Early on in her 27-year tenure as president of Dominican University, which was still Rosary College when she started, Donna Carroll made an important change. She took down a wall within her office that blocked vision to the hallway outside the office, and she moved her desk so when sitting at it, she could see who was passing by.
“I wanted to see students walking past. I wanted to see who was dating whom,” Carroll said with a laugh. But the significance of the minor remodel can’t be underscored enough. The new president wanted to be part of the community, to do far more than sit alone in an office making decisions.
Over the years, she said, she’s had an open-door policy, inviting students, staff and faculty to stop by. She gives parents of first-year students her personal cellphone number. Pre-COVID, she attended sports contests and arts performances. She was never content to “just” be the leader of a growing and lauded school. She became an involved member of the Dominican University community.
Her accomplishments speak for themselves. During her 27 years at the university, tremendous growth occurred, with full-time faculty doubling, new schools and programs established, operating budget increasing four-fold, and campaigns raising over $165M in new assets. Among other accolades, she was named as one of the 20 Chicago “Women to Watch” by Crain’s Chicago Business and “100 Women of Influence” by Today’s Chicago Women. She has doctoral degrees in higher education administration and counseling psychology. She saw the institution through the transition from Rosary College to Dominican University.
But another accomplishment, perhaps not as newsworthy or tangible yet equally important, is this: Everyone around campus refers to her as “Donna,” not “Dr. Carroll,” a testament to the importance she places on relationships, getting to know the people around her on a personal level.
That, of course, makes the announcement of her retirement more difficult for the members of the Dominican family who have gotten to know her well over the past 27 years.
“On the one hand, because I’ve served for so long, everyone has to have been wondering when I’d be retiring,” said Carroll. “On the other hand, they were so shocked, I think, because of the timing.”
Generally, Carroll said, university presidents announce their retirement in the spring of the previous school year, but her fall announcement came as a surprise to many. But announcing in spring, when COVID-19 was beginning to sweep the world, would have felt like leaving in a time of great instability.
“I said, ‘Let me get the institution through the real challenges of COVID-19.’ We needed to open robustly in the fall, managing this well,” said Carroll. “It’s all about a timely transition.”
Now, however, is an ideal time for the university to transition to a new leader, she said.
“Despite the craziness of COVID-19, we have strong enrollment, stunning rankings, and great financial stability. This is an extraordinary moment for this institution.” Carroll pointed to the management team, calling them a “high-achieving cabinet.”
“I’m confident the vice presidents and senior team have a commitment to this institution and to be a strong and stabilizing force,” she said.
Institutions like Dominican run on cycles, said Carroll. The university is approaching its next fundraising campaign, a five- to seven-year commitment, which is “beyond the scope” of what she imagined for herself.
“This moment may feel early to some people, even to me, but it’s not bad to make a transition when the institution is doing well. That’s a gift. I’ve had a long, successful tenure,” she said, adding, “It’s a responsible time for me to leave. The institution is well positioned to attract a strong pool of candidates.”
Still, the thought of leaving is difficult, describing it as “heartache.” But she has plans for the months left, which will keep her busy making sure the institution remains strong for the leader who will take her place.
A legacy of social justice and opportunity
The university’s social equity mission is something Carroll has focused on because it dates back to the very origins of the school and is inseparable from Catholicism itself.
“In the foundational mission of the school was a commitment to equity,” she said, “reaching back to the religious missions of the sisters.”
And it hasn’t changed. “That legacy positions us in a place of enormous strength,” she said. “We have tough conversations about race, economics, social issues. As part of our Catholic social teaching, it’s foundational to who we are.”
During times of social unrest, Carroll sees her mandate as sharing the university’s message of social justice.
“In contemporary leadership, it gives us a context in which to be clearly spoken, if not outspoken, about rights of all people, including undocumented students.”
In fact, about 72 percent of the incoming class this year is Hispanic. Dominican University has been a Sanctuary Campus since 2016, and recently they have expanded that resolution to more fully incorporate an antiracist agenda.
The village of River Forest is doing the same thing, she noted. As they commit to making their welcoming resolution more robust, they’ve asked Dominican to partner with them on social justice initiatives. In that sense, Carroll sees the university and village “on parallel and complementary tracks.”
But the village faces a bigger challenge. “How do you authentically engage in equality when you’re essentially homogeneous?” asked Carroll.
The school’s long history of social justice allows them to be a good collaborator, she said, and the institution is ahead of the curve in demographics, with a “very diverse student body.”
“I think getting to know each other better will be important,” she added. “Our diversity is an asset.”
Social justice is also an integral part of the school’s faith as a Catholic university, not a side mission or add-on project.
“The sense of care, the value of the person, of educating for character are all features of the Catholic faith,” said Carroll. “Our faith calls us to be strong supporters and allies for people who have less and are marginalized.”
Taking chances on people and giving them opportunities is part of the legacy set by the Dominican sisters who ran the university for so long. Carroll was the first lay president of the university, a big deal at the time.
“When the sisters hired me, they took a big risk,” she said. “I wore short skirts and high heels. I was different. My legacy is that opportunity. We have a diverse student body. They are different. And we want them to gain the self-confidence and aspiration to bring change.”
When she was hired, Carroll was one of the youngest university presidents in the country. Now she’s one of the longest serving in the state.
“It’s a sense of coming full circle,” she said.
A vocation, not just a job
Carroll sees her presidency as a way of living and being, not just performing well herself, but ensuring the institution is healthy overall.
“One of the things about living in the role — it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” she said. “It has its glamorous moments, but it’s about showing up every day. Being trustworthy. Being someone upon whom people can depend. A stable center makes for a healthy institution and an enduring presidency.”
That takes endurance and unwavering focus, so Carroll is grateful the goals of the university are in line with her own personal beliefs. She regularly runs a seminar on mission and vocation, and talks about feeling grounded in her leadership.
“Being president is a privilege every day, but it’s not easy every day,” she said. “I’m blessed to be at an institution that aligns with my own purpose.”
As for choosing a new president, Carroll said her role will be as a resource to the school board, but she won’t be directly involved. She hopes for “someone who deeply respects the religious tradition of the place and who is deeply committed to the mission.”
“We’re progressive, but still anchored deeply in the Catholic tradition and faith,” she said.
She plans to working through the end of the school year, then take a breather.
“When you’re in a position that’s so intense, you don’t have much personal planning time,” Carroll said. “I’ll take my time to decide what to do.” She does plan to write — mysteries maybe, but definitely a novel. She’ll do some national speaking and consulting.
As for her long list of achievements over the past few decades, she said there will be time to think about them later.
“It’s premature to celebrate a career when you still have 10 months ahead.”