Man in the Minority: New Notre Dame President James Conneely Talks Shop

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In July, when Notre Dame of Maryland President James F. Conneely was sworn in, the school buzzed with enthusiasm but whispered a sentiment of surprise. After all, Conneely, a Long Island native, is the first man to take up the top power position at the 117-year-old institution that still educates an all-female undergrad core alongside its growing coed grad population.

In anticipation of beloved President Mary Pat Seurkamp’s May departure, the school conducted a national search led by U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley. No shock: The 12-woman, three-man committee seemed to expect to choose a female victor, as the school had done for more than one century, though they reviewed a diverse array of applications from both men and women.

One key committee member — Patricia J. Mitchell, an alumna of the class of 1969 and chair of the school’s board of trustees — was paraphrased candidly by Childs Walker in The Baltimore Sun: “She said some committee members were bothered by the idea of hiring a man, even though the university received applications from plenty of male candidates. ‘We had to talk about it,’ she said. ‘There was a feeling of, Jeez, this is not what we thought would happen.'”

In the end, though, the group-thinkers couldn’t deny how highly they thought of Conneely. In fact, they liked him a lot. With his quick smile, his expressive comedian’s eyes, and his open-minded ideas about education (and finances), finally, they deemed him the extremely unlikely perfect fit.

Mitchell announced the committee’s selection by shouting, “It’s a boy!”

Among Conneely’s proudest accomplishments are the coalition against rape he created at Emory University and the multicultural center he opened at Eastern Kentucky University. Add to that the fact that Conneely’s own daughter Jessica attends all-women’s Converse College in South Carolina, which Conneely simply raves about, and his job score seems like a no-brainer.

According to Walker in The Sun, “Notre Dame officials also praised [Conneely’s] creative approaches to budgeting and enrollment management at Eastern Kentucky.”

Before coming to Notre Dame, Conneely served as vice president for student affairs and associate provost for enrollment at Eastern Kentucky, where he was also on the faculty. A higher education pro, he’s been in the game for 29 years with tours at Emory, the University of Arkansas, Villanova University, and the University of Northern Iowa.

Conneely received his B.A. from Saint Bonaventure University, his M.S. from Alfred University, and his Ph.D. from Georgia State University. His wife, Becky, holds a doctorate in counselor education.

I talked to the academic leader about his life philosophy, his favorite local restaurant, and the daily duties of a man seated behind the desk of a hyper-demanding office.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Life is not a spectator sport – participate!

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

I don’t think that you define goals, but rather they are evolutionary. My primary goal is to make a positive difference with my family and friends, and in my vocation.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

From a former boss: “It’s about the students.” When a situation becomes difficult to navigate, if I can keep the students as my main focus, I am always able to work through to a resolution.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

Things usually work out, no matter how big they seem at the time. 2) Everyone is replaceable. 3) Good health trumps everything.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Develop a good sense of self. It will guide you.

What is the best moment of the day?

The two best moments of my day are when I am with the students and when I am with my family.

What is on your bedside table?

There are three books right now: Lincoln on Leadership by Donald Phillips; Tips to Fly By by Richard Collins; and The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

What is the best film you’ve seen this year? Why?

I thoroughly enjoyed Lincoln. It gave great insight into the man. And Daniel Day Lewis was outstanding in the role.

What is your favorite local charity?

There are two that are close to my heart: Catholic Charities and the United Way.

What is your favorite local food or restaurant?

La Famiglia on 39th Street has become our family favorite. Good food and a wonderful place to relax together.

Where do you go to have fun on a Friday night?

At the end of the week, my family and I enjoy exploring Baltimore together, getting to know our new hometown.

If you could write your own list of presidential accomplishments 15 years down the line, how would it read?

Under Dr. Conneely’s leadership and vision, the University established programs that focused on leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship; received accolades for its leadership in health sciences and being progressive in serving the educational community in Baltimore; and achieved international distinction for its Women’s College. He strengthened the role of the liberal arts as the core foundation of the University’s academic programs throughout its four Schools. He reinvigorated campus life by focusing on enhancements in facilities, programs, and services. He expanded the University’s role as a community center for culture, arts, and lifelong learning.

Some people believe that the concept of the women’s college is outmoded. As a father of two daughters, one of whom attends a women’s school, what are three significant advantages, in your view?

As much as our adult and graduate programs have grown over the years, we have remained focused on our core mission as a women’s college because we know that they make a positive difference for women. At a time in their lives when they are exploring their independence and finding their voice, many young women are empowered by the women’s college experience. Women’s college students benefit from a liberal arts foundation, small class sizes, and a faculty and administration dedicated to their success. That powerful combination enables women’s colleges to produce women leaders at disproportionate levels. Our alumnae tell us time and again: “Notre Dame taught me that I could do and be anything I wanted.”

Describe a day in your academic life.

For a university president, no two days are alike. My workdays are filled with planning, fundraising, overseeing initiatives to continually enhance our programs and facilities, and, most importantly, spending time with students to make sure we are meeting their needs.

Name two or three university presidents whom you greatly admire.

That is a tough question. There are many, many people who have influenced me throughout my career:

Dennis Golden at Fontbonne University was one of the first student affairs professionals to ascend to the presidency of a university. He is a terrific role model for me and showed me that it was possible to apply my background in student affairs to the highest level of university leadership.

Aubrey Lucas, a former president of the University of Southern Mississippi, is a remarkable man. He is true southern gentleman who provides leadership in a very respectful, genteel, civil way.

John Hennessey ascended through the ranks at Stanford University, showing a longtime commitment to the university. He has been a leader in the campus sustainability movement, bringing green practices into nearly every area of campus life, from operations and building to student life, teaching, and research.


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