By the time she came to Xavier in 1982, Rose Ann Fleming already had a master’s degree in English and a PhD in educational administration. She’d been the president of a college and head of the Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati. But that wasn’t enough. She was gunning for both an MBA and a law degree, and Georgetown University had offered her a spot for both.
But a priest she knew at Xavier called her with a sweeter deal: teach English at Xavier while studying for her MBA, then get her law degree at Chase College of Law in Northern Kentucky. All in her own home town.
It was a call she couldn’t resist—a lot like the first call, which came to her after a lifetime of Catholic education, first at the Summit and then at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she studied English and played hockey, baseball and volleyball. By age 22, she’d been influenced by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for 17 years, and she was hooked.
She’s not even sure why she decided to enter the order. “It’s a mystery, even to me,” she says. “There’s something about the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame that appealed to me.”
Joining the order opened the world to her, and she grabbed at everything she could. Teaching was primary, but she also wanted to know law and business. Today, after 30 years at Xavier, she’s still using all her degrees—teaching two courses a semester to struggling students, serving as special assistant to the President, overseeing the Student Athlete Academic Support Services program she founded in 1985, serving as the faculty representative to the NCAA and heading up fund-raising for the Athlete Academic Advising Fund.
And, at age 80, she still treks down to court periodically to represent clients as a lawyer with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Poor.
Her daily routine is not for the faint of heart. Fleming rises at 4:00 a.m., works out for an hour, then spends an hour in prayer in the campus apartment where she has lived since she came to Xavier. She works on her legal cases until 8:00 a.m. Mass at Bellarmine Chapel and then goes to her office in the Conaton Learning Commons. She is no techno wallflower, either. She carries a cell phone that delivers her email when she’s on the go. Which is most of the time.
But Sr. Rose Ann, as she is known around campus, is best known as the public face for Xavier’s nationally known graduation success rate of its student-athletes. Since she founded the academic advising program in 1985, every men’s basketball player who has reached his final year of athletic eligibility has graduated. The success of the program has brought recognition for both her and Xavier. She’s been written about in The New York Times and interviewed on Fox Sports Ohio. She also was named Most Valuable Player in 1991 and was inducted into Xavier’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.
Though she has stepped away from advising student-athletes one-on-one, she remains involved in a supervisory role, because she still cares deeply for the players, as she did when the program began in 1985. It started with the coaches.
“They were calling about athletes in my classes, asking how they were doing,” she says. At the time, universities were getting in trouble for cheating with their athletes, and Xavier wanted to ensure their student-athletes were also earning their degrees. She was asked to set up an advising program for men’s basketball.
“I began to realize that an athlete of poor circumstances really needed a lot of attention to get through here,” she says. “So we set up study tables and found tutors for them. I got to know how successful they could be if they had some program with built-in safeguards for their study time.”
She also realized a lot of them came from schools that had excused them from schoolwork because they were athletes. “It’s unjust to allow them not to do their work,” she says. “The good news is they can catch up quickly. They have the ability to remember all those plays. They are bright, but they have never developed along academic lines.”
The program is now mandatory for all student-athletes, and it’s highly disciplined, requiring attendance at daily two-hour study tables, tutorials and study habits workshops.
But there’s another factor. “They need to understand that you really love them,” Fleming says. “They need that emotional feedback. If they know they’re loved, they’ll do almost anything to achieve.”