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Leader back to the future at McQuaid

Rev. Robert Reiser spent last year walking the halls of McQuaid Jesuit High School, teaching classes in theology and math as he got to know the students and the day-to-day flow of the school.

That experience comes in handy in his new position as president of McQuaid, the region’s largest private school, Reiser says. The longtime Jesuit took over as president at the start of the academic year in July, succeeding Rev. Edward Salmon.

For Reiser, 50, personal connections have been vital in his plans to lead McQuaid. He spent much of the summer getting to know its 123 employees and the school’s stakeholders and says his year of teaching at the Brighton school was also key.

“The president of a high school can often be a bit dislocated from its day-to-day life because so much of what they do is external, like working with alumni and fundraising,” Reiser says. “It’s great for me to be able to build those connections with faculty and staff.”

Reiser is taking a similar approach in leading the school into a future filled with both opportunity and challenge. He and the school’s board of directors are in the midst of crafting a strategic plan that will lay out a blueprint for maintaining the school’s strong enrollment at a time when many other private secondary schools have seen sharp declines.

This year, McQuaid has enrolled 930 students—a record for the school.

The plan also calls for McQuaid to build on its heritage as one of the nation’s premier Jesuit institutions as well as addressing issues of affordability.

“We’re looking at all these issues, but at the same time always looking at how we stay true to our mission,” Reiser says.

Coming to McQuaid
Almost every experience for Reiser, dating back to high school, prepared him for the post at McQuaid.

Growing up in Buffalo, Reiser was a product of the local Catholic school system, attending Canisius High School before moving on to Canisius College, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in accounting. Reiser went on to receive a master of divinity degree from Boston College and a master of theology from Harvard Divinity School.

Reiser, also an ordained Jesuit priest, says he always envisioned putting his expertise to work within the Jesuit education system.

“There are 47 Jesuit high schools in the United States, so I figured I’d always have a job,” he says. “But I wanted the experience to be sure I could do it well.”

He spent two years at McQuaid, serving as assistant to the president from 2004 to 2006. From there he took a position as president of St. Peter’s Preparatory School, an all-male Jesuit high school in Jersey City, N.J.

At St. Peter’s, Reiser was credited with increasing the school’s endowment and leading capital projects, including a new science center. St. Peter’s also increased enrollment, including widening student demographics, and added several faculty members and course offerings.

His tenure at St. Peter’s was coming to a natural end at the same time that McQuaid was looking for a new leader and planning for the retirement of Salmon, Reiser says.

“My time at St. Peter’s was coming to an end and I felt good about that, and at the same time McQuaid was doing its own succession planning,” he says. “They contacted me about the position, and I came back to spend a year there.”

Reiser was a natural fit, says Peter Rodgers, chairman at McQuaid.

“We identified Father Bob Reiser as an outstanding candidate to be successor to Father Salmon,” Rodgers says. “He was not only an accomplished Jesuit president of a secondary school, but also had served on the McQuaid board in the first decade of this century, so many of us came to know him.”

In addition to his year teaching at McQuaid, Reiser worked with the school’s board during that time, serving on some committees including the financial and mission groups.

“That year was about immersing myself in McQuaid and getting to know things, because I got to teach while Father Salmon was still serving as president,” Reiser says.

During the summer, he met with every employee for a half-hour to discuss their experiences and thoughts for the school’s future.

“It was all about trying to learn the culture, the hopes, dreams and desires of the people here,” Reiser says. “It’s so important to talk to people about that, which is what made that summer period so important.

“The learning curve continues, but now it’s more about learning the hopes and challenges of the school instead of simply, ‘this is our balance sheet.’”

Growing McQuaid
Though McQuaid is already the area’s largest private school in terms of total students enrolled, Reiser sees room for growth.

This growth will mean more than simply enrolling more students, he says. One of the most important challenges at McQuaid is how to blend in new opportunities offered by technology while maintaining the school’s strong connection to its Jesuit roots.

“In the technology age, we need to look at how we can teach kids differently but still maintain the traditions of the past,” Reiser says. “Our challenge is how do we stand up for our values and invite kids into those values in an age where those are often challenged.”

McQuaid is not alone in navigating this challenge. The school is part of a close network of Jesuit institutions across the United States, all of which are tackling the same issues, Reiser says.

McQuaid is involved in the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, a nationwide group of Jesuit institutions that shares best practices and discusses common issues. Reiser serves as the president of the organization’s board.

Many of Reiser’s interests outside of McQuaid come back to his Jesuit Catholic background. Reiser says he likes to travel in his free time; he has a trip planned to Spain to take part in the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Reiser also draws on his Jesuit background to lead McQuaid. He says many of the issues McQuaid is tackling were the same as those he faced at St. Peter’s.

“New Jersey is different from Rochester and Arizona is different from Los Angeles, but the issues we’re facing are largely the same,” he says.

Inclusiveness is one of the major issues McQuaid will face, Reiser says. The school aims to spread its mission to as many students and families as possible, and recently has been increasing its focus on what Reiser describes as the underserved populations.

“These are students who are bright and can contribute and make our world brighter, but might not be able financially to consider us,” he says.

Strategic plan
The school is in the early stages of a new strategic plan, which includes building an endowment that would give McQuaid the ability to meet with financial needs of more students. Reiser notes that one-third of McQuaid students receive financial aid of some form. The school gives $2 million in aid annually.

Fundraising efforts have kept the cost of education lower for students. Reiser notes it costs roughly $14,000 annually to educate students, but donors have helped to cover $2,000 of those costs for each student.

The strategic plan also will look at sharpening is focus on STEAM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Reiser says the approach, blending more technological disciplines with traditional liberal arts, is a benchmark of the Jesuit philosophy.

“We are not looking to become an engineering school, but we will have a competency in that area,” Reiser says. “It will all take place within a well-rounded approach. In the Jesuit education system, an engineer also needs to know poetry.”

The school is crafting the plan from a position of strength, Rodger notes.

“We have an excellent reputation in the Rochester community, the school has a record enrollment and we have invested about $16 million into the physical plant of the school in the past 10 to 12 years,” he says.  

“We’ve been talking a lot at the board level about what kind of world our graduates will be part of in the 21st century, what academic skills they bring to the world so that we at McQuaid can challenge out students to be prepared.”

Rodgers says Reiser “is a great leader in that discussion on how students are being prepared for the world.”

Reiser says the initial response to the plan has been stronger than he expected, and the board hopes to introduce it publicly around March 2015.

McQuaid also aims to maintain the growth of the past decade. In the last 10 years, the school’s high school has maintained its enrollment, while its middle school has grown considerably, thanks in large part to the recent addition of a sixth grade that introduced four sections of 78 students, Reiser notes.

With this growth has come new work in reaching students, he says. Within the last decade many of the Catholic primary schools that fed students to McQuaid have closed, and now 70 percent of the school’s sixth-grade students come directly from public schools.

Though it may create new work for the school’s admissions department, Reiser says, the school’s culture remains an important draw.

“The best is when we can get a student in to visit and see the wonderful community, and after they spend the day they leave saying, ‘I want to go to McQuaid,’” he says.

After a summer packed with meetings, Reiser continues the work to remain close to the school’s culture. He meets regularly with students, including a group of the school’s seniors serving in leadership positions.
“It means a lot to have the president of McQuaid meeting with students and to know that you have a voice with him,” says Brody Laese, a senior and a member of an eight-person executive council that meets with Reiser each week. “You can see that he really has a vision for McQuaid, and I’m looking forward to seeing that come together.”

Reiser says he sees more room for McQuaid to grow, all within the Jesuit mission that has crafted it since its inception.

“We’re planning our future from a position of strength, the strength of a strong network of Jesuit institutions and of our real mission-based strategy,” he says. “I’m really excited about where McQuaid Jesuit is right now and what we have coming up.”

Robert Reiser
Position: President, McQuaid Jesuit High School
Age: 50
Education: B.A. in accounting, Canisius College, Buffalo, 1986; M.A. in philosophy, Fordham University, Bronx, 1990; master of divinity, Boston College, 1996; master of theology, Harvard Divinity School, 1997; M.S. in education and leadership and administration, Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, 2006
Family: Five siblings, 18 nieces and nephews
Residence: Brighton
Activities: Travel
Quote: “The best is when we can get a student in to visit and see the wonderful community, and after they spend the day they leave saying, ‘I want to go to McQuaid.’”

12/5/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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