Just as the rising sun was illuminating Mount St. Mary’s University’s campus, still quiet from the waning summer vacation, the school’s new leader, Brig. Gen. Timothy Trainor, was sweating on an elliptical machine.
It was shortly after 6:15 a.m. Monday — Trainor’s first day of two years as the Mount’s interim president. It’s a job he intends to keep permanently.
He rarely slacks in his six-day-a-week ritual of a roughly 50-minute gym workout, even as he rose through the administration’s ranks to be chief academic officer at West Point in New York, the United States Military Academy.
Trainor’s routine and professional style is indicative of a structured environment, a Catholic upbringing and schooling, and a military background.
He freely talks about his time in the Army, and carries all of the hallmarks of a military man — poise, polish and a suit without a wrinkle. He’s asked people not to refer to him by his rank, but rather “Dr. Trainor” (his doctorate in industrial engineering comes from North Carolina State University) or “President Trainor” — titles he feels are more appropriate for his role.
Trainor asked to spend his first day touring the Emmitsburg university’s offices, meeting everyone available. He and his wife, Donna, also retired from the military, are so pleased to be on campus, Trainor told those who welcomed him.
In almost every conversation, he thanks whoever is there for what they do.
A lot of leadership, Trainor explained, is about relationships.
This is particularly true in higher education, where most changes are deliberate and can lag as they are planned and dissected by faculty members and administrators. It’s a model known as shared governance — many different parties contributing to the direction of a university — that many academics fiercely seek to preserve, despite its sometimes prolonged pace.
“We had it at the Academy, and we have it here,” Trainor said. “I just have to review it to see if it’s effective. I will tell you that things happen slower because of shared governance, but that’s OK, because the end product is better. You’ve got to get faculty involved in that process, because if they are, they’ll buy into it.”
His view is a contrast to his predecessor’s, faculty members have said. They described Simon Newman, a longtime corporate leader in private equity and management consulting, as ignorant or disdainful of the nuances of higher education like the shared governance process.
Newman, who resigned in late February, drew the national spotlight to Mount St. Mary’s University for his alleged plans to cull out freshmen to inflate retention numbers reported to the federal government, and his firing of two professors, since rehired.
But even before the many months of headlines, Newman’s corporate leanings and desire to move speedily with lots of change alienated some faculty members, they said. The faculty had overwhelmingly voted for his resignation before Newman departed.
The media attention and Newman’s tenure was a bruise to those who love the 200-year-old-plus Catholic school on the mountain. The bruise appears nearly healed.
Many people are sick of talking about Newman, particularly with the arrival of a new school year, Trainor said as he sat on a bench in the campus athletic building after a workout.
He had Newman-related questions for Mary Kane, chairwoman of the Mount’s board of trustees, when he was a candidate for the interim job. But those were addressed, Trainor said.
Trainor was born on Long Island, and grew up in Suffern in Rockland County, New York.
Though his father served with the Air Force in the Korean War, Trainor doesn’t hail from a historically military family.
He attended a Catholic high school, Don Bosco Preparatory High School, in New Jersey. It was run by the Salesians of St. John Bosco, a “service-oriented” order, Trainor said. The eldest of Trainor’s three sons also attended the school briefly.
“The brothers were pretty [much] disciplinarians, but I was not usually the target of their rage. What was nice about it is that they were really committed to knowing the students. They wanted to be part of our lives and help us grow. Sometimes, it was tough love,” Trainor said with a laugh.
From an early age, Trainor was intertwined with West Point. He proclaims to bleed the academy’s black and gold.
Periodically, Trainor’s father took his brother amd him to the academy. Trainor’s father, a Staten Island native, visited there on a Catholic youth trip and felt a connection to the school and its history.
Both Trainor and his brother graduated from West Point. Trainor received his bachelor’s degree in 1983.
An engineering officer with the Army, he traveled the world — Germany, Honduras, Bosnia, Iraq.
As academic dean at West Point, where he supervised 13 academic departments, he lived in the center of campus. He and Donna, who met at West Point, could easily attend athletic events. They became known as Team Trainor.
He and his wife moved into the president’s home near the Mount campus in early August.
After six years as West Point’s dean — equivalent to provost at most colleges — he was unsure if he would remain in higher education. He pondered entering the nonprofit world, but remained lukewarm to the idea after a few meetings.
Trainor was attracted to a values-based institution like West Point, he said.
After pointing out each of the Mount’s athletic fields, now bathed in an early-morning light, Trainor invited a reporter to run with him on a trail.
Trainor fell into the Mount quickly. In late May, Kane contacted Trainor after learning about him from West Point alumnus and former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, whose wife, Suzanne, is on the Mount’s board.
In early June, Trainor was interviewing. The Mount announced his appointment June 20. The university declined to share details of his contract and his salary, other than that he will serve for two years.
Challenges facing the school
Small, liberal arts-minded colleges such as the Mount have lost money and enrollment in a landscape continually focusing more on affordability and teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
The Mount’s freshman class this year has 436 students. In 2012-13, it had 540 students.
After his first two-hour meeting with his Cabinet on Monday, Trainor, over a hamburger in the Mount dining hall, acknowledged the college’s challenges and its need to adapt.
Asked about the financial health of the school, Trainor stopped and thought carefully. He said that though there are concerns, the university is investing in areas such as online education that will eventually grow in its enrollment, especially at the Frederick branch of the university.
The situation isn’t dire, Trainor said. He wouldn’t take the helm of a school in imminent danger of closing. The balancing act, he said, is being fiscally responsible while trying to implement new academic programs that will make the university relevant in the coming years.
The Mount’s endowment is about $50 million.
Trainor adamantly defends a liberal arts education, something he came to appreciate more as West Point dean. While STEM students often leave college with appropriate technical skills, employers seek students with excellent communication skills who can be fit into managerial positions.
His wife’s doctorate is in social psychology, and so they have “interesting debates” at the house. Donna would joke that when her husband went away to engineering conferences, the only fun attendees would have is comparing pocket protectors.
“I think it’s important for people to study the liberal arts,” Trainor said. “You tend to learn about who you are. Before you know where you can live and how you serve in the future, you need to know who you are. I think you get that and where you fit in the world.
“I’m not the type of person who bashes the liberal arts. That’s one of the things that drew me to here — the core in the liberal arts.”