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December 22, 2017 FIVE TO WATCH IN 2018

Free to lead Univ. of St. Joseph through year of major changes

Rhona Free is the president of the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.

Each year HBJ highlights five business, government, nonprofit or higher-education leaders to watch in coming year because of their likelihood to be in the spotlight. Here’s a look at our 2018 choices.

Two major changes University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free has made since landing at the school a few years ago will come to fruition in 2018.

For the first time in the West Hartford private school's 85-year history, USJ will welcome in the fall its first class of male undergraduates, a move that aims to boost enrollment and change the dynamics of the state's only remaining all-women's college.

The school will also be preparing to launch a Division III men's basketball program — part of its efforts to rebrand the school as a co-ed institution — with the help of UConn basketball icon Jim Calhoun, whose surprising decision to serve as a University of St. Joseph consultant grabbed national headlines.

And if that wasn't enough, Free will take on a regional leadership role in 2018 when she becomes the chair of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education, where her peers will be looking for her to help promote the Capital City as a college town for both cultural and business experiences.

“A large part of what we're hoping to do is link the campus even more to the city of Hartford, the cultural activities and internships,” Free said of her ambitious, evolving agenda. “That is a way to draw students from out of state. People may be a little bit down on Hartford, but it's such a draw. And the university is just so close to all that is going on in the city.”

Admitting male undergrads, Free said, should help boost USJ's enrollment, which has fallen from 2,525 students in 2012 to 2,408 pupils today. Another goal is to make the campus more of a social gathering place.

“[Having] more men undergraduates will have a cultural impact,” she said. “It will encourage more students to stay here on campus for the weekends and support more activities that are part of traditional college life — athletics, the arts, lecture series.”

Since USJ is adding undergraduate men (they're already part of the graduate student population), federal law requires the school to offer male sports, Free said. That's why the school is starting a men's basketball program that will be built with the help of Calhoun, whose consultant role also aimed at getting the word out that the school will soon be co-ed, Free said.

Meantime, in 2019 USJ also plans to add a new pharmaceutical sciences master's degree program in downtown Hartford.

Three other undergraduate programs are being designed to meet the needs of growing business sectors in bioinformatics and computer and data science, and could be offered both on campus and at the XL Center, she said.

When Free becomes chair of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education next summer, one of her tasks will be to promote cross-campus collaboration and to help extol the virtues of Hartford as a college town, a move that was aided by UConn's recent downtown arrival.

“We use the close proximity to Hartford and being close on this beautiful campus as one of our selling points,” Free said.

Some of the changes she will implement as head of the consortium include offering more professional development workshops for member schools' faculty, like the first one offered last year to support students with autism. She also will build on a model that exists at a five-member college consortium in Amherst, Mass., in which multiple colleges can advertise jointly for faculty.

“So many faculty are in two-member households,” she said, so relocation of a couple to a region with 11 colleges can be facilitated with such an approach.

Finally, she plans to promote more cultural events in Hartford for college students like an “Art After Dark” program held in April at the Wadsworth Antheneum.

The goal? “Helping students, especially from other parts of the country, appreciate that we have this fabulous city that is the capital of the state and that is a wonderful destination to go to college,” she said.

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