It was the early days of computer science,” says Neuhauser. “My field was sort of math, sort of science.”
While the discipline escaped easy classification, it was definitely growing and evolving. In the late 1960s Neuhauser’s wife took a job in Boston. The couple had two small children, Karen and Ken; eventually a second son, John, was born in Sudbury, Mass.. Neuhauser and his wife divorced in the mid 1990s, and have remained friends. He did not remarry.
“Colleges were booming,” he recalls, “and people who knew a little about applied mathematics were having a pretty easy time finding work.” That was his case at BC, and the surprising part, to Neuhauser, was that he landed within the School of Management. “It was essentially a business school,” he marvels. “I’d never taken a business course in my life!”
Boston College had flirted with bankruptcy early in the 1970s, and although it was founded as a Jesuit school around 1863, Neuhauser says the clerical presence, while still significant, had grown smaller. In the mid ’70s, BC experienced a resurgence in attendance, in prestige, and prosperity.
As for the Jesuit connection — which became a link for Neuhauser to St. Michael’s some three decades later — he says, “For a long time they were the intellectual avant-garde of the Catholic Church, and were quite liberal in their view of the world. Still, I had had no experience with Jesuits.”
In looking back at life, Neuhauser observes, “One has a tendency to reconstruct it as if it had been carefully planned. For me, it was not that way at all. They made me chair of the department of computer science at a young age, and several years later the dean of the business school left suddenly and the academic vice president, whom I happened to know because we walked our dogs together, asked me if I would serve on an interim basis. I had no aspiration to be in administration.”
Once in administration, however, he apparently made a positive impression. The “interimship” came and went, and in 1999 he was asked to become academic vice president. Functionally, according to John Kenney, professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s College, this meant Neuhauser was virtually running BC, because the Jesuit president’s duties were less campus-focused.
The three or so years that he anticipated serving as vice president extended into seven, and when he finally got his wish to return to teaching, it was a struggle because he was (in his words) “30 years out of date” in his discipline.
Meanwhile, however, seeds were sprouting for Neuhauser in Vermont — in his garden in Guilford, where he retreated at every opportunity, with his children and, later, grandchildren in tow; but also in Colchester. In 2002 a former student had recruited him to join St. Michael’s board of directors, to provide the academic perspective that collegiate boards like, to complement the financial expertise brought by other directors. Neuhauser drove up for quarterly meetings, and enjoyed visiting Burlington.
Late in 2006, St. Michael’s President Marc vanderHeyden retired, and, says Neuhauser, “the board chair asked me, if the search [for a replacement] went poorly, would I consider being an interim president.”
If it sounds like there’s a theme here, there is. “I’ve probably never applied for a job in my life,” Neuhauser observes.
He took office in 2007. The “interim” title evaporated and Neuhauser admits he has enjoyed the job more than he ever anticipated. Board member Pomerleau notes that by happenstance, Neuhauser’s presidency dawned just before the onset of the devastating recession of 2008.
“We were fortunate to have him at the helm,” says Pomerleau. “Jack is very solid financially. He had to pare things back, but he is very transparent, so people — the faculty, the administration, the board, the entire college — could see what we were doing and why. He has very quiet power, and a great deal of dignity. Plus, Jack is a delightful human being.”
Religion professor Kenney’s perspective on Neuhauser’s presidency is somewhat different. To him, Neuhauser brings a connection to the great Jesuit intellectual and educational tradition that extends back to the founding of Georgetown University in 1792. That tradition, Kenney says, has made leading institutions of Georgetown, Loyola, and Fordham universities and many others as well, with St. Michael’s joining the ranks.
“This is a guy who has been a major player in a prominent Catholic institution,” says Kenney. “It’s a terrific opportunity for St. Michael’s to have someone with such experience and such a steady hand — a good steward for difficult times, looking over the horizon to the challenges ahead for higher education nationally. He’s helping the institution think creatively about meeting those challenges.”
The good news for Kenney, Pomerleau, and others who admire Neuhauser’s leadership is that he recently lopped off three more years of any lingering “interim” perception about his employment. Last June Neuhauser signed a contract extending his presidency through the academic year 2016. In so doing he continued his record of never having actually applied for a job.