On the contrary, Calareso has crafted a long and distinguished career in exactly this kind of setting.
Having served as president of three similar institutions — Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa; Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio; and most recently Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts — he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his newest endeavor: president of St. Joseph’s College.
Stepping in for the recently retired S. Elizabeth A. Hill, C.S.J., Calareso is the seventh to hold that distinction, but the College’s first male president since Monsignor William T. Dillon’s departure in 1955, and the first layperson to lead SJC since its founding in 1916.
“My entire professional career has been in sectarian institutions,” he says, “so I believe that I understand the mission, I understand the history, I understand the values.
“I think the role of a president is to model the values of the institution. My responsibility is to make sure, through my words and through my actions, that people understand the meaning of St. Joseph’s College — its history, its tradition.”
He cites the growing number of Catholic colleges and universities who have recently moved away from their longstanding traditions of religious leadership. One example is Georgetown University, which inaugurated its first lay president in 2001, after 47 priests (43 of whom were Jesuits) held the post since 1791.
“To defend laypeople as leaders, I think there are lots of laypeople who didn’t have a vocation to the priesthood or to religious life, but have a deep and abiding faith. Maybe I’ll work harder at it because I think it’s a part of the identity I need to especially focus on.”
Calareso’s career as an educator has taken him through Wisconsin, New York, Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts. So where does such a well-traveled person truly hang his hat?
“I was born and raised in Boston. I don’t pahk my cah anymore,” he explains, briefly summoning his dormant accent, “but I consider that home.
“I went to school there. My undergraduate education was there, my time at Merrimack College [as vice president of academic affairs] was in the Boston area, and my time at Anna Maria, but I’ve been away more than I’ve been home.”
At face value, the well-traveled Calareso may appear a stark contrast to his predecessor, S. Elizabeth, whose career spanned 30-plus years at St. Joseph’s College — including 17 as president — but Calareso advocates a slightly different approach to college administration.
“If you look at my whole career, I think when you’re the president of a small college, it’s a very intense kind of leadership; it’s very hands on,” he says.
“It doesn’t mean that presidents of big universities don’t have big challenges, but it’s a different kind of challenge. I think when you’ve been there five, six, seven years, you really reach a point when you’ve done everything you feel you can do for that institution and it’s probably time for a new challenge, both for the institution and for the president. For me, it’s also a chance to kind of get re-energized and work with a new college community.”
Now, at age 63, however, Calareso appears ready to settle down. “This is most definitely my last presidency,” he says unequivocally.
He will indeed have his work cut out for him here in New York. St. Joseph’s, like so many other small liberal-arts colleges across the country, has plenty of hurdles to overcome as it moves into its second century, including declining enrollment, shifting demographics and uncertain revenues.
“[Small colleges] are always fighting that budget crunch,” Calareso says. “The pressure is that you don’t have a state subsidy, you don’t have a huge endowment — you don’t have the kind of resources that allow you to weather bad years.”
“It’s a high-wire act. It’s exhilarating when the Flying Wallendas get to the other side, but when you’re in the middle, it’s a challenge.”
According to a 2013 study by Moody’s Investor Services, tuition-dependent colleges such as St. Joe’s are the most vulnerable to potential declines in tuition revenue, which already accounts for nearly 91 percent of the College’s annual operating income (as of June 2013).
In the months and years ahead, Calareso will look to increase revenue through gifts and private and government grants, and to increase enrollment through continual expansion of the College’s academic offerings. In the past two years, SJC has introduced a B.A. in Journalism and New Media Studies, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a B.S. in Hospitality and Tourism Management. Also on the horizon is the addition of a B.S. in Nursing program — a field projected to grow at a faster-than-average rate by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics — and the opening of the Brooklyn Campus’ new 44,000-square-foot athletic facility later this year.
One of the most important elements of Calareso’s job going forward will be to uphold St. Joseph’s longstanding tradition of providing an affordable liberal arts education for all students regardless of their diverse backgrounds.
“The fact of the matter is that students who come to St. Joseph’s College are transformed by this institution,” he says. “They may not have the same resources and luxuries as students of other institutions, but they’re looking for this education to provide them with an opportunity to go out in the world and do something great, for their lives to be better than their parents’ lives and to make the world a better place.”
Over the several months leading up to July 1, his first day as president, Calareso has been constantly interacting with S. Elizabeth, who began her retirement on June 30. “She’s been phenomenal,” he says. “She’s been the most gracious, hospitable person I’ve met in a long time. She’s opened her office to me, she’s welcomed me, she’s given me a great deal of background information. She’s tried very hard not to tell me what to do, but to give me the sense of understanding the culture so that, hopefully, I will know what’s best for SJC.
“She’s not going to be far away. … I see her as an ongoing adviser and a valued colleague. She knows the community, both internal and external. It’s a real luxury, and a great benefit to me and the College, to have someone like her as a resource.”
Calareso and his wife, Rose, recently moved into a new home in Clinton Hill, only a few minutes walk from the Brooklyn Campus. The couple, who celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in July, met in an unlikely place:
“Rose went to school in Chicago at Loyola University — back then the all-girls school was called Mundelein,” he explains. “I was at Boston College, and we both studied in Rome, Italy, for our junior years. She’s from Kansas, so the chance of a Boston kid meeting a girl from Kansas was pretty remote.”
The pair clearly made the most of their serendipitous meeting. Today, they have three grown children — Jack Jr., 40; Anne Marie, 37; and Jeffrey, 35 — and four grandchildren: Josie, Paxton, Dominic and Rivers. Rose recently retired as a library media specialist for the Sudbury Public School system in Massachusetts, and Anne Marie was married on July 5.
The Calaresos are looking forward to exploring their new environment in New York. As avid fans of symphony, opera and theater, they will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to take in the culture of New York.
Most importantly, though, Dr. Calareso is looking forward to interacting with students and faculty, and getting to know the community.
“The intellectual capital of the faculty, and the students’ energy and desire to learn, form this community of scholars and learners,” he says, “and that’s what higher education is about. That’s what I am most excited about — meeting alumni and friends in the community — and working collaboratively with the students, the faculty and the staff. I know that we will continue to do great things at SJC.”
Photos by Bill Denison and Robert Amsler