After 27 years, Dominican University president Carroll giving up dream job

  • Donna Carroll is retiring as president of Dominican University.

    Donna Carroll is retiring as president of Dominican University.

Updated 12/11/2020 11:14 AM

It's a scary thought, voluntarily giving up the job you've loved for 27 years, but Dominican University president Donna Carroll decided the time was right.

"For me I'm terrified," Carroll said, "but I think one of the things about long-term leadership is you can't not make the right decision because it's scary, and so I think it's the right time. COVID in a strange sort of way is a transitional space ... many of the normal practices of leadership, the public practice, is suspended."


But while in-person classes and public lectures and award ceremonies might be on hold, the university continues to move forward.

When her successor is chosen, or shortly after, Carroll will leave an institution that has grown considerably since she arrived from New York in 1993. She will leave Dominican in good hands and in good shape.

"When you've built a place and you do care about it like I do," Carroll said, "that last great gift that you give the institution is a timely and smooth transition."

The school is on sound financial footing, and Carroll happily brags on its rankings.

A school that had 729 undergraduate students when she arrived in River Forest now has about 2,200 as it nears its 100th anniversary, plus 1,000 graduate students. It has a School of Health Sciences added just a few years ago.

You can understand why 10 years ago the Daily Herald Business Ledger honored Carroll with an Influential Women in Business Award.

And make no mistake, while Dominican is still very much an academic institution, good business practices and integration into the local business community are significant.

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"There's always a tension in a university," Carroll says. "We always say a university is not a business, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have good business practices. And I think when you're a small institution that is tuition driven, market driven, you have to have good business practices."

While many colleges its size around the country are faltering financially, Dominican is doing well. This fall's freshman class was 465 students, even though the COVID-19 pandemic made starting school so difficult.

Life marches on.

"If the institution isn't well-managed and it feels disruptive, that distracts faculty and students," Carroll said.

Just as she doesn't want her departure to be disruptive, Carroll has worked to make sure the school's financial situation doesn't distract. Over 27 years, she has built a strong relationship with the local business community.


Her longevity, consistency at the top, allowed Carroll to build a bridge of strong relationships between the school and the business community. That has helped find internships and jobs for students. It has helped raise money to endow chairs and create scholarships and even build buildings. Carroll also brags about Dominican's diverse student body.

"Over the last 10 years, we have seen enormous growth in prospective college students -- Hispanic students, African-American students, first-generational college students -- and so then we become the pipeline for those students going on into businesses, higher education, social service, into the next generation," Carroll said. "When you think today of any service organization or any business for that matter and who their client base is or who they're serving, it is a very diverse population."

About 30% of Dominican's students work 30 to 40 hours a week while in school.

"Part of the reason we really push for paid internships and paid experiential learning is that many of our students can't just give up that job at McDonald's to do that 20-hour-a-week internship at DeLoitte because there are economic constraints," Carroll said.

And many Dominican students, including those at the Brennan School of Business, are from the Chicago area and expect to stay here after graduation.

"If you are a business, that can be a pretty compelling argument," Carroll said. "You are investing in your pipeline for the future. So that has been a persuasive argument for me often."

Carroll sees the student body's demographics as a strength to sell the business community as well.

"This is a very industrious, driven community-oriented cohort of students, and they understand the value of a good job and the importance of working and supporting their family," she said.

For 27 years, they got that an example of that work ethic from their university president also.

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