Loyola's new leader
Jo Ann Rooney, JD, LLM, EdD, brings a wealth of experience and a deep passion for education to her role as the University’s 24th president
When Jo Ann Rooney, JD, LLM, EdD, was introduced as Loyola’s 24th president on May 23, it was not her first encounter with the Loyola community. As she revealed in her remarks that day, Dr. Rooney had just a few weeks earlier put on jeans and a sweatshirt for an “incognito” visit to campus, hoping to blend in as a lost graduate student or perhaps a visiting family member. As she spoke with students, parents, and campus security, Dr. Rooney was struck by how each person was able to articulate the unique character of the University. “It wasn’t something they read on a mission statement,” she says. “It was from the heart.”
That undercover visit helped Dr. Rooney confirm that there was indeed something special about Loyola—or more specifically—the people of Loyola. Each person she met had an openness and warmth that made her feel instantly welcome, and as she continues to meet people across the University, Dr. Rooney finds that everyone is eager to talk about Loyola’s mission and how that mission impacts their work at Loyola. She plans to continue those conversations as her presidency unfolds, with a focus on how the community’s shared passion can translate to opportunities for growth.
Just before officially beginning her tenure as the University’s 24th president on August 1, 2016, Dr. Rooney sat down with Loyola magazine to share a little bit about her own passions, from travel and sailing to higher education in the Jesuit tradition.
You’ve had careers in a variety of fields, but always come back to higher education. Why are you so passionate about it?
I can really say it comes from having a family that values education. I often point to the fact that my mom was a career educator. And while my dad was not, he absolutely supported the notion that education was transformative. While it was always a part of me, I didn’t realize until later on how passionate I was about it and wanted to find ways to make higher education a career.
How did you come to that realization?
I always enjoyed school and learning environments; I was energized by it. But really a big moment for me was when I had my first opportunity to teach. The first time I walked into a classroom I realized I had no idea how to put together a syllabus or a curriculum, so I picked up the phone to call my mom. She was an elementary education professional for almost 40 years and mentored many teachers, so of course I said, “Mom, help me out!” But despite that tentative beginning, I loved it, even though it took a little while to get involved with the students and not just be the person in the front of the room.
You have those moments where you are in a classroom and you start to see the proverbial light bulb go on for people. You can see their facial expressions and body language change. You see that spark and their intellectual curiosity begin to blossom. In those moments, it is so rewarding to know that you are really having an impact on people’s lives.
I was teaching in an adult accelerated program at Emmanuel College in Boston. The students were working full-time during the day, as was I, and you would hear them talk about why they were willing to juggle families and work to come back to school and get a degree, and what that would mean not only for them but for their families. Having that opportunity to help people make that difference was powerful and humbling, and I found I was enjoying my evening teaching role far more than my day job. By networking with my colleagues I was able to make the career change into higher ed and use my corporate experiences as well.
Later I had a phenomenal experience with the Department of Defense, but I also knew that was not a long-term career. I was called upon to serve our country and presented with an opportunity to do some really important work, but my intention was always to come back to higher ed. I admit to really missing higher education when I was away from it. Even in my role at the Department of Defense, part of my portfolio was DODEA, which was the Department’s educational activities. When I was on military bases I would always visit elementary, middle and high schools, academies and training facilities, or even the medical school if there was one nearby.
When you find yourself being drawn to something like that, you know that is your passion.
Can you tell us about your connection to Jesuit education and how that led you to Loyola?
I was first introduced to Jesuit education when I was teaching at Emmanuel College. They had a partnership with Regis University, our Jesuit school in Denver, which had developed an accelerated learning model. Part of me becoming an instructor in the accelerated program was learning not just how to teach adults from the pedagogy standpoint but how to integrate the idea of service beyond oneself into my teaching. Without even really understanding that was part of the Ignatian philosophy, it was embedded in me as I learned how to be a part of the adult accelerated program. The more I learned about it and the more time I spent with Regis University, the harder it was to ignore the Jesuit influence and what it meant for this program to be coming from the center of a Jesuit school.
I continued to work with many people at Regis through the years, including facilitating strategic planning on their campus. Through working in those roles, I spent a lot of time with the Jesuits. Then I had the opportunity to serve on their board of trustees. Father Mike Sheeran, who was president of Regis at the time, reached out to me and said, “We know you. You know us,” almost as a way of saying, “You may not realize this, but you very much understand Ignatian spirituality and what we’re doing here.”
He invited me to serve on the board of trustees, and I think that experience took my understanding and my internalization of Jesuit education to a whole new level. As a trustee, you really do need to understand that, because any of the decisions we made had to be focused around how to support the mission of Jesuit education and Ignatian spirituality.
What does the Jesuit education philosophy mean to you?
It comes in a number of different forms, and I was struck by it today walking around campus. I spoke to an individual who was working on faculty development. A conversation that I have had on the Regis campus is about how we prepare our faculty to help students start to integrate the mission and ideals of social justice and apply it in the world. That does not mean our faculty have had to come through Jesuit education. In fact, they are of many different faith, cultural, and educational backgrounds. But we need to offer something more than just technical learning. I found out that there is a very concerted effort here—not just for new faculty, but ongoing professional development—to help faculty integrate these conversations and these issues into the classroom.
As one example, almost every college has an ethics course. But how do you take that to the next level and talk to students about practically applying those ethical decision-making challenges to social justice issues or challenges in their own life? How do they model to their colleagues and clients that those ethics must be very much at the heart of what they do?
That is just an example of what our faculty are being challenged to do. On the other hand, our students come here because they want an education that doesn’t just teach them technical skills, which, in many cases, are going to be out of date in a very short time given the speed of transformation in many fields. That is really where I think the difference is in Jesuit education and, frankly, our liberal arts core curriculum. Our students have the ability to see the world through a different lens, to understand that it is about serving others. There needs to be that social justice component in what our students learn, which will long outlast the technical knowledge they receive.
As Loyola’s first lay president, how do you plan to maintain the University’s Jesuit mission and identity?
I have already had a number of conversations about this with the Jesuit community, especially Father Jim Prehn, who is the rector, and Father Brian Paulson, who is the provincial. Those conversations started early on, even as part of the search process, about how important it would be to closely work with the Jesuit community to continue to make sure that the mission and identity is front and center.
When the campus community has always had a Jesuit president, I think people may have almost taken for granted that the University is following the Jesuit mission. Now we are having conversations around making sure we are very intentional in not only our programming but in engaging with the Jesuit community. Father Jim and I have had conversations about how to make sure that the great group of Jesuits and scholastics here can participate and contribute to the mission and campus life. I think it is critical that we have these conversations about how to be very thoughtful in making that connection even stronger and how we can continue to keep that focus on mission and Jesuit identity.
I have also had conversations with one or two of the other Jesuit schools to see how they have continued to develop and articulate their mission when they have had a lay president come on board. For instance, Gonzaga University did a wonderful written piece on their mission that brought the campus and discussions together, and they really took the time to develop that position. We will likely be doing more of that here as well.
What do you like to do in your free time?
If I am not at work, most likely you’ll find me on the water. I am an avid sailor and have been for many, many years. I’ve sailed on everything from small boats with a single sail to larger sloops and schooners to crewing on the Australian tall ship Endeavour. I do not mind climbing to high places and out on yardarms setting sails. For me, sailing and being out on the water experiencing the elements is where I can completely let everything else go.
I also enjoy two kinds of rowing. First, I am a kayaker. For me a great day can be taking my kayak out, seeing all the marine life, and just paddling and enjoying that peace and tranquility. The other rowing I like to do is probably the complete opposite, which is sculling. There it is primarily about going fast, but again it is very much about a physical connection with water.
I’m also a big snorkeler and love to dive. I don’t scuba anymore, but I love to snorkel whenever I get the opportunity and have experienced many wonderful diving sites.
Along with that, I also love travel. I have had the benefit of going to many exciting, diverse places around the world to experience different countries and cultures. One of my favorites is Australia. I’ve been there a couple of times traveling primarily up and down the east coast. I dove in the Great Barrier Reef and it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I have a great underwater picture showing a sea turtle that was coming up and giving me this very curious look, and I managed to snap a picture at that moment. It was just wonderful.
What are your other top destinations?
If I have to pick a city other than Sydney it would be London. I love England and the English countryside. I’ve also spent some time in Ireland enjoying the country and trying to figure out where some of my family roots have come from.
I’ve traveled throughout Europe, to the South Pacific, to South America, to Australia and New Zealand, and to the Caribbean. Italy would probably be another favorite destination along with the Scandinavian countries, which have an aura all their own. There are so many places that I love.
Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d like to visit?
Yes, China. That one has been on my list since I was in either middle school or freshman year of high school. I had an English literature teacher who went on an exchange program at the point when they were first starting to allow educators from the U.S. to go to China, and she came back to tell us about it. I have wanted to go to China for many years and just have not quite been able to work it out.
Can you talk about your role at the Department of Defense?
The title of my role was personnel and readiness, and my job was really about our people. And it wasn’t just uniformed military; it also included the hundreds of thousands of civilians supporting our troops along with a lot of work with military families to make deployments and transitions easier for them. For example, if a military spouse was a nurse in Illinois or a teacher in Washington, for instance, and then was moving to Arizona or Kentucky, how could we help that person transition successfully and navigate the licensure requirements and relocation challenges?
Another part of the role was looking at medical care. After the recent series of wars, we were faced with having to not only be at the forefront of research and innovation in our treatment but also to figure out the best way to support our injured men and women so they could have rich, full lives. Our medical teams in the field got very adept at being able to save people from traumatic injuries, but once they came home, we had to figure out how to advance those treatments and create the best quality of life for those veterans along with supporting their families. This was also during a time when the military was downsizing, and we had to look at what was next for people in their transitions in terms of how to prepare them for jobs or link them with higher education opportunities.
The readiness aspect of my job was about whether our military have the tools—but more so the training and the support—to be able to do what our country needs them to do. The big question was always, “ready for what?” I believe when many people think military, they think war. What they do not realize is that the bulk of what our military does is humanitarian assistance. It is building infrastructure, supporting cultures, or coming in to help after a disaster. The challenge we faced was how do you ensure that they are ready to do whatever is required of them, whether they are serving in war zones or providing humanitarian aid? Again, my job covered some aspect of everything to do with the people.
It sounds like there are many similarities between the work you did there and the responsibilities you would have as a university president.
Very much so. People often ask me, “How did you get to the DoD?” I say it was some fortuitous meetings with several people that knew of my background in higher ed. Robert Gates was Secretary of Defense at the time, and most people do not recall that he had served as the president of Texas A&M University. I had been a university president and so had he, so he understood that role. When he and the President were looking to bring in leadership that understood organizational change and how to run large, complex organizations, the connection to higher ed was apparent.
Much of what I learned in an organization as huge as DoD—how to connect with people and events globally—really makes the transition to Loyola easier. I have had a leadership role in this large, complex, diverse, extensive worldwide organization. The 30,000 people in my division were located around the world, and I had direct budget responsibility for more than $73 billion and additional oversight for billions more.
What was your work life like at the DoD?
The Department of Defense is an institution that very tightly follows protocol. It was unusual for people to just drop in to my office, since that was not considered proper protocol and since my schedule was intense. But my team started to realize that, as it got later in the day, my door was open for a reason and they could just stop in.
One day I had a colleague come in to talk about a very thorny issue with health care. It was a long day and after more discussion we realized that we had done as much as we could with the issue and needed additional work to solve it. The solution was not going to happen that day. Soon, realizing that, we just started trading travel stories. We both had a great passion for travel and we sat there exchanging experiences.
All of a sudden we started to laugh, really laugh, and I got a knock on the door from my military assistant asking, “Ma’am, just checking if everything’s alright,” because we were making more noise than we realized with our laughter. Next thing I know more people came in and all of us started exchanging stories and having a wonderful relaxed interaction after a really tough day.
Sometimes you need to know when to say, “OK, we have a serious issue, and we will find a resolution, but what can we do right now? Let’s make sure we can all have some balance and perspective, get some grounding, and we will tackle that one tomorrow.”
Do you maintain any connections to the DoD?
Yes, in addition to having some very close friendships with people still in DoD, I had the opportunity recently to speak to ROTC cadets at Fort Knox. That was arranged with the help of Lt. Col. Matthew Yandura (U.S. Army), chair of Loyola’s Military Science program. In fact, the person who introduced me to the cadet corps is one of our students here. I talked to them about leadership and the challenges they, as new officers, would likely face and hopefully gave them some tools or ideas that they could apply. As I stated earlier, often it is not about war, but it is about work on the humanitarian side and how these young officers can lead effectively in all circumstances.
What do you see as the role of Loyola’s alumni?
Alumni are a critical university constituency. As part of the Jesuit network, the education that Loyola has continued to provide and its role in this community are extremely strong. But the people that can speak to that the best are oftentimes the alums. They can look back at their career path and how they got there and say, “Now I understand the influence that the Jesuit education had on me.” They’re often the best spokespeople for how transformative this education can really be.
I believe if we do not engage with our alums and ask them, frankly, to continue to help us, we are shortchanging ourselves as an institution. Whether they are donors that want to financially support educational opportunities or special projects, or whether they can be mentors to potential incoming students, I think there are a lot of opportunities to be able to engage with our alums. I know that we have a broad network of alums, so there have to be a number of different opportunities where we can strengthen those ties.
How do you hope to engage with our Loyola alumni going forward?
There has not been a single alum I have met either here in Chicagoland or outside the region who does not want to find a way to give back and help the institution. We have to look for ways to reach out and say, “You’ve had a wonderful education, now we need you to help us make the connection with future generations, and here are some ways we’d like you to help us.”
It may be as simple as alumni having opportunities to meet with potential students or their families. I think we take for granted that we are reaching out to our students, but often we have to engage their whole family in the decision process of where they go to school. Again, I think we’ve got some wonderful alums who can speak from the heart about what Loyola meant to them.
We must continue to find ways to engage more and more of our alums. The strongest schools, those that continue to grow and have greater influence beyond their campuses, almost universally have very engaged alums. There is a great opportunity for us to enhance that engagement.
Read more about Dr. Rooney's background, watch the video of her introduction as Loyola's 24th president, or view more photos from her arrival on campus