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Mary Lyons

USD president balances educational excellence with cutbacks

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An unspoken truth exists among leaders in San Diego: The more they thrive, the more people want a piece of their time.

Mary E. Lyons could attest. As president of the University of San Diego, her schedule is booked for months. Projects require her direction; special events request her presence; various publications want her insight. She is the chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and serves on the executive committee of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. To call Lyons a busy professional is an understatement.

Nearly seven years have sped by since the fifth-generation Californian stepped down as president of the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., and joined USD.

Changes ensued the moment Lyons took office in July 2003. Within three months, she launched the Strategic Directions Initiative. The "multiyear planning process," according to the Web site, aims to solidify USD's role as a "nationally pre-eminent Catholic university known for educating students who are globally competent, ethical leaders working and serving in our complex and changing world."

The initiative also outlines five "strategic goals," one of which involves increasing endowments. As of June 30, 2009, endowment was listed at $220.89 million. According to Pamela Gray Payton, assistant vice president of public affairs, USD's inaugural Founders Gala also raised more than $500,000 for endowed student scholarships. The gala culminated a yearlong celebration of "events, lectures and exhibits that traced the university's emergence as a leader center of higher education," Gray Payton said.

Higher education, however, does not come cheap. Scholarships and grants are crucial for cash-strapped students and families given USD's price tag. To enroll in 12 to 18 units per semester as an undergraduate costs $17,935; this does not include room and board. Lyons is fully aware of financial concerns, as well as the impact of the global economic crisis. Almost every decision she makes on behalf of USD affects nearly 8,000 students, 808 faculty members and an undisclosed number of additional university workers. In February 2009, she addressed fiscal issues in a letter to students and families.

"While this is a time of economic uncertainty for our nation and our world," Lyons wrote, "please know that USD's overriding objective and concern is to encourage and support our students in continuing their education and to protect employees' jobs. To assist us in doing this, USD is cutting back on other expenses, as well as eliminating any funding increases for all but the most mandatory obligations ..."

One capital project that avoided the ax was the new Student Life Pavilion -- a 50,000-square-foot building with dining facilities, an expanded market and a retail area. Lyons and her staff concluded delaying construction would not generate real cost savings because the project had neared completion. Under Lyons' leadership, USD opened the Student Life Pavilion on Aug. 3, 2009.

Iatarola is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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