Emmanuel to honor its guiding light

Emmanuel students (from left) Luis Diaz, Kirsten Pereira, and Autumn Pena with Sister Janet Eisner, to be honored this week. Emmanuel students (from left) Luis Diaz, Kirsten Pereira, and Autumn Pena with Sister Janet Eisner, to be honored this week. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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Sister Janet Eisner speaks with a soft voice and often breaks out a sweet, grandmotherly smile.

But despite her gentle demeanor, she is a fighter. For the past 30 years, she has steered Emmanuel College through a dramatic turnaround, moving the all-female campus to a co-ed institution and brokering a landmark deal with Merck Co. that sparked development and gave the Fenway campus a lifeline.

Today, Eisner finds herself at the cusp of history as the nation’s longest-serving female college president now sitting.

Norman C. Francis, the 79-year-old president of Xavier College, holds the top all-around title. Both have years to go to beat Eliphalet Nott, who served at the helm at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., for 61 years in the 1800s.

Eisner, a former Emmanuel student, teacher, and administrator, said she has guided her alma mater by never losing sight of student achievement as a central goal.

“I have made sure that we have kept a laser-sharp focus on our mission,’’ she said.

Friends and colleagues who are preparing to join a celebration Thursday marking her tenure say she has never wavered from that commitment and from God.

“She is a person who really loves her God, and who really feels strongly about her faith,’’ said Jack Connors Jr., an Emmanuel board member.

As demands for fund-raising increase, more college presidents are holding onto their posts longer, according to a study by the American Council of Education. In 2006, the average length of service at the helm was 8 1/2 years, up from 6 1/2 years in 1986, the group said.

“You’ve got to have the Midas touch,’’ said David Warren, a former Ohio college president who heads the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “In some ways, if a president has a shorter tenure and they are not raising enough money — that may cause them to step down.’’

Eisner, 69, was born in Boston and raised in Lynn, the eldest of four children. At St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, she found her voice as head of the student body and a member of the debate team. By age 17, impressed with the nuns and the school’s prayer group, she found a religious calling.

“I felt called by God,’’ she said.

She joined Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur — an order founded by St. Julie Billiart to educate the world’s poor — and went on to study at Emmanuel. After stints as a teacher in Lawrence and Cambridge, she joined the admissions staff at Emmanuel at age 26 and later became its director.

“She is extremely personable, very bright, and tough as nails when she has to be,’’ said Sister Anne Mary Donovan a fellow nun in the order.

By age 39, Eisner was president of the college, during a time when few women held such posts. Today, only one quarter of the nation’s 4,100 college presidents are women, Warren said.

At the time, enrollment at Emmanuel was a paltry 500 students, and there was little money being raised from alumnae with little to give.

Eisner began by joining forces with the other Fenway colleges so students, faculty, and staff could share classes, programs, and resources. Then she teamed with pharmaceutical giant Merck Co., which signed a 75-year lease in 2000 for $50 million. Merck got a prime spot next to the Longwood Medical Area, and Emmanuel got a windfall that sparked development boom that continues today.

Enrollment has tripled, the college has raised its profile, and another batch of young men will walk the graduation line along with their female counterparts.

“Sister Janet faced a number of challenges,’’ said Daniel Cheever, a former president of both Simmons and Wheelock colleges. “It was hard to raise endowment funds [in the beginning] and funds for new projects. But she stuck to her guns.’’

Students hail Eisner for pushing tiny Emmanuel to compete with such higher-education neighbors as Northeastern.

“We are proud to have her as our president,’’ said student leader Wesley Cowles.

Eisner has never backed down on the standards she set for herself and the campus.

In 2007, she fired an adjunct professor after he decided to reenact the deadly Virginia Tech shootings by pointing markers at some students and saying “pow.’’ She was criticized by some who said the firing amounted to silencing a professor’s right to free speech. But she said she did what had to be done.

“It’s not easy to hold these standards, but that is who we are,’’ she said. “We are a college of values.’’

Eisner said she prefers to lead with a smile rather than with a fist, however.

“Things do not happen because you are snapping at things,’’ she said. “It happens because you stay the course.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at

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