A man will lead Notre Dame of Maryland University for the first time in its 116-year history, after the board of trustees announced Thursday its unanimous choice of James Conneely as the institution's next president.
"It's a boy!" said board chairwoman Patricia J. Mitchell, drawing giggles from a crowd of students, professors and alumni who had gathered on campus to hear the decision.
Mitchell, a Notre Dame graduate, said she went into the search assuming that the next president would be a woman. She remained skeptical, even when Conneely emerged as one of 12 semifinalists for the job, she said. But she and other university leaders said they could not ignore Conneely's instant affinity for students and faculty during a recent campus visit or his grasp of Notre Dame's history as an intimate college for undergraduate women.
"He was just so far superior in his ability to engage and inspire the community," Mitchell said in explaining why he beat two female finalists. "People kept saying to me, 'He gets us.' And he did."
Conneely, who serves as associate provost for enrollment and vice president for student affairs at Eastern Kentucky University, said he never would have submitted his name if he hadn't expected fair consideration from Notre Dame, which admits male graduate students but remains all-female at the undergraduate level.
"I didn't get the sense they were surprised," he said of his meetings with students. "But they properly inquired about how I would embrace and support the mission at Notre Dame."
He pointed out that he has always hired women for key leadership positions and pushed for deeper attention to women's issues on the campuses where he has worked. He said no one need fear that he will steer the university away from its roots as a women's college.
"It is the essence of Notre Dame," Conneely said.
Around the country, it's unusual but not unprecedented for men to lead women's colleges.
For example, three all-women's colleges in Massachusetts have hired male presidents in the past, with mixed results. When Mount Holyoke College appointed its first male president in 1937, its website says, the decision was met with "considerable opposition" that was eventually overshadowed by World War II. And, according to the Wellesley College website, the only time a man served as president, briefly in 1972, a campus tower was struck by lightning.
But Smith College did not hire its first female president until 1975, 100 years after it was founded, according to its website.
Notre Dame students said they were surprised and excited at the choice. "A woman maybe would have been the safer bet," said Rachel De la Haya, a sophomore from San Antonio who met Conneely during his campus visit. "But he was so warm and welcoming. He really seemed to capture our values as a school."
"I was a little shocked at first," said Takia Raneri, a junior from Philadelphia. "But he seemed to have the same reaction to campus that I had when I decided I wanted to come here. I'm happy they picked him."
Some alumnae expressed disappointment at the announcement on the university's Facebook page. "First the college became a university, now it has a male president, next is it going to go co-ed?" wrote a woman who said she was a former student. "One of the reasons I chose to attend Notre Dame many years ago was for its small college feel & the way it empowered women. I am sad to see those things may be changing."
Mitchell said she expects some backlash.
"I'm sure I will get some questions along the lines of 'What were you thinking?'" the board chairwoman said. "But once they meet Jim, I think a lot of that will go away."
Conneely, 55, will succeed the retiring Mary Pat Seurkamp, one of Maryland's longest-tenured campus leaders. During Seurkamp's 15-year tenure, Notre Dame established its first doctoral program, in education, launched a college of pharmacy and beefed up undergraduate and graduate nursing programs.
In recognition of its evolution from an all-women's liberal arts college, the institution changed its name last year from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
Conneely will be the second layperson to lead the university, which was founded in Baltimore as a Catholic women's college in 1895.
The Long Island, N.Y., native received his bachelor's degree from Saint Bonaventure University, a master's from Alfred University in New York and a doctorate from Georgia State University.
He has worked in higher education for 29 years, with stops at the University of Arkansas, Emory University, Villanova University and the University of Northern Iowa before he went to Eastern Kentucky.
Among his proudest contributions, he said, were creating a coalition against rape at Emory and opening a multicultural center at Eastern Kentucky. Notre Dame officials also praised his creative approaches to budgeting and enrollment management at Eastern Kentucky.
Conneely's wife, Becky, holds a doctorate in counselor education, and the elder of his two daughters, Jessica, attends the all-women's Converse College in South Carolina. He said her experience has deepened his appreciation for women's colleges.
"One of the things I've seen is how supportive, challenging and engaging an environment it is," he said. "Women feel really empowered by it. She'll tell you it's the best decision she ever made."
Conneely plans to start work at Notre Dame on July 1.
The university conducted a national search for Seurkamp's replacement, led by U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley, a trustee and Notre Dame graduate.
Mitchell said the search committee — which included 12 women among its 15 members — sought a candidate who would cherish Notre Dame's all-female core while looking for opportunities to grow the university's graduate programs based on community needs.
She said some committee members were bothered by the idea of hiring a man, even though the university received applications from plenty of male candidates. "We had to talk about it," she said. "There was a feeling of, 'Jeez, this is not what we thought would happen.'"
Ultimately, Mitchell said, none of them could deny that Conneely was the best fit.
"It was a surprise," she said, "which is part of the fun of it."