College was not in Susan Donovan’s plans. She was going to attend secretarial school in Omaha with her three best friends. “But in my junior year, I realized that I really wasn’t good at typing and shorthand,” she said.
“I went in and told my teacher, ‘I’ve got to go to college.’”
Once she got there, she never left.
She followed her older sister the ninety miles from their tiny hometown in Iowa to Buena Vista College, and “I loved it,” she remembered. “I just loved the college environment from day one.”
It was the beginning of a journey of discovery into higher education that took her to Florida State University, St. Louis University and then to Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, where over 32 years she would meet her husband, raise twin daughters and work in just about every area of university administration, except the presidency. In late February, Dr. Susan M. Donovan added that title to her résumé when she was named Bellarmine University’s fourth president. She succeeds Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, who died in March 2016.
“She knows more about all the levels of higher education than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Dr. Donelda “Donnie” Cook, Loyola’s associate vice president for Student Development, executive director of the university’s Counseling Center and a longtime colleague. “She loves this work. She was created for this, and she lives out her purpose in every way.”
Yet none of it might have happened if she could have typed faster. Dr. Cook laughed. “It’s a good thing she has short fingers.”
At Loyola, Susan and Bill Donovan never lived more than two miles from the university. They went to Mass on campus and attended virtually all the athletic events—in fact, one of their first dates was a women’s basketball game. Their daughters, Meghan and Caitlin, now 20, considered the Loyola community an extended family. Dr. Bill Donovan, an associate professor of Latin American history, taught his senior seminar in their home.
And every weekday morning, Susan Donovan opened the front door, cut through an alley and walked the 25 minutes to her office in the Francis Xavier Knott Humanities Center, the oldest building on campus.
At Bellarmine, Dr. Donovan is still within walking distance of work. Three days after arriving in Louisville, she knew it was 1.3 miles from the English cottage-style home the Donovans purchased in the Highlands to her office, which is now in the W.L. Lyons Brown Library but will soon move to Bellarmine Centro, the newest building on campus.
With its mature trees and historic homes, the Highlands is not unlike the neighborhood she left in Baltimore. The university she assumed control of on June 1 bears a striking similarity to the one she left as well. Loyola and Bellarmine are both private liberal arts institutions with ties to the Jesuit tradition that were initially founded as all-male commuter colleges and evolved into co-educational, residential universities. Both campuses are green oases in urban settings arranged around a central quad with a distinguishing architectural feature at the entrance: St. Robert’s Gate at Bellarmine, and at Loyola, the USF&G Pedestrian Bridge, which connects the dorms west of busy Charles Street to the main campus.
On a chilly Baltimore morning in mid-March after her Bellarmine presidency was announced, Dr. Donovan’s walk was interrupted every few steps as she reached the Loyola campus—first by a groundskeeper planting pansies in a concrete container, then by a biology professor, a vice president, several students and the women’s basketball coach.
All of them wanted to convey essentially the same message: We are so happy for you—but we are going to miss you so much!
“I’m very proud of her, and I think her selection as president at Bellarmine reflects well on Loyola, so all of that is very gratifying,” said Fr. Brian Linnane, president of Loyola. “On the other hand, for me, and for many, it’s a huge personal and professional loss.
“I think that she is going to be somebody who really is going to be a real presence on [Bellarmine’s] campus, who will be as well-loved as she is here.”
Fr. Linnane has been president for 12 years, and worked with Dr. Donovan for five years before that as a Loyola trustee. She was then vice president for student development. As he prepared for his first capital campaign in 2011, he proposed creating an executive vice president position to take responsibility for many of the areas he was supervising, and “there was no question that it would be Susan,” he said. “The trustees completely agreed with that decision.” They also agreed that Dr. Donovan should be acting president when Fr. Linnane took a sabbatical from July 2015 to January 2016. “I used to joke that they liked her better than me,” he said.
Dr. Donovan’s colleagues uniformly describe her as genuine, caring, collaborative, respectful, real—all the corny words, as one put it. “It doesn’t take long to figure out who Susan Donovan is, because she’s right there,” said Dr. Marc Camille, vice president for enrollment management and communications.
“There is nothing pretentious about her,” agreed Dr. Cook, who said that one of the things she will miss most is Dr. Donovan’s laughter. “She has a great laugh—and she is able to laugh at herself.”
Fr. Linnane recalled one notable instance of that. Dr. Donovan, introducing him to make a speech, accidentally started reading the speech herself. She caught her mistake when she read aloud a sentence intended to be a stage direction.
“The speech was extolling something about the virtues of the students and the writer had inserted in italics, ‘Father, you might want to relate a personal anecdote here if one comes to mind,’” Fr. Linnane said. “When Susan read it, she just looked horrified. She looked up and looked at me. I said, ‘You have to continue it, just go through it.’ We all had a good laugh at that—the audience, especially. I actually never read from a script, so I told them, ‘At this time, our speechwriter really feels gratified that his words were finally spoken.’”
Finding her mission
Dr. Donovan’s down-to-earth, what-you-see-is-what-you-get demeanor is no doubt a reflection of her Midwest upbringing. She grew up in Woodbine, Iowa, a town of 1,400 people where her father actually married the girl next door. Pat and Norma Hickey had three children; Susan was the youngest.
She and her sister attended Buena Vista as first-generation students on the Iowa Tuition Grant. Unlike her older sister, who knew from the start that she wanted to be a math teacher, Susan Hickey had no idea. She started with an English major, then moved into communications. “I had that crisis in sophomore year and wrote to my parents: ‘I don’t know what I want to do; I think I should drop out of college.’ By the time they called me back I was like, yeah, I’m over that. I just started taking what I wanted: business, human resources, marketing—which ended up being really good for what I ended up doing.”
She didn’t know what that would be until her senior year, when Buena Vista College hired a female dean of students who became her mentor. “She pulled me aside in the cafeteria one day and said, ‘Did it ever occur to you that you might not want to leave the college environment?’”
The dean encouraged Susan to write to the vice president of Florida State University, which had one of the top 10 higher-education administration programs in the country, and ask to attend graduate classes during Buena Vista’s January term.
“I think they were so shocked that someone in Iowa wrote to them that they agreed,” she said. She had never been on a plane before. In Tallahassee, she attended classes and interviewed everyone in student affairs, and she wrote in her journal: “This is what I want to do.”
Dr. Donovan completed a master’s in higher education at FSU, and then a Ph.D. at St. Louis University, her mentor’s alma mater. It was there that she first encountered the Catholic—and more specifically, the Jesuit—educational tradition, an experience that would lead her to Loyola and ultimately to Bellarmine. The Jesuit mission was congruent with her personal values, she said, “and it fits so well with student development—of educating the whole person, body, mind and spirit.”
She worked in student housing at St. Louis as she completed her degree, then went to Loyola Maryland in 1985 as dean of residence life. Three years later, after a national search, she became dean of students.
One of her first actions was to order beds long enough for the basketball players, her husband said. “Athletics loves her because she goes to games and she understands.” The Donovans are lacrosse fans in particular. A framed copy of the three Lacrosse Magazine cover options featuring the Greyhounds’ 2012 D1 national championship win hung above Susan Donovan’s desk at Loyola, and daughter Caitlin plays D3 lacrosse at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. (Meghan is a rising junior at Sarah Lawrence.)
In 1991, Dr. Donovan became Loyola’s vice president for student development. Fr. Tim Brown, who came to Loyola two years after Dr. Donovan and is now special assistant for mission integration, was on the committee that appointed her. “In those days we had eight chaplains; now we have two. She had gone to St. Louis, she was very comfortable with us and with the mission approach. The ethos in the residence life world was cura personalis—how do you care for the total person.”
During her time as vice president, Dr. Donovan improved student retention and engagement with new programming, such as RoadTrip, a three-day vocational discernment retreat for sophomores, and new facilities, such as the 115,000-square-foot, $24 million Fitness and Aquatics Center, known as “The Temple.” Not everyone was in favor of the center initially, Fr. Linnane said. “There is a tendency for faculty of my generation at least to sort of view student development more like keeping the students in line, and maybe it goes too far, with climbing walls and outdoor adventures and all that. Well, what I learned through Susan was that these sorts of things really do generate the types of discipline and thoughtfulness that is directly applicable to students’ academic work, and they grow as persons and that informs their curiosity.”
Dr. Donovan also did a stint as interim vice president for advancement, during which she secured four $1 million gifts. That experience was a great education for a future university president, Fr. Linnane said. “When I was a faculty member, we’d say, ‘You know, if the administration really cared about that, they could raise $5 million quite easily to do that.’ And now as I go about my fundraising [I realize] that I had no idea how difficult it is to raise $5 million. And when you do get a $5 million gift, it’s very rare that it fits exactly into the bucket that you would like it to, because donors have their own ideas.”
As executive vice president, Dr. Donovan continued to oversee advancement, as well as enrollment management, marketing and communications, student development, intercollegiate athletics, campus ministry, community service and justice, mission and identity, the Career Center, external affairs, accreditation, strategic planning, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
A group of sophomores challenged the university’s commitment to mission in November 2015, when Dr. Donovan was acting president. She was attending a meeting in Annapolis when the vice president for student development texted that the students had marched through campus, inspired by University of Missouri students who were alleging racism. The Loyola students had hung poster boards in the student center that said “We hear you” and invited others to write on them. “The posters were both, ‘We hear you at Mizzou’ but also them saying, we hear the ways that people say things that are unwelcoming to us on our campus,” Dr. Cook said. “Really sharing the pain of experiences they had had at Loyola.”
Dr. Donovan arranged to meet with the students when she returned to campus the next day. “They were very intense. They said Loyola claimed it was teaching students to ‘learn, lead and serve in a diverse and changing world,’ and that we weren’t living up to our mission. I told them I had read their posters, and that I was supportive of what they were doing, and I basically apologized on behalf of the university and said that it was very troubling that they would experience this.” She still had pictures of the posters on her phone in March.
The students’ one demand was that the university require racial justice training for everyone on campus. Dr. Donovan agreed, and that process is under way.
“It was interesting,” said Dr. Cook, who attended the meeting, “because here they were demanding of someone they didn’t even need to demand to, because she greeted them with open arms. She didn’t take offense to any of it and has just continued to work with them.”
The word for Dr. Donovan, Fr. Brown said, is unflappable. “I have never, in 30 years, seen her lose her cool.” But he’s also seen her personal side—he married Susan and Bill Donovan and baptized Meghan as another Jesuit priest baptized Caitlin—and he teared up while talking about her impending departure. “She just has a real sense of what it means to be a part of this world, with a deep wisdom and tremendous experience and good, good, good judgment. She is a go-to person for so many. That is why we are all so beside ourselves.”
Coming to fruition
After 32 years, for many people Dr. Donovan is “Loyola.” And for much of her career, she didn’t entertain thoughts of leaving because she never thought she’d have the opportunity to be president of a Jesuit school. She had never heard of Bellarmine until a search consultant contacted her. “I saw that it had always been open to all races and was founded by an activist. I just thought that met my passions and my life’s work,” she said.
Although not directly affiliated with the Jesuits, “Bellarmine was in some ways marinated in Jesuit sensibility,” said Fr. Clyde Crews, the university’s historian. Its two predecessor institutions, St. Joseph’s College and St. Mary’s College, founded in the 19th century by the Diocese of Louisville, were under Jesuit care for a time. The Jesuits left St. Mary’s in 1846 to take over a new school in New York that would become Fordham University, where Dr. McGowan worked in student development for 21 years before coming to Bellarmine, bringing the Jesuit ethos with him. And of course in 1950, founding Frs. Alfred F. Horrigan (whose brother was a Jesuit priest) and Raymond Treece named the new Catholic college in Louisville after the 16th century Italian Jesuit Robert Bellarmine.
Trustee Pat Mulloy, who was a member of the presidential search committee, said Dr. Donovan was very quickly its unanimous first choice. “She is really passionate about the difference a liberal arts education makes. Bellarmine turns out young people with a core set of values and the ability to critically think and not buy into every myth and platitude that’s out there in the marketplace of ideas and look for real solutions for whatever issues they may be tackling. Susan has that same passion.”
She agrees with Dr. McGowan’s vision that Bellarmine be the leading Catholic university in the South, and while she wants to hear from people on campus before making any changes, she thinks there are opportunities for the university to become even more residential and to draw from a larger region.
Those are both changes that occurred during her time at Loyola, said Dr. Camille. “If you were to go back to the mid- to late ’80s, probably 80 percent of our students came from Maryland and we were between 2,000 and 3,000 students. Today, 80 percent of our students come from outside the state of Maryland, and we are an undergraduate institution of 4,000. It’s been a dramatic transformation in a short period of time, and Susan’s been involved from the ground floor level of that. We’ve also diversified dramatically over the past decade, pretty much doubled across any of the metrics. We are now more than 20 percent students of color, and Pell recipients and first-generation percentages have all doubled as well.”
From her first interview with the Bellarmine committee, Dr. Camille said, “you could just see it coming together for her. She felt a sense of alignment between Bellarmine and her hopes and aspirations and strengths and beliefs. It was fun to watch it take shape and just to see the joy on her face as this was really coming to fruition.”
“I’m proud and very happy that she’s got this job,” Bill Donovan said. “I think she deserves it, and she has been ready for it for a while and it’s the perfect place for her. It really fits in with both of our beliefs, being Catholic, being liberal arts; it’s the closest thing to a Jesuit school that is out there; and it’s great. It’s bittersweet because I hate leaving Loyola, and good colleagues and such, but I think we are going to a great place.”
By Carla Carlton | email@example.com
Photos by Howard Korn & Jessica Ebelhar
Fast Facts on Susan M. Donovan, Ph.D.
- Was a first-generation college student. (So was her husband, Dr. Bill Donovan.)
- Was an accomplished student athlete who broke her nose playing varsity softball.
- Managed the basketball team all four years at Buena Vista College.
- Hasn’t bought coffee at Starbucks without her reusable cup for 1 ½ years.
- Loves sad movies. A recent favorite was Manchester by the Sea. (Bill Donovan does not share this interest. “God. I know what Manchester by the Sea is about,” he said. “I don’t have to see that. And depressing books! I hate it. We read completely different things.”)
More on Susan M. Donovan’s thoughts here.