Dominican University president to retire at end of academic year

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Cardinal Cupich poses with Dominican University president Donna Carroll after she accepted the St. John Paul II Award from the Archdiocese of Chicago on behalf of her university during the annual Noche de Gala banquet on November 10, 2017. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When Donna Carroll arrived at what is now Dominican University in River Forest in 1994, it was a different place, smaller both in physical size and enrollment and still known as Rosary College.

She will retire after 27 years at the end of this academic year.

During Carroll’s tenure, the number of full-time faculty at the university has doubled, new schools and programs have been established and the university’s operating budget has increased four-fold. She managed three capital campaigns that raised more than $165 million in support for student aid, programs and facilities, including five endowed chairs, three new buildings and countless scholarships in addition to winning significant federal grant support.

The university also purchased a second campus and, most recently, dedicated a new Learning Commons, an area encompassing integrated student services, study space and the WeatherTech Innovation Lab.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Dominican University this year is in the top 10 best regional universities in the Midwest, and second in social mobility among regional universities in the Midwest — the only regional university in the country to be in the top 10 in both categories.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the university also saw its freshman enrollment stay strong this year, Carroll said, “and we’ve had the best student retention we’ve ever had.”

That stability helped her decide that now was the time to retire.

“We have terrific rankings, a balanced budget and a very talented senior administrative team, one that has the stability and the skills to lead in a time of transition. I think that’s important,” Carroll said. “Dominican is in a strong position to hire a next president. The last significant gift that a president should give her institution is a strong platform for succession and a smooth transition.”

Carroll, 39 years old when she was hired as university president, was the first lay person to lead the university, which continues to be sponsored by the Sinsinawa Dominican community.

Carroll said that when she was hired one of the sisters joked that they liked her more secular sense of fashion, but that from the beginning she felt supported by the sisters’ confidence in her ability to lead the university.

“They enjoyed my sense of energy,” Carroll said. “The sisters understood that the institution was at a pivotal point in its evolution and needed a strategist and somebody to help build the external profile of the institution and its contribution to the Chicago community. They knew if they found the right fit, and if it nurtured my vocation, and it did, they might have found the leadership of the future.”

While Carroll was once one of the youngest university presidents in the country, she is now one of the longest tenured in the state. What attracted her to the university when she was being considered for the position?

“There were two moments when I knew it was right,” Carroll said. “I interviewed for three days solid. In the interview schedule, there was this ‘conversation with the university community,’ and I walked into the auditorium, and every living, breathing ambulatory member of the Rosary College community from entry-level professionals to senior faculty to the sisters from the convent were there. There were no preapproved questions. I gave some opening remarks and then we just talked. We had a good comfortable sense of getting to know one another.”

The other moment came at the convent, with the sisters.

“My father died between my first and second interview,” Carroll said. “The sisters had to reschedule my second interview because of it. I arrived on campus and we talked for a bit, and then Sister Mary Woods said, ‘We’d like to take a moment and pray for your father.’ That sense of caring — the ‘caritas’ that we talk about — is sincere, deeply felt, pervasive in the academic programs and the campus culture.”

It’s something Carroll has tried to foster with a leadership style she describes as present, engaged and informal. Her door is open, students can email her directly and parents have called her at home. Nearly everyone on campus calls her “Donna” instead of “Dr. Carroll.”

Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Marcella Hermesdorf, an associate professor of English and one of only a handful of sisters still working at the school, said she remembers Carroll’s arrival. It was the same year that Sister Marcella went from a staff role to joining the faculty.

“At the time, I thought it was perhaps a career move for her,” Sister Marcella said. “She would make her mark and move on. But she stayed, of course, and became devoted. It became her life. You could say she got the mission, but in reality, the mission gets you. And the mission got her.”

The sisters, Carroll said, offered her support and affection as well as direction.

“If you do it with integrity, by the nature of the position of president you are slightly removed from everyone else,” Carroll said. “I had this enormous advantage of having this community of sisters, these benevolent sponsors of the work we do together. They were a family to me in a way that many presidents don’t have.”

With their backing, Dominican became a haven and offered outspoken advocacy for students who are undocumented. When Carroll tells the story at gatherings, she talks about stopping on a snowy morning 15 years ago to give a ride to a student who was struggling to get to school on a bicycle. When she asked why he was riding a bike, he explained that his undocumented status made it impossible for him to get a driver’s license, something that has since changed in Illinois.

Carroll has spoken widely about the importance of supporting undocumented students and comprehensive immigration reform. In 2016, the university issued a statement identifying itself as a “sanctuary campus,” and this year strengthened that statement to emphasize that it is anti-racist.

“The sisters would point to that as a distinctly Dominican moment of advocacy, and that lives in a larger accomplishment,” Carroll said. “We are today an enormously diverse institution, with a significant first-generation college student body, a significant Latinx student body, a significant Pell-eligible student body.”

In fact, 72% of this year’s freshman identify as being Latino or Hispanic. Dominican has been majority Hispanic for several years.

Carroll will be a resource to the committee searching for her successor, but not in a decision-making role. She said she will advise them to look for someone who shares Dominican University’s mission.

“The personal vocation of the person and the alignment with the mission of the institution is very important,” Carroll said. “When people ask me, ‘How did you stay so long?’, that is a big part of my answer. When you believe deeply in the mission of the institution, your resilience is that much stronger. These are challenging positions even in easy moments; they’re glamorous and humbling and challenging and there are constant unexpected moments.”

The new president must also attend to the spiritual needs of the community, she said.

“In Catholic institutions, you’re not only providing institutional leadership. You’re leading a faith community at an important level,” Carroll said. That doesn’t mean leading liturgies; it means always considering the university’s Catholic identity. “It means that people look to understand that who you are and how you make decisions, the care you give to students, faculty and staff is deeper and more personal than it might be at a larger, secular institution.”

Sister Marcella said the new president must embrace Dominican’s mission.

“Our mission statement is that we help students to pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world,” Sister Marcella said.  “Donna has always promoted that, and she came to embody the mission. … The new president, whoever it is, the hope is that they will embrace it the same way Donna did. That all I can hope and pray for.”


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