President Donahue's Inaugural Address

Thank you, Leo, for your kind introduction and thank you all for being here today. I feel deeply honored and blessed to be standing before you as the new President of Saint Mary's College of California.

There are truly many thank you's that are appropriate for this occasion, but I want to begin by thanking my family – my wife Jane, our boys Luke and Nick, my brother Hugh and my sister Elinor – not just for the support you have given me to make this day possible, but most especially for all you have given me over the course of my life. Whatever I have learned about love in my life (the most cherished treasure of all), I have learned from each of you. You have given this to me in great abundance, and for that I am deeply thankful.

Today I stand on the shoulders of many distinguished leaders of Saint Mary's College of California. These are the Christian Brothers who have worked with their fullest passion to make Saint Mary’s the outstanding institution of learning it is. I particularly want to recognize past presidents Brother Ronald Gallagher and Brother Mel Anderson who are with us today who have led SMC with such distinction. 

I can promise you here and now my own deep commitment to Saint Mary’s most illustrious future – and to giving my full heart and energy every day to bring it about. As the first non-Christian Brother to be President here at SMC I take the honor and responsibility of this with great seriousness, and I am committed to carry on and enhance the legacy of what the Brothers have done to make SMC a very special educational community.

It is the privilege of my life to be with you now at Saint Mary’s – because something extraordinary is happening here.  Something – extraordinarily – good. Because what this college offers, on this beautiful campus and beyond, is an educational experience, a human enterprise, that may be unique. It has brought together people of high purpose, vigorous mind, and generous social conscience in a way that has elevated life for thousands of students over the years. To be exact, 150 years – and we're just getting started. 

Students come to Saint Mary's with high expectations – only to have them raised even higher when they get here. They bring dreams of a fuller, bigger life – and here they find the learning and the people to help them make it happen.  That's possible in large part because Saint Mary's has attracted an eminent faculty of the highest quality. They devote themselves to sparking the imagination and guiding the performance of every student they teach. And the results show.

Then students graduate to become alumni who are one of the college's finest assets. Our alumni continue their relationship with Saint Mary's because, well, like the Hotel California, you can check out any time but you can never leave. What you take away remains with you all your life. And we are grateful that our graduates honor us by sharing their experiences with the College today.  

I believe in this extraordinary place and that's why I feel so privileged to be here. 

Three things have become apparent to me in my early days here at SMC.


Community is at the core of what makes Saint Mary's a truly distinctive institution. The deep connections that form among students, faculty, Brothers and staff support a student's development both as a scholar and as a citizen of the world. I hear this over and over again from alumni.


The talent and commitment exhibited by individuals from all areas of the College is extraordinary. Our faculty are not only committed scholars and researchers, they are also dedicated and highly skilled teachers. Our students are of a very high caliber – and their level of achievement is increasing with each new entering class. Both faculty and students are also engaged in bringing their knowledge to the betterment of their communities. Our dedicated staff contribute as well to the creation of this remarkable institution.


I have never encountered an institution so very clear about its mission and identity. I'm convinced this clarity is what continues to attract the very best talent in our faculty, staff and students.

SMC is a great story – and we need to tell that story more widely, more boldly.   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.  And we are poised to do that.

What is it we are poised to do? Nothing monumental - we’re just looking to change the world. Even a little. 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.

Our method, you could say, is "supportively Socratic." What I mean is, we work with questions. Big questions. We educate and engage our students to ask the most fundamental of human questions:  "Who am I? Who am I meant to be? What am I called to do?" What our students find is that the answers may be elusive and changing. But they will keep asking the questions, because that spirit of inquiry, of always seeking, is an important part of what students learn at Saint Mary's.

Of course those questions are at the root of any quality education. But it may be that we address them at Saint Mary's with a resonance, and a solidity that takes hold and shows up in the world in very tangible ways.

And we're gratified that we are not the only ones who think so. In 2013, Saint Mary's College was invited to join and be identified as one of only 40 liberal arts colleges in the nation with the distinction of "Colleges that Change Lives." At your seat, you have been given a reprint of the chapter describing SMC. It is of some note that we are the only California college, the only Catholic college, and the only college with Division I Athletics among the 40. We offer something over and above the curriculum and the diploma.  

Change lives? Good. That's exactly what we intend to do. Because then we can begin to have an impact on our times. As one of the students interviewed for the "Colleges That Change Lives" report said, "Why would you get a college education if you weren't hoping to do something good in the world?" We learn so much from our students.

Certainly, the identity question "Who am I?" has been an organizing question for me throughout my life, both personal and professional. I come from a Jesuit education, and the Brothers have already graciously forgiven me for this. I would like to recall just a brief snippet of that experience with you now and go back to my senior year in high school. I share it here because it addresses the "Who Am I" question that grounds a Lasallian education at Saint Mary's.

One day in a casual conversation, a Jesuit teacher of mine asked me what was I planning to do with my life. I launched into a description of what I saw immediately ahead. College, maybe a political science major, then maybe law school, then law practice, and then marriage and family. My teacher listened to this litany and asked me again, "What are you planning to do with your life? I repeated my babble – Holy Cross, law school, and so on. He said, "No. What I am really asking you is what kind of person do you desire to be? What values do you believe in and want to live your life by? What commitments do you think you are being called to make? Who is God in your life?"

 I got it finally. He was asking what will guide my choices in this life. What is the shape of my character/my identity?

Every thoughtful person addresses the big questions. And so must every serious institution. At Saint Mary's we need to know "Who are we?" because knowing that empowers us to make choices that are constructive, mature, developed, and even courageous.

I believe we have a clear sense of the cornerstones of the college's identity. And they are three:

  1. The Liberal Arts Tradition—Being committed to shaping our curriculum and programs to ask the fundamental questions of human existence and to situate our knowledge in light of the best thinking and writing that informs our past, present and future. 
  2. Our Catholic Identity—the realization that the self-understanding of who we are and what we do is grounded and informed by what it means to be Catholic, being part of a tradition and a Church with deep and profound beliefs,   
  3. Our Founding Lasallian Heritage—Being grounded and continually informed by the core values of Saint John Baptist De La Salle—providing a quality education for each of our students, a concern for the poor and social justice, and building an inclusive/diverse community where all are respected and welcomed.

This identity will guide Saint Mary's now as we navigate our future. How well we do that depends on how clearly we see the possibilities and how determinedly we pursue them.

I never thought I'd be invoking Walt Disney in my remarks at an occasion like this, but it fits. And this is after all, California. Walt Disney died in 1966, before Disney World in Florida could be completed. But he’d worked on it for years, mapped it, planned it, and supervised its construction up to the day he died. On the opening day of Disney World in 1971, someone commented to Mike Vance, former creative director at Disney Productions, "Isn't it too bad Walt Disney didn’t live to see this." Vance replied. "He did see it. That’s why it's here."

We're not building a magic kingdom here at Saint Mary's, but we are constructing a positive way of living in the world. And if we do it with fire and creativity and joy, we can make something extraordinary happen. That's why we are here. We need to see and plan for an existence beyond Saint Mary's.

We start by knowing what we're searching for. As a people working together at Saint Mary's, we are searching for three things that reflect our three core traditions

  • We are searching for Knowledge and Truth.
  • We are searching for God.
  • We are searching for the Good.

If that sounds like an ambitious agenda, you’re right; it is. And yet, using those three compass points, it breaks into simpler, entirely doable and practical strategies and actions.

We aspire to excellence, not defined necessarily (and certainly not exclusively) by the measures that are offered by the norms of higher education – SAT scores and GPA's of applicants, GMAT and CBEST scores of graduates, volume rather than content of faculty research, graduate school placements of our graduates. We aspire to "Distinctive Excellence," excellence that is unique to our mission, our gifts, our strengths, our values and beliefs, our hopes and aspirations.

I'd like to briefly share some thoughts about our direction in each of those areas of search.

First, the Search for Knowledge and Truth.

At Saint Mary's we are an academic community at our center. Ideas are the currency of our work. Our teaching, scholarship, and research are the focal point of our common life. Our purpose is to examine ideas that explain our past, restate our present and allow us to explore our future. We seek knowledge. In the search for knowledge, we also seek the truth. Our intellectual core rests on a solid foundation created in 1941 with the implementation of the Collegiate Seminar/Great Books program that develops critical thinking, communication skills, shared inquiry, and an introduction to a world of ideas. Ideas are stated then examined, expressed and constantly assessed. Ideas are both Theoretical and Practical. They are tested by community experience, history, and canons of our academic disciplines.

Our challenge is to align the great ideas and great texts with the practical demands of the realities of the times, in the world, in the lives of our students. To be practical means that we must connect our work with what the world needs, and what our students need to engage in the world they are in. It means that we give our students both the skills they acquire here, as well as the pathways to a career and a life of fulfilling employment. We assess our success by how well we have educated our graduates.

Second, We are searching for God. We search for that presence always.

This is the essence of our Catholic identity. I believe Catholic higher education at its core is a spiritual practice.

There are some who claim that thinking critically and believing deeply are somehow opposite endeavors. I believe this is false.  It only means that the way we think and study is one that incorporates rich and distinctive ways of construing a problem, a challenge, a plan, an idea, an encounter. Our vision at Saint Mary's is fiercely academic and yet based profoundly on the issues and ideas that arise from our faith tradition. 

When we say, as the tradition of the Brothers does, that "We are in the Holy Presence of God," this must mean something. How do we remain grounded in the belief that there is divine presence in each of us and at the same time be realistic and practical in educating young minds for a 21st century world?

Saint Mary's is here to serve the Church, but it is not a Church. It is often said that a Catholic college is the place where the Church does its thinking. A wonderful example of that here at Saint Mary’s is the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute. The Institute fosters the idea that Catholic colleges and universities are where the Church is able to engage multiple perspectives. What the Cummins Institute has been doing successfully is promoting the dialogue between faith and reason across the campus as a whole.

There are many dimensions to Catholic Identity. I resist the inclination of some to reduce it to one variable or litmus test. I firmly believe that the Catholic Intellectual Tradition has many strands. It is:

  • A learning tradition – where no discipline is irrelevant to it. All points of view are engaged.
  • A moral tradition – continually adding insights to its body of social thought and our search for the good.
  • An aesthetic tradition that seeks to convey the beauty of the realm of the divine.

It is a tradition of hospitality – unparalleled in its ability to be a home for all faiths. To be Catholic means that all faiths are welcome here at SMC – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Protestants. We come to know and deepen our own beliefs through dialogue and engagement with others who believe differently. This is what my years of experience in interreligious theological education have taught me.

Pope Francis is presenting a breathtaking vision of what the Church can be. He is a model of leadership for me – vision, conviction, pastoral empathy/compassion, inclusion, outreach to those in need. Always with joy and delight.

Our third area of search is our Search for the Good.

The importance of serving – serving the great world that begins outside our doors – may be our most salient distinction. Always we are intelligently passionate doers. We seek to create the common good in all we do. The heart of the Lasallian tradition is grounded in the belief that our students "Enter to learn. Leave to serve." Education for justice is the very fabric of who we are and what we do.

The Search for the Good shows up in numerous social outreach programs at Saint Mary's; for example, CILSA (the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action) whose focus is to integrate social justice in the academic experience and provide student service opportunities for engagement and giving to those in need.

Looking ahead as a college, we know we are bound for someplace good. A place in the world where we can offer our distinctive wisdom, spirit and service – because that's where we have our sights set. That's why we're here. To create it. And to stay with the journey.

Any journey worth the trip takes courage – and it takes resources. We seek those too – the means to realize what we came here to do. After all, we need to be practical people. 

Our strategic choices will be made in light not only of what we aspire to do, but what we have the means to do. 

  • Our future depends on the resources available to do this.
  • It requires gathering the fundraising revenue needed to carry on and expand what we can bring to our students. I will work tirelessly to partner with everyone to create those resources.

We have challenges ahead. I will lead us to face these challenges:

  • The challenge of technology. We have been recognized for the effectiveness of our hybrid online and in-person approach for working adults. How can we bring this expertise to bear for our undergraduates? How do we evolve the education we provide to be both highly interactive and technologically advanced (High Touch and High Tech)?
  • The challenge of affordability and enrollment – To achieve access and success for our students, we must provide the Financial Aid necessary for them to afford an SMC education. SMC is an investment that must yield returns. We do this, but I believe we need to and can do this better.     
  • The challenge of aligning the relevance of the Liberal Arts for the practicalities of job creation for our students and graduates. I am not proposing the commercialization of SMC, nor the crass vocationalization of our fundamental education.  It is rather giving our students what they deserve and need so that they will flourish. 

Saint Mary's College is truly a distinctive institution of learning:

We have a venerable past. 

We have all the ingredients for greatness.

We will tell our story more boldly and extensively

We will invest in our most appropriate and creative opportunities

We will begin the planning process to identify strategic priorities. Some are already in process, such as the goal of enhanced technology and a much needed new Library and Learning Commons. We need to actively seek partners among our alumni and friends to make these important initiatives a reality.

Now, let's proceed on to our future. 

All we need is all of us moving forward together. Let's make a commitment here to travel boldly. With eyes wide open and minds receptive.  In this way we honor our rich traditions and still realize they are never static. Your insights, your ideas, your participation, whether student, faculty, Brother, alumni, friend, community ….. you are an essential part of the "we" that is Saint Mary’s College. Each person who believes in what we do here will be part of what we become here. 

I end here with three requests. One, that you accept my deep gratitude for the privilege of being part of your future at Saint Mary's. Two, I ask for all of us the grace of enlightened days in our work. And three, I invite you to enjoy this journey with us as we see what we can make happen next.

May we do it well. May we do it together. And may we do it joyfully.

Thank you for being here. God bless each of you. God bless Saint Mary’s College. Go Gaels!