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Observer Editorial: An open letter to Katie Conboy

| Friday, October 8, 2021

This weekend, Saint Mary’s will inaugurate Katie Conboy as its 14th president since the College’s establishment in 1844. Following the announcement of her selection in February 2020, Conboy began her term the following June, although the COVID-19 pandemic precluded the possibility of official inauguration procedures for the first year of her presidency. Conboy’s formal installation will finally take place in O’Laughlin Auditorium on Saturday, an event bookended by a weekend of festivities at the College.

To celebrate Conboy’s long-awaited inauguration, The Observer Editorial Board would like to reflect upon the milestones of her tenure thus far.

From the very beginning, Conboy’s presidency was marked by an unprecedented campus climate and an immediate demand for difficult decisions. Entering her role as College President in the midst of a pandemic and at the height of a nationwide racial reckoning, Conboy led the College community through a year unlike any other with unending passion and care.

On June 1, 2020, the day she assumed her position, Conboy and other campus leaders released a statement condemning the injustices of systemic racism a week after the murder of George Floyd. She later cosigned a list of 13 commitments toward a more just and diverse campus, including a series of lectures and panels led by people of color, a pledge to cultivate a more diverse staff and an increase in funding for campus organizations dedicated to racial justice. And, as Conboy led the campus community through the first year of the pandemic, her administration’s health and safety procedures resulted in low rates of positive COVID cases throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. 

Decisions such as these are likely to be met with some disagreement, and Conboy’s choices were no exception — the College’s visitor policy and cancellation of fall sports were both criticized by students. But Conboy doesn’t just allow students to provide constructive feedback on administrative actions; she encourages it, allowing students’ voices to be heard through email, in-person conversations and during town hall events open to all students. 

President Conboy is also known for curating personal relationships with students by attending campus sporting events and other activities. Just last week, she made an appearance at the Smick Day event, continuing her efforts to help students reclaim the term ‘Smick’ and forge a strong, proud campus identity.

Aside from leading the Saint Mary’s community through an unspeakably difficult year, the Conboy administration has also found time for a number of other successes: renovating Regina Hall to include a new healthcare education center, inviting exciting and inspiring guest speakers to the College, providing free telehealth network services for all students, improving tri-campus dining options, as well as cutting the ribbon on the new LGBTQ+ Center and Office for Student Equity. In just under two years, President Conboy has demonstrated an unwavering dedication to the well-being of Saint Mary’s students, and we commend her continued commitment to the College’s future.

However, no leader is perfect. Despite the milestones the school has achieved during Conboy’s term, we must always push administrators to new heights and continue to recognize the issues and injustices that persist at Saint Mary’s. Thus, as we approach this weekend’s inauguration events, the Editorial Board wishes to offer a few ways in which the current administration can improve and continue its commitment to progress within the College community.

Recently, Conboy’s administration made the decision to scale back the staff of the College’s Health and Counseling Center. This creates a gap, as the center’s sole receptionist no longer works at the College, which makes many students experience increased wait times or feel forced to speak to fellow students about their personal health information. Although the College is currently searching for a third counselor to meet students’ needs, the center still lacks a regularly available psychiatrist. Mental health resources are more important than ever — and we encourage Conboy and the rest of the College administration to better support its counseling center, both in hiring practices and financial allocation.

Additionally, many Saint Mary’s students have expressed confusion over the implementation of certain policies over the past year, pointing to a general failure in communication between the Conboy administration and the student body. Although the decision to adopt Notre Dame’s dining services at the College was largely celebrated, students living in Opus — on-campus apartment-style housing — were forced to purchase a meal plan, despite being told when signing their housing contract that it would not be required. And although the College’s health and safety procedures for COVID resulted in very low case numbers throughout the past year, many students expressed disappointment with the school’s now-reversed rules for visitors, citing inconsistencies in the College’s expectations and arguing the policies negatively affected students’ mental health. College administrations will inevitably be required to make difficult, unpopular decisions from time to time, but an open line of communication with the student body is crucial in ensuring that no student is burdened by a sudden, unexplained policy change.

These issues of mental health resources and administrative transparency are significant, but Conboy’s displays of commitment and passion throughout her presidency prove that they are problems that can be solved. We encourage President Conboy to continue listening to student voices, especially those that rise in criticism of current policies and decisions. Additionally, we encourage students, faculty and staff to continue voicing their concerns about issues affecting Saint Mary’s. The administration has demonstrated they’re willing to listen, so it’s up to us to speak out.

Finally, we’d like to invite all members of the tri-campus community to celebrate President Conboy’s inauguration by participating in this weekend’s inauguration events. In addition to Conboy’s installation ceremony at 1:30 p.m. in O’Laughlin Auditorium, three events on Saturday will be open to all: the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary at 9 a.m. at the Church of Our Lady of Loretto, a reception in Cushwa-Leighton Library following the installation ceremony and a concert featuring Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Catherine Russell at 7:30 p.m. in O’Laughlin Auditorium.

President Conboy’s inauguration is a historic event for our tri-campus — and we hope it can serve as a pivotal moment in the progress of her administration.

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