St. Joseph's University officials hoped to enroll 1,150 students this fall. They got only 1,100.
It was time for a decision.
Dig deeper into the applicant pool, accept more students, and bring in more tuition revenue? Or maintain selectivity and cull the academically strongest class in a decade?
Mark C. Reed, who became St. Joe's president two years ago, didn't hesitate. The school will live with a smaller freshman class. Because the school had a larger class the year before, Reed said, it could absorb the reduction.
"It was not a hard decision at all," he said. "Our academic reputation, our institutional reputation is of paramount importance."
The decision drew praise from the faculty, who in 2014 had criticized administrators for a plan to accept more freshmen and raise the admissions rate in a bid to offset a budget shortfall.
"We as faculty certainly appreciate the efforts to move toward being more selective, which is ultimately about providing the best educational experience for our students," said Ronald Dufresne, an associate professor of management and faculty senate president.
As the Jesuit university's first lay president in 166 years, Reed inherited serious challenges when he became president of the 8,415-student school two years ago: Finances were tight. There were enrollment challenges. And previous school leaders drew no-confidence votes from faculty.
Reed, a 43-year-old Huntingdon Valley native, has begun to turn that around, as a shrinking pool of high school graduates fuels more competition in the higher-education market.
He got a boost this month when James J. Maguire and his wife, Frances, donated $50 million, the biggest gift in school history.
In announcing the gift, Maguire cited confidence in Reed; he isn't alone. Several faculty leaders and administrators, while underscoring challenges that remain, are optimistic about the decisive direction and pace that Reed has set for the Catholic university, which is in Philadelphia and Lower Merion Township.
"I'm not telling you all the tough decisions are done," said Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the business school. "They're not. But we've made tough decisions, and they've gone better than we hoped for."
Reed's efforts have been multifaceted:
Budget: After the controversial 2014 plan to help cover a shortfall by expanding admissions, Reed arrived and budgeted for a smaller class and cut 42 positions, 29 of them vacant. This year, Reed said he anticipates ending the year with "a healthy operating surplus" in the university's $320 million budget.
Enrollment: In six states where St. Joe's draws most of its students — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut — the number of high school graduates fell by 7 percent, or 40,567, since 2010, tightening the market for colleges. But since Reed's arrival, he cut the admission rate from 85 percent of applicants to 77 percent. Reed's goal is to reduce the rate to 70 percent in five years.
This year's incoming class is the strongest in 10 years, Reed said, with the average GPA at 3.65 and with 87 percent having taken honors or AP courses in high school.
Tuition: St. Joe's raised tuition nearly 4 percent each of the two years before Reed's arrival. To stay competitive, Reed said, larger-than-inflation jumps would have to stop.
"It's critically important to signal to our parents and prospective students that we do take seriously the cost issue," he said.
The university raised tuition 2 percent for 2016-17 and again for 2017-18, bringing total cost including fees and room and board to $58,720.
Fund-raising: The school is preparing to launch a capital campaign, with Maguire's donation as the lead gift. The goal could reach $300 million.
Strategic planning: St. Joe's will look to start new programs and colleges to stand alongside its schools of business and arts and sciences. Reed said it will consider adding a school of allied health and education and a school of communication, media and the arts.
He'd also like to see St. Joseph's develop new niche centers or programs, similar to its Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.
Edward W. Moneypenny, chairman of St. Joe's board of trustees, said he was pleased with the administrative team Reed put in place, including a new chief financial officer, provost, enrollment officer, and university relations head. The board chairman also cited Reed's ability to heal the rifts in the university community.
"We had expectations, and he has met all of them," Moneypenny said. "We had to have someone who understood and appreciated how the shared governance system works in a well-run university."
Randall Miller, a veteran history professor who had been critical of the previous administration, said his assessment of Reed so far "would largely be glowing."
Reed, Miller said, listened and learned during his first year, rather than foisting a plan on the school.
"The thing that impressed me most is that he came without an agenda," Miller said. "He came with a sense of who we are."
Reed, who earned $331,079 in total compensation for 2015-16, the most recent year for which tax forms are available, said his approach is straightforward.
"You are open and transparent about the rationale behind the decisions that you make," he said.
A mathematician and voracious reader of history, Reed has roots in city schools. He's a graduate of St. Joseph's Prep. He started his administrative career at Fairfield University in Connecticut as dean of students at age 26 and rose to senior vice president for administration and chief of staff.
Unlike past St. Joe's presidents, he's not a priest and doesn't live on campus. Reed, a lifelong Catholic, resides in Lower Merion Township with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 6. Reed's father, Charles, is a 1962 St. Joe's grad and retired director of graduate medical education and chief of general pediatrics at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.
Because he is a lay leader, the new president wanted to demonstrate his commitment to the faith. During major campus Masses, he distributes communion.
He also appointed a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Dan Joyce, as chief mission officer, and he aims to eat lunch with Jesuit residents on campus weekly.
A highlight of his tenure was greeting Pope Francis on campus during the 2015 papal visit to Philadelphia. The visit lasted nine minutes, but for Reed, it was awe-inspiring. He recalls the long motorcade, led by police officers on motorcycles.
"In comes this little Fiat, and out gets the pope," he said.
The pope blessed a new statue commemorating Catholic-Jewish relations in the heart of the campus.
"This has become a special place," Reed said, standing near the statue.
Reed also underscored the importance of basketball as a window into the university and said he has begun to put more resources into the program, including providing more chartered flights to transport players quickly.
Despite his busy schedule, Reed taught a calculus class last fall. He plans to do the same this fall.
"I didn't cancel class once," he said, smiling, "probably to the chagrin of my class."
Ali Natale, 21, student body president, said Reed can regularly be seen at student events.
"He's a really friendly face to go up and say hi to," said Natale, an international business major from Little Falls, N.J. "Students feel comfortable reaching out to him. They know they will be listened to."
Dufresne said he expects that Reed will lead St. Joseph's for a long time.