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At Salem State, degrees of advancement

Endowments, expansion help college shake off its image as a 'safety' school

New Salem State president Patricia Maguire Meservey will concentrate on reconfiguring the campus and turning the college into a university. New Salem State president Patricia Maguire Meservey will concentrate on reconfiguring the campus and turning the college into a university. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

SALEM -- Just a couple of decades ago, Salem State College was considered an afterthought by some high school seniors applying to college, a "safety" just in case they didn't get in anywhere else.

But president Nancy Harrington, who retired this summer after 17 years, transformed the school by bolstering the full-time faculty by one-third; adding the school's $81 million Central Campus that includes the a School of Business and a 452-bed residence hall; and increasing private donations, including $5.9 million from the likes of millionaires Bernard Gordon, Henry Bertolon, Peter Lynch, and Jack Welch.

During her tenure, Harrington also brought the school to the brink of university status, which could happen within the year if the Legislature approves.

"It's not the same little, old, sleepy commuter school that certainly I recall," said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who grew up in Florida, enrolled in Salem State after high school, and chose to stay in the city. "It's definitely a place that's not always somebody's second choice."

Driscoll said the school's expansion has helped spur economic growth throughout the city.

"It's not your father's state college anymore," said David Abdoo, chairman of the college's board of trustees.

The challenge to achieve university status now falls to the new president, Patricia Maguire Meservey, who took office this month after leaving her post as provost and academic vice president at Suffolk University in Boston.

"The college is very well positioned to move quickly and surely to that designation," said Meservey, a registered nurse, who received a doctorate in higher education administration from Boston College. Prior to working at Suffolk, she had held several positions at Northeastern University, including special assistant to then-president Richard Freeland.

"Her greatest strength, I think, is her combination of intelligence, charm and tenacity," said Freeland, who said he often turned to Meservey to discuss policy issues. "She's able to see very clearly what needs to be done; she's able to persuade others about the value about that course of action and she sticks to her guns and gets it done."

With a bill pending on Beacon Hill to make Salem State a university, Meservey and her staff are poised to create doctoral programs in nursing, education, and social work.

Meservey said that adding PhD programs would further enhance the school's reputation, and provide an important service to North Shore scholars.

With more than 1,300 employees, the college is the third-largest employer in the city, and is a major economic contributor to the North Shore.

Last year, the college reported that its annual economic impact on the state was more than $347 million, with more than $55 million spent in Salem.

Also the school's budget and endowment fund continue to grow. The budget this year is $82 million, up more than 10 percent from last year, and its endowment has jumped from $9 million in 2005 to $15.5 million.

Faculty, staff, and students say an increase in tuition by private schools, the addition of new dorms, and higher admission standards in the last decade -- the college requires a 3.0 grade-point average from applicants -- have made the college a destination for some students who would have chosen to go to other colleges.

This has shifted the dynamic of the student population, which traditionally consisted of students who were often the first members of their family to attend college. "Salem had the perfect location and it's very affordable to go there," said Alex Slazar, 21, whose parents are retired teachers.

Slazar, who is the president of the Student Government Association, said the "heart and soul" of the school is the strong bond between students and teachers. Classes can range from 10 to 30 students, said Slazar, who grew up in Wakefield.

"The professors are the biggest strength of the school," said Jill Mullen, a 21-year-old senior from Stoneham who is majoring in social work. Mullen said she transferred from Northeastern because she was impressed with Salem State's social work program.

Known for its training of teachers, the school also has high enrollment in its nursing, criminal justice, and business programs. The school has 7,500 undergraduates and 2,800 graduate students. About 20 percent of the undergraduates live in campus dorms, and 92 percent of the students are from Massachusetts, and the rest are from 27 other states and 61 different nations.

Once considered primarily a commuter school, Salem State's campus life has developed more fully with the addition of more dorms in the last decade. Still, students at the school come with a strong work ethic, and many hold down part- and full-time jobs during the school year. Mullen works 20 hours a week during the year as a nanny, and knows students who work full time.

With an increased student population over the decades, Meservey doesn't see the school adding many more students. She also said the school would retain its identity of accepting students who commute and balance work and school. "I would not want to see the entrance standards moved to the point that we were closing out many students who could have had that opportunity for a strong education."

During her first year, Meservey also plans to focus on implementing recommendations of a master plan that will report on the conditions of the college's buildings.

"Our needs are major," said Karen Cady, director of college relations. According to Cady, the report will detail problems associated with the school's library, science labs, and other buildings.

The main campus, a jumble of buildings, offers little open space, and is separated by a tennis court. Outside the library, cracks are visible on large concrete sections of the building, and inside, people are skittish about taking the elevators, which sometimes break down. In the archives, some stacks are covered with plastic tarps and sit below water-stained and cracked ceilings.

Meservey said she wants to see a reconfigured campus, with a renovated library, new science labs, and additional teachers offices and dorms.

With no funds allocated toward the reconfiguration, Meservey understands that she must fund-raise nearly every day.

"I would say the majority of my time, probably 60 or 70 percent of my time, will be focused in that area."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at

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