Mills enjoys providing leadership to Mount Aloysius
John Mills assumed the interim presidency of Mount Aloysius College in May, and he did it with the understanding that he would provide a transition.
Having come out of retirement in 2017 after having served 10 years as president of Paul Smith’s College in New York, Mills finds Mount Aloysius similar to his previous stop, as well as his home state of Montana.
Declining regional population contributes to the task of all area colleges, but Mills, at 71 years old, seems invigorated by it.
With the school year beginning, he took some time to speak with Mirror Managing Editor Neil Rudel.
Mirror: How are you approaching this year as Mount’s interim president?
Mills: I’m approaching it from the point of view of rejuvenating and refocusing the Mount on enrollment challenges that all private schools (and public schools) are facing.
Mirror: Why did you want the position?
Mills: I came here (in 2017) as the interim provost, just to fill in for a year and help out. But I fell in love with the mission and what this school does. It does a phenomenal job educating the students from surrounding counties, and I found a place where I could help.
Mirror: Is this a stop-gap situation or are you hoping to become the permanent president?
Mills: I’m here to get the place started on these projects. Eventually, someone will be here for the long term, and you can’t count on someone 71 to be here for the long term. But I wouldn’t use the word stop-gap. I’m really committed to what the school does and committed to get it moving toward the future.
Mirror: How much of a challenge is affordability?
Mills: It’s an immense challenge. We’re not supplemented by the state. We need to attract students who can achieve here. It’s a constant worry, and we’re constantly trying to raise money for scholarships. It’s a Catch-22. We need get qualified students but control the expense burden so they can concentrate on their studies and not be worried about excessive work and excessive debt. And that goes for the parents, too, because the parents are contributing mightily.
Mirror: What is the biggest challenge currently facing Mount Aloysius?
Mills: The biggest challenge is to prepare for and find a way to overcome the challenges of declining college students graduating from high schools, the declining readiness and the changing of the ethnicity of the Pennsylvania high school graduates. It’s marching toward a minority being the majority of high school graduates. You can combine that with a significant decline in the rural population, where we are located.
Mirror: So you do a lot of data and census work?
Mills: Absolutely. You can’t plan and commit resources unless you know what the yield is. I’ve read that from 2010-16 in Cambria County, there were 10,000 more deaths than births. It’s hard to get students into college if you haven’t made them 18 years ago. We know how many high school graduates we’re going to have (in this area) for the next 18 years.
Mirror: How do you gauge the Mount’s facilities?
Mills: I think we have some phenomenal facilities. We just finished Pierce Hall. It’s as good as any place — any hospital and laboratory in the region. That’s what we need to continue to be competitive in the health-sciences. We have a phenomenal athletic facility, where we have athletics and graduation. The community uses it. Facility-wise, the institution is in great shape. We just finished a $1.5 million turfing of our soccer field. On
Aug. 31 (Friday) we’re going to light up the campus. It will be a party around a soccer game.
Mirror: How similar is Paul Smith’s College, your previous stop?
Mills: I had retired from there. I was the president of Paul Smith’s for 10 years. Paul Smith’s is very similar in the sense that it’s a rural school. It has a large number of associate degrees as well as bachelor’s degrees. It was not a faith-based school, but it had many similarities. The one difference is we were 65 percent male and here, we’re 65 percent female. But other than that, there were many similarities.
Mirror: Have you felt embraced by the community?
Mills: Very much so. One of the key things about the Sisters of Mercy is hospitality, and it’s certainly engrained in the faculty and the staff.
Mirror: What is your vision for the Mount?
Mills: My vision is to live the mission. The mission has been here since the late 1930s, and the first statement of the mission statement is to respond to the needs of the community with quality educational programs. That’s what the mission and the vision should be. I hope and one of my goals is make the community realize what a gem Mount Aloysius is. I hope we add to the wealth and culture of the community. We will survive and prosper as we raise all boats together — from pre-K to graduate school. If we do that, we’ll improve the lives of this community and attract people to this community.
Mirror: Can you describe your leadership style?
Mills: I think it’s inclusive. I absolutely adhere to the important part of higher education, which is joint governance. I try to be as inclusive as possible in decision making. When you’re leading a group of people and there’s something to celebrate, make sure you’re in the back of the crowd, not the front of it.
Mirror: Do you enjoy interacting with students?
Mills: I love it. When I came here, I started having town hall meetings with the students. I would just open the door. Of course, you have to feed them. I close the door and say, ‘Tell me how we’re doing.’ I do the same thing with the faculty and the staff.
Mirror: What you like to do in your down time?
Mills: I love Montana because of the fishing and the skiing, and you have phenomenal fishing and skiing here. It fits my lifestyle. I enjoy being in the outdoors. I’ve hiked through the (Allegheny) Portage Railroad site about 10 times.
THE MILLS FILE
Name: John Mills
Family: Daughter, Elizabeth and significant other Terry Lee Altemus, both in Montana.
Hometown: Pray, Montana
Education: Graduated from University of Rhode Island; doctorate from Brown University.
FYI: Mills is a first-generation U.S. citizen. Parents immigrated from England.