Future Forward, Ever Faithful

This is the timeless legacy of Eileen Mihm Schwalbach

By Mount Mary University

Posted on November 18, 2016

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Seated behind the desk of her office, Mount Mary President Eileen Mihm Schwalbach is ensconced in not only the rich 103-year history of the institution, but how her time leading the community has intersected with a foundation first laid by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Schwalbach announced in April that she plans to step down at the end of the 2016-17 academic year, after nine years in the role. As she pauses to reflect upon her time as president, Schwalbach remembers not only highlights and key accomplishments, but the students and professional colleagues who help make those highlights and accomplishments a reality – accomplishments that position Mount Mary to move smoothly into the future.

This reverence for mission, while at the same time carefully studying and anticipating the needs of the community, marks Schwalbach’s respect for the past and foresight into the years to come.

Most certainly, the future will bear an imprint of the legacy she has crafted, nurtured and is bringing forth through the constant cycle of growth, expansion and change.

The stories here serve as a time capsule of highlights from Schwalbach’s presidency. There is a common theme that runs throughout the stories from her presidency:

Create for today, innovate for tomorrow and stay true to the bold, pioneering spirit that fuels our mission.

This is the timeless legacy of Eileen Mihm Schwalbach.

First a college, now a university

Sometimes, it is the small moments that give rise to large-scale transformation, Schwalbach said as she reflected upon a precise moment of change.

In 2011, university leadership was hard at work developing the doctoral program in art therapy, and Dr. Schwalbach was posed with an interesting question.

“Bruce [Moon, professor of art therapy] said at a meeting, ‘If you are graduating with your doctorate, do you want to graduate from Mount Mary College or Mount Mary University?’”

This was not a simple case of semantics. The moniker of “university” has a meaning that is quite distinct from college. The question at hand was whether “university” was indeed a better fit for Mount Mary.

“Calling ourselves a university challenges us to achieve more and enhance academic excellence here. She was not afraid to drive that conversation.”

Karen Friedlen
Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs


“That really began the conversation,” Schwalbach said.

It certainly was not the first pivot point for the University, which started as St. Mary’s Institute in 1851 and became St. Mary’s College in Prairie du Chien in 1913 and became Mount Mary College when it moved to the present location in 1928.

The university is now home to two doctorates — first art therapy and then occupational therapy. These key additions helped forge a critical path to the university’s future direction, said Karen Friedlen, vice president of academic and student affairs.

“Calling ourselves a university challenges us to achieve more and enhance academic excellence here,” said Friedlen. “We always need to continue growing, but she also felt that we deserved the title. She was not afraid to drive that conversation. That takes a tremendous amount of courage and foresight.”

Expanding ideas, developing programs

Having a vision for education deeply rooted in the excellence of the past is a mindset well established at Mount Mary. Foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger was, according to biographer M. L. Ziegler, “decades ahead of the development in the public sector, and to some extent for a leader for them.”

Schwalbach explained how she has used the past to help steer and guide the direction of the future by describing the key programmatic additions she has helped to bring about. In 2011, Mount Mary launched its first doctorate — and the first doctorate in the country — in art therapy.

Last February, the university was approved by the Higher Learning Commission to offer an RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing completion program, one that incorporates a unique concentration on nursing leadership.

“She has always been very mindful of community needs,” Friedlen said. “You can look at the market and identify where there are jobs very quantitatively. But she takes that information and connects it to the mission of the university.”

Moving into the future, Schwalbach has identified wellness as a fundamental turning point for the university’s strategic plan.

“The ‘Wellness Initiative’ will focus on providing teaching and learning experiences that address the wellness of the whole person: physical, emotional and spiritual,” she said. “We not only will be providing an excellent education for our students, facilitating their development as creative leaders in their fields, but we will also be meeting the needs of our community for leaders who can transform health care to better meets the needs of patients.”

Occupational therapy, dietetics, counseling and art therapy are among the successful programs with holistic views of health and healing. In addition to the RN to BSN program starting this fall, a new program in food science is set to begin in spring.

“Mount Mary is uniquely positioned to integrate already successful programs, add new health-related programs and infuse it all with creative learning and leadership skills,” Schwalbach said.

Facility enhancements support learning

The pristine and historic buildings that make up the Mount Mary campus have served to welcome generations of women to further their educational goals.

In the words of Edward A. Fitzpatrick, president at the time when Mount Mary opened its doors in 1929:

“As too often in our mass education, the individual is lost sight of. At Mount Mary College the individual will be the primary concern of everybody in the college from the chancellor and dean down to the youngest faculty member.”

As the careful custodian of the campus, Dr. Schwalbach understands that Mount Mary’s bricks and mortar must always be able to support the rapidly changing dynamics of higher education in the 21st century. As always, students come first.

Over the course of her presidency, Schwalbach ensured that the physical upgrades to campus were aligned with enhancing the overall learning experience: Additional electronic classrooms, a Barnes and Noble College Bookstore and enhanced spaces in the admissions center, dining hall and grill.

A significant project was the renovation of the first floor of the Haggerty Library to house a new Student Success Center and Learning Commons with facilities for academic resources, career advising and student counseling as well as a new computer lab.

More than just a cosmetic facelift, the library renovation was specifically designed with student service in mind and the realization of the changing nature of 21st century learning. The resulting Student Success Center provides integrated resources to all students including academic advising, accessibility services, career development services, the counseling center, service learning and tutoring and testing services.

Before the renovation, these key student support offices were scattered throughout the campus, resulting in student confusion and frustrated walks around campus to find the proper office for their specific needs.

“Dr. Schwalbach really began to see how we could seamlessly provide multiple levels of service to students,” Marci Ocker, accessibility services coordinator, said. “And that getting us all in one place would allow for more cohesiveness, more referrals and more efficient services for the students. The Student Success Center has really made a difference with coordinating service and making it easier for students.”

A vision for creativity

For an ever so brief period of time, it was 1789 again at Mount Mary. Clad in period clothing and armed with the Enlightenment ideas that defined this era, Mount Mary students were immersed in the rancor of the Estates-General, the unity of the Tennis Court Oath and the promise and peril of the French Revolution.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, now that’s creativity in action,’” she said. Schwalbach recalls this classroom scene that she witnessed in vivid detail as a highlight of delivering education in which study areas such as history and literature came to life. This clearly was not a standard “memorize and multiple choice” approach to student learning. This was something unique and unforgettable.

Due to the Creative Campus Initiative, this scene is not uncommon at Mount Mary. Since its launch in 2012, the initiative has infused creative approaches in all areas of the student experience.

Again, what was old has become new. Mother Caroline’s vision for women’s education was being called a “daring and visionary enterprise” as far back as 1850.
“When we think about our students and the skill set that they need, regardless of what profession they go into, we wanted to make sure they have a skill set that allows them to think with agility,” she said.

Wendy Weaver, dean for academic affairs, helped explore and implement the Creative Campus Initiative and was impressed with Dr. Schwalbach’s complete commitment to the concept.

“We have defined creativity through attributes that can be developed as skills, rather than talents,” Weaver said. “The Creative Campus Initiative believes we all can become more creative.”

The power of purpose

The campus community, shaped around the concept of creativity and mission, has come into vision. Weaver said initiatives such as the Creative Campus have been successful due to the depth and breadth of ideas from across the campus, which she says is a tribute to Dr. Schwalbach’s leadership.

“It takes humility to take your campus through design thinking, handing your power over to empower others,” she said. “That’s pretty impressive.”

As the end of her leadership comes into clear focus, her belief in unity, wellness and a commitment to students is strong, enduring and bright. Schwalbach offers a smile as she recalls her words from her inaugural address seven years ago on Sept. 11, 2009: “We will be able to do this work, to educate to transform the world, only by working together.”

Mission and vision, future and faith. This is the timeless legacy of Eileen Mihm Schwalbach.

Just for fun:

Our mission? To pay tribute to President Eileen Schwalbach in a fun and playful way. Watch and see our creation. We guarantee you will flip over this!

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