Posted on Oct 28, 2005

Can a professor and Mennonite scholar from a Roman Catholic college find success as president of one of the oldest non-sectarian, liberal-arts universities in the United States?

Both Union College and Stephen Ainlay think so.

Ainlay was elected this week by Union trustees as the college's next president. He will take over the Schenectady college in June 2006, succeeding Roger Hull, who retired in June 2005 after 15 years at Union.

Ainlay, 54, is a professor of anthropology and sociology and a vice president for academic affairs at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass.

“Holy Cross is like Union,” Ainlay said. “They are very closely matched in terms of ratings. They are both in that category of highly selective liberal arts colleges. They face a lot of similar challenges and share a lot of similar values.”

Ainlay said he has succeeded at Holy Cross and elsewhere despite seeming to be a fish out of water at times.

“I was a non-Mennonite at a college founded by Mennonites and I was the first non-Catholic dean at Holy Cross,” he said. “I think what I have been able to do in these cultures is understand the goals, dreams and aspirations and help people realize them. That's transferrable.”

Clear favorite

Union trustee Frank Messa chaired the search committee that recommended Ainlay to the trustees. The committee received 65 formal applications for the job and interviewed eight candidates on Sept. 23 and 24.

At that point, Messa said, Ainlay emerged as a clear favorite. He excelled at meeting the four chief criteria Messa said the search committee laid out for the new president: background as a distinguished scholar, experienced administrator, exceptional communicator and a leader.

“It is very difficult to find an individual that is a perfect match for your school. We think we found it,” said Messa, senior vice president of the Saratoga Springs financial services and planning firm Ayco. “He seems to be a perfect fit on so many different levels.”

Ainlay said he likes researching and writing, but had reached a point in his career where a college presidency was the next logical step. He was familiar with Union College from his work with a group of deans at small colleges in the Northeast.

Union is “extraordinarily regarded” in academic circles throughout the Northeast and the rest of the country, he said.

“I can't tell you how many fellow deans and presidents said to me when this job opened up, 'That's one you ought to look at,' ” Ainlay said.

The search committee recommended Ainlay by acclamation to Union trustees without even bothering to vote, Messa said.

No union label necessary

Ainlay's lack of a Union College degree was not a factor in the search committee's decision, Messa said.

None of the eight final candidates are Union alums, he said.

Ainlay, an Indiana native, got his undergraduate degree from Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., and master's and doctoral degrees from Rutgers University.

In addition to books and journal articles about Mennonite life, Ainlay is also a scholar on the effects that blindness has on people when it sets in later in life due to macular degeneration and other medical conditions.

Ainlay and his wife, Judith Gardner, will live in the president's home on the Union campus.

Ainlay said Holy Cross has “worked very hard with the city of Worchester to realize our aspirations and the city's aspirations.” He expected to do the same at Union with Schenectady, which has made the college's expansion downtown one of its economic development priorities.

Details of his compensation package were still being worked out this week, but Messa said it will be “comparable” to the previous president's. Hull made about $320,000 a year at the end of his tenure.

Union College has 2,000 students and about 700 employees.

Professor Emeritus James Underwood will continue as Union's acting president until Ainlay is installed next year.