Just one week into what would become his nearly two-decade tenure as President of Marygrove College, Dr. John E. Shay, or “Jack,” as most of us call him, was asked what had originally attracted him to a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest. His answer perhaps mirrors the reasons many of us have found ourselves at Marygrove.
Marygrove was small. Intimate. It took care to cultivate relationships with its students. These things, he said in a 1980 interview, were precisely what made the college “an increasing asset.” These were the things that separated us from the “bureaucratization” found at so many other institutions.
While larger, state-funded institutions may have seen Marygrove as what Dr. Shay called, “a very small frog in a very large pond,” he knew that our independence was what enabled us to “make judgments based on educational goals not politics and state budgets.” Other distinguishing features were Marygrove’s commitment to the liberal arts, and perhaps most importantly, our refusal to compromise our Catholic roots. These things, Dr. Shay believed, were what would ensure the success of Marygrove College.
So when he was faced with fiscal challenges, he made cuts, rekindled relationships with many of the college’s supporters, and increased fundraising efforts. When presented with the proposed merger that would join Marygrove College with the University of Detroit and Mercy College of Detroit, Dr. Shay proudly announced the decision to keep Marygrove College independent. And so we remain.
Marygrove has certainly changed since Dr. Shay assumed the office of President of Marygrove College in 1980—yet, thanks to his leadership, it is also very much the same.
From 1980 to 1997, Dr. Shay honored our core commitments and in fact played a large role in helping the college reaffirm them. During the post-Vatican II period, many Catholic colleges—especially those with a largely secular student body—began asking themselves what it meant to be a Catholic institution. Should its messaging reflect the student body, even if a large portion of it was not Catholic? Would it have to soften its Gospel roots in order to secure enrollment growth? These were questions that Marygrove, like other Catholic institutions, were forced to grapple with. For Dr. Shay, however, there was little question as to what form our message would take.
Fundamental to Marygrove’s future, he believed, was a strong commitment to its Catholic roots. “It is more than our heritage,” he would say in a 1997 interview as he reflected back on the earlier part of his tenure. “It is a substantial part of the essence of this institution that is vital to our future as well as to our past. Were we not a Catholic college with a core set of values and a clear sense of mission, I don’t believe we could sustain community support for a liberal arts college in the City of Detroit,” he said.
Dr. Shay believed that Marygrove’s commitment to the Catholic mission could not be diluted for other reasons: the college’s history of social justice rooted in its religious nature, and Marygrove’s relationship to the IHM Congregation. Commitment to the Catholic mission would also be the impetus for Shay’s collaboration with faculty, staff, students, the IHM Sisters, alumni, friends and trustees to craft and finally adopt the college’s formal mission statement in 1983.
Despite his loyalty to tradition, Dr. Shay never stopped nurturing innovative ideas. Nor did it stop him from, as one of his colleagues put it, crossing the “grand canyon that usually separates college administration and faculty,” or from understanding that “strong administrators invite criticism and accept it with grace.”
And his ability to unite did not end with the faculty at Marygrove: It also extended to the College’s faithful supporters, the IHM Congregation and sponsors, and reached the Board of Trustees which began to reflect more truly the Detroit community.
None of us will quickly forget Dr. Shay’s disarming humor and the way he often used it to bridge gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences. Professor of English, Frank D. Rashid, has noted that, “In arguments, he disarms you with humor, and he’s infuriatingly good at taking a punch. In a calamity, all arguments forgotten, Jack stands at your side, his strong hand on your shoulder, steadying you until you can stand on your own.”
Dr. Shay may have had an inimitable wit, but he also had wisdom. The fact that Marygrove enjoyed fifteen years of balanced budgets, a successful capital campaign, implementation of the Master in the Art of Teaching program, and the launching of the 21st Century Initiative —a fund-raising effort designed to position the College for the new millennium—was not luck. Nor was it luck that he was able to implement a successful Five-Year Salary plan which raised faculty salaries, or that he established the Office of Enrollment Services and Retention, and saw significant increases in student retention.
In the inaugural address that followed his formal installation as President, Dr. Shay described his vision of Marygrove College: He saw it as a model Catholic institution; one that would serve the people of Detroit, of all races and creeds; one that would “be guided by spiritual and human values,” and “administered by people who care deeply about preserving its heritage.”
Thirty-three years after Dr. Shay arrived on our campus, his vision remains our own—and just as we remain rooted firmly in the city of Detroit, so will we remain firmly rooted in the values Dr. Shay modeled during his time with us.
Born in Rochester, New York and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, Dr. Shay graduated from the University of Florida in 1955. Following four years of military service as a naval aviator he received his Master of Arts Degree from Columbia University. In 1960 he became Assistant Director of Student Activities at Harpur College (SUNY). In the fall of 1964 he became Dean of Men at Marshall University, during which time he was promoted to Dean of Student Affairs and awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
His service in higher education administration continued at The College of the Holy Cross between 1967 and 1971, where he first served as Dean of Students and then as Vice President for Student Affairs. Prior to becoming President of Marygrove, where he served from 1980 to 1997, he was Vice President for Student Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island.
Dr. Shay is survived by his wife Patricia, daughter Maria and sons David and John.