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BOSTON GLOBE: Sister Janet Eisner has been the heart and soul of Emmanuel College — for 40 years


Courtesy of The Boston Globe, Written by columnist Thomas Farragher

(Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Office of Marketing and Communications)

At first glance, you see one elemental side of Sister Janet Eisner, a stately gray-haired woman who has devoted herself to God, a polite and accomplished leader who grew up in Lynn and followed a calling that led her to the convent and then a lifetime in higher education.

And all of that is true.

All of that is essential to who she is and to the legacy she is still assembling at Emmanuel College, which now sparkles in the Fenway as spring bursts into colorful glory outside the president's office, which has been hers now for 40 years. But here's what you'd miss if you paused only long enough for that first glance:

■  A savvy survivor who is now the longest serving woman college president in the United States.

■  An educator who as a young woman cut her teeth in front of 48 students, most of them boys, and all of them not very much younger than she. The newly minted teacher learned to command the classroom by finding a common denominator, deftly discussing pro football heroes alongside her lessons in grammar.

■  A leader, now 78, who knew before most that for her college to survive, she needed to invite men into its all-women's classrooms.

■  A steely businesswoman whose cash-strapped campus almost certainly faced extinction until she found an unlikely lifeline in the pharmaceutical colossus Merck, which in 2000 agreed to lease land at the campus for about $50 million with no strings attached.

"Some people search the world over for solutions,'' said Jack Connors, the prominent Boston businessman who is a member of the Emmanuel College board of trustees. "She found a solution in her back yard.''

Margaret L. McKenna, executive vice president at Fidelity Investments in Boston and the chairwoman of Emmanuel's board, put it even more succinctly: "She's the second founder of Emmanuel College.''

"There was a founder in 1919 and she's the second founder,'' McKenna told me the other day. "She's open to discussion and she doesn't need to be right all the time, but when she feels strongly about something, she's going to stick to her guns. And you're going to have to convince her why she's not right.''

Perhaps that explains her remarkable longevity.

Nobody lasts 40 years in a college president's office anymore.

Nobody lasts that long at anything anymore. Not in Boston. Not in academia, whose most frequently employed adjective is cutthroat.

You need look not much further than recent Globe headlines about higher education tumult to know that in her field, Sister Janet Eisner is a unicorn. A rare breed. A patch of blue in otherwise stormy skies.

"Each year I ask the senior class: What would you never want to see changed about us? What would you like to see changed? And what are you going to take with you?'' she told me the other afternoon over a tray of sandwiches in a conference room near her office.

"Every year, the answer is: Never lose the strong sense of community that we feel here. We work together. We welcome others. We can talk about anything here.''

That may be true now. But it was hardly a given at certain mileposts along her personal academic path, which wends its way back to her native Lynn, where she was the oldest of four children and where her father, a soldier in General George Patton's army, raised his family on his General Electric paycheck.

She graduated from St. Mary's High School in Lynn, received her bachelor's degree in English from Emmanuel in 1963. In her early 20s, she taught freshman English at high schools in Lawrence and Cambridge before she returned to Emmanuel as director of admissions in 1967.

"If you think about the size of this table,'' she said, "that was the whole administration. The president. The academic dean. The associate dean. The treasurer. The director of admissions.''

She was the youngest by far, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur who, at age 29, was traveling the country to spread the gospel of Emmanuel College. She soon would be its chief preacher. She was named the college president in 1979.

"I knew we had to do something for Emmanuel,'' she said. "Things were not going well.''

Enrollment, once at about 1,500 students, had dwindled to 800. Tough decisions awaited. Foreign language classrooms were ghost towns. Boston College and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester were looking for female students.

"They said, 'We need your girls.' And they did it,'' Sister Janet said about what had become an existential threat to the college.

She needed to react. And she did. She welcomed men to the campus. She revamped the curriculum. When she needed help, she wasn't afraid to ask for it.

"It was not easy in the beginning,'' she said.

Meantime, her Longwood neighbors were lusting after her college's land.

"But I said, 'No, we're not going to sell,' '' she recalled about that period of her presidency. "The name of the college is Emmanuel and it means 'Our God with us.' And I believe that to the core of my being because we were this close to making a deal because it would have been very helpful. And I said, 'No.' ''

Instead, she got creative.

In 2000, strapped for cash with enrollment hovering around 500 students, New England's first Catholic women's college found its savior. Merck agreed to lease two acres for 75 years for about $50 million.

"Could we keep it going?'' she said, remembering that make-or-break period. "And that was the big decision. Could we get someone and we did get someone who would come in and give us a significant amount of money to help us in 2000, which was the turning point for us.''

The Merck alliance allowed the college to add dormitories. The following year, men were admitted. A revival had begun.

Christopher Borges was an Emmanuel student not long after that and remembers shopping for colleges as a high school senior when he stepped off the T at Fenway and saw his future.

"This is what I pictured college would look like,'' said Borges, who graduated in 2010 and is now a member of Emmanuel's Board of Trustees. "Wow, they have a research building on campus. If Merck wants to be there, why would I want to be anywhere else?''

Borges has seen Sister Janet Eisner from many perspectives now. He knew her as his college's president. Now, he is working with her to construct his alma mater's future.

"I would never want to be on her bad side,'' said Borges, a scientist at Editas Medicine, a Cambridge-based gene editing pioneer. "She is so sharp. When she believes in something and it's backed up by data, she feels very strongly about it.

"She's the most warm, inviting, caring individual but she's an unbelievable business woman. Most college presidents don't last a decade. She's lasted four. Why has she endured so long? She's a fantastic leader.''

The other day, that leader walked around a campus where she is familiar with every brick, every tree, and what's behind the menu in the dining hall.

"We pay a little more,'' she said, reviewing the luncheon offerings. "But we have happier students.''

Those students greeted her warmly, holding the door for their president, welcoming her into their room in their 18-story dormitory, a living space that was once just an aspiration.

Emmanuel is now celebrating its centennial year. It has nearly 2,000 full-time undergraduates, almost all of them on campus. It has 94 full-time faculty members, twice the number in 2000. And it has a president not yet ready to hang up her cap and gown.

"She's a visionary,'' said Margaret A McKenna, former president of Lesley University. "She's one tough cookie. She's demanding. There's no question about it. She had to be. She could and has made some tough decisions. At the same time, she has this very human side of caring for people.''

People like those 20-somethings strolling across Emmanuel's sun-splashed campus the other day, heading for buildings — and an education — whose chief architect now has her eyes firmly fixed on a second century.