New leader, new attitude, at Merrimack

Ronald O. Champagne says he wants to be a key player in shaping the next phase in the school's mission. Ronald O. Champagne says he wants to be a key player in shaping the next phase in the school's mission. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Russell Contreras
Globe Staff / September 4, 2008
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It all started in Harlem in the mid-1970s.

Ronald Champagne was an assistant math professor at Manhattanville College and had helped start a summer program aimed at getting inner-city youth focused on academics. The program paired students from impoverished backgrounds with college professors. It was such a success, Champagne recalled, "No one wanted to go home."

That's when Champagne realized he wanted to be a college president. He saw how when someone organized educational programs with the right people, you could make a difference in students' lives.

"As a president, you are called to be a steward in education," Champagne said. "That's what I saw in that program."

Since those early days, Champagne has served as president of Saint Xavier University and Shimer College in Chicago and has held a number of administrative positions at other universities.

Last month, he took over as president of Merrimack College in North Andover, replacing Richard Santagati, who retired in January.

For Champagne, 66, it's a "homecoming." He grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and has always viewed himself as a New Englander.

Champagne said he took the job because he was impressed by the school's family-like environment and its commitment to Catholic education in the Augustinian tradition. He also wanted to be a key player in shaping the next phase in the school's mission.

"No institution can stay constant," Champagne said in a recent interview in his new office. "So now we are preparing for our next phase of transformation."

Founded in 1947, Merrimack College is a four-year Catholic university that offers liberal arts, business, science, and engineering programs. For years, it was primarily a commuter school serving students in the Merrimack Valley area, but more recently has become largely a residential campus drawing students from 26 states and 14 countries. The school has an enrollment of around 2,000.

In his first weeks on the job, Champagne said he has been meeting with faculty, students, and community leaders to get a feel for the campus and where people envision the school going. Champagne said he is listening to ideas to help him clarify the school's vision and to develop a long-range business plan.

"I'm collecting input from all around," he said. "We have to find out what we are doing well, and where we can improve. Maybe we're not doing things we should be doing. That's what I want to find out."

Joseph J. Bevilacqua, the president and CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he is "very impressed with [Champagne's] immediate urgency" to find out how the college fits in the surrounding community and what community members think. "He has a good grasp of knowledge of the valley, and we talked about ideas and possible initiatives," Bevilacqua said.

Raymond Shaw, an associate professor of psychology, said he's pleased that the new president made immediate efforts to find out the faculty's concerns. "The faculty and the administration never seem to get along," said Shaw. "But he seems willing to listen to people and hit the ground running. He's an outsider with a fresh perspective."

Shaw said he is especially excited that Champagne stated that one of his goals was to beef up the school's fund-raising efforts. "The faculty has been chattering at that for a while," said Shaw. "It hasn't been our strength in the past."

Finding more financial aid is also important, said Champagne, since a large number at Merrimack are first-generation college students. Tuition is about $29,310, and room and board is another $11,000.

It's a struggle that hits close to home for Champagne.

"My grandfather was a mill worker, and I'm the first in my family to go to college," he said. "So, I know what some of the students are going through."

Russell Contreras can be reached at

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