Bellarmine’s new president ‘impressed’ in her first month

Dr. Susan M. Donovan, the new president of Bellarmine University, took office last month. She aims to build on Bellarmine’s commitment to academics and service. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)
Dr. Susan M. Donovan, the new president of Bellarmine University, took office last month. She aims to build on Bellarmine’s commitment to academics and service. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor

Dr. Susan M. Donovan moved to Louisville a little more than a month ago, but already she knows the pleasures of living in the Highlands — a diversity of local coffee shops and the ability to walk to work and Mass.

She’s also heard that you can identify nurses and teachers educated at Bellarmine University by the way they treat those they serve.

As Bellarmine’s new president, she’s impressed.

“I’ve been so impressed by the outreach they’re doing here,” she said. Bellarmine has “taken opportunities to do important work both in academics and in service. I hear all the time that you can tell a nurse from Bellarmine. And I’ve heard that about teachers, too.”

Donovan took office on June 1, during the relative summer slow-down of campus life. She will be inaugurated as the university’s fourth — and its first female — president during a
ceremony at Bellarmine on Oct. 27. The day will also include an inaugural Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz at the nearby St. Agnes Church.

She comes to Louisville from Baltimore, where she served as executive vice president of Loyola University Maryland. She worked at the Jesuit liberal arts school in various roles for 32 years.

During an interview in her office in late June, Donovan discussed her first impressions of Bellarmine’s attributes and its areas for growth.

Donovan said she was first drawn to Bellarmine by its mission statement, which says in part that the school aims to educate “talented, diverse students” in the liberal arts tradition and in professional studies.

With three decades of experience at a liberal arts school, Donovan said she believes wholeheartedly in that tradition. But she was also pleased to see that Bellarmine offers career-oriented programs, as well.

“Liberal arts prepares you for a lifetime — it makes you nimble and adaptable,” she said. “Those with a good core experience — which Bellarmine provides — become leaders. They can speak from a philosophical perspective, a theological perspective and a historical perspective that gives them a depth of knowledge that is needed. And the ethical education is dearly needed in our society.

“Bellarmine is still doing the great liberal arts, but they’re also responding to the times,” she added. “Bellarmine has taken great strides in the career area.”

Donovan noted that Bellarmine’s dedication to welcoming students of all races when it was founded in 1950 also attracted her to the school. But she sees diversity at Bellarmine today as an opportunity for growth.

“It’s something I’m very committed to,” she said, noting that Bellarmine’s student body has approximately 13 percent students of color.

At Loyola Maryland, Donovan took part in a campaign that aimed to increase the number of students and faculty of color — increasing the student-body minority rate from about 10 percent to about 20 percent, she said. She also led a multi-year “racial equity training” program on campus for faculty and students.

“We took the time to integrate it into campus life,” she noted. “Not just an add-on. I don’t think you can have a truly educated person without understanding the inequities of the past.”

In order to increase diversity at Bellarmine, she added, “You want to ensure when you bring students in that you have the resources and support.”

“We’re very committed to providing aid to students that need it,” she said. “We have to expand the application pool and ensure we have role models on the faculty and staff.”

Donovan would also like to see spiritual opportunities expanded for Bellarmine students.

She noted that only half of the student body is Catholic. She’d like to see the development of an interfaith campus ministry program, in addition to the Catholic campus ministry that’s already active on campus.

She’d also like to see an expansion of retreat opportunities for all students. For example, she’d like student athletes to have a retreat each year.

“In some ways, I think athletes don’t get that” spiritual education, she said, noting that practice sessions and academic work typically consume their time. At Loyola, “we found the retreat program was a phenomenal way to give them that opportunity.”

She noted that Bellarmine appears to balance a supportive and a challenging environment for the students, fostered by the faculty.

The students impressed her the day she first addressed them as their president-designate in February, she said, noting that the young adults seemed comfortable talking to her, responsible and “seasoned beyond their years.”

“That doesn’t just happen,” she said. “College students have a lot of stress and anxiety these days. When you come into a supportive environment, it nurtures the best in people.”

In addition to nurturing students, faculty members carry a heavy load — seven classes per year — but manage to also do research and lead service projects in the community, she noted with an air of admiration.

For now, deep into the summer term with a slower pace at Bellarmine, Donovan said she is busy introducing herself to a long list of alumni and friends of the school.

In the process, she is learning what Bellarmine means to the Louisville community.

“Some of them have been in tears talking about their experiences at Bellarmine in the 60s and 70s,” she said. “It inspired their lives.

“What’s not to love?” she added. “I think, ‘Really, I get paid to do this?’ It has the whole package.”

This fall, she will be joined on Bellarmine’s campus by her husband, Dr. Bill Donovan. He has been an associate professor of Latin American history at Loyola and now plans to teach part time at Bellarmine. The couple have twin daughters who are in college.

The Donovans are still exploring their new Highlands neighborhood and its many parishes. They plan to settle into a nearby parish within walking distance of their home, she added.

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