The ACCU Blog on Leadership: Irma Becerra

 

Position: Irma Becerra, Ph.D., is the seventh president of Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, a position she has held since 2018.

Career highlights: Provost and chief academic officer at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens from 2014 to 2018; vice president, vice provost, entrepreneurship center director and professor at Florida International University from 1996 to 2014. Becerra founded Florida International University’s Knowledge Management Lab and led major projects as principal investigator at the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Air Force Research Lab. She was also a Sloan Scholar at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research. Becerra has authored four books and numerous journal articles in the areas of knowledge management and business intelligence. She is also the holder of four patents and copyrights.

Education: B.A. (1982) and M.A. (1986) in electrical engineering from the University of Miami; Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Florida International University (1994).

Family: A Cuban-born American, Becerra immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was an infant. She is the mother of two adult children, Anthony and Nicole.

Fun Fact: When she arrived at Marymount, Becerra was asked to join DC’s Dancing Stars Gala. Her cha-cha won first prize and raised $70,000 for the university’s Sister Majella Internship Fund – Watch the video!

 

Who are some of the influential people and what are some of the significant moments that led you to serving as a university president?

I never thought that becoming a university president would be part of my journey. I began working as an engineer during my master’s degree program. It was a very technical job, coding up to 10 hours per day, and I really missed interacting with people. At the same time, I fell in love with adult education and I began to feel the vocation for academia. It is an amazing opportunity to discover new knowledge and open the eyes of students to see what is possible.

Many people contributed to my journey. My dissertation advisor convinced me to start my doctorate even though I had a six-month-old daughter and a two-year-old son at the time. I was teaching as an adjunct professor and he gave me confidence, encouraging me that I could complete the doctoral degree and still be a full-time mom. After I finished my doctorate, the dean of the college of business at Florida International University (FIU) hired me as an assistant professor and showed me the ropes of being a research professor. She also encouraged me in my first administrative position as the director of the entrepreneurship center.

Another dear friend and colleague at FIU became an amazing research partner. We worked on many research projects and wrote journal articles and books together. The provost at FIU saw leadership qualities in me and hired me as vice provost, which did prepare me to become a university president. Finally, I am grateful for the chair of the board of trustees at Marymount, who hired me to lead this school forward with a very ambitious strategic plan.

I loved my teaching job. My research was funded by NASA and I had 63 students in my lab. But when I entered administration, the center was facing some financial challenges, and it was my first experience of an academic turnaround. I realized the possibility of administration to have an even greater impact on students.

 

Marymount is tied for #1 for Most International Students and ranks #2 in Campus Ethnic Diversity among regional universities in the South, according to U.S. News and World Report. In a time when we have become more aware of the need, what advice would you offer other colleges regarding efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion?

These numbers do not happen by chance. If a school wants to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, the school must be intentional about it. For example, we appointed a dean at Marymount who is responsible for creating an environment in which students feel a sense of belonging at the university. A real sense of belonging is one of the most important things that we can do to retain students. We are proud of where we are, but we are not finished. Everyone needs to feel that they are included and belong. It is also important for us to provide sufficient role models, so we are working hard to diversify our staff, our faculty, and our trustees. We want our students to be able to see themselves represented in the community and leadership.

A real sense of belonging is one of the most important things that we can do to retain students.

 

“Knowledge management” seems to be a particularly apt area of expertise for a university president. What is it? And how does your scholarly interest in this area intersect with your leadership responsibilities?

Knowledge management is the study of how organizations create the processes, mechanisms, and technologies to allow employees to successfully discover, share, apply, and capture knowledge. It is a relatively new area of study, perhaps only 20 or 30 years old. Most of my work with NASA was helping them create an environment and culture to support the flow of knowledge.

I am a true believer in the value of the collective, so whenever we are making important decisions, I want to hear many perspectives — not only ones that I agree with. I strive to create a collaborative culture, not only among my cabinet members, but also their direct reports. There is real value in cognitive diversity, creating a group around the table with people who look at a specific situation from multiple angles. This has really helped us be successful with managing the pandemic. The “secret sauce” of managing during complex times is (1) creating a culture that supports listening to multiple perspectives and (2) not being afraid to change course if necessary. An important part of knowledge management is analyzing actions and learning lessons. Not every decision will be a good one. Reviewing decisions, learning lessons — if you do this, an organization can pivot and make better decisions in the future.

 

American Catholic higher education faces significant demographic changes in the future. You have been committed to expanding educational access throughout your career. What advice would you provide to other school leaders?

One of the most important things that we need to tackle is making Catholic education affordable. My children were educated in Catholic schools for both primary and secondary education, but for many of their classmates, the financial cost of Catholic higher education forced them to select other options. We need to be obsessively focused with on-time graduation rates. For us to make the model work for families, we need to promise them that we will help their son or daughter earn a very valuable degree in four years or less. If we can do this, there is a financial value to attend a Catholic college, even if there are less expensive alternatives. Here at Marymount, students are assigned an advisor to help them navigate the maze of higher education to ensure that they make good decisions and graduate on time.

 

Marymount is only five Metro stops from the nation’s capital. What are your hopes for higher education priorities and policy with the new administration?

I have two big hopes. First, we need to raise Pell grants significantly, perhaps by double or triple. More Pell opportunity would allow many students who are in need to attend schools like Marymount. Second, and I have written about this, we need to support our Dreamers. It is time to treat Dreamers with the dignity that they deserve. For many of them, the United States is the only home that they know, they are hard workers, they have incredible grades, and they deserve the opportunity to succeed. They too should have access to Pell grants and other need- and merit-based scholarships. The need for more funding for higher education is not only a federal issue, but also one that needs to be taken up at the state level.

It is time to treat Dreamers with the dignity that they deserve.

 

Much has changed since Marymount was founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in 1950. What remains consistent about the school’s mission?

We may have a renewed vision today, but our mission remains the same. We are a comprehensive Catholic university guided by the traditions of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Our core values of intellectual curiosity, service to others, and a global perspective have not changed. At Marymount, our education is underpinned by the liberal arts but promotes career preparation, what we call a practical education. Our top degrees are all very practical: nursing, physical therapy, forensic and legal psychology, fashion and interior design, business, and cybersecurity. Next fall we will be offering engineering for the first time. When Marymount was founded, it was to prepare women for work. Today, we are coeducational and we prepare both men and women for meaningful careers that reflect their passions and purpose. We are a student-centered learning community that focuses on educating the whole person, the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of every student, because we believe that they are made in the image of God.

 

Throughout its history, Marymount has expanded from a two-year college for women to a comprehensive coeducational university with 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students. In your first six months as president, you launched a new strategic plan. What is your vision for the future growth of Marymount?

The name of our strategic plan is Momentum. It is a bold plan that includes the goal of becoming a leading Catholic university that will be nationally recognized for innovation and commitment to student success, alumni achievement, and faculty and staff excellence. We have already improved our standing in regional rankings; we want to enter the national rankings.

The four pillars of the plan are embracing our distinctive identity, offering transformative experiences, fostering a vibrant community, and ensuring a sustainable future. What is really important is that we have identified very measurable objectives for success. We plan to grow our enrollment to 10,000 students over the next four years, improve our retention rates, increase our four-year graduation rate, become a leader among peers for impact practices, and achieve the status of an R2 university. It is a bold plan, but we feel very excited and proud about it, and we are already making progress toward our goals.