Office of the President
JANICE A. CERVELLI, FASLA, FCELA became the 12th President of Saint Mary’s College on June 1, 2016. President Cervelli has spent her career in higher education as an administrator and a professor. Her passion for education and her love for Saint Mary’s guides her work every day.
The former dean of the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, President Cervelli moved from a career at large, public university to a liberal-arts women’s college just across the St. Joseph River from her childhood home in South Bend.
She never imagined making such a change, but the opportunity to lead Saint Mary’s felt like a spiritual calling more than a mere career move.
“I think God made a decision for me,” President Cervelli said. “I got a unique calling and I paid attention to it.”
The “grit” Saint Mary’s women have shown in working toward a better world for themselves and those in need ultimately inspired her to heed the call.
“I can say with pride, Saint Mary’s women are impolite in their insistence on making an impact,” President Cervelli said in her inaugural address on November 12, 2016. “We call that quality grit, the ability to assert oneself regardless of external circumstances, the will to transcend what might otherwise cause us to retreat. Few things make me pump my fist with pride quite like seeing young women exhibit such resilience and determination.”
SOUTH BEND BEGINNINGS
President Cervelli, the youngest of three children, grew up on South Bend’s near northwest side. Her mother, a former professional dancer, was active in her children’s school, Holy Cross, one of the oldest Catholic elementary schools in Indiana. Through the school, her mother formed a close relationship with a number of Holy Cross Sisters, whose example made an impression on the young Cervelli.
“There was so much love around many of the Sisters who taught us, the love of life and the love of learning,” President Cervelli said. “They inspired us to take on the world and make a positive impact.”
Her father, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, worked for over 40 years as an aeronautical engineer for Bendix Corporation. An avid environmentalist, he also served as president of the Michiana Watershed Association, a non-profit that protects and restores South Bend-area waterways. His legacy project was helping to implement a 3.5-mile trail system, which runs behind Saint Mary’s, along the west bank of the St. Joe.
When President Cervelli was in eighth grade, she and her father took a two-day paddling trip on the river in the family canoe, camping along the way.
“My dad had a great a love of nature and always made it a priority to enjoy the outdoors,” President Cervelli said. “So whether it was a canoe trip or visiting national parks, he instilled in me a love for the environment.”
A HIGHER (EDUCATION) CALLING
While President Cervelli’s older sister, Patricia, graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1972 with a degree in mathematics, President Cervelli herself received an academic scholarship to Purdue University, where she graduated in 1979.
There she discovered landscape architecture through the work of Frederick Law Olmsted. The field combined her early influences — engineering, art and the natural sciences.
“I loved to draw, I loved music,” President Cervelli said. “I remember how inspired I was by our national parks and beautiful urban areas.”
At Purdue, President Cervelli served as a teaching assistant for Dr. Harrison Flint, a world-renowned expert in “woody ornamentals” — trees, shrubs and ground covers. She was encouraged when, under his direction, she was put in charge of her own lab section, taking fellow undergraduates around campus to learn about trees, shrubs and ground covers.
“Professor Flint was a great mentor in showing his teaching assistants how to teach,” President Cervelli said. “I fell in love with teaching by motivating students in January, freezing to death walking across West Lafayette’s campus, to look at twigs.”
After a summer in South Bend working for a tree nursery where she manned front-end loaders, and another summer where she was part of a digging crew who cleaned out irrigation ditches, she went north, and enrolled in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
“I saw how human-made landscapes could provide pathways to access the outdoors,” President Cervelli said, “and how bucolic surroundings could nourish people’s well-being.”
She became a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, where she earned the school’s Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and also began devoting herself to administrative work through a faculty advisory group.
President Cervelli said she was fortunate to have several university presidents as mentors, including David Roselle, former president of the University of Kentucky and the University of Delaware, and Shirley Raines, former president of the University of Memphis.
She also became an American Council of Education Fellow, where she was to spend a year learning directly from a university president. President Cervelli spent the year observing two: Robert Glidden at Ohio University, and William English “Brit” Kirwan at Ohio State. She appreciated learning from leaders with distinct styles at very different institutions.
“Bob Glidon was a warm, charismatic leader and I got to go everywhere with him and engage in all matters of the university,” President Cervelli said. “Brit Kirwan was a strong, principled leader who was a champion for civil rights and ethnic concerns. I watched Brit in some difficult situations and how he would always respect student and faculty rights.”
A common thread throughout her career in higher education has been a commitment to the liberal arts and its role in preparing students to make a positive impact in the world. An advocate for expanded science education at Saint Mary’s, she’s also proud that it’s situated in a liberal-arts curriculum that informs the human concerns at the heart of the College’s mission.
“Addressing the environmental crisis that threatens to destabilize the world for generations, for example, will not be simply a matter of developing the needed technology,” President Cervelli said at her 2016 inauguration. “We must summon the moral will to deploy it in the face of forces that might doubt its necessity, let alone the sacrifices required to make a scalable impact.”
PROMISE OF DISCOVERY
President Cervelli finds solace and confidence through her Catholic faith. Her faith has helped take risks — like leaving a job she knew well and a community where she was deeply involved to come to Saint Mary’s.
“My Catholic faith sits at the core of who I am,” President Cervelli said. “The Church’s vast intellectual tradition and commitment to social justice has been a constant moral compass.”
She is an unabashed fan of Pope Francis. “I can’t profess my admiration enough,” she said. “His first papal encyclical on human-driven climate change was remarkably relevant. It is a global problem with grave implications — especially, as he emphasizes, for the poor and marginalized.”
Echoing the Pope’s words, President Cervelli said she’ll lead Saint Mary’s with what he calls the “integral and integrating vision” necessary to combine different ways of knowing in the service of a more humane and equitable world.
President Cervelli has also found inspiration in the words of her legendary predecessor Sister Madeleva Wolff.
“We must bring different types of knowledge together in creative, forward-looking ways to create a sustainable future,” President Cervelli said. “I think I’ve been called to Saint Mary’s to carry that vision forward.”