Christian Brothers University president John Smarrelli still makes it into the classroom once or twice a semester to lecture on biochemistry.
“It allows me to get a feel for my students,” he said. “I’ve done a few research presentations over the past couple of years.”
But, he admits, there are demands on the time of a college president, especially in these days when higher education is changing on numerous fronts. And the demands on college faculty members are different – especially at CBU.
“We expect our professors to be more than disseminators of information but to be part of the students’ lives,” he added.
Smarrelli became president of CBU in 2009 after serving as special assistant to the president of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit college in his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y.
Just as he was at Le Moyne, Smarrelli was the first layman ever to lead CBU, a Catholic university at Central Avenue and East Parkway in Midtown.
Smarrelli was chosen as CBU’s 22nd president through a national search to permanently replace the late Brother Vincent Malham, who died in a car crash in late 2008 (H. Lance Forsdick Sr. served as interim president between Malham and Smarrelli). Smarrelli’s first move was to deepen the university’s involvement in the surrounding city, which began when the biochemist recognized the role health care plays in the Memphis economy.
“What I tried to do is push real hard to develop programming that makes sense for the community we live in,” he said. “When I walked in the door we had very little in terms of health care programming. We had the science building but had not really done much programming for the health care area.”
Under his leadership, CBU has started a master level program in physicians’ assistant studies to respond to the needs of primary care physicians. Baccalaureate training for nursing followed that.
Smarrelli also addressed engineering, which is what the school has been known for over a much longer period of time, by consulting with executives at Memphis-based shipping giant FedEx Corp. The result was CBU establishing a Packaging Department, which “oversees various educational programs, operates an ISTA certified lab, and administers the Healthcare Packaging Consortium,” according to the department’s Facebook page.
“It was very clear. They needed some issues relevant to packaging,” Smarrelli said. “How do you package material so that it doesn’t break?”
Smarrelli also came to Memphis with a wealth of experience in advanced placement education, or the opportunity for high school students to earn college credit while they are still in high school.
“I’ve been involved with advanced placement a lot of my life with the same principle – how do you offer a college level course to a capable high school student so that they eventually begin to think like a college student?” Smarrelli said.
In Memphis, he found a need for that, and it helped work against an image he soon realized of the school – that what it had to offer was “unattainable” because CBU is a private school.
“High school students can come in and take CBU courses and get CBU credit for their course,” he said. “The state of Tennessee, with the HOPE scholarships, will pay a significant portion of that. We, at CBU, discount that tuition. That way a high school student in the area can come to CBU, take a course in a dual enrollment situation, pay almost nothing for that experience but are able to say they can do a college course in math or engineering.”
That serves as an introduction to college, and it also can amount to college credit, meaning a student graduates earlier and builds less student loan debt. Keeping tuition levels stable or limiting the increase is a pressure Smarrelli and other higher education leaders feel intensely these days.
“We offer about 51 cents on every dollar back to students in terms of student aid,” he said.
Smarrelli said other factors not only help students with tuition but help to keep them in school even if their grade point average drops below the standard to keep HOPE scholarships from the state.
“So at the end of the four years, our students, thanks to a lot of our benefactors, don’t have a lot of debt relative to the national rhetoric,” Smarrelli said, citing an average student debt at CBU of $20,000, “which is still significant but, given the job opportunities for our students in general, the placement students have and the success of our graduates, it’s a return on investment.”