An award from the Detroit Tricentennial Committee in 2001 occupies a prime spot in a fifth-floor office that overlooks most of the University of Detroit Mercy campus, and praises the institution’s contributions to the community.

“A distinguished leader in the field of higher education that has raised the quality of life, hopes and expectations of the people of metropolitan Detroit,” reads the inscription.

The exact same words also can be spoken about the office’s occupant – Sister Maureen Fay. In fact, administrators, faculty, students and alumni believe it is because of Fay that this Catholic university of 6,000 students has become such an integral part of efforts to revive and enrich a city that has had its share of problems and challenges.

Those admirers are full of colorful adjectives when asked to describe Fay, who is about to enter her 14th and final year as president of Detroit Mercy and her 21st year as a college president. They call her wonderful, energetic, intelligent, visionary, decisive, collegial, collaborative, plain-spoken if not blunt, demanding and extraordinarily effective in her leadership and stewardship.

“I have introduced Maureen as ‘the best damn Jesuit I’ve ever known,’ ” said alumna Jane Kay Nugent ’48, “and that’s the truth. Even the worst inbred male chauvinists hand it to her. They appreciate what she’s done, and they will miss her. We all will miss her.”

Nugent laughed at her own words and their irony. The subject of Nugent’s praise isn’t a Jesuit priest, of course; she’s a Dominican nun who became the first president of Detroit Mercy and the first and only non-Jesuit to lead a Jesuit-sponsored university when Mercy College consolidated with the University of Detroit in 1990.

Many observers, including Tom Lewand, a 1968 Detroit alumnus and board chair of Detroit Mercy, believe her legacy will be the success of the consolidation and the blending of two cultures. Lewand wants “a clone of Sister Maureen” as her successor. “She has been an extraordinary president, and we need to find someone of her stature and capability.”

Others who have known only one school – Detroit Mercy – will remember Fay differently.

“Sister Maureen has the warmest heart,” said Nicole Najor, a full-ride Insignis scholar and biology major who hopes to go to medical school in two years. “She is so full of life. Her smile lights up a room, and she’s very open. Every time I see her I get a hug. She’s just a sweetheart.”

Fay does smile a lot, reflecting a personality that has been a driving force for two decades both in American Catholic higher education and in carrying out the mission of an urban university committed to making Detroit a better place to live and work. The Detroit Free Press has acknowledged as much, editorializing earlier this year that “if cities have patron saints, then UDM would be among the most prominent for Detroit.”

“It’s important to understand that a university is not a social services agency,” Fay said, “but it can be a place where academic pursuits and the needs of the community come together in partnership. We ask ourselves, ‘How do we make our experiences relevant to the greater city?’

“I can point to every school and college at Detroit Mercy and identify urban partnerships that build on their disciplines. Hopefully, when these students graduate they will continue with their volunteer efforts. It’s a values set that they get here, and we hope it will stick with them for the rest of their lives.”

Maureen Fay grew up in Chicago, one of two children whose Irish immigrant dad became an architect and whose mom worked for a telephone company. An order of Dominican nuns based in Adrian, Mich., ran her high school, which was involved in social justice initiatives. She found it rewarding to work with the inner-city poor and decided to join the order.

“My parents did not think I was going to last as a nun,” she said. “My father joked that I had too big of a mouth to survive, and he wanted me to become a lawyer. They weren’t negative; they just didn’t think it was a good idea.”

She entered the convent when she was 17 and enrolled at Siena Heights College in Adrian, graduating in 1960 with a degree in English. She taught second-graders and laughingly calls the experience her “grade school disaster. They were so little and I was so tall, and I was wearing those big habits. I guess it might have been a little intimidating for them.”

As she pursued a master’s degree in English from the University of Detroit, she taught English at Dominican High School in Detroit before becoming an assistant professor at Siena Heights in 1969. Two years later, she enrolled in a doctoral program in social sciences at the University of Chicago and won a Carnegie Fellowship. She received an American Council on Education Fellowship in 1975 and spent a year at Saint Xavier, a Chicago college run by the Sisters of Mercy.

“I walked in and out of anything I wanted,” she said. “I learned a lot about day-to-day operations. I had no intention of staying there. I did research on adult education opportunities and offered them a plan as a farewell gift of sorts. They gave me a job – first as dean of continuing education and then as dean of graduate studies – and I stayed seven years.”

She became president of Mercy College in Detroit in 1983, the first non-Mercy nun to serve in that position, and found its biggest challenge was to diversify a school dependent on nursing programs. She developed a strategic plan, established new academic programs and dealt with core curriculum issues. She also discussed ways to collaborate with the other four Catholic colleges in a city where the automotive industry was struggling.

The Rev. Robert Mitchell was president of the University of Detroit, a Jesuit institution. One day, after Fay and Mitchell gave a presentation to the Jesuits’ New York province about collaborative possibilities, she took a walk with Mitchell and the “merger” word came up.

“It was almost spontaneous,” she said. “We had a ‘what if’ conversation. I got back to the meeting, and I was going crazy. I asked him, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ We continued to talk. I was not a Sister of Mercy, and he was not a Detroit Jesuit, so we could look at the issue differently. We had several meetings, and we didn’t tell a soul for six to eight weeks.”

Studies were conducted quietly, Fay said, “and the bottom line was this: you don’t have a lot of overlap, and your programs complement each other. A consolidation would be a good thing – if you could pull it off.”

Fay and Mitchell determined how to best use the campuses, now called McNichols (formerly Detroit) and Outer Drive (formerly Mercy) and separated by five miles. They wrote bylaws, worked out governance issues, formed a new board that would include six Jesuits and six Mercys, dealt with “Noah’s Ark” issues (two of everything) and agreed on a name – the University of Detroit Mercy. They also agreed that neither should be president.

“Then the board chairman came to see me,” she said. “He felt I should be president, and I said, ‘No, you need new leadership.’ He wanted continuity. That night, Father Mitchell called me and said, ‘I understand you said no. Why?’ I said, ‘Remember our promise?’ He said, ‘I absolve you,’ and I told him, ‘Don’t give me that priest’s line!’ ”

Fay almost guffaws in recalling the conversation. She became president and Mitchell served as chancellor for two years before becoming president at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. He now is superior at the Jesuits’ America House in New York.

Aside from predictable reaction from some Detroit alumni – “What, a ‘skirt’ who’s a nun is going to be our president?” – Fay said the larger community accepted her.

“It boiled down to the relationship between two people,” she said. “We had absolute trust and confidence in each other. We played no games, and we worked together well. We never had a serious argument, and it wasn’t because I don’t speak my mind. I do. During the first year, people played ‘ma and pa’ with us – they would work around me and go to him, or work around him and go to me – to see if they could get their way.”

Thirteen years later, Fay walks into a conference room for her weekly senior staff meeting and is greeted by a chorus reminiscent of her days as a second-grade teacher.

“Good morning, Sister Maureen,” her staff chimes. She waves them off and smiles ruefully. “We always greet her like that,” one vice president said. “She likes it.”

Pleasantries dispensed with, the next 2.5 hours are devoted to dealing with issues such as fall enrollment numbers (they look promising), commencement exercises (they ran out of diplomas), an NCAA basketball Final Four pitch (Detroit Mercy is a Division I school) and a capital campaign update ($98.1 million in pledges with a June 30 goal of $100 million; $100.6 million was raised).

Most of the discussion has to do with identifying $600,000 in cuts or new revenue to balance the 2003-2004 operating budget of $101 million. The finance vice president estimates $50,000 in profit will be generated from events associated with Fay’s retirement, and she asks, “That’s all I’m worth? $50,000?” The advancement vice president assures her a truer value is $5 million, and she nods and says, “OK, better keep it at $50,000.”

Fay runs a crisp meeting. She solicits feedback, listens carefully, makes swift decisions and moves on. It’s clear her vice presidents appreciate her style, and they offer an assessment of their boss after she leaves the room.

“She is willing to make quick decisions on tough issues,” said Dale Tucker, vice president for finance and business and a 15-year employee.

“She collaborates,” said the Rev. Gerard Stockhausen, provost and vice president for academic affairs for three years. “She shows leadership – it’s not like she’s going off on her own. We all contribute.”

“She’s a macro-manager, not a micro-manager,” said Adrian Kerrigan, vice president for advancement for 18 months. “She has talented people and knows how to use them.”

“She’s able to see the big picture,” said Caroline Roulier, who has worked at the university since 1956 and has served as Fay’s executive assistant since 1990. “On the tough decisions, people may be disappointed, but they still like her and admire her.”

A few minutes later, as she sits down for lunch, Fay jokes about how her ears still are burning. She praises her staff and talks about how she thinks they perceive her. While the Jesuit and Mercy philosophies inspire her, at heart she always will be a Dominican driven by the search for truth through study and prayer.

In practice, she concedes, she is “demanding” and “impatient,” and “if I’m irritated about something, I’ll say it.” She calls herself “a reactor. I like the fray – to get in there and argue. I listen; well, I try to listen. I can change my mind, too. It isn’t always made up. But you have to be a quick reactor here because things change.”

She is grateful that so many people share her vision about the kind of university that Detroit Mercy should be, and again the conversation gravitates to involvement in the community. Fay cites several programs:

  • The Collaborative Design Center in the School of Architecture works with 75 neighborhood and community organizations that can’t afford the services of a private firm. Student and faculty projects include what Fay calls “urban farming,” or infill housing projects.

  • The Dentistry School runs clinics, including a mobile clinic for the housebound, for low-income people and those who can’t afford dental insurance, and the College of Health Professions in January opened a health care clinic for the underserved on the city’s east side.

  • The College of Engineering and Science works with Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Programs to encourage students in grades 4-12 to pursue careers in engineering. More than 4,000 youths end up on campus each year through the program.

  • The Law School provides legal services for immigrants and the homeless.

“If you like urban challenges, this is the place to be,” Fay said. “It can be exhausting at times, but if you want to participate, you can. There is no shortage of things to do.”

Fay leads by example. She has served on dozens of civic, corporate and education boards, and board memberships today include the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Downtown Partnership, New Detroit and two Fortune 500 companies – Bank One and Kelly Services.

She is involved because she knows that for the university to succeed, Detroit must succeed. She is a big proponent of the need to focus on strengths and to seize opportunities that fit those strengths. Detroit Mercy recently completed a strategic plan that examines such opportunities and the resources and facilities necessary to carry them out.

If Fay worries about anything, it’s the economic fragility of her university and, for that matter, Catholic higher education. She dealt with the issue frequently as chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities board from 1996 to 1998.

“We have to differentiate ourselves from public institutions so students and parents are willing to pay the difference,” she said. “They need to understand and appreciate the culture that they’ll embrace if they come here – otherwise, why are we doing this? They can get just as good of an education elsewhere and pay a lot less. We need to continue to define what it means to be a Catholic university in a very real way that people will recognize and appreciate.”

Why, then, given her passion for this and other issues, would she want to leave Detroit Mercy?

“I’m happy here,” she said. “I always prayed I would know when it was time to leave. I’ve given what I can. I set goals and achieved them. We wrote a strategic plan, our enrollment is turning around, a strong leadership team is in place and we are concluding a capital campaign.

“I like this job. But I don’t need it.”

Fay pauses for a moment and says she doesn’t mean that to sound harsh. It’s just her way of saying that she does know it finally is time to leave. She will take away countless memories, and she’ll treasure each and every one.

One such memory came earlier this year in a letter from the mother of a May graduate who played basketball and is going to law school at Detroit Mercy. The letter touched her, she said, because it shows the difference that her university can make and, at least to one observer, it validates what she has been doing all of these years.

“Sister, I just wanted to tell you that his college experience has been the most wonderful gift a parent could ask for,” the letter stated. “He received such a marvelous education there, not to mention the friends he has made. …

“Thank you, Sister Fay, for all you have done, all you do, and just for being YOU.”

Sister Maureen Fay and St. Thomas• Joined the board of trustees in 1999 and is vice chair of the Academic Affairs Committee.• Appreciates the faculty’s "clear sense" on what it means to be a Catholic university. "Your faculty buy into the importance of St. Thomas as a Catholic university. There is a health enthusiasm for the Catholic nature, and that translates into good programs."• Views as "extraordinary" the involvement and support of trustees. "There is a vivid connection between them and the university. It’s so clear it’s important to them that St. Thomas succeed."• Believes St. Thomas should focus more on improving its academic programs and needs to become more comfortable with its identity. "There’s nothing wrong with being an excellent regional university with several nationally known programs, "she said, referring to ocassional discussions about whether St. Thomas should aspire to be a national university.