Searching through any promotional material for Marist College, attentive onlookers will see a common theme throughout the marketing. Most of the pamphlets, posters, and promotional videos for the school display the campus’s overlooking view of the Hudson River. Now a staple of the imagery Marist uses to sell the school to prospective students and benefactors, few remember that there was a time where looking upon the river from campus was impossible.
“That area was blocked by trees for the longest time,” remembers Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs John Ritschdorff, as he looks upon the view from his office in the Hancock Center. “Dennis realized that the location of the school really sells itself, and decided it was an expense worth investing in.”
Ritschdorff has been a part of the Marist community since 1964 and a faculty member since 1970. His experience with the school predates even the aforementioned Dr. Dennis J. Murray, the President of Marist College for 37 years and President Emeritus as of this past July. Ritschdorff’s remembrance of the forestry spread throughout campus recalls a time where Marist’s populace and finances were much smaller. Since the inauguration of Dr. Murray, the school has grown significantly in its enrollment numbers and economic standing, especially in comparison to other colleges throughout the United States.
The Marist Brothers’ mid-Hudson site received its first educational charter in 1929 and its first license for a four-year degree in 1946. The school became a private, all-gender institution in 1969. Then just a 93-acre path of land along the Hudson, many of the current academic facilities had yet to be constructed. The photogenic, dome-like Student Center was a concrete parking lot for on-campus students, and the area where the Lowell Thomas Communications Center is now located was a swimming pool.
Ritschdorff estimates that the campus housed somewhere in the range of 850 to 1,000 students across three residential halls. Beyond that, the minuscule budget of the school stifled many attempts at improvement by the administration.
“We had an unrestricted cash pool of only about $100,000 when I came aboard,” remembers Dr. Murray. “If crises arise and we had to make any adjustments to the college, that amount of money was not enough between the spring and fall semesters.”
Murray faced a daunting challenge when he officially took the presidential office from Linus Foy in 1979. In addition to the college’s limited assets, the United States was going through a minor recession that would last until 1982. Counting the aforementioned “Marist fund” of unrestricted cash and the $500,000 of specific endowments donated towards individual functions, Marist’s net assets stood at just $22 million.
Instead of trying to improve everything at once, Dr. Murray’s vision preached gradual patience. He took the time to assess where the college stood in terms of enrollment, faculty, and financial endowments. With that knowledge in mind, Dr. Murray acted in a fashion that he believed would best benefit the school.
“When I first started, we had to discover our identity,” said. Murray. “Once we had an idea of what we wanted to be and what we needed to spend money on, then we could go forward together to building the college.”
“Dr. Murray’s approach to building Marist up as an institution varied and adapted to the times that we were working within,” says Ritschdorff. “He knew to build little by little, but to always keep an eye on the bigger picture and think ahead of what would be best on the horizon.”
One of the early focuses of Murray’s extended administration was housing. While the upfront expense in building additional dormitories and townhouses may have been risky when application numbers rested below 2,000 students, Murray viewed housing as a self-sustaining entity. He believed it would pay for itself with student tuition, not unlike the mortgage of a house.
Dr. Ritschdorff likened the decision to concentrate efforts on housing to a famous quote from the 1989 baseball drama Field of Dreams.
“Dr. Murray recognized that ‘if you build it, they would come’. And the students did come.”
Quotes from Kevin Costner films aside, the construction of the Foy Townhouses in 1981 represented a turning point for the college. The new housing started a ripple effect that would affect the campus’ direction for the next four decades. More students were able to attend the college because of the additional housing, which in turn led to more tuition flow into the school’s unrestricted budget. Over time, Dr. Murray’s leadership improved Marist’s campus look and academic stature, helping the school increase in size and acceptance selectiveness.
According to statistics provided by Chief Public Affairs Officer Greg Cannon, Marist went from accepting nearly 78 percent of more than 1,600 total applicants in 1980 to accepting only 41 percent of about 11,000 applicants in 2015. The overall enrollment has grown from 1,842 to 6,356, more than a 200 percent increase in population. The $100,000 of unrestricted cash that Murray had to work with at the beginning of his administration has risen to over $60 million. The school’s increased budget has also helped Marist develop its economic impact on the Hudson Valley area, as the school’s annual contribution totals $507 million.
“The president is responsible for key things like making sure the institution is stabilized,” Murray states. “I did my best to set the direction, but the credit in our development goes to the people that work in all of the relevant areas.”
Those “relevant areas” that Dr. Murray mentions are what he refers to as the five most crucial aspects of college services. The first is instruction, which refers to the money spent on renovation and construction of classrooms, buildings, and offices. The value for Marist’s physical plant in 1979 totaled roughly $14.3 million. The Murray administration built 57 new buildings on campus, with 24 additional major renovations. According to the current Director of the Physical Plant Justin Butwell, its value now stands at around $800 million.
The second category is student services, which is the provided counseling and medical assistances that students are entitled to based on their enrollment. Murray was instrumental in a massive increase of college staff, as employment rose from 350 full-and part-time positions to over 1,300.
Category three references academic support, which includes the school library and the computer networks used to power classrooms. After residing in Fontaine Hall for 23 years and finding a temporary home in the Poughkeepsie Steel Plant for two years, Board of Trustees member James Cannavino made a donation of $25 million to construct the IBM-based, 83-000 square foot library in 2000.
Category four counts auxiliary enterprises, such as food services and the Marist bookstore. Marist’s lucrative contract with Sodexo food services earned national certification from the Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership council last month.
The last category Murray cites as important is institutional support, which deals with the administrators and alumni that work with the college to keep things moving in the right direction. The Office of Advancement, led by Vice President for College Advancement Chris DelGiorno and Executive Director of Alumni Relations Amy Woods, plan about 115 golf outings, networking summits, and other events across the country to raise money for the school from former students. DelGiorno, a graduate of the Class of 1988, thinks the climate among alumni is indicative of the positive impact Dr. Murray’s time in office had on the college.
“About 97% of our alumni that we’ve surveyed would recommend Marist to prospective students,” notes DelGiorno. “They are certainly very supportive and engaged investors because they have fond memories of their time here. The president is the chief fundraiser, and Dr. Murray certainly did his part.”
In the catalog of gifts reported by Marist College for the year 2015, it was documented that 315 members of the alumni donated to the school. The department received $10 million in overall gifts, which calculates all of the unrestricted “Marist Fund”, government grants, and restricted annual and capital donations.
Overall endowment totals have increased an astonishing 45,000 percent since Murray’s inauguration, as the school now accumulates $227 million in gathered funds. Well-known graduates of the school such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or philanthropic supporters like the CEO of 1-800 Flowers Christopher McCann have contributed significant amounts to scholarship programs and specialized projects throughout the past decade.
Nowhere is Marist’s growth as a financial institution better illustrated than in the overwhelming success of the school’s first Capital Campaign. From November 9, 2007 to December 31, 2012, Marist held an ongoing fundraising event with the purpose of taking all financial aspects of the school to the next step. The initial goal was to raise somewhere in the range of $79-80 million. The final results went above and beyond that tally.
“We ended up doubling our goal about halfway through the campaign to $150 million, and we reached that number too,” remembers DelGiorno. “To say it was enormous for the college would be an understatement.”
When the final numbers had been tallied, Marist had raised over $159 million spread across over 14,000 participants. Forty-one new scholarships were established, and forty existing ones were strengthened. The campaign has helped pay for some of the more recent expenses that the college has undertaken, including the New Music Building and the renovations on the Student Center Rotunda.
“We were able to use those funds in multiple ways that helped Dr. Murray end his presidency on a high note of significant growth,” said Ritschdorff.
If there was a consistent key element of financial insight that Dennis Murray brought to the table as Marist president, it was his reputation as a very controlled spender. All those who were interviewed for this piece stressed the significance of Dr. Murray’s successful balancing of Marist’s budget throughout his administration. In 38 years of financial statements, not once did Marist College find itself in the deficit. Following that lead, high-level administrative personnel have grown accustomed to this philosophy and adapted it to their own departments.
For one example, Joey Wall has been the Director of the Marist College Media Center since 2002. Marist desperately needed a technological upgrade in their classrooms in the 1990’s. Throughout the summers of the early 2000’s, Dr. Murray and CFO John Pecchia gave Wall the funds necessary to make each classroom on campus technologically “smart”. Each room received projectors and Lenovo desktop computers, drastically improving the capability within the classrooms. Eventually, more finances were given to erect two state-of-the-art television studios in Lowell Thomas, which were finished in 2014.
“When we started operating as the Media Center, we didn’t have much of a budget,” Wall remembers. “I had to constantly ask for money because we didn’t have what we needed to take the next step in media-related learning. We were patient and ultimately got what we needed.”
The school gives the Media Center an operations budget each year along with a classrooms budget. Both of these sources of funding fluctuate on a year-by-year basis given the needs of the college as a whole. In the years leading up to the classroom renovations and the construction of the studio, Wall found that the budget would sometimes double; yet this fiscal year, the department felt a slight cut.
“Even as the school has developed, we are still very lean in staff and resources,” Wall says. “Now we have these enviable studios, but sometimes lack the money needed to renovate. However, if you can do something with the resources you have, you do it. It’s the Marist Brothers’ way.”
The Media Center is a modest financial operation compared to an area of the school such as Athletics. Marist’s NCAA programs have been promoted from Division II competition to Division I-AA, an important distinction that makes the school more appealing to potential athletes looking for the ideal place to compete. The development of additional teams (one men’s and eight women’s) has also increased the overall number of athletes that go to the school. Marist currently has about 591 athletes competing in varsity sports.
With that growing number comes a need for the Athletics Department to divvy up the funds in a way that reasonably produces the best financial outcome for Marist. According to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, out of the roughly $10.6 million of total operating expenses for Marist Athletics, about $4 million goes to the combination of men/women’s basketball and football. Those three teams, however, make that $4 million back, as do the rest of the programs to produce an exactly equal $10.6 million in revenue.
“Former President Murray ran a tight ship, but he was also really good about not micromanaging,” said Director of Athletics Tim Murray (no relation). “ He was always thorough with his strategy and research, but we are as well.”
Even though athletics is a multi-million dollar endeavor for Marist, the department still has to do as much as they can with a limited budget in comparison to other Division I schools. For example, Marist’s football team is the only Division I squad in the country that flies on a commercial airline. Amanda Rogerson, the Assistant Director of Business Operations for Athletics, has to balance the finances amongst employee and coach salaries, scholarship funds, and all of the other various aspects.
“The budget for different sports varies based on needs for operations,” says Rogerson. “A sport like track doesn’t need as much money for gear as football or lacrosse does, and some sports travel farther distances than others. It’s about making sure the money is in the right place for the school’s benefit.”
Marist is cautious with its funds because the school has seen this strategy pay off in immense progress and public acclaim. In 2015, The Princeton Review included Marist as one of its 50 schools in the book Colleges That Create Futures. The placement of the school in that book comes at an appropriate time, as the college turned the page on the Dennis Murray administration in July of 2016. Now all eyes are on President David Yellen to see if he can continue the progress set by his predecessor. Many are hopeful, including Dr. Murray himself.
“Helping David and all of our college community to be successful will be my primary area of emphasis,” Murray says. “I’ve got Marist in my blood.”
DelGiorno believes that Yellen has already proven himself to be a tremendous fundraiser for the school, and will have plenty of help from experienced members of the community who want to continue seeing the school grow. On the same matter, Wall made her view on the importance of progress as concise as possible.
“We all have a responsibility to make sure a degree from Marist College is worth something decades from now. If that’s true, we’ve succeeded.”
**Author’s Note-The Chief Financial Officer John Pecchia could unfortunately not be reached for comment by time of publication, despite the efforts of the reporters and the interview subject. **
Contributors: Andrew Auger, Dylan Gordon, and Jake Hensler