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Q&A with Dr. Coley

Eight days into her Presidency, Joan Develin Coley, Ph.D. is still settling into her office in Gibbons Hall. She has had little time to populate the office with personal effects, however, as she has filled her first days attending to the priority that matters most: exploring the community she has newly joined; meeting with faculty, trustees, School Sisters of Notre Dame and administrators, and helping to ready the campus for the return of students. Dr. Coley served for 38 years at McDaniel College, first as faculty member and Provost, then as President before retiring in 2010. She graciously steals time from a packed appointment calendar to share her first impressions of Notre Dame of Maryland University and her ambitions for the coming year.

Since you retired as President of McDaniel College, you have been asked a number of times to serve as an interim college leader but have never entertained the possibility. Yet you said ‘yes’ to Notre Dame. Why? One, I had an instinct that the fit would be a good one. I have always known Notre Dame to an excellent institution with superb teachers. As I weighed the opportunity, I knew that I was going to love being a part of this community. Second, after three years of retirement, I was ready for the challenge. My husband, Lee Rice, was ready too, which is an important consideration, since spouses have an important role to play in the life of the community, including being a supportive partner. He’s happy I’m engaged and he’s happy to be involved again in academia.

So your instincts about a ‘good fit’ have proven correct? On my first day, I met with trustees, senior administrators and School Sisters of Notre Dame. Everyone handed me thick reports which they encouraged me to study. It was a trunkful of reading. Sister Eileen, Vice President for Mission, gave me a slim envelope and told me, “Read this first.” What she gave me was the story of the School Sisters. Everything I read about the congregation connected with me. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a teacher, and here was a special group of women who see education as a way to transform the world. Their belief in the power of education affirms what every good teacher believes in her heart. I knew the match was perfect.

Notre Dame is a Catholic university. You profess a different faith tradition. Is that a challenge? The University has always enrolled students of different faiths, so my example, while a first, is not wholly outside our tradition of welcoming all. The very best institutions are those whose mission is lived daily. Notre Dame is such an institution. The mission of the University is embodied in the mission of the SSNDs, a mission I deeply admire. I hope that the way I live my life shows that I reflect that mission. And I would not, could not, take on this position if I didn't absolutely believe in the value of a Catholic education and every aspect of its mission. In my meetings with alumni, I have heard often how Notre Dame’s Catholic values have given them an enduring ethical foundation. I am eager to tell the story of this institution and its mission. I believe firmly that there is a special and significant place in American higher education for Catholic colleges and universities. 

You say that you are not a placeholder President. What do you mean? No institution can afford to sit still. Momentum is a precious resource that is sustained by action, not by caution. During the term of my leadership, I intend to move the University forward. I honor the accomplishments of my predecessors in this office, and I am committed to building upon them.

How does your lifelong love for teaching contribute to your approach to being President? My leadership style is definitely influenced by my experiences as a teacher. For example, when a colleague makes a mistake, we discuss it from the perspective of what can be learned from the experience. As a reading specialist, I act as a diagnostician, and I have transferred that skill into my leadership approach. Presidents get the credit when an institution succeeds, but the truth is that success is always a team effort.

Will you have time to spend with students, faculty and staff? Yes, that is an important part of my job. Controlling a President’s schedule is challenging, however, since so many constituencies have a need to interact with the President. But I am determined to eat with students in the cafeteria, visit in the residence halls, meet with student leaders and host receptions in the President’s House. Among the great joys of my career in higher education has been the opportunity to stay young by staying connected with students. To be among students of any age is to be enthralled by their energy, optimism and promise. I am equally eager to meet regularly with faculty. I am first and forever a teacher and I draw such strength from fellow faculty. I want to be visible to staff, too. At the same time, I know well that an important part of my responsibility is to be off campus meeting with those who can help advance the University. 

Have you had any opportunities to meet with alumnae and alumni? I had lunch today with alumnae residing in the Oak Crest Retirement Community. They were such accomplished and interesting women and men whose deep love for Notre Dame was unmistakable. Our alumnae and alumni are the living embodiment of the University as they carry the spark of Notre Dame into the world. I look forward to meeting many more.

What is the importance of the Women’s College? Our commitment to the Women’s College is inseparable from our mission. I recognize the challenges that single-gender colleges face, but I think there are more opportunities than challenges. We have an opportunity to broaden our geographic footprint in student recruiting, including making our University even more global in focus. The School Sisters have a global presence, and the University can build upon that by recruiting more women internationally and by sending our students for study abroad and service experiences in China, Japan and everywhere the School Sisters are present.

What has surprised or pleased you most in the short time you have been at Notre Dame? I have never been offered God’s blessings by so many people so many times. This community's generosity of spirit is wonderful.