He promises to put new sheen on a “hidden gem” and “change the world” one student at a time
With the chapel and its three crosses glistening in the clear, autumn sun, Saint Mary’s College inaugurated James A. Donahue as its 29th president on October 11, 2013.
The new president, who previously led the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, told a gathering of about 600 people on the Chapel Lawn, “We're seen as a ‘hidden gem.’ Now we aim to become a highly visible ‘polished gem.’ One that illuminates the landscape of higher education.”
His plans, he said, are “nothing monumental—we’re just looking to change the world. ... We'll do that one student at a time. And together we'll bring to our needy world people who are educated and disposed to contribute. As working participants of society, but also as citizens of conscience and character.”
His son, Nicholas, delivered the invocation, followed by an angelic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by recent graduate Angelica Whaley. And then Robert Hass, a 1963 graduate of Saint Mary’s and former Poet Laureate of the United States, read a poem composed for the occasion, recalling the days when he came to “a singing school for the freeing of the mind.” It concluded:
“James Donahue has said that a good person
Can tell her story to herself, leaving nothing out,
That a story, and a clear eye,
Are at the core of a spiritual, or a moral, life.
This story, October 11, year of Our Lord 2013,
Is new beginnings. Of an old story you may have heard:
The young, and their teachers, and a fairly small table,
And their own stories to tell before they’re through.
Thank you for signing on, and welcome, James Donahue.”
The ceremony did indeed mark both the beginning of an era and the end of an era, since Donahue is the first Saint Mary’s president who is not a member of a religious order in the 150-year history of the College. In ancient times, people looked for portents at times like this, and sure enough, just as Donahue took the podium, a gauzy half-moon rose slowly behind the Chapel tower and took its place in the late afternoon sky.
Donahue, who has a long history of leadership at Catholic and religious institutions, including Georgetown University, said “I believe Catholic higher education at its core is a spiritual practice” and defined the College as “a home for all faiths.” He promised to advance the Catholic, liberal arts and Lasallian traditions that have defined Saint Mary’s through the years and assured his listeners that he is “committed to carry on and enhance the legacy of what the Brothers have done to make SMC a very special educational community.”
The new president also outlined some challenges ahead, including harnessing technology, ensuring that an SMC education remains affordable, and aligning the College’s commitment to teaching the “great ideas and great texts” with the “practical demands” of the times.
He said he would honor the Lasallian tradition exemplified in the College’s motto—“Enter to Learn. Leave to Serve”—and added that “education for justice is the very fabric of who we are and what we do.”
Brother Michael Meister welcomed the new president on behalf of the Brothers and reminded him that “yours is a ministry wherein you must touch hearts” and “see the face of God in all our students.”
Before Donahue’s address, Brother Donald Johanson, the leader of the Christian Brothers’ San Francisco District, and Meghan Leader, chair of the Board of Trustees, delivered the “charge to the President.” Then Monsignor Robert Sheeran, president emeritus of Seton Hall University, blessed the presidential medallion, and the 28th president of Saint Mary’s, Brother Ronald Gallagher, draped the medallion over Donahue’s broad shoulders, following it up with a hearty hug.
Rev. Leo O’Donovan, president emeritus of Georgetown University, introduced President Donahue to the assembled community, beginning with “If you want to be mayor of San Francisco, a member of Congress, a United States senator, a United States district judge, or a United States ambassador, come to Saint Mary’s; its graduates have done that” and continuing with a long list of accomplishments of SMC alumni.
After representatives of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths offered benedictions, community members delivered gifts to the new president. Keith Ogawa, chair of the Academic Senate, offered a gift of books; Jane Joyce, chair of the Staff Council, offered a crucifix blessed by Pope Francis; and Leslie Anne Salvador, president of the Associated Students, gave the new president the gift of students’ time and effort during “Stop Hunger Now,” a volunteer project that prepared over 2,000 meals for the needy in less than two hours.
Throughout the ceremony, the talents of Saint Mary’s students filled the air, courtesy of the Saint Mary’s Jazz Band and the Saint Mary’s Chamber Singers, which offered the inaugural hymn, a rousing spiritual called “Guide My Feet,” and the closing hymn, “Hail, Saint Mary’s, Hail!”
Office of College Communications
Photos by Stephan Babuljak