Nyre discusses time at Iona, the future

Dana Ruby, Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Joseph E. Nyre, a first generation college student, served in the Navy for six years to help him afford college through the G.I. Bill. In total, Nyre went to school for higher education while working full time for 12 years. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, earned his master’s degree from the University of Missouri, got two doctorates from the University of Kansas and participated in post-doctoral fellowships for clinical psychology at the University of Kansas and Harvard Medical School. He went on to work as a faculty member at the University of Kansas, Baylor University and the Harvard Medical School.

He then went back to his home state of Illinois to run a university-affiliated institute that provided services to children with complex disabilities, trained medical personnel and teachers, helped contribute to the creation of hospitals and clinics across the state, and founded state and federal legislation at the same time that President Obama was serving as senator for the state. Nyre then knew after eight years of serving as president of this institute that he wanted to be president of a college. After searching for the right fit, he was inaugurated as the eighth president of Iona College in 2011.

The Ionian’s Dana Ruby sat down with Dr. Nyre to talk about his time at Iona, how his family is reacting to the move and his new job at Seton Hall University.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.


DR: Why did you want to become the president of Iona?

JN: I’ve always been connected and working as either a faculty member or as an administrator at some capacity with higher ed, and I knew after eight years of being the president of the institute that I was going to become a college president, the question was what type of college and where? And who would think I should be their president too, as it goes both ways. My interest was primarily a faith-based institution, and I am Catholic…I was then recruited from a search firm into the Iona search. I got to know Iona better by coming anonymously and walking around campus; I came in without a suit on, just kind of like someone walking off the street. I could have been an adjunct faculty member, I could have been anyone–and I met a security guard, who has now passed away, but he was so proud and welcoming that I said to myself, “Wow, that’s strange.” It was almost like it was scripted, but it wasn’t…I walked through campus just meeting employees and students, and just kind of talking to people, and I found that the same spirit was repeated. I was trying to find a college that was faith based that was trying to live its mission in an authentic way. I called my wife, and I said ‘I think this is one of the places we should rank high on our list, and see what happens.’ Jim Hynes was chairing that search, and I met him and Bob LaPenta through the search process, and it turned out, we think, to be a pretty good fit.


DR: You were the first lay [non-brother] president of Iona. How did this affect how you approached the position as well as your actual time as president?

JN: It still weighs on me day to day, because I think a natural question when you have your first lay president or non-clergy [president] is whether or not the Catholic identity of the institution is going to suffer. Across the country, you see more and more lay leaders in Catholic education, both K-12 and higher ed, but it weighs on me. But the brothers, one, embraced me, which was wonderful, and number two, the brothers helped me understand–and I think they’re right–that the Catholic identity of the institution rests in no singular person’s hands. It’s a collective responsibility. Initially, I had a team of brother advisers my first few years that I could ask questions to, bounce ideas off of, gain historical context. Then, over time, I went down to a singular Christian brother adviser, but I think a pretty important part of understanding Iona is having the brothers to be there to provide advice and feedback… I pray that there’s a brother president [at Iona] again someday, because that means the brothers by way of their vocations are doing well. I think that’s a great result, but I think it’s going to be some time until that happens.


DR: Your family – the first “first family” of Iona’s presidents – has spent the past eight years growing up and living here. What are their feelings about leaving Iona?

JN: They have loved being here. It’s a great place to be, and the students have embraced my family. My son, who is 15, was 7 when we moved here…and my oldest, who’s going off to college this year, was 10. We had one child here, Evelyn. She’s 6, so we like to say she’s our only native New Yorker. They love being on this campus, and I think a big part of that is how they’re treated, which comes back to the people. I think it was helpful to us that there hadn’t been another “first family” so there wasn’t a clear set of expectations that we had to fit our lives into. But my son Charlie, when we sat down to talk about leaving, his first question was, “Hey, we’re not losing the house? We’re not moving, right? We’re going to live here, you’re just going to be president somewhere else?” and I’m like, “Eh, we’re going to move.” So I think that was the hardest thing for him to swallow.


DR: What were some of your favorite moments from the past eight years at Iona?

JN: There are a few. There’s a lot of great days, that’s the benefit of being on campus. When the students aren’t here–on breaks, the summer–it’s just not the same. Most of them [favorite moments] are student-oriented; one is commencement every year. I think we do commencement well. I think that the ceremony itself is a very special ceremony, and it’s the culmination of everyone’s efforts…I also think Iona’s Coffeehouse is pretty unique. Having played in a college rock band as an undergrad, I played in many places that weren’t always that friendly. I think the support from the students to their colleagues at Coffeehouse is great. Every once in a while you get someone up there that’s pretty nervous, or is kind of early in their talent maturation, and the students embrace them. I played one Coffeehouse. I played guitar with a student, and then I played one Spring Weekend on the steps of Spellman, and those are some special things that are just unique that you get to do with students. Most of my fondest memories are my interactions with students. I didn’t know that the college had worked hard to bring all the former SGA presidents to the Gala…so that was a pretty special moment just recently. I also think that move-in days are pretty cool here, especially students coming for the first time. It’s a special day, and all of our students help out, our athletes help out and my kids are helping move people in. I think that’s a pretty great day at this college. Those are some of the highlights.


DR: What is one thing that you want the Iona community to remember about you?

JN: I hope I’m remembered for a couple things. I hope that people that were here when I was here will say that he was present and that he cared about us. If I’m remembered for that, that would be pretty great. I’m proud of how the community came together on college affordability; we continued all levels of scholarship and we tried to curb tuition increases. I still think college is expensive, but being able to put more and more money towards scholarships at the college is something I think is a value-driven proposition; it says ‘this is what’s important to us.’ I hope they [the Iona community] look back and think, ‘Hey, he was president, he cared about us and he was accessible, and I knew who my president was.’


DR: What will you miss the most about Iona?

JN: The people, hands down.


DR: What do you hope to see continue at Iona?

JN: I think three simple things but important things: [number one] mission, number two, the student focus and number three, academic innovation. I think it’s really important that we continue to refine our academic programs and launch new programs that have a liberal arts root, but ensure that students are prepared for careers and lives they are going to enjoy.


DR: Why did you decide to go on to Seton Hall University after eight years at Iona? What contributed to this decision?

JN: It’s one of those difficult decisions, but I have been clear to students in the past, and to the board and to others is that I think seven to 10 years is about the right time frame. That’s just my personal orientation of leadership. I think that’s the arc that works well, at least for me. I think that if you stay too long, either one of two things can happen: There’s a law of diminishing return where you aren’t contributing as much as someone who is fresh, with new ideas and new ways to approach this college, and I think, number two, sometimes in colleges and universities across the country, if you have really long serving leaders, the power balance and the checks and balances aren’t as strong as they need to be. I think that colleges deserve new leadership every seven to 10 years, that’s just my orientation.


DR: What is your involvement in helping transition the next president of Iona to the role?

JN:  They are looking to elect a new president in May or June, “they” being the search committee and the board. The search committee has student representation, faculty, staff and alumni, and they recommend the final candidates to the board, and the board ultimately elects [someone]. I am not on the search committee, and that would be improper–it makes sense that I’m not–but we will greet the finalists, show them the house and share our greetings on behalf of the college. Then, my commitment to the board and to the ninth president is if they ever need to talk or want to consult or want to call me about anything, I will always pick up the phone and I am here for Iona forever. You never have a last day, right? It’s really to the extent that the ninth president feels that they would like to speak with me, but I won’t intercede or intrude. The next president has to have their own leadership space, to make the decisions that they think are best for the college, and I respect that greatly.