Saint Mary’s president-elect Katie Conboy invites students into connection, commitment and change
Katie Conboy, the newly announced 14th president of Saint Mary’s, began her pursuit of a sense of “belonging” as a young girl growing up on army bases around the world. Conboy, who previously served as provost and senior vice president at Simmons University, as well as a professor of English literature and provost at Stonehill College, will take office this summer.
“As an army brat, I grew up moving every couple of years, and sometimes every year,” Conboy said. “I found that you sort of have to bring your belonging with you wherever you go because you can’t go out in the world looking to have somebody tell you that you don’t belong. You need to arrive with a sense that you belong somewhere.”
Conboy said she feels like she belongs at Saint Mary’s, addressing a crowd of students, faculty, trustees and Sisters of the Holy Cross — as well as alumnae and students studying abroad via livestream — in the atrium of Spes Unica Hall.
After 13 years at Stonehill College, a Holy Cross institution in North Easton, Massachusetts, Conboy’s career took her to Simmons Universty, a private women’s college in Boston. Conboy said she felt the same sense of belonging during her years at these institutions, though it’s a feeling she said she carries with her as she moves from place to place.
“Seven years ago, I left Stonehill for Simmons University in Boston, and I did that because I could see there a very different but equally compelling mission: women’s education as the engine of social and economic empowerment,” she said in her address. “And now, Saint Mary’s offers the opportunity for me to combine my commitments to Holy Cross education and to women’s education in my new academic home. Home is not a word I use lightly.”
Her new start in South Bend is essentially a “return home,” Conboy said, as she and her husband Tom met while attending graduate school at Notre Dame. They were married in the Basilica, and both took courses at Saint Mary’s before graduating. They now have three grown daughters: Mairéad, Caitríona and Siobhán.
Growing up, Conboy’s family maintained a loose definition of home, relocating about two dozen times to accommodate her father’s military assignments. She elaborated on this traveling lifestyle in her official introduction to the campus community.
“I might start a school grade in Fort Dix, New Jersey and finish it in Charlottesville, Virginia, or attend a year of college in Kansas and go home for the summer to Heidelberg, Germany,” Conboy said. “I often think that my own adaptable spirit was forged in the life of an army brat. I tried to bring a sense of belonging with me wherever I go.”
Cultivating this sense of belonging is a priority Conboy said she holds not only for herself, but also for the entire Saint Mary’s community.
“I’ve spent my career thinking about the ways that a small college like ours with a robust mission can become a true home for its students, faculty and staff — a place where everyone with all their differences intact still belongs,” she said.
Today, Conboy said, such spaces are essential and sacred, as well as integral to her vision for the College.
“I ask you, three-and-a-half months before I actually arrive on campus, what kind of home do we want to build together? What kind of community do we want to be with and for each other, and also, how can we be open to change even as we maintain our solid foundation?” she said.
While these questions could not be answered today, Conboy said, the answers will be more fully realized through her work within the College.
In an interview with The Observer, Conboy said she feels a natural alignment between the institutional DNA of Saint Mary’s and her own personal double helix, informed by a life spent surrounded by influential women.
“I am one of a family of four daughters, I have three daughters and I think a lot on behalf of women your age and about the world you’re going to inherit,” she said. “Personally, I care about the world I’m leaving to my three daughters, but on a professional basis, I think it’s an incredible privilege to work at a place where I’ll have the opportunity to think about the issues that are most important to women today.”
Having witnessed growth at both of her previous institutions, Conboy said she hopes to see Saint Mary’s expand its reach to students from regionally diverse areas, potentially through online access.
“I want Saint Mary’s to be seen as a very serious place out there in the world,” she said. “I want students to be seen as serious students and to be taken seriously as students and as people who are contributors to this society. I’m not interested in any fluffy images of women’s colleges or girly images of women’s colleges. Saint Mary’s is a place that began in order to give women access to higher education, and it continues to this very day to do that — but it does that here on a campus that’s bound by who can come and pay tuition.”
By pushing beyond this campus-based experience, Conboy said, Saint Mary’s will become recognized nationwide.
“I want Saint Mary’s’ name to be spoken in places where it isn’t being spoken right now,” she said.
In her address, Conboy offered three hopes for the student body to contemplate in the months before she takes office.
“First, I hope we will foster a spirit of togetherness and belonging,” she said. “Second, I hope that our community continues to be one of moral imagination, one that can take its powerful and positive community commitments and model them outside the walls of the College. And finally, I hope we can also work up an appetite for change that we can approach renewing and renovating our Saint Mary’s home with excitement and openness.”
Conboy concluded her introduction by reading “The Skylight” by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, which describes a man who has since lived under the claustrophobic confines of his wooden roof, but is soon set free by the installation of a skylight, opening his world up to a brilliant blue sky.
Heaney’s poem reminds readers that it’s easy to settle into the familiar, and prefer the arrangements we’ve always known, Conboy said. The speaker resists putting in a skylight for fear that his house will no longer feel like the same home; however, when the slates come off, he experiences a sense of wonder.
“[The speaker] recalls the Gospel of Luke, where a paralytic man is lowered through the roof by his friends, to be healed by Jesus, and the feeling among all present is one of one,” Conboy said. “And that’s what I wish for all of us — that we foster a spirit of togetherness and belonging under our Saint Mary’s roof, that we make our walls permeable and share that spirit with the broader community. And that we’d be willing to change to cut a hole in the roof if necessary. To invite wonder and surprise into our midst, and perhaps, to find ourselves transformed in the process.”