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New leadership offers change in the midst of uncertainty, examination of identity at Saint Mary’s

| Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dr. Katie Conboy became the newest Saint Mary’s College President on June 1, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with racism and policing in America, and has been “drinking from the firehouse” ever since. After assuming office, Conboy successfully led the College in making several changes to the student experience, including reopening the campus for in-person instruction, committing to anti-racism programming and installing a new dining service.

“It just feels like everything is coming at you all at once and so quickly that you can’t really even take it in,” Conboy said about her experience.

Courtesy of Saint Mary's College

College President Katie Conboy took office June 1. She has led Saint Mary’s through social unrest and an ongoing pandemic.

Much of the early months of Conboy’s presidency has taken place remotely, with strategic planning meetings occurring over video calls and other communication tools utilized during quarantine. These meetings addressed the challenging task of safely bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus.

As she enters her 10th week as president, Conboy said she has reflected upon her own journey and how unusual it is for a new leader to enter an institution and be asked to determine how to open its doors.

“Let’s not have our heads in the sand, we got a pandemic going on,” she said. “We could have a crisis on campus, we could have a crisis in South Bend, we could have to pivot in some way at some point in the semester, so we have to be ready for every eventuality, which is an unusual situation. You don’t just plan for the best of possibilities, you plan for everything else.”

Accepting that this semester will be different in some ways but also improved in others is essential to making the best academic year possible, Conboy said. This mindset also informed some of her first actions as president.

“I just had to make some decisions that felt to me like they would change the student experience,” she said. “So dining –– I just have to say, people have had this complaint for a long time and we’ve not acted on it, and we have an opportunity right in front of us because Notre Dame Dining Services was interested in [us] picking up a contract with them. That’s something that matters to people –– having good eating options, being able to stay healthy and having more options for people who are vegetarian and vegan and for people who are interested in exploring global food culture. So let’s have a really creative campus dining program.”

In addition to tackling challenges posed by the pandemic and other aspects of the student experience, Conboy began to address the implementation of new antiracism structures and programming in her first week as president. On the day she took office, Conboy and her cabinet released a statement regarding the deaths of George Floyd and other men and women of color, as well as global calls for improved race relations.

Throughout the summer, Conboy hosted a series of discussions with members of the Saint Mary’s community, as well as conversations surrounding antiracism curriculum with the director of inclusion and equity Redgina Hill. These talks have informed further pursuit of an improved experience for students, faculty and staff of color at Saint Mary’s, which will be largely overseen by Hill.

“I certainly think we have to look at the ongoing questions of racial justice and what the experience for people of color on this campus is,” Conboy said. “And I’m really heartened. We did this five-week curriculum over the summer in which Redgina Hill and I had a Friday afternoon conversation with anybody who wanted to join, and we had about 150 people at every one of those sessions. People have incredible intentionality toward this.”

Together with Hill, Conboy said she hopes to create a training program similar to the one she implemented at her previous institution, Simmons University, where she served as Provost and Senior Vice President.

“It was actually really, really successful and it was required –– every faculty member had to go through it,” she said about the training program.

Her goal, Conboy said, is to ensure that every person who comes to Saint Mary’s is given the same experience.

The traditional Saint Mary’s experience, however, has changed dramatically since the outbreak of COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, the College has enforced a number of new rules and restrictions on classes, social gatherings, athletics and other aspects of student life.

Conboy said she hopes new and returning students stay optimistic and remember that everyone is figuring out how to sustain their relationships with friends, professors, colleagues and others.

“I just think that the more we can think about the positive things that are coming out of this, the better off all of us will be,” she said. “And I’ve had to say this over and over all summer to employees who have been very worried about whether we should be opening. Even though it’s different, can we make the difference the best it can possibly be?”

At the same time, Conboy said everyone should take precautions against exposure to the virus, and she plans on potentially relocating her office from Le Mans Hall to Riedinger House, where she has been living this summer. Classes will look different, she said, with some being outdoors and others moving online or hybrid.

“Just try to keep in mind that nobody thought that this was the ideal way to run a college, but we did think it was ideal to have people be able to continue their education,” she added. “And so I think the faculty have been incredibly creative. I think we’re going to learn a lot from this about what kind of flexibility students want in their educational experience going forward.”

Conboy said she challenges students to provide her administration with feedback on these changes, through the president’s office email, in the town hall meetings she plans on hosting every two weeks, or in the moments students can catch her passing through campus. As a new president, Conboy said she hopes to establish herself as a visible, accessible presence on campus.

The College’s COVID-19 response has not only altered the way students, faculty and staff experience the academic year but has also shortened the traditional timeline for administrative operations. Because of the uncertain nature of the pandemic, Conboy will move forward with a shortened horizon of three years, bearing in mind that circumstances could change without any warning.

Despite these uncertainties, Conboy has committed to presenting a strategic plan to the board of trustees in October, within the first 100 days of her presidency. This plan will be informed by previous research conducted by former president Jan Cervelli and interim president Nancy Nekvasil.

In most instances, Conboy said, a new president will gather information and winnow through all of it during the first 100 days.

“I just think we don’t have time for that at Saint Mary’s, and I also think that there might not be as much of an appetite for it as there would be at institutions that maybe are feeling particularly rudderless,” she said.

Instead, Conboy plans to pick up where her predecessors left off, and begin working with previously collected information that is at most four years old.

“Why do I need to ask the same questions all over again; I think a starting point can be that I read everything that’s already been written, that I look at all of the ideas that people generated and that I test for those,” she said. “Do we still think these are directions that we would be interested in going in? Do we still think that these are the ideas that could guide us?”

Conboy said she is prioritizing a long-term goal of setting Saint Mary’s apart from other institutions by determining what makes the College so undeniably unique.

“The first thing we have to say is what are the differentiators? What is this place about and what is the thing that we should never change, that makes Saint Mary’s, Saint Mary’s,” Conboy said.

Most people identify Saint Mary’s with “the feeling that accompanies walking down the Avenue,” Conboy said, and this feeling, while still treasured, is not enough of an identity.

“We actually have to be able to say it,” she said. “Yes, there is a feeling you get –– I get it too. But I want some words that go with it, and I want some real actions that say this is what we stand for.”

This identity includes a depth that must be better communicated, Conboy said.

“Depth of the curriculum, depth of the spiritual presence on the campus, depth of commitment on the part of people … my goal would be that we find really compelling ways to communicate that depth,” she said. “I don’t feel right now that we present ourselves to the world as being the deep, intellectual, spiritual, politically committed community-oriented place that we are. I don’t want to be a hidden jewel. I want to be out there shining and very visible to people. And that requires being able to say really clearly who we are, what we do and what we’re really excellent at.”

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