In May, Marymount University’s board of trustees unanimously voted in Dr. Irma Becerra as its seventh president. Becerra is a Cuban-American higher education leader who previously served as provost and chief academic officer at St. Thomas University in Florida. She succeeds president emeritus Matthew Shank, who recently left academia to join the World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C., as interim president. We checked in with Becerra to ask about her background and her priorities as president of the university on North Glebe Road.
What is knowledge management and how did you become interested in it?
When I was finishing my Ph.D. [in electrical engineering from Florida International University], knowledge management was an emerging discipline. It was really about organizations taking advantage of their most valuable resource: the knowledge that exists inside employees’ heads. Before, when you captured [a company’s] assets, it used to be how many buildings and cars and computers’ tangible assets. I was fascinated by the processes that underpin great organizations as they seek to better their knowledge assets. A lot of my research was based on work with NASA, developing prototypes of knowledge management systems.
How will you apply your background in engineering, mathematics and systems organization to your new job?
One of the things I have been focused on, and this is my engineering training, is how to do we continue to improve our businesses processes so we can be as effective and efficient as possible? My leadership style is collaborative, but I’m always focused on data-driven decisions. I have studied teams, and I know that great enterprises today are those that are able to really use the strengths of the collective.
What are your top goals for the first year?
We have already started a strategic planning process and hope to have it completed by March, with a clear vision of where the university wants to go in the next five, 10 years. We are going to be very focused on enrollment, retention, graduation and internships. Marymount, in its DNA, has always had a focus on a practical education. A student who has an internship is twice as likely to be employed upon graduation.
You created a dual enrollment initiative at St. Thomas University. Would you recreate that here?
Many families were opting for their sons and daughters not to continue their Catholic education in college. What I understood, from speaking with many parents, was the cost of education was causing them to pause. I created a program called the Catholic Education Continuum in Florida. It is a mutually beneficial partnership in which the university provides a set of opportunities that strengthen the high schools. For example, if [a high school] needed education for its teachers to earn master’s degrees (so they would have the credentials to teach college courses), we would be that resource. We created career academies that streamline the pipeline from high school to college. With dual enrollment, students can take up to a full year of their four-year degree while they are still in high school. The idea is to help students accelerate to graduation in a way that makes Catholic education financially more attractive. Yes, I am planning to create such a partnership here in Arlington.
Why is that acceleration important?
Research shows that the longer you take to complete a four-year [degree], the odds start getting stacked against you. The chances you don’t complete [your degree] increase the longer you take. Why? Because life gets in the way. I’m focused on finding ways that students can achieve their education goals in the shortest time. As a Catholic university, we are devoted to high-quality education and ensuring students get there in four years or less.
Name three books you recently read (and liked):
I have a mix of some leadership books and some that are spiritual and inspirational: The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama; The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace; and High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard.
Have you had much time to explore your new town?
I have visited some of the restaurants in Ballston and Clarendon. We don’t need to go to D.C. to find good restaurants.
How do you view Marymount’s relationship with the larger community?
Because of our Catholic faith, we have a commitment to service. Marymount students consistently rank high for participating in civic and community activities such as volunteering, social justice initiatives and donations to charity. We have made a huge contribution to this community because most graduates like to stay here. One of our alums [Jennifer Siciliano] was just selected to lead the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Portions of this interview were edited for clarity.
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