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Departing Mount Mercy president takes pride in university's role in Cedar Rapids

Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen speaks during a grand opening ceremony for Mount Mercy University's Robert
Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen speaks during a grand opening ceremony for Mount Mercy University’s Robert W. Plaster Athletic Complex in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, September 30, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Many have congratulated Mount Mercy University President Laurie Hamen for being the first female president of the college. Hamen kindly corrects them.

“The first female presidents were four Sisters of Mercy,” she said. “I’m the first laywoman to serve as president.”

When Hamen took the helm of the Cedar Rapids university in 2014, she read everything she could find about the history and values of the founders. She’s come to think of them as role models, even adding their pictures to the wall in her office.

“They were absolute pioneers,” she said. “They didn’t just find a little place on the hill and stay there — their way of operating was to come to a community and work in it.”

Hamen has made an effort to emulate her predecessors, perhaps most notably through her efforts to share the school’s new Rinderknecht Athletic Center, on 17th Street NE, with the community.

Through a program called Jump Start, the college invites neighborhood kids to play in the facility. They also partner with more than 20 schools, leagues and social service agencies who use the building, which opened in 2019.

“Sharing that beautiful facility had been a big accomplishment for me,” Hamen said.

Hamen is reflective about her time at Mount Mercy, given that she’ll leave the college in June to return to her native St. Paul, Minn., to live near four of her eight grandchildren.

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“It’s time for me to go home, but it’s hard to walk away from a job I love and I’m good at,” she said.

Always active, she’s looking forward to snowshoeing and gardening and also is considering starting a nonprofit pregnancy crisis center.

While in Cedar Rapids, she has served on several nonprofit boards, including Orchestra Iowa and the Bridgehaven Pregnancy Support Center.

“It’s a big transition, but I’m sure I’ll find some things to do,” she said. “I’m not a person who likes to sit still.”

Her daily to-do list hasn’t gotten any shorter just because she’s leaving.

One of her goals has been to make sure the school has the right mix of programs, especially for non-traditional and graduate students. Hamen and her predecessors have significantly pursued this area over the last decade, adding a nurse practitioner program, an online MBA and more.

“Our fastest-growing program is the online MBA,” she said. “It’s the same faculty that would teach you if you came in person.”

With the changing landscape of higher education, adapting is crucial.

Hamen said Mount Mercy, like many schools, faces enrollment challenges due to the declining population of 18- to 22-year-olds in Iowa.

“Some would say it’s a negative thing that higher ed is changing because you can’t do the same thing you’ve always done,” she said. “At Mount Mercy, we look at it as a positive.”

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To meet the challenges of reshaping academic programs, Hamen draws inspiration from the founder of the Sisters of Mercy.

“Catherine McAuley’s way of thinking about this was meeting the needs of our time,” she said.

It seems to be working. The Catholic liberal arts university offers degrees in more than 45 programs, with an enrollment just under 2,000 students.

Hamen said the enrollment has held strong, which she credits in part to its location.

“We have more internships than we have students to give them to,” she said, noting that Cedar Rapids companies offer opportunities for those interested in a wide variety of fields.

Encouraging students to descend the university on the hill and try out their skills in the community seems to encourage people to make Cedar Rapids their permanent home, she said.

“Eight-five percent of students from the last few graduating classes have stayed in Iowa — most in the Cedar Rapids area,” Hamen said. “When people give scholarships, I tell them they’re helping their soon-to-be neighbors.”

Hamen said Cedar Rapids is a place that offers young women, in particular, many opportunities.

“We have female CEOs — look at Van Meter and ImOn. It helps women see this as a place they could grow,” she said.

Hamen is scheduled to speak as part of a leader panel at the April 16 HER Women in Business Luncheon at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. “There are so many events and publications in Cedar Rapids where you can get inspired by women leaders,” she said.

It’s one of the things she’ll miss about her home for the past six years.

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“Something I’ve appreciated so much about Cedar Rapids is the pride people feel in the city,” she said.

She’s lived in other cities and said she hasn’t always seen pride translate to action the way it does here.

“Maybe part of it is the size — you feel like you can make a difference through Rotary or volunteering,” she said.

She’s noticed, too, that many employers encourage community engagement and volunteerism, which helps it permeate the culture. And that involvement is more than a little connected to the mission of the Sisters of Mercy, she said.

“I wish I could bottle it and bring it with me.”

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