Faces in the Crowd
By Tracy Seipel
With inauguration just days away, two friends and colleagues who helped to shape President Julie Sullivan reflect on their time working together.
When she addresses the audience at her inauguration Friday, Santa Clara University President Julie Sullivan will recognize the faces of many new colleagues and students excited to explore SCU’s future with a proven groundbreaker in Catholic higher education.
But Sullivan will also see some familiar smiles in the crowd from handfuls of friends and mentors who have worked with her at other universities, where they had joined forces to accomplish seemingly impossible goals.
Michael Dougherty will be among them. The longtime Minneapolis-based financier and philanthropist is expected to arrive later this week with a group of University of St. Thomas trustees, colleagues, and alumni to salute their friend and now former president who helped to transform St. Thomas into one of the top Catholic universities in the U.S.
“We probably have never seen somebody like Julie in our history,” says the St. Thomas alum and trustee, who was on the board that hired Sullivan as the university’s first woman, and first lay president in 2013. “Now, Santa Clara has that, and they’re very, very fortunate.”
What Santa Clara has, he explains, is a seasoned, savvy leader who inspires bold ideas and creative problem solving, reads balance sheets and anticipates trends in the competitive world of higher education.
“She’s this little fireball, but she has a steel backbone,” says the namesake of the five-year-old Dougherty Family College at St. Thomas.
Opened in 2017, and modeled after Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago, the college helps underserved students navigate higher education and eliminate the opportunity gap.
“We’re going to miss her here, but we really appreciate what she’s done,” Dougherty says. “Your board will decide what you’re going to do. And Julie will be very helpful. I don’t know what it will be, but there’s going to be three or four very real, important programs that she’s going to start. Give her a year or two to observe. Let her show you.”
Always refer to ‘the common good’
At St. Thomas, Dougherty and others say, Sullivan’s nine-year track record speaks for itself: She helped create two new colleges, build two new residence halls, and moved forward on a new STEM campus that will open in 2024. She established new centers for student well-being, and for social justice, launched a racial justice initiative, raised $200 million in endowed scholarships, and sought to ensure all students have an opportunity to develop their talents to create a more just and sustainable world.
“In everything we did,” Dougherty says, “she would always refer back to ‘the common good.’”
Key among the hallmarks of any Sullivan project is that it pencils out to justify the projected costs. If it’s not financially feasible, “that can hurt the whole institution,” says Dougherty. Next, she looks for good leadership, then “appropriate execution.” Treating people with dignity and respect—even if you disagree with them—is a must.
Dougherty describes Sullivan as intelligent and ethical, personable and funny. She engages easily with students, staff and faculty, across all cultures and identities. “Nothing changes that,” says the businessman and benefactor. “She’s so true to who she is. I’ve never seen an individual like her, ever, in my life.”
These and other factors were top of mind when Sullivan and Dougherty sat down not long after she was hired to discuss how St. Thomas might reduce the economic and educational disparities in Minneapolis’ north side, home to a largely Black population. Could St. Thomas establish something similar to Arrupe College?
After months of studying the concept with others at St. Thomas, Dougherty determined it could be done. He and his wife Kathy also agreed to become founding co-benefactors of the Dougherty Family College.
“That’s one of the things she’s most proud of, what we’re doing with these kids,” says the 1966 St. Thomas alum. “Now other schools around the country, like the University of Wisconsin and Arizona State, are contacting us to come and look at us.”
‘They know there is hope’
Last month, the Dougherty Family College received an anonymous $10 million donation. If that sum is matched, it will mean the college’s funding would continue in perpetuity.
“The kids—a lot of their eyes are wide open. They know there is hope,” says a proud Dougherty. “I would not be surprised if she starts Santa Clara’s version of this.”
Sullivan’s good friend Buffy Smith, Dean of the Dougherty Family College, heartily agrees. And if it happens, she says, “you should rest assured that it will be done well.”
As she watches Sullivan’s inauguration from afar on Friday over the Internet, Smith says she will be “filled with great joy and happiness for my friend and mentor.
“President Sullivan was a blessing to our St. Thomas community, and I am confident she will be a blessing to the Santa Clara community.”
What she says SCU students, faculty, staff and alumni will soon learn about their new president is her “intentionality.”
“I would say that every decision is mission-driven,” says Smith. “It comes from her deep desire for those around her to be better than what they thought they could be. And she’s willing to walk with you on that journey.”
It’s why Smith calls Sullivan “a compassionate servant-leader…someone who models for you so that you can model for those whom you lead.”
An authentic leader
When Sullivan started in 2013, Smith—a first generation African-American student raised by her mother and grandmother—found comfort after learning that Sullivan too had been a first-generation college student, and was influenced by a strong-willed grandmother who ran her own school bus company.
Wherever she happened to interact with the president on campus, Smith also discovered Sullivan to be what she calls an “authentic leader.”
“I would go to the gym, and Julie would be there. And she would be the same person there, or wherever she was, whether she was walking (her dog) Bella, or talking to students. And that’s what makes her so beloved, because she doesn’t change,” says the Dean. “This is who she is. And that’s really important for young people. They’re hungry for authentic leaders.”
As an example, Smith recalls the 2014 wave of Ice Bucket Challenges sponsored by the ALS Association. During St. Thomas’ homecoming that year, Sullivan agreed to get dunked.
“When I saw our President willing to do that as well, and participate, that’s just another level. She always made us feel that she was not only accessible, but that there’s nothing she would ask you to do that she would not do first.”
That has also included painful budget cuts over the years across its main campus in St. Paul, and the downtown Minneapolis Dougherty Family College campus. The pandemic forced more cuts.
“We went through a difficult time together, and we were able to recover, and become whole,” says Smith. Through it all, she lauded Sullivan’s transparency.
“There is always a campus conversation of what’s happening. She listens. She’ll answer your questions. She may not give you the response you really want, but she’s going to explain why we’re doing this or that,” says Smith.
The Dean notes that hate crimes earlier this year on campus had rattled the Dougherty Family College scholars, most of whom are persons of color. But they’re also active members on their campus, “so you know they’re going to march,” says Smith proudly. They did, and Sullivan was on site to interact with the students.
Some people in Sullivan’s senior council wanted her to leave the march early, recalls Smith, but Sullivan stayed until the last person was able to ask her a question about what the University was going to do about the issue. As Smith says, “She heard us.”
‘Your beginnings don’t define your destination’
Following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police near a grocery store just 10 minutes from the Dougherty Family College campus, Smith remembers how quickly Sullivan called her to express her sorrow for this human tragedy. She says Sullivan checked in with the Dougherty Family College scholars, faculty and staff, then moved to bolster St. Thomas’ focus on DEI work.
“Some leaders come only during a crisis, but she is there during the good times and the celebrations,” says Smith. “And that’s why she is beloved by many groups on campus.”
After nine years of working with Sullivan, Smith says she has learned something that’s important not just for herself, but for her scholars to know, too: “Embrace everything about yourself, and your experiences.”
“Your beginnings don’t define your destination. They don’t define your future or your fate. You could have big dreams, but they are still small compared to the dream that God has for you. That’s what resonates with me,” says Smith. “And that’s what I’ve learned by watching her.”