INSIDENOVA New Marymount president starts tackling her to-do list

A moderate but steady increase in enrollment, more emphasis on online degree programs and addressing antiquated information-technology infrastructure are among the items atop the to-do list of Marymount University’s new president.

But just as important, Irma Becerra said, was living up to the ideals set forth by the institution’s founders seven decades ago.

“We want students to know that they can make a difference in the world,” Becerra said at an Oct. 31 meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Arlington.

An engineer and education administrator who was born in Cuba, raised in Puerto Rico and spent much of her previous career in Florida, Becerra in July became Marymount’s seventh president, succeeding Matthew Shank.

The university was founded in 1950 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), an order of Roman Catholic nuns, to provide a practical education for women underpinned by the liberal arts. Becerra said the effort was ahead of its time, and while the institution has evolved into a full university serving both sexes, its students remain its most valuable asset.

“They are smart, they are eloquent, they are confident. I’m so proud of them,” Becerra said.

The university’s current enrollment of about 4,000 could rise to, maybe 8,000, in coming years, counting increases both in on-campus and online students, Becerra said. It’s a number that would still be small, but give the university more flexibility in finding its niche in the education arena.

“It’s become a hyper-competitive environment,” the new president said of the competition to land students. “Everybody’s trying to understand where their place in the market is.””

Marymount has embarked on a strategic-planning effort, which aims to wrap up in early springtime, around the same time as Becerra’s March 28 inauguration. In addition to growing enrollment, the effort is focusing on improving retention and graduate rates, while expanding a culture of service and quality for students and staff.

Also on the agenda: expanding athletic programs, developing online-centered degree and certificate programs, and embarking on a $6 million update to the computers and other infrastructure that the university relies on.

“It’s crucial to serve our students well and allow us to grow,” Becerra said of the last effort.

Paul Lanzillotta, an Arlington attorney long active in support of Marymount, said Becerra had been impressive in her debut.

“She’s really made a great presence,” he said.

From its founding until 2001, Marymount’s presidency had been held by members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. That changed when two successive lay educators from outside the area , James Bundschuh and then Shank , were tapped to lead the institution.

During his seven-year tenure, Shank won praise for the launch of a $40 million capital campaign, redevelopment of the university’s urban campus in Ballston and expansion of academic and athletic programs.

Shank announced late last year he would not seek an extension of his contract. Starting in January, he will assume office as president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges.