Inside NOVA: Marymount welcomes incoming president to campus

Having spent most of her professional career in the sometimes steamy confines of South Florida, the incoming president of Marymount University probably was right at home during a welcome reception held on the hazy, hot and humid early evening of June 18.

“I’m ready to hit the ground running,” Irma Becerra said from cooler conditions inside the historic Main House at Marymount, an institution she will lead effective July 1.

Representatives from the local business, academic, civic and government arenas were on hand to provide a welcome to Becerra, who will succeed Matthew Shank and become the seventh president in the university’s 68-year history.

“I am so delighted, humbled – all kinds of emotions,” said Becerra, who was recruited from St. Thomas University in the Miami area, where she has served as provost and chief academic officer. Born in Cuba, she is an electrical engineer by trade.

Edward Bersoff, who chairs the university’s board of trustees, said the selection committee “reached a consensus [on Becerra] so easily” during the search process.

Among those on hand to welcome the new president were a number of members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, the order of Roman Catholic nuns that founded Marymount in 1950 as a junior women’s college.

“I stand on your shoulders,” Becerra said to members of the order in attendance. They included Sister Jackie Murphy, a stalwart at Marymount for 51 years.

Becerra was introduced by Shank, who has served as president since 2011. Earlier this year, Shank announced he would not seek a contract renewal past the current academic year.

During Shank’s tenure, the university expanded academic and athletic programs, embarked on (and has nearly completed) a $40 million capital campaign, and demolished the venerable “Blue Goose” building in Ballston, replacing it with a two-building, mixed-use complex in collaboration with the Shooshan Co.

In remarks, Becerra said she was ready to build on past successes.

“Everybody has great ideas. My intention is to listen . . . to craft a plan of action,” she said.

After almost a quarter-century as a two-year college, Marymount transitioned to a four-year institution in 1973, added its first graduate-degree program in 1979 and became fully coeducational in 1986.

Until 2001, the university’s presidency always had been held by a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, including a 30-plus-year run by Sister Majella Berg from the early 1960s into the 1990s. That changed when two successive lay educators from outside the area – James Bundschuh and then Shank – were tapped to lead the institution.

Becerra becomes the first lay woman to serve as president.

After becoming the first woman to earn a doctorate in engineering from Florida International University, Becerra had a nearly three-decade career as an educator at that institution before assuming the administrative post at St. Thomas University.

Founded in 1961 and tracing its roots to the Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Havana, Cuba, St. Thomas University currently has about 6,300 students in its academic programs.

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