Mary Alma Noonan will tell you that interviewing for and landing a new job in the midst of a pandemic can be a bit disconcerting.
Lawrence University’s new vice president for finance and administration came on board in early August after going through a lengthy interview process, all without ever leaving her home in Vermont. Thus, Appleton became her new home sight unseen.
“The hardest part was wrapping my head around coming to Appleton when I had never set foot here, had not really spent any time in Wisconsin at all,” she said.
Six weeks in, so far so good. The campus is gorgeous, the weather has been beautiful, and the Lawrentians she’s met – masked up and at a distance or via Zoom – have been helpful, collaborative, and committed. In other words, as advertised.
“Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been exploring as much as I might have otherwise,” she said of Appleton. “But I’ve been doing a lot of walking, getting a sense of the geography.”
Noonan also has dived into Lawrence’s finances, which, like those of most every institution of higher learning across the country, are being stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She arrives on campus at a particularly difficult time, with much of the instruction taking place virtually and a little more than 60% of students living on campus for Fall Term.
Noonan said she and other members of the Lawrence leadership team will need to work closely with shared governance committees to make decisions with an eye on both the short-term financial realities and the long-term health of the University.
“It’s difficult, but that also makes it interesting and challenging,” Noonan said of her new role. “If it were just a job that I stepped into and it was just clicking through the steps and checking the boxes, I probably wouldn’t be as interested in it. There are challenges out there. I feel I have some ideas that can be helpful, looking at strategies going forward. Right now, we are so focused on the here and the now and getting through this crisis that the strategic part is a little bit on the back burner. But I know that that is going to pop into the foreground before too long. That’s really an interesting part of this to me, to think about how to make the institution stronger, how to ensure the best possible experience for the students we have now and those in the future.”
Noonan spent the past year as the chief financial officer for the Rutland City Public Schools in Vermont. Prior to that, she spent a year and a half as the vice president for finance and administration at Green Mountain College, a struggling liberal arts college in Poultney, Vermont. She came on board well aware that Green Mountain was trying to dig out of serious financial difficulties. Efforts to reverse the slide were not successful and the school closed its doors after the 2018-19 academic year.
The experience gave Noonan insights into the hurdles facing higher education. And furthered a desire to work in the world of liberal arts education.
“Lawrence is in a relatively fortunate position vis-à-vis some of its peers in that we’ve got a pretty solid financial footing supported by a good endowment,” she said.
That endowment is being significantly bolstered by the $220 million Be the Light! Campaign that launched six years ago and is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2020, providing long-term sustainability.
The endowment isn’t “luxurious” when compared to the handful of other schools with similar faculty-student ratios to Lawrence and that count their endowments in the billions, Noonan said, but it’s strong enough to provide stability that some schools just don’t have right now.
“The higher education sector is going through some tough times, but Lawrence will get through it,” Noonan said. “We just need to be good conservators of the resources that we have. We need to put in the work and make sure that we’re using those resources as effectively as possible to ensure the longevity of what we do.”
Ultimately, identifying ways to generate higher levels of revenue while maintaining a commitment to Lawrence’s mission and values will be key going forward, Noonan said.
A new career path
Entering the world of higher education was no accident. Noonan, who has a bachelor of arts degree in East Asian Studies from Middlebury College and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School and speaks fluent Mandarin, spent the bulk of her career in the business world, holding financial leadership posts with Sara Lee Corporation, Arrow Electronics, and Fannie Mae.
But after she took some time off to help see her mother through a health crisis, she shifted her focus toward more mission-driven work.
“When I started to go back to look for my next step, I realized my heart really wasn’t into continuing with a lot of the private sector functions I had been doing,” Noonan said. “It didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of purpose or mission behind that work.”
She had long been doing pro bono work on the side for a variety of nonprofits. That, she said, is where she was finding joy.
“I felt, particularly when I was in Washington, that I was getting more fulfilment out of some of the nonprofit work I was doing than in my day job,” she said.
She started to explore career opportunities in the nonprofit world. And that led to her connecting with Green Mountain, which put her on a path that would eventually lead to Lawrence.