Dr. Nancy Blattner (‘76) has long treasured the experience of a Catholic education. From her time as president of Caldwell University in New Jersey to her recent return to Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Blattner’s mission of cultivating such an environment for young adults was very much inspired by her four years at Notre Dame Regional High School.
The Notre Dame Difference
When Blattner recalls her high school years, there are several things that stand out. One was her involvement in the spring musical.
“I was the pianist for the orchestra. We did Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Carousel, and Irene,” said Blattner. “Being involved for those several weeks each spring, which culminated in putting on a performance that was always done in front of sold-out audiences, was such an incredible experience.”
Blattner also played the clarinet in marching band, and admitted that the majority of her four years revolved around music. The summer after graduation was especially memorable; that was the year Sister Roselle Marie Feder organized a group of music students from both Notre Dame and Althoff High School in Belleville, IL to participate in the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation on a trip to Romania, which was behind the Iron Curtain at the time.
“It was an embassy that used music as the medium to try to create friendships with people in other parts of the world, particularly in places that hadn’t had an exposure to the West,” said Blattner. “And there were a lot of misperceptions about the United States and about our lifestyles.”
Blattner continued her education at Southeast Missouri State University, and received a B.S. in Secondary Education/English. She said she chose this career path due to the example set by several faculty members in Language Arts at Notre Dame.
“I had Martha Stevens as a sophomore, and Sr. Laura Marie Holding as a senior,” said Blattner. “Their love of literature, the way we look at writing, and how we learn to write ourselves impacted me very strongly.”
She remained a student in the field for an additional two years to complete her M.A. in English, and then began teaching part time, both at Southeast and Notre Dame. She taught Theology to the entire senior class during the 1986-1987 academic year, which was the year the boys’ basketball team won the 2A State Championship.
“I was with the class in Springfield when that happened, and it was a wonderful group of students that I was very close to as a faculty member,” said Blattner. “First as a student and then as a faculty member, Notre Dame has been a big part of my life.”
While at Southeast, Blattner held several positions, including Academic Associate, Office of the Provost; Associate Dean, School of University Studies; and Director of Writing Assessment. In 1991, she earned her Doctorate in Educational Psychology from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.
A Lifelong Catholic
Blattner said Notre Dame was where she learned how tremendously important her Catholic faith was.
“Being in an environment where that appreciation for one’s faith is cultivated, where there are prayers in the classroom, where the day starts with prayer and where we have religion class as students – it was a wonderful way to learn,” she said.
She came to realize how much a religious working environment appealed to her, too, when transitioning from public to private institutions as a young professional.
“[After Southeast], I was at another public institution in Virginia for two years before I came to Fontbonne in St. Louis for the first time in 2004. I was here for five years as the academic vice president and dean of faculty,” said Blattner. “When I came here for the first time in higher education, I remember thinking: I was back in an environment where my personal beliefs, my faith, and my values were able to be openly lived. We’re able to pray with students and talk with them about our own faith journeys.”
In 2009, Blattner assumed the presidency at Caldwell, a Catholic Dominican University in New Jersey. She said it was a “vibrant, growing place,” and her 11 years there passed quickly.
“It was a college when I arrived, and we became a university in 2014. We grew the student population pretty significantly and added a lot of sports, including football. We added some doctoral programs in education and in applied behavior analysis, which is a field in which people work with children on the autism spectrum,” said Blattner.
In 2019, Blattner and her husband decided to move where one of their three children lived. Between their options – Missouri, Georgia, and North Carolina – and a timely opening at Fontbonne in July 2020, they took the opportunity.
“I had really enjoyed my time here, and I love St. Louis. I was very happy to come back to the Midwest and be near family and friends,” she said. “We didn’t know we’d be moving in the middle of COVID, however, so that’s been another interesting experience.”
A Future at Fontbonne
Students at Fontbonne returned to campus in mid-August, and with COVID-19 safety precautions in place – like social distancing and wearing masks at all times – Blattner said she’s unable to involve herself as usual.
“I’ve always been so hands-on, in that I would help students move into residence halls and I would go to all of the opening school activities with students. I would sit with them, have meals, and talk with them,” said Blattner. “Now that has to be done in a very different way, because we want to be sure that people don’t catch the virus, and it’s difficult not to spread when you’re in an environment with so many people.”
However, she looks forward to a time where she can engage with her campus on more normal terms. Even through the pandemic, she sees an equivalent to the “Notre Dame difference” at Fontbonne, where students, faculty, and staff are “part of a community.”
Blattner has several goals she would like to accomplish during her three-year tenure, including increasing the university’s undergraduate student population.
“There is room for growth on the campus,” she said. “We have such an academically excellent education that we offer students in this value-based environment, that I think we can go out and recruit additional students.”
Other objectives include further diversifying their student body, and being more representative of the St. Louis population. Blattner said they have a significant population of diverse students on-campus who are both Latinx and African American, but they would like to put more focus on international students.
“For many of the students at Fontbonne, they won’t travel or study abroad right away, and this gives them an opportunity to interact with people who come from different cultures,” she said. “They bring different traditions, different cuisines, and different faiths that they can learn about by being here on the campus.”
Blattner will also be working toward strengthening the university’s brand recognition outside of St. Louis to other parts of the state and beyond.
Blattner said it’s hard to engage when you’re a thousand miles away on the East Coast, and reconnecting with the area should be much easier from two hours away. She’s looking forward to being involved with Notre Dame once again, especially in college recruitment efforts.
“So much of what I experienced throughout my life personally and professionally can be traced back to the wonderful education I got at Notre Dame: the people who mentored me, the values that were reinforced, the values I put in action every day at school,” said Blattner. “So supporting the efforts of Notre Dame in any way I could, I’d be very interested in that.”
Blattner said she’s blessed to have had twelve years of a Catholic education, and that she’s very appreciative of being able to finish her career at “two wonderful Catholic universities.”
“I think Catholic education gives students not only an academically excellent experience – which is so important,” she said. “But I think even more importantly, it prepares people to live lives of importance, where they develop their spiritual journey that helps them to be successful and weather life’s many storms.”