One of American higher education’s great voices has been stilled. Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly, OSU, an Ursuline sister who was president of the College of New Rochelle in New York for more than 25 years, died late last week. While most members of the Trinity community never met Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly, we owe her a great debt of gratitude for both inspiration and interventions that made it possible for Trinity to flourish today.
In the early 1970s, a time when many historic Catholic women’s colleges were suffering severe enrollment declines because of coeducation at the formerly-male universities, Sr. Dorothy Ann embarked on a bold new direction for the College of New Rochelle (CNR). Like Trinity and the nearly 200 other Catholic women’s colleges that once crowded cities on the east coast in particular, CNR made it possible for the daughters of Catholic families in the New York region to receive an outstanding college education. But when Fordham and Holy Cross and Georgetown and Boston College and the other great Catholic men’s colleges opened their doors to women in the late 1960’s, the Catholic women’s colleges were devastated. Even as enrollments began to decline precipitously at these women’s colleges, we suffered even more serious economic losses as the religious women who once were the main source of “free” labor chose to leave religious life or pursue other ministries in the wake of Vatican II. With much smaller student bodies and lay faculty who expected to be paid competitive wages, many of these historic Catholic women’s colleges closed or merged with their local male counterparts. From the high of nearly 200 in 1960, just 16 such institutions remain today, including CNR and Trinity.
CNR was one of the first women’s colleges to realize that a paradigm shift was essential if there was to be any hope of a future for the school. In the early 1970’s, Sr. Dorothy Ann founded the CNR School of New Resources to educate adult students on campuses throughout the New York region. This model became the inspiration for Trinity’s Weekend College in 1985 (now the School of Professional Studies at Trinity).
Beyond creating a model that has been of tremendous benefit to Trinity and others among the remaining Catholic women’s colleges, Sr. Dorothy Ann also gave direct assistance to Trinity at a time of great need. In the late 1980’s, Trinity was struggling mightily with enrollments and finances, and wondering what the future might hold. Sr. Dorothy Ann chaired a Middle States visiting team that met with the Board of Trustees of Trinity in 1987. I was a young member of the board at that time, and as president of the Trinity Alumnae Association, I was deeply concerned about finding a way to make Trinity healthier. I can’t go into all the details since the meeting was and remains confidential, but here’s what I can say: Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly galvanized us to take action. The force of her conviction about the importance of Trinity to our city and nation was a clarion call for me and the other trustees who were present at that meeting. She was not going to let us give up so easily; even though she came from a different religious order and ran a college that once was a competitor, at that moment she was our fearless leader. Her call to action was a turning point in Trinity’s history; we left that meeting convinced that we could achieve the same kind of paradigm shift at Trinity that she had achieved at New Rochelle.
Later on, when I became Trinity’s president, Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly extended her considerable wisdom and hard-nosed practical advice to me on numerous occasions. I also had the great privilege of watching her in action on many fronts — lobbying Congress for federal student aid, taking the lead in working with bishops on the Vatican rules for Catholic Higher Education known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and perhaps most important, standing up as a champion for Catholic Women’s Colleges in an era when our numbers were sagging and most people outside of our genre knew little about us.
Sr. Dorothy Ann won many awards and was broadly recognized as being one of the late 20th Century’s heroic leaders of higher education and Catholic education. Upon her retirement as president, she did not stop working — true to form, she continued to work for Ursuline ministries, and even as her great heart gave way last Thursday at age 80 she was serving as the Provincial Leader for the Ursuline Congregation on the East Coast.
Sr. Dorothy’ s other great gift to Trinity and to Catholic Women’s Colleges was her careful preparation of her protege, Dr. Stephen Sweeny, who became her successor at New Rochelle. Dr. Sweeny has walked in her footsteps with great fidelity and grace, providing strong leadership for CNR and all of our institutions. And, two decades after Sr. Dorothy’s Middle States visit in 1987, Dr. Sweeny also took up the Middle States chair for Trinity and led the 2006 visiting team that provided a great affirmation of our fidelity to mission even as we engaged our own paradigm shift here.
I will miss Sr. Dorothy Ann Kelly, but will remember her wisdom and grace, wonderful presence, strength of will and kind humor. And, I will give special thanks this week for all that she did to ensure Trinity’s life today!
Read my remarks at the Centennial of the College of New Rochelle