For Ramapo College of New Jersey, the last decade has been a period of seismic changes—in its student body profile, its standing among peer schools, its fundraising prowess and, perhaps most strikingly, in the very look of its 300-acre hillside campus that is nestled in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains in Mahwah, New Jersey.
Many of those changes can be attributed to Dr. Peter P. Mercer who assumed the presidency on July 1, 2005 and has been at the helm for almost a quarter of the College’s 46-year existence.
A native of Canada, Mercer came to Ramapo from the University of Western Ontario, where he initially taught Law. Later he served as dean of the Law School and as a Vice President and General Counsel. He’d learned about the Ramapo position from his brother-in-law, who lives in Mahwah. His own academic bearing was defined by the liberal arts, so Ramapo seemed like a snug fit.
“I believed—and do believe—the college had remarkable potential and that it hadn’t received the recognition it really deserved as a fine liberal arts institution,” Mercer says.
Those most familiar with Mercer’s tenure frequently cite his collaborative managerial style and his steadfast—and often self-deprecating—sense of humor. “I always think of Bill Clinton’s line when he was asked what it’s like to be president of the United States,” Mercer says. “He said it’s like being president of a graveyard—you have a lot of people underneath you, but nobody’s paying attention.”
Around campus, Mercer has made himself a familiar figure. He and his wife, Jacqueline Ehlert, a dietician with a Ph.D. from Columbia, routinely open the doors to the Havemeyer House—the 166-year-old mansion that serves as the official residence of the Ramapo president—welcoming hundreds of faculty members, donors, administrators and students to more than 60 events a year. For instance, to commemorate the opening of the Adler Center for Nursing Excellence, they presided over a sit-down dinner for 78 guests.
“I don’t know any other president of a college who has had faculty in his house so often,” says Dr. Anthony Padovano, a distinguished professor of literature and philosophy who has been at the College since 1971.
Unless he is traveling, Mercer attends every open house for high school seniors. “It’s important for prospective students and their parents to see the president, to see the provost and the dean, and other members of the senior team so that when we say we’re concerned about giving you a good education, we’ve got some credibility,” Mercer says.
As a leader, he’s focused more on finding common ground with Ramapo’s constituencies, who include professors, administrators, students, trustees, alumni, parents and donors.
“You can’t just come in and decide you’re going to, by fiat, change things,” Mercer says. “I would describe it as the equivalent of punching a wall of foam rubber. You make an impression while your fist is in there, but you take it off for a second and the wall is exactly where it was. If you don’t care who gets credit for something, and I really don’t, I think it makes it easier to move ahead.”
George Ruotolo, the president of Ramapo’s Board of Trustees, says he’s been struck by Mercer’s humility. “I would say whatever ego he has—and I think he has a lot to be proud of in terms of his accomplishments—he does a very good job of keeping it in check,” Ruotolo says.
Mercer says his own experience as a college professor has helped him work with the Ramapo faculty.
“If you do have a criticism of the college or even something Peter has initiated you’re able to sit down with him and talk about it without his feeling threatened or defensive. You get the impression that’s he’s listening so he can evaluate not just you but also himself,” Padovano says.
Ehlert says her husband’s straight-talking approach has aided his relations with the faculty. “He will lay out issues and then, in a very respectful way, seek their advice and propose his views of how things need to be approached,” she says. “He really seeks consensus, and people rally around that.”
Not long after Mercer and Ehlert arrived in Mahwah—they were married just six days before settling into Havemeyer House—Mercer let it be known that he wanted to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of Ramapo’s student body while simultaneously raising the college’s academic standards. “Many people said you could do one but not the other,” Mercer says.
Ten years later, Ramapo has done both.
Today racial and ethnic minorities represent nearly 30 percent of the student body—a nearly 50 percent increase from ten years ago and a figure more closely aligned with New Jersey’s statewide population.
One factor has been a program begun several years ago to help students from low-income families stay in school and graduate. The program provides additional funds for first-year students enrolled in Ramapo’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, in which qualified college students, many of whom are first-generation, receive financial and academic assistance.
Mercer noticed in his earliest years that a disturbing number of EOF students were not returning to Ramapo after their first year, while the graduation rate for EOF students lagged behind that of the overall student body.
For many families, Mercer says, even with the financial aid given to EOF students, it posed a significant hurdle. He proposed using discretionary funds to eliminate that hurdle altogether and enable first-year EOF students to attend Ramapo cost-free.
“It was amazing what happened,” Mercer says. “Retention and graduation rates improved to the same level as the rest of the student body, and they’ve stayed there.”
By any variety of measures, Ramapo has raised its national profile substantially during Mercer’s presidency. In 2011 the business school was formally accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the largest such accrediting agency. Worldwide, less than five percent of business schools have earned this distinction.
Earlier this year Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine named Ramapo among the “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” nationwide, the tenth straight year that Ramapo has made the list. U.S. News & World Report also ranked Ramapo fifth among public institutions and 26th overall in its “Regional Universities North Rankings.”
State support for Ramapo’s general fund decreased during Mercer’s tenure—from nearly 35 percent to about 25 percent. It is a common trend among the states but one especially detrimental to a small, public liberal arts college with aspirations to raise its academic profile.
“Asking people if they want to spend more money on higher education is kind of like asking them if they want to go to heaven,” Mercer says. “They say it’s a good idea, but not right now.”
Raising money, then, has become more important than ever. Under Mercer’s watch, Ramapo embarked on the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the history of the college. Some 13,500 donors contributed more than $56 million to the Further Our Promise Comprehensive Capital Campaign for Ramapo College, or 40 percent more than the campaign’s $40 million goal.
“The money itself is extremely important, there’s no doubt about it,” Mercer says. “But it’s important not just for being a specific sum that you can apply for a particular expense. It’s important also for what it symbolizes. We can go to our faculty and our students and our prospective students and their families and our staff and say, people think enough of us to have given beyond the goal we set for our campaign. That does a tremendous amount for morale.”
Ruotolo credits Mercer with playing a vital role in the campaign’s success. “He’s very good at presenting a vision for the future of Ramapo and getting people to want to affirm the vision through philanthropy,” Ruotolo says. “A lot of college presidents do it begrudgingly. Peter doesn’t do it begrudgingly. He does it with a purpose.”
The sweeping renovation of Ramapo’s campus over the past ten years has included new construction such as Laurel Hall, with 432 suite-style dorm rooms; the Salameno Spiritual Center, a space for reflection by believers and humanists alike; the Sharp Sustainability Education Center, which is heated and cooled by a geothermal system; the Adler Center for Nursing Excellence, home to Ramapo’s highly regarded nursing program; and the Anisfield School of Business.
Ramapo also made significant upgrades to its Salameno School of Humanities and Global Studies, science facilities, the Les Paul Music Production Studio, the Scott Student Center, the Bradley Sports and Recreation Center, Potter Library and the Birch Mansion.
All told, Ramapo has spent $438 million on renovations and new construction during Mercer’s tenure. It’s an impressive figure, and a reminder of Mercer’s ethos of teamwork.
“If you don’t like the people with whom you work with and you don’t like the environment in which you operate, you’ll never be as effective as you might otherwise be,” Mercer says. “And I genuinely like the people I work with.”