Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
In the early 1980s, Stanton McNeely, the future president of the University of Holy Cross (UHC), was a young student at St. Cletus School in Gretna when his father, like so many others who worked in oil-related industries in south Louisiana, was downsized out of a job.
The financial impact on the family was significant, and paying for Catholic school tuition suddenly became a luxury item for the McNeelys.
“The ability for my family to pay was no longer there,” McNeely said.
The blessing was that McNeely’s godmother and aunt – Marianite of Holy Cross Sister Bertilla McNeely – arranged through Marianite Sister Audrey Strassel for her nephew to attend Holy Name of Mary School in Algiers, which was staffed by the Marianite Sisters, beginning in the fifth grade.
“While she was my godmother and my aunt, in many ways she was my mother,” McNeely said of Sister Bertilla, the one-time Marianite provincial and co-founder of the Christ the Healer medical mission in Granada, Nicaragua. “And, of course, I have a hundred aunts (Marianite sisters) out there.”
McNeely graduated and went on to Jesuit High School on a work-study scholarship, funded by the school’s Living Endowment Fund, which helped his family afford the tuition.
“In eighth grade, I was in the cafeteria serving lasagna and Jell-o to 1,300 students who came down the stairwell,” McNeely said, laughing.
Student work varied
Students were needed for various jobs in the work-study program. After his stint in the cafeteria, McNeely worked in the counselor’s office, answered calls at the school’s switchboard and then had experience working in the president’s office, which oversaw the school’s annual alumni giving drive.
Those alumni dollars helped fund the school’s scholarship program – McNeely’s avenue to Carrollton and Banks.
“That’s when I learned about the phone banks and making the calls and the system in the development office,” McNeely said. “I had very patient teachers. I did whatever they told me to do.”
When McNeely was named June 29 to succeed Dr. David “Buck” Landry as president of the University of Holy Cross, it was a major homecoming for someone who had earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting at night at the University of Holy Cross while working 20 hours during the day at the university and 20 hours at Stewart Enterprises in accounting-related jobs.
McNeely then served for 14 years at UHC in various capacities – business professor, assistant to the dean of sciences, director of student affairs, director of admissions and vice president of institutional advancement.
During those working years at UHC, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University New Orleans. He later obtained a doctorate in education from Northcentral University.
For the last two years, McNeely served as president and CEO of the 10-member Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a nonprofit organization representing the state’s nonprofit private colleges and universities. The members are Centenary College, Dillard University, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, Louisiana College, Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, St. Joseph Seminary College, the University of Holy Cross, Tulane University and Xavier University of Louisiana.
“I think it built some great relationships,” McNeely said. “It also gave me some perspectives on resources to support institutions of higher education. It definitely built bridges with government, built bridges with other aspects of higher education, both on the community college level as well as on the public, four-year level and with the Board of Regents.”
That assignment also gave McNeely national exposure, as he traveled frequently to Washington, D.C., for meetings and interacted both with the Louisiana Congressional delegation and members of the U.S. Department of Education.
As someone who benefitted from the kindness of others in procuring a Catholic education, McNeely said he is thrilled that the University of Holy Cross, which currently has an enrollment of about 1,300 students, is by far the least expensive four-year university in the region, with an annual tuition cost of about $9,500.
“It’s the best value in Greater New Orleans,” McNeely said. “It’s a tremendous value. It’s not value just in dollars and cents; it’s value in terms of personalized education – it’s that faculty member knowing you as a person as a freshman or as a transfer student or as someone coming in for a master’s or doctorate and then knowing you years later as an alum.
“It’s also being connected in the community, in the profession, in the service. Our graduates have the professional skills – that’s excellent. They also have excellent impact as committed, values-driven citizens. In the process of living that out, Greater New Orleans sees that.”
The open door
McNeely said his close ties to the Marianites prompted him to choose UHC for college. He had often visited the small campus many times and had developed a relationship with Holy Cross Father Thomas Chambers, the school’s president who was famous for keeping the door to his office wide open for students to drop in whenever they wanted.
McNeely is now in the same office, and he says the lessons he learned from Father Chambers have been deeply imbedded.
“I was blessed, because of my aunt, to come here and learn from Father Chambers, who was a dynamic president and a dynamic leader of Catholic higher education,” McNeely said. “He was a transformational leader for this college and university. Father Chambers in many ways was the catapult of my learning in education.”
He said Father Chambers emphasized in their side talks that being an effective administrator requires an ability “to learn to teach.”
“He said that that teaching and learning process is the core of what we do in a university,” McNeely said. “Of course, in the Catholic intellectual tradition, we do it in a holistic fashion.”
McNeely said he intends to follow Father Chambers’ tradition of regularly walking the halls to stay connected with students, faculty and staff.
“That’s part of our culture here,” McNeely said. “We are a university where the president is a face you do see, in two ways. One is the open-door policy. The other is how Father Chambers practiced management by walking around. So much happens in our formal meetings, but Father learned a lot on the cuff just by seeing people and having conversations, whether it’s students in the hallway or the faculty on faculty row. That complemented the decision-making process. It’s the importance of listening.”
Under the five years of Landry’s leadership, Our Lady of Holy Cross College was transformed into the University of Holy Cross and now offers doctoral programs in education and counseling. The university built its first-ever residence hall, a 115-bed facility, with an eye to expanding its regional enrollment for those interested in superior education but a small campus minutes away from downtown New Orleans.
“We are a Greater New Orleans university,” McNeely said. “It’s good to diversify and expand and become, in many ways, more than a regional university. We are looking to connect from Beaumont to Shreveport to Jackson to the Florida panhandle, a Gulf-South, Mid-South approach to recruitment. That opens up a wealth of opportunities, leveraging New Orleans as a higher-education destination but also giving students the distinctiveness of the Holy Cross experience.”
UHC is in the process of finishing the Health Sciences Center, which will help expand its health sciences programs, particularly a physician assistant’s program for which the university is currently pursuing accreditation.
The university has long been noted for excellence in education, counseling, nursing, theological studies and business, and it is now offering a master of science degree in management.
Of the 1,300 students, about one-third are enrolled in graduate programs, McNeely said. He praised Landry’s “vision and courage … to position this university in a way that it’s going to thrive and blossom in a rapidly changing world.”
McNeely said it feels great to be “home” in the place that in many ways formed his life and professional career.
“I’m really looking forward to building upon the foundation that Dr. Landry established,” McNeely said. “It feels great to be home, and, even more important than that, it’s great to see that the home is alive and well and thriving in the true spirit of what Holy Cross is. That’s great.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.