Sister Margaret Carney stepped into the presidency of St. Bonaventure University in 2004 with a warning for longtime university supporters. She was not going to be what she termed a lonely-at-the-top administrator.
“I promise you that if I’m going to work hard, so will you,” she said in her introduction as the university’s 20th president.
Carney asked for plenty of help while leading the university in the aftermath of a 2003 basketball recruiting scandal that showered the institution in shame. “When Sister Margaret puts the arm on you, you have a tough time saying no,” said Robert Daugherty, chairman of the St. Bonaventure board of trustees.
Still, no one worked harder on behalf of the university than Carney herself. And on Tuesday, when she announced she will soon put that work aside, many of her admirers expressed gratitude for her tireless commitment to the school.
“This decision has not been an easy one since the relationships at the heart of our St. Bonaventure community have become more precious with each passing year,” Carney said in a letter explaining her plan to retire at the end of the spring semester. “In the months ahead leading to the close of this academic year, I hope to begin to find occasions to adequately express my gratitude for the honor of serving as the 20th president of St. Bonaventure University. While it is a task that will take the rest of my life to complete, I hope to make a good start of it in 2016.”
Carney, 74, is credited with navigating the university out of what many alumni refer to as the “dark days” – when St. Bonaventure became embroiled in a men’s basketball scandal that made the school a national punchline and led to the resignation of then-President Robert J. Wickenheiser, the firing of the head coach, a lawsuit, years of National Collegiate Athletic Assocation sanctions and serious damage to the institution’s academic reputation.
Daugherty said Carney had taken the university “from a dark hour to a place in the sun, a place of honor and academic excellence.”
Carney had been serving as interim senior vice president for Franciscan charism at the university when the board charged her with the task of rebuilding the institution’s tarnished image. Carney, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God and highly respected Franciscan scholar, said she was guided in that work by her strong belief in the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, the revered Catholic saint noted for his emphasis on peace and spiritual meaning over the pursuit of material possessions.
“She epitomizes St. Francis. The way she carries herself, her mindset, the way she approaches things – it’s all based on Franciscan values,” said David Whalen, president of the Buffalo chapter of the St. Bonaventure Alumni Club.
Lana Benatovich, who was on the board of trustees when it selected Carney over two other finalists, said the decision was “extremely crucial” for the future of the university.
“We needed somebody who could really bring healing and a vision, and she brought both,” said Benatovich, executive director of the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York. “Her legacy is very, very strong.”
A native of Pittsburgh, Carney was the first woman to hold the president’s job at St. Bonaventure in a permanent capacity. Sister Alice Gallin served on an interim basis in 1993 and 1994.
She is the fourth-longest tenured president in the school’s 158-year history.
The university probably always will “carry a little bit of a scar” from the recruiting scandal, Carney said in an interview.
“I think we’ve healed, but I think people fear what happened before can happen again,” she said. “We have to keep hope ahead of fear every single day.”
Carney’s tenure has coincided with a slow but relatively steady decline in enrollment at St. Bonaventure, which had 2,150 students in 2014-15, down from 2,514 in 2010-11 and from 2,614 in 2005-06, according to federal education data. The declines have led to some budget constraints, and the college is developing a new strategic plan later this year to address enrollment and other issues.
Carney also pushed with Hilbert College President Cynthia A. Zane to establish a so-called “strategic alliance” between the two institutions. After 18 months of discussion among board members and administrators of both schools, the merger talk fizzled, but Carney and Daugherty both said the discussions were fruitful for St. Bonaventure. “While there was not a merger, we have three or four significant collaborations going on right now,” Carney said.
St. Bonaventure completed a major fundraising campaign in 2009 with $95 million and raised another $15 million in a campaign for its School of Business in 2013. The same year, the American Association of University Professors quietly lifted its censure of the university that dated back to 1996 and stemmed from the 1994 mass firing under Wickenheiser of 18 tenured professors due to financial constraints. A faculty member herself, Carney toiled to re-establish trust between the administration and professors.
“If anybody knows anything about Sister Margaret, they know she’s a healer, a listener, and she makes time to really understand people and what they want to see in this university,” said Daugherty. “That skill set, she was blessed with it, and she used every bit of it.”
Daugherty said the board will assemble a search committee to select Carney’s successor. The search won’t be limited to Franciscan clergy or sisters, he said.
Carney suggested that the next president could even come from outside the country.
After stepping down, Carney plans to take a sabbatical. She also hopes to write and to “beef up” her technological skills.
“I think I want to be a little bit more of a geek than I am now when I sit down at a computer,” she said.