by MEGAN DREHER, Editor-in-Chief
President Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., will continue to lead the Manhattan College community through the 2023-2024 academic year, following his contract extension granted by the board of trustees. O’Donnell has served as president since July 1, 2009, the 19th president in the history of the college and the first lay president to serve in the position.
In serving as president, O’Donnell believes that this extension is due in part to the work he has done over the past ten years to further the Lasallian mission on campus.
“When you think about the major responsibilities of a president of a school, it’s to try to set the tone and the vision around the mission of the school. The mission of the school, and we’re very proud of it, is a Lasallian Catholic identity. It’s been a major part of what the trustees have charged me to do, so I guess the fact that they’ve decided to keep me around for another few years after having done ten years is a sign that they believe that we’re doing a good job staying true to our mission,” said O’Donnell.
But O’Donnell admits that the position of president was not one that he actively sought out. He began as a young faculty member at what was once known as Loyola College (now Loyola University) in Maryland. He was later appointed by a dean at Loyola to run a university-wide honors program, which he led until his next appointment right across the borough as dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill. This was his first leap into full time administration, and the last position held before coming to Riverdale.
President O’Donnell believes that his initial leap into administrative work was grounded in that same enthusiasm that has extended his contract: the Catholic mission.
“It was something I got into by small, small steps up on the way,” said O’Donnell. “The draw for me was the mission, the Catholic intellectual tradition, the Catholic university and the question of how are these institutions, which have been historically grounded in these deep traditions, going to continue to be authentically in that tradition when there are declining numbers of people in religious orders working on campus and in the community.”
Admittedly, president O’Donnell notes that he has skipped a few rungs on the ladder to reach the position of president at MC. While surpassing positions such as department chair and provost, he has used his past experience with different institutions to invest himself in the Lasallian mission.
“We have more in common [with the Jesuit mission] than we have different, we’re grounded in the same spiritual tradition, the same ideas about human beings and what they’re for. Historically, the brothers are distinguished as they were founded solely to be educators. The Jesuits were not, they were founded to do whatever needed to be done,” said O’Donnell.
He continued, “The brothers started precisely for educational purposes and particularly the education of the poor or the disadvantaged and the marginalized, those who otherwise would not have access to quality education. That makes a big difference in the way Lasallian institutions have grown up and the way Jesuit institutions have grown up. While we are very proud of our liberal arts tradition, we from the start, offered programs that were more on the professional preparation side of the scale. We’ve always had that kind of double-mindedness.”
Not only is O’Donnell able to pull from his experience at Fordham to serve him well as president, he is also able to pull from his experience inside of the classroom as an English professor.
“I often say that the best preparation for being involved in leadership in a complex institution is reading Shakespeare or more broadly, novels. Having an ability to read stories, to delve into literary characters and see the binds and moral issues and complexities and difficulties that complex organizations run through by paying attention to the human factor, I think is really invaluable. Just the other day I was having a conversation with the trustees about a particular issue and I found myself quoting Othello. The other side of it, when you’re in a position like this, you always have to be telling the institution’s story. Sometimes people talk about presidents of colleges as the storyteller-in-chief, so it helps to be comfortable telling the story of the institution. That helps to make us more effective in terms of reaching out to the alumni-world and the prospective student-world.”
President O’Donnell notes that he walked into a school that was already rooted in a very successful tradition, but has enjoyed seeing the school grow under his tenure.
“I think this has always been an excellent school. What it has always done, it has always done well, which is why I was attracted to come here. I think we have diversified academic offerings. We have more programs, more kinds of programs. We bring in more and different kinds of students. We have more graduate students now than we used to have. We have more adult students in the school of continuing and professional studies,” says O’Donnell.
With that kind of growth, there are many obstacles that President O’Donnell had to initially face upon becoming president of the college.
“We don’t have a huge endowment, but we have a bigger endowment than we did ten years ago,” O’Donnell said. “It was 43 million dollars ten years ago, it’s over 100 million dollars now. We have a big fundraising campaign that we just launched and that will bring in, over a period of time, that will bring in 165 million dollars of new resources for the institution. We have to work hard in order to be able to afford excellence.”
In the past ten years, Brennan O’Donnell has been able to accomplish a lot, and advance the excellence that Manhattan College has to offer today. But much of the success that the college has seen under his presidency, he acknowledges, takes the helping hands of many.
“One of the things you learn when you’re in a job like this, is you do very little on your own. Everything I say is really the team effort here. I would go back to the creation of a really robust student support service culture, including the research, the fellowship advising, the whole career pathways thing, where we try to advise students holistically, in terms of the whole picture of their lives, not just as a job placement thing but as a kind of who are you what do you want in life,” said O’Donnell.
That team effort is how Dr. Brennan O’Donnell has approached his presidency of the college, and will continue to do so. He correlates his role as president to how our campus has expanded, with buildings such as the Kelly Commons and the new Higgins building on South Campus.
“You don’t build a building without hundreds of people. and that’s fun, that’s probably the part of the job that when my friends ask me how can you be a college president, it’s so demanding? I think I do it because I really do love to work with people on big picture sort of things. I get to come to work every day and one way of looking at it is that I’ve got 100 problems and another way of looking at it is that I’ve got 100 opportunities to solve a problem or to help someone solve a problem, and that’s really energizing,” said O’Donnell.