When Judith Greig became president of Notre Dame de Namur University in February 2009, her mandate was clear: Raise money and increase enrollment. The timing, though, could hardly have been worse. How do you grow amid a recession that makes just holding on difficult? To top it off, this fall, the number of students at the Belmontbased school asking for increased financial aid spiked to more than 100— versus the dozen or so who typically request such help in a normal year.
And yet, for the small Catholic school about 20 miles north of Santa Clara, tough economic times haven’t thwarted an increase in enrollment from fewer than 1,500 students to more than 1,600 this year. The uptick marked a crucial reversal in a five-year- decline in enrollment that had caused some to question whether the 158-yearold school could survive at all.
“To maintain and grow enrollment by more than 100 in the current financial environment has just been huge,” says Greig. She credits an all-out effort by alumni, professors, and staff who followed up with interested students and showed Notre Dame’s strengths. Greig herself was serving as acting president at the time, a role she assumed in January 2008.
Even in lean times, Notre Dame has plenty to offer, Greig says. With its small classes, degree-completion programs, and a well-established reputation in specializations such as art therapy, Notre Dame is a natural home for undergraduates looking for extra attention or for working professionals wanting to bolster their résumés. The school also supports those who serve the community. Scores of area police officers have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Notre Dame, while many local teachers hold credentials from the school. But for others, Greig admits, the school has often fallen below the radar.
“We’re the best-kept secret on the Peninsula,” she says.
Not that it’s hard to find the Notre Dame campus. The way is practically signposted by one of Silicon Valley’s most looming landmarks. Take U.S. 101 to Belmont and exit where Oracle Corp.’s gleaming glass towers reach skyward. Then drive into the nearby foothills.
The university, though, is worlds away from the high-tech bustle. The 50-acre campus is forested with pine, oak, and eucalyptus, and deer still graze in the meadows as they did when the school’s signature building— the opulent Ralston Hall—was built as a country estate in 1864. The tranquility makes it easy to guess why the Sisters of Notre Dame moved their college from San Jose to the site in 1923.
Greig arrived at NDNU in 1988, holding a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Wheaton College in Illinois, a master’s in reading education from Santa Clara, and a master’s in philosophy and Ph.D. in the philosophy of education from Stanford. When she was offered the position at Notre Dame, she didn’t want to accept; she was seven months pregnant. But the position would allow her to teach many of her interests, including the psychological foundations of teaching.
More than 20 years later, Greig’s appreciation for Notre Dame goes well beyond the classroom, just as her responsibilities have soared. Initially, she confesses, she wasn’t sure she had all the skills to lead the school. Fundraising, for one, doesn’t come naturally. But Sr. Veronica Skillin, who headed the school from 1980 to 1994—the last nun to do so— thought differently. She told Greig to speak from the heart and tell the Notre Dame story. And few people are more qualified to tell that story. Greig’s roles at the school had already included professor and provost.
“She is very quiet and very contained,” Sr. Skillin says of Greig. “She is like a stream that runs very, very smoothly, but there is all kinds of life underneath.”
She is also busy; when asked to name hobbies, she stalls—then says there’s the rare skiing trip.
Solidarity with the sisters
Her longevity at Notre Dame, though, speaks to her belief in the organization’s mission outside the classroom as much as in it. She particularly appreciates the Catholic commitment to social justice that she first experienced during her time at Santa Clara.
Notre Dame students, more than those at many schools, tend toward jobs in social work, teaching, nonprofits, and other sectors geared to helping others. And the community interest extends to all quarters of the university. Notre Dame’s Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement, for example, is named after Sr. Stang, a 1964 graduate who was murdered in Brazil in 2005 after years of working for the country’s rural poor. And one of Notre Dame’s more unusual set of classes, nicknamed “Tenderloin U,” studies the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in central San Francisco that is a no-go for many people, but where Notre Dame students volunteer, interview, study, and, in some cases, live.
Greig attributes the school’s altruistic character to the nuns—the founders and, until recently, the leaders of Notre Dame—whose presence remains strong even as their numbers have dwindled. About 40 nuns live on or next to campus, but most are retired; a handful work at the school, most on a part-time basis.
Greig’s appreciation of the sisters’ importance transcends professional responsibilities. In 2008, she became a lay associate of the order. She had long wanted to take the step but, until a nun invited her, she thought that as a non- Catholic she was ineligible.
Greig was officially inaugurated the 18th president of Notre Dame de Namur University on Sept. 25.
Material concerns at Notre Dame demand urgent attention. About 560 students make up the school’s core of traditional undergraduates. That’s not enough to sustain the university financially, she says, laying out intentions to quickly return the total student body to 1,800 and beyond. This year’s increase is clearly good progress.
But in her inaugural address, she spoke of the college’s mission and values, expressing a desire to see a school “more intentional and explicit about Catholic social teaching and the Catholic intellectual tradition, and how we choose to integrate it into the life of the campus.”