Cura Personalis: Susan Donovan, Ph.D.

By Magazine Staff  |  Photo by Cory Donovan
Susan Donovan

Susan Donovan was appointed Loyola’s executive vice president in 2011, after serving as the chief student development officer since 1988. In her role, Donovan provides executive leadership for the divisions of administration, advancement, enrollment management and communications, and student development, while overseeing Campus Ministry and mission integration and intercollegiate athletics.

She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, an M.S. in Higher Education from Florida State University, and a B.A. from Iowa’s Buena Vista University. She has been married for 19 years to Associate Professor of History Bill Donovan, Ph.D., and they have twin teenage daughters, Meghan and Caitlin.

HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO WORK IN HIGHER EDUCATION?

I grew up in Iowa. I wasn’t going to go to college. I was going to be a secretary, but I wasn’t that great at shorthand. So I went in and told my teacher my junior year that I was going to college. I was a first-generation college student, and I loved college. The dean of students—who was a mentor to me—finally pulled me over in the cafeteria and said, “Maybe you just don’t want to leave the college environment.”

HAS IT BEEN CHALLENGING TO MOVE INTO AN ADMINISTRATIVE ROLE WHERE YOU ARE NOT WORKING AS CLOSELY WITH STUDENTS?

It’s been good. I was caught off-guard when Fr. Linnane asked me to do this new position, but I was very committed to him and I was very committed to the institution. And part of what was important to me was that my colleagues (the vice presidents) whom I respected were able to continue to be strong leaders and have the same level of autonomy. With staying connected to the students, I think it’s been a little easier because I still know a lot of them right now.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT WORKING AT LOYOLA?

I’ve found that Loyola’s core values and my own personal and professional values are congruent. I was attracted to the community and the mission to educate the whole person. I met my husband here, and our family and my life are so woven into Loyola. Think of how much of our lives we spend in the workplace, and we’re there for one another. People go through losses and weddings and babies and life events. My dad taught me not to count the hours, that you demonstrate by leading and doing, and if you count the minutes, they’ll count the minutes. My mother used to say to me, “You know, Susan, everybody doesn’t love their job.” But I told her that I thought they should.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES YOU’VE SEEN FOR THE INSTITUTION—ESPECIALLY IN STUDENT LIFE?

One dramatic change has been the growth of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment from the region and now various parts of the country. I also appreciate the professionalism in our programs and services. And I believe the quality of the student experience has steadily improved along with the improvements to our campus facilities.

HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH LOYOLA PARENTS CHANGED?

Students have a much more engaged relationship with their parents now. And part of that change was cell phones and texting and emails. I get a bit offended when people call them the “trophy kids” generation. I think it’s more that they’ve been very busy, very programmed up until college. Another part of that is their parents have been very involved, too. Real world things do happen to students in college, and it’s not an easy road. There’s a lot of intensity to an academically rigorous environment. We were on the forefront with dealing with the whole student—you deal with mental health issues and violence issues. We took the approach that we wanted parents involved, that we were working in a partnership with them. We’ve continued to advance services to help students. The rub is that faculty may perceive it as too much support. But you easily see the converts when faculty members see their own children go through college.

HOW HAS TECHNOLOGY AFFECTED THE WAYS LOYOLA DEALS WITH AND COMMUNICATES WITH PARENTS AND STUDENTS?

Clearly, our vehicles and methods of communication have changed with the technology, but it’s our emphasis on face-to-face encounters that distinguish our relationships with our students and their parents. I think that’s irreplaceable. Parents entrust us with their children, and it’s a privilege to share in their lives and their aspirations.

IN WHAT WAYS ARE THE CONCERNS OF LOYOLA STUDENTS THE SAME AS THEY’VE EVER BEEN—AND IN WHAT WAYS ARE THEY DIFFERENT?

The community is becoming much more diverse in many ways, and this is a major strength. And while our status has changed to a university, I still sense that Loyola’s tradition of a close and supportive community is still very much alive. This atmosphere makes for a wonderful exchange between students and their faculty and staff mentors.

LOYOLA’S 2008-2013 STRATEGIC PLAN CALLS FOR THE SCHOOL TO BECOME “THE LEADING CATHOLIC COMPREHENSIVE UNIVERSITY IN THE NATION.” WHAT MAKES LOYOLA DIFFERENT FROM OR BETTER THAN, SAY, VILLANOVA AND SANTA CLARA?

I think it is how we work with the students—body, mind, and spirit. When we have visitors come, and when the Middle States accrediting team came, they were in awe of our students. It’s so pervasive, that care for our students. We also let students play a very active role in the governance and the leadership of the institution. Because we treat them with such respect and give them such responsibility, they can create events and traditions. Students started Loyolapalooza and the Superfans. They started the honor code and they govern it themselves. There’s a rich history of students getting the most out of their experience. You see it in their service and their commitment to greater Baltimore and to the campus. If you get out of the way, students can really do these things. And I think administrators do get out of the way because they have the autonomy to do that. It permeates. Then you see great retention of students and great retention of administrators and staff, because they’re here for something bigger than themselves. There were opportunities to leave Loyola but it’s hard to replicate what you have here.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS LOYOLA’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN REALIZING THE GOALS OF THE STRATEGIC PLAN?

Resources will always be a challenge, but our strategic goals keep us focused on outcomes. I think that this period will be viewed as one of marked improvement and growth. People of good will “staying the course” in the midst of challenges is what has made Loyola what it is today.

WHAT’S ON YOUR WISH LIST FOR LOYOLA?

A fully developed living learning program, an endowment to fund scholarships and financial aid, and a national championship in an athletic program—which may not be too far off!

—D.R. Belz, ’78, contributed to this piece

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