Q&A with: Daniel Webster College President Hannah McCarthy

When Hannah McCarthy was an undergraduate at Simmons College in Boston, she gave no thought to a career in education. At the end of June, McCarthy, 58, will retire after 25 years as president of Daniel Webster College in Nashua.

McCarthy, who has been at Daniel Webster since 1976 – when she joined the school as dean of admissions and institutional outreach – also has worked as dean of admissions at Rivier College in Nashua. Before that, she was a social worker for Child and Family Services.

Q. Did you like being in a women’s rather than co-ed college?

A. Well, it was the only thing I knew when I left it. Simmons was a wonderful school. I have seven brothers, so my thinking at that time was that going to a women’s college was OK with me.

Q. Seven brothers! Any sisters?

A. I have seven brothers and five sisters. My biological parents died when I was 10. I have two brothers and a sister, and we were adopted by my aunt and uncle and integrated into their family. It was an extraordinary gift and privilege that I had my aunt and uncle. They were absolutely extraordinary people.

Q. You were a social sciences and government major at Simmons, and after graduation you became a social worker.

A. I was a caseworker at Child and Family Services, and I burned out fast because I was working with abused and neglected children and families in great distress. I was young and inexperienced, but I had my own baggage, and I often knew that there but for the grace of God is where I would have been. That probably made me a spectacularly good caseworker, but one subject to extreme burnout.

So I drifted around to do some things, and ultimately had the opportunity to work for Rivier College as dean of admissions.

Q. Daniel Webster College is most famous for its aviation program, but in addition to aviation it’s a liberal arts college, isn’t it?

A. No, we would not define it that way. We would say we’re leaders in technology and management. We’ve just introduced a bachelor’s degree in engineering. We have a very strong and reputable science degree program. We have management programs and introduced the MBA two years ago, and we now have over 100 graduate students here.

We’re still a very focused college that’s really committed to aviation and management, aviation and business and technology and business. Clearly, we’re known around the world for what we do in aviation, but now we’re going to change the profile dramatically with the introduction of a baccalaureate in aeronautical engineering.

Q. How has the college grown in terms of numbers?

A. Since I first got here as dean of admissions, we’ve gone from 265 students to just about 1,200 students. So we’re still a very small college, but we’ve grown and developed.

At my first graduation here, we had just made the transition to being a baccalaureate college, and we declared ourselves a baccalaureate college in 1978. It was my job to handle the transition. The first year, I awarded 14 bachelor’s degrees, and last year I think we awarded 240 bachelor’s degrees.

Q. Have you ever flown a plane?

A. I’ve flown straight and level. Have I ever been a pilot? No, and I never took flight lessons. I’ve taken the controls in mid-air.

Q. It’s not quite your field, but what do you think about what’s being done in airport security. Are we really more secure by making everyone take their shoes off?

A. I am not a judge. I couldn’t be a judge. One of the things we’re doing and will be doing over the next several years is work in our curriculum on some of those security issues. But I think on that one I’m going to defer to the government.

Q. Did you ever envision becoming a college president?

A. Never. You have to remember I was on the final edge of women who were given the opportunity of going to college and weren’t necessarily expected to work. I was on that cusp. In high school, I always assumed that I would work, but I had no idea what education administration was.

Q. What did you think you’d be doing?

A. When I first went to college, I thought I would be a physical therapist. Then I decided that I didn’t want to study that much science, so I took a different route. And I think I responded to the Kennedy clarion call to service and I really believed that I would go to work in government and would serve in some capacity there. Education wasn’t on my mind. And that changed and I’m thankful that it did.

Q. What do you find rewarding about education administration now that you’ve been doing it for a while?

A. Almost everything. We have so many great opportunities. First of all, the job is diverse. Every day, you have an opportunity at a teaching college like Daniel Webster to truly shape the education and therefore ultimately the future of young people. And you’re working with faculty and administrators to develop the best opportunities you can.

One of the passions throughout my career is trying to create opportunities for students from families in the lowest financial quartile to be able to actually engage in and succeed at higher education. One of the most rewarding things is when I help in any number of ways to make that happen.

I’ve talked to every governor of New Hampshire for the past 25 years about this — including those who tell me to stop whining. The state grant program is fully 50th in the nation. As a state we provide the least support in financial aid for students. We also have one of the highest-priced public higher education systems in the country — at the public colleges, the university, right to the community technical colleges. And the private educational system is about average.

We don’t provide, on the front end, the (financial) support for young people. And we’re looking to find ways to do that, because they’re just good public investments. Young people who are educated will earn more, they’re less likely to go to jail, to need welfare, less likely to have any special social service needs, more likely to have good jobs to contribute to their community and its tax base. All of that is just good social and economic policy.

Q. What are you going to do after you retire?

A. Boating, kayaking. We’re going to spend six months on having fun, my husband and I. And then I will really start to look for where I might be able to contribute after January.

Q. Where are you going to be after January?

A. Our home is in Amherst and we’ll be there.

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