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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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First woman named as president of St. Joe’s: Board of Trustees elects Cheryl McConnell to lead the university

The Hawk News
Cheryl A. McConnell, Ph.D., responds to audience applause moments after being named as St. Joe’s 29th president at a public announcement held March 10 in the Cardinal Foley Campus Center on Hawk Hill. James M. Norris ’85, chair St. Joe’s Board of Trustees (center) and Daniel Joyce, S.J., director of the Office of Mission Programs (right), accompanied McConnell during the announcement. PHOTO: MADELINE WILLIAMS

Cheryl A. McConnell, Ph.D., has been named St. Joe’s 29th president, the first woman president in the university’s 172-year history.

McConnell had been serving as the university’s interim president since Mark C. Reed, Ed.D., stepped down in May 2022, after serving for seven years as St. Joe’s first lay president. The university began an official search for Reed’s successor last August.

“I am so unbelievably proud and excited to be standing here today as the 29th president of Saint Joseph’s University,” McConnell said at a March 10 public announcement of her appointment in the Cardinal Foley Campus Center on Hawk Hill.

Making history as the first woman to hold a position at a university is nothing new to McConnell, who pointed out that she also was the first woman full professor of business and first woman dean of the business school at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit institution in Kansas City, Missouri.

“It’s a mantle that I’ve had for all my life,” McConnell told The Hawk in an interview following the event. “My hope is that there’s many more in the future. What did Ruth Bader Ginsburg say? ‘She will be satisfied when there are nine?’ Right.”

McConnell joins a group of just nine women who have been appointed to lead Jesuit colleges and universities in the 233-year history of Jesuit higher education. Of those nine, five have been appointed within the last year, at Fordham University, Rockhurst University, Santa Clara University, Saint Joseph’s University and Spring Hill College.

The first woman president of a Jesuit higher education institution, Sister Maureen Fay, O.P., was appointed in 1990 and served as the president of University of Detroit Mercy until 2014, according to Deanna Howes Spiro, vice president of communications of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Ten years later, in 2014, Linda LeMura, Ph.D., was appointed president of Le Moyne College. 

Howes Spiro said the pool of candidates has expanded after most Jesuit schools changed their bylaws to allow women to serve as president. She did not have specific information about which schools still do not allow women presidents.

“All of the women who serve as presidents of our schools are incredibly capable, smart and strong leaders who are committed to the mission of Jesuit higher education and ensuring that our schools continue to form people for and with others for years to come,” Howes Spiro wrote in response to written questions from The Hawk.

McConnell, also the first non-Catholic president of St. Joe’s, said taking on this role means upholding the values of Jesuit education, education in which she has been in for 35 years, beginning with earning a doctorate degree in higher education administration at St. Louis University.

Jesuit education is “the combination of the depth of what we do for individuals personally and then the professional success,” McConnell said.

As a first-generation college student herself, McConnell said she is committed to serving underrepresented students on campus.

“I understand how difficult it is to be a first-generation student and not know a lot about how to navigate the environment,” McConnell said. “So, I have natural empathy, and I will not be satisfied until our outcomes of retention and satisfaction are the same for all members of our community. It’s not just inclusion, it’s belonging. It’s the outcomes.”

Peter Norberg, Ph.D., senior associate provost for academic and faculty support, said McConnell’s background as an educator and her knowledge of the university as a faculty member will be beneficial in this position.

“She understands the mission from the inside,” Norberg said. “I think that’s going to really help us keep our academic quality where we want it to be, even as we expand our programs.”

McConnell served as university provost for three years before being named as interim president after Reed’s departure. During this time, she guided the university through the covid-19 pandemic, the University of the Sciences merger and the announcement of an expected second merger with the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, experiences she said helped prepare her for her role as president.

“I really find a lot of satisfaction, both career satisfaction and personal satisfaction, by dealing with really complex problems,” McConnell said. “Running a university is one of the most complex things that you can do. I enjoy learning from those complicated challenges and moving the university forward.”

James Carter, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said he worked closely with McConnell during her time as provost and has seen what she is capable of.

“From the very first meeting, it was clear that she was a leader that people follow,” Carter said. “It’s a really exciting day for the university.”

Aisha D. Lockridge, Ph.D., associate professor of communications and media studies, said the announcement of McConnell becoming president is not only exciting but unexpected.

“She’s got a clear vision, and it’s just not something that I thought they would do,” Lockridge said. “I think we’re on the precipice of a new era.”

Students who attended the public announcement of McConnell’s presidency also expressed their excitement over the search board’s decision. Hana Haile ’24, said McConnell’s appointment is historic for the university.

“As a woman, to see myself represented in higher education and especially in a position of leadership like Dr. McConnell’s, it’s definitely something that I aspire towards,” Haile said.

Milton O’Brien ’25, secretary of academic affairs for the University’s Student Senate, was similarly confident in McConnell’s historic appointment. Like other student leaders, he worked with McConnell in her role as provost and interim president.

“She is really with and for the students,” O’Brien said. “Everytime I see her at an event, she is always where the students are, which I think is something that the students want.”

McConnell, who currently lives in Newtown Square, about 10 miles from the Hawk Hill campus, said she plans to move closer to the university in order to be even more visible.

“I’ll be trying to find a location very close to the university to be able to be more accessible, more integrated within the students, student life, athletics, visiting and really enjoying all the things that are here, not just on Hawk Hill, but also the University City campus,” McConnell said.

Kevin Gfeller, assistant director of public relations for Marketing and Communications, wrote in response to written questions from The Hawk that plans for an inauguration for McConnell are in the works.

“The university does plan to hold an inauguration for President McConnell,” Gfeller said. “The exact date, time and location of the inauguration has not yet been determined.”

Gfeller also wrote that the university will be conducting a national search to fill the provost position that McConnell left to serve as interim president. Brice Wachterhauser, Ph.D., is currently serving as interim provost.

Natalie Nevins ’24 contributed to this story.

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