Jim Donahue's office was an island of peace. “Can I get you some water?” he asked, pointing me in the meantime to the view of San Francisco Bay from the windows of his office at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley.
Donahue had served as president and professor of theological ethics for 13 years at GTU, a large ecumenical consortium of seminaries and graduate schools offering graduate programs in theology and religious studies. He would become the 29th president of Saint Mary’s College on July 1.
When Donahue returned with a tall glass of cold water, we settled into comfortable chairs in his book-lined office to talk about “just who this guy is, this non-Brother coming in to lead Saint Mary’s,” as he said.
To really understand Jim Donahue, it’s important to know why he chose theology and ethics as an academic discipline.
“I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick,” he said. “Fascinated by what they believe and why, the organizing core values that motivate them, and what concrete difference it makes in their lives?’
That’s where ethics come into the picture. “It’s one thing to believe something,” he continued. “But what does it lead you to do?”
This interest in beliefs and choices has been a natural part of who he is for as long as he can remember, said Donahue, whose Catholic faith is core to his identity. He is particularly interested in the motivating power of religious belief.
Donahue also describes himself as a “natural-born teacher.” He was named Teacher of the Year at Georgetown University, where he taught theology and ethics for 15 years. It’s an honor he claims as one of the proudest moments of his career.
Of course, teachers have played a powerful role in his own life, Donahue added. “People who took a personal interest in who I was and always asked me challenging questions.”
He remembers the high school teacher, a Jesuit priest, who asked him who he wanted to be. “Of course, what I heard was what do you want to do,” Donahue said. “So, I answered with something about going to college and, I think, becoming a lawyer.”
The teacher listened patiently and asked again, getting the same answer.
“Then, finally, I got it,” Donahue said, smiling. “My mentors have always been people who asked that question in a variety of ways—what kind of person do you want to be.”
He also credits his mother, “a reserved New England woman with great resolve and great will,” for challenging him to think, to feel and to always do his best. Donahue’s father died when he was six years old, leaving his mother to support and raise three children, sending them all—Donahue, his brother and sister—to college and graduate school. “She was a no-nonsense person,” he said, “but incredibly loving, challenging and affirming.”
Not surprisingly, Donahue confesses to a distinct streak of pragmatism in his own character. “I’ve always had one foot in the world of ideas and one in the world of practicality,” he said. His doctoral study focused on ethics and organizations, which explains why he eventually found himself in educational administration, serving for 20 years in such roles, first as dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Georgetown before becoming the president at GTU.
“Organizations are important vehicles for how we live in this world. I am particularly interested in the way they allow for the flourishing of a common viewpoint as well as differing ideas in order to achieve specific ends.”
Every institution has its own particular identity, he added. “It’s important to understand what makes an institution distinctive and special, and how it should move forward and adapt to a changing world without losing that identity.”
This point may have particular resonance for the Saint Mary’s community, he suggested, acknowledging possible concerns about a non-Brother—and a scholar educated in the Jesuit tradition—taking the helm of a Lasallian college.
“I am a Gael,” Donahue said. “My top priority will be to see that the Catholic and Lasallian mission at Saint Mary’s flourishes.” Key to that success will be the role the Brothers will continue to play in teaching, conversation and leadership, he stressed. “I will do everything I can to make sure that the Lasallian tradition is enhanced, enlarged and continues to be the core of everything we do.”
“I am a Gael. My top priority will be to see that the Catholic and Lasallian mission at Saint Mary’s flourishes... and continues to be the core of everything we do.”
Donahue is no stranger to the power of the Lasallian tradition to inspire and transform lives. He came to deeply appreciate Lasallian education when his son Nick attended Saint Mary’s College High School in North Berkeley.
“What really resonated with me was the way they brought together a constellation of important things—a solid academic environment with a student-centered focus; religious, spiritual, moral and ethical formation; and a superb job of asking all those critical questions.”
Donahue particularly cites his son’s three immersion experiences—on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, where the Christian Brothers have a mission; in Tijuana working with border crossers; and in the barrios in Venezuela. “These were incredibly formative experiences for him.”
In fact, immersion in other cultures, understanding different ways of believing and living, are central to any truly global education, something Saint Mary’s College does particularly well, Donahue said.
“Our challenge is to incorporate multiple perspectives while also preserving our own culture and beliefs. I believe that through understanding others, we don’t forsake our own values and tradition but expand our views and better understand ourselves in the process. That’s what being human is all about,” he said.
The effect of such exposure and immersion can be utterly life changing, as we see at Saint Mary’s, he said, and as it was for his son Nick, who went on to major in sociology at Georgetown and is now a social worker in Washington, D.C., working with homeless veterans’ families.
“We are very close,” Donahue said of his family, noting that he and Jane Purinton, his wife of nearly 30 years, consider California home, but also think of themselves as bicoastal, with both sons living in Washington, D.C. Nick lives a mile from his older brother Luke, an attorney, and his wife Katherine, who are expecting a baby—the first grandchild in the family. “They’re great kids,” Donahue said, beaming. “I have no objectivity when it comes to my children. I’m just crazy about them.”
Donahue said he would take a little time away from campus in July to meet his new grandchild before continuing his immersion in the Saint Mary’s community, getting to know its people and how the College has come to be the extraordinary institution that it is. One thing he sees very clearly is the deep sense of mission at Saint Mary’s. “The mission is very powerfully embraced by everyone in the community—Brothers, faculty, students, staff and alumni. It’s not just talk, but a core power that permeates everything. I saw that very clearly and wanted to be part of it.”
As for his plans for the future: “It’s always dangerous to come in with a full and fixed agenda,” he said. “My first task at Saint Mary’s, of course, will be to learn how to tell the story of this incredibly substantive academic institution. To do that, I need to listen and learn from the people here—the Brothers, faculty, staff, students and alumni. Together we will face challenges that confront all of higher education today.”
With that, Donahue saw me out, making sure that I knew my way and had everything I needed. With a smile and a wave, he said, “See you soon.”