What makes a great leader? It’s a question I’m sure most people are asked at least once in their life, but it seems to be something that remains difficult to answer. Is it the charisma? The credentials? The ability to work well with others? The ability to represent a larger body of people? What does it take?
A few weeks ago, Jane and I had the privilege of sitting down with the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, the president of Villanova University. Serving since 2006 as the 32nd university president, Father Peter has become an iconic member of Villanova’s campus. Whether he is speaking at university events, sitting on the sidelines in Pittsburgh, Boston and San Antonio or recently traveling to Rome to meet Pope Francis, Fr. Peter leads Villanova with enthusiasm, intelligence and personality.
I’ll be honest, I was genuinely nervous for this conversation. Would he be receptive of our desire to introduce him to prospective families? Would he be willing to answer the questions we painstakingly prepared? How would he react to our ideas? From his love of theatre to his goals for our university’s future, our chat with Father Peter was insightful, exciting and certainly something to remember.
Molly: Other University Presidents are not necessarily as approachable as you are… why do you think that is?
Fr. Peter: First of all, I don’t know if that’s true! When I was first asked to do this job, or when I was asked to put my name in to be considered I guess I should say, I was involved in the life of the students. I lived in a residence hall, I was the Chair of the Theatre Department, I was teaching three classes a semester, so I was very engaged. I went to Mass every week with campus ministry. I was very involved with the students, and I didn’t want to give that up. I felt that being the President you would have to give that up, and a very good friend of mine said “you can do whatever you want, you’re the President.” And, over the years, it hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be. But I really try to make a concerted effort to be known, that people know who I am and what I do, and when I’m around and not around. And when I am around, I’m available to people. So, it’s genuinely me wanting to stay in touch with what’s happening with the student body. That’s my biggest desire.
Jane: What skills do you think it requires to be an efficient University president?
Fr. Peter: Efficient or effective? I guess I would say there’s a difference.
Fr. Peter: Okay, well effective. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you need to be a good listener. I think that’s true for any leader, for anyone who is given the responsibility of leading an organization or a group of people. You have to know what people are thinking, where they are, what their struggles are, what their joys are, what works for them and what doesn’t work for them – if you’re not willing to listen to them, and you’re only willing to talk to them all the time, telling them where to go and what to do, then you’re really not helping them grow as people, as individuals. In terms of being University President, being an effective listener helps me to be an effective leader, because then I can better understand what the needs of the University are.
Jane: I know a lot of times people say “Father Peter, well he’s the President of Villanova.” So, what do you think is something you’d want people to know about you outside of the fact that you’re the President here?
Fr. Peter: I think one of the big things that I’ve been engaged with for a long time, and what I miss the most, is my involvement with the Theatre Department. And I miss teaching a lot. It wouldn’t be easy to be in this role and be a teacher, because I’d be missing class a lot. The students might not mind, but I’d always have to be away. Tomorrow, for example, I have to go to Pittsburgh – I couldn’t do those types of things if I was teaching. That’s something I really miss. Something else… I love movies, I love watching movies. Big movie fanatic. I don’t go to the movie theatre anymore, but I watch them all online. All those miles I go on planes, I’m always watching a movie. That really helps me pass the time. Those are the big ones.
Molly: What did you teach?
Fr. Peter: I taught acting – it was called “The Theatrical Experience” – what goes into putting on a theatre production. It was really fun. I also taught Dramaturgy, which was a graduate course, and musical theatre.
Jane: What do you think makes Villanova different from other universities?
Fr. Peter: That’s always a hard one. I guess people say it’s different because the experience is different. I mean it always sounds like we’re a little full of ourselves. Like we’re different from everyone else; we’re a little better than everyone else… but what makes Villanova special to me, is the people that are here. I think we have an incredible group of students – we have students that really care about each other. There is a real sense of community that is found here. In my travels, I frequently interact with alumni that are married to non-Villanova alumni, and the non-Villanova spouse always says, “I don’t know what’s in the water there, but there’s something about the Villanova people because all of our friends are Villanova people, the godparents of our kids are Villanova people, my husband or wife has kept in touch with all these people over the years and I haven’t done that with the people I went to college with.” I don’t know what it is, I don’t think I can put my finger on it sometimes, but I think people really do care about one another here. I just had an email from the director of this project in North Carolina. A group of Villanova students from LEVEL went down for the week for Spring Break and did service down there. She wrote this extensive email about how wonderful the students were and how much the program and the students in the program taught her, and her staff, about how to be more caring people. And that was just through interacting with them. She said they were dramatically changed by that Villanova group just being here.
Molly: Villanova has been going through a lot of change. Whether it’s being recognized more academically, athletically, we have a lot of construction on campus – we’ve transitioned into a national university. What are goals you keep in mind when looking ahead for this national reputation?
Fr. Peter: Well, there’s very specific criteria from the organization that classifies you as a national university. The organization that does the classification comes in every five years or so and looks at certain criterion. They look at the size of classes, what’s the faculty/student ratio, how many classes do you have under 20 students, how many do you have over 20 – it makes a difference for the ranking. How many doctoral candidates do you have, and how many are graduating. They look at the expanse of your academic programs, how you are increasing faculty-student research, what kinds of things are going on both inside the classroom and outside the classroom in terms of that research and scholarship. Those are the types of measurements they use so it’s important for us to keep the quality of our academic programs high. It’s not how large you are or how many nice buildings do you have. It’s all about academics and research, so we need to keep those strong.
Jane: How do you think the new construction plays into the vision?
Fr. Peter: When doing research for the Strategic Plan, one of the big issues we noted was the lack of student housing. When I came on to this job, I had a big request from the local community that the University provide more housing options to bring more students back on to campus, particularly seniors. Many seniors that said if they had the option, they would come back on campus. When we created the campus master plan, the only places that we could technically build on, that had that much space, was the parking lot. There’s no way we could say we’re going to guarantee four years of housing, but we can certainly promise that if you want to live on campus, there can be options. Something we need to eliminate completely is tripling in freshman dorms. We need to get rid of that, because the buildings on South Campus weren’t built for that. They were built for two people and we’re squeezing a third person in there. That’s putting wear and tear on the buildings themselves, and it’s also putting wear and tear on the people that have to live in those rooms. And when those buildings were designed, people didn’t bring half the stuff they do now. All computers and stuff, it’s just a different place. Therefore, we have to eliminate the tripling.
The Performing Arts Center, that is the one missing piece of Villanova. There are numerous students on campus that participate in the performing arts – sing, dance, play instruments, do theatre – and Villanova has never had adequate space for that. We have Vasey Theatre, which is an old lecture hall that was converted into a Black Box Theatre. The student undergraduate groups, the club groups, perform in old classrooms or St. Mary’s Auditorium (which isn’t really a theatre). Dance groups are practicing in classrooms or hallways, the band is in the basement of St. Mary’s, the singing groups are having their concerts in CEER lecture halls. We’ve never really had anything dedicate to the arts even though we have more students that participate daily in the arts than we do varsity athletes. This building will give us three different performance venues and classroom space. It’s not the biggest space, but it’s a beginning. It’s something we’ve been missing.
Molly: What do you think is the most important lesson, or lessons, that students gain from an Augustinian tradition on campus?
Fr. Peter: I think the most obvious one is Augustine’s connection to friendship. He was really very positive about friendship and one of the hallmarks of creating community and hospitality and welcoming people into your world and realizing the power and presence that people have in your lives. I think students certainly benefit from that. I think it’s one of the most overused words on campus – or the two – friendship and community. Villanova community. Sometimes people say to me, it’s a “Villanova Family” – but, we’re not family. Family is something different. Being a community is something unique. As a community you have people of different backgrounds, ideas, and from different parts of the country, that come together and utilize what their experiences are to create something new and different. Every year, when we get new students, there is new energy and life and contributions to the community. The community continues to change and expand. A family unit is different – like this is the role you play in your family and that’s it. A sister is a sister, a brother is a brother, a mother is a mother, and a father is a father. For the rest of your life, that’s how you’re going to react. That’s not what a community is. At times, as each member of the community develops and grows, they have something new to contribute to it. So, it is a very common word around here, but it really is the essence of an Augustinian education.
Jane: In your position, how do you counteract some of the negative labels Villanova gets in regard to diversity?
Fr. Peter: A long time ago, it’s been 12 years now, in my inauguration address I said, “If Villanova doesn’t stop calling itself Vanilla-nova, it will always be that.” We adopted that language. It’s the same way that Villa-no-fun works – if we’re going to continue to say it ourselves, then that’s going to be our reputation. I think we’ve made some real advances in diversity. When I look at diversity though, I look at it as a much bigger picture. There are all kinds of diversity. For me, diversity is a whole rainbow of things. We have a lot more diversity on campus than people give us credit for, and that we give ourselves credit for. But, it’s always an evolving thing. I think our biggest diversity issue is not necessarily with students but in faculty and staff. I think we need to diversify faculty and staff more. People will come to a place where they see people like themselves, and they know people like themselves. So that means bringing faculty from all different parts of the world, from different parts of the country, not just from the East Coast.. We can definitely work on our sense of inclusion on campus. I think there are people on campus that feel sometimes very left out, and don’t feel like they’re part of this place. That’s a problem that we need to address, and need to continue to address. For me, diversity is an issue that needs to be continuously reevaluated. We need to work to ensure Villanova is a microcosm of the world. We want to have people from different economic backgrounds, different geographic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different faith backgrounds, and different experiences. It’s an issue that we continue to deal with and are trying to improve.
Molly: In terms of larger controversial issues going on outside of our University, what is your philosophy on making sure you’re doing what’s best for our university while acknowledging what’s happening elsewhere?
Fr. Peter: I think as a President of a University you have a particular platform you can use not only for the university you’re leading but also in terms of the public forum in some ways. I think that sometimes people look to me to put out statements, and that can be good and bad. Because then everything that comes down the road, they’ll want a statement about it. And I can’t make a statement about everything. When something happens, not only do I think about how it has impacted Villanova locally but also Villanova nationally and internationally. How has this impacted us? With the recent Florida shooting, there was a lot of talk about gun control and understand the need for it. I don’t think an 18-year-old necessarily needs to go in and be able to buy a semi-automatic rifle. Yes, people should be able to enjoy hunting, but you don’t need an assault weapon to go hunting. So why are we selling those things to citizens? There are a lot of issues like that. I did contact the Villanova community in Florida, saying we’re thinking of them and were thinking of them at Sunday masses on campus, and we had masses dedicated to the victims and their families. I think that was reassuring to them, but I don’t think I had to go out in the New York Times and say it. Because then is that about the Villanova community, or is that trying to bring attention to me? I don’t need to write an op-ed about Villanova people in Florida, but I do need to reassure people that we care about them. When it comes to bigger national issues, like the incident that took place regarding the election, it was something we felt the effects of on campus, so something needed to be said. Those are times I feel that I need to speak up. But I don’t feel the need to send out a message for every incident that occurs… I need to draw a line.
I can guarantee that years after graduation, one of my most memorable moments at Villanova will be the opportunity I was given to sit down and speak with Father Peter. Three years ago, when I was anxiously deciding what university to attend, I would have loved to meet a president like Father Peter. I would love to have picked his brain on why Villanova was the right choice. He’s someone who is excited and honest. He’s passionate and friendly, but maintains the stoic and formal manner that we need in a successful president.
During my time at Villanova, I have learned to appreciate so many of the university’s resources and opportunities. That being said, it was not until I was given the chance to sit down with our fearless leader that I began to appreciate it more. Without leadership like Father Peter, our university would not be able to function as well as it does. Through his collaboration with faculty and staff, his interest in student life and desire to make a difference, Villanova is able to transcend into the modern world while maintaining the Augustinian values we cherish.
What makes a great leader? The charisma? The credentials? The cooperation? While these questions remain unsolved, I know that at Villanova, it’s about forming a university that can positively impact its students in a way that can influence the people we encounter now and in the future. For Father Peter, it’s the passion, the personality and the desire to allow Villanova to make a difference in people’s lives the way it has done so in my own. That is the kind of leadership I trust and that I hope to bring with me after graduation.