During her 30 years in top leadership positions at St. Edwards’s University, Sister Donna Jurick helped usher in profound changes at the Catholic liberal arts school, founded in 1877 by the Rev. Edward Sorin from the Congregation of Holy Cross.
As a vice president with different titles and duties under three presidents — “I’d much rather worry about faculty and students than raising money,” she says — Jurick helped upgrade a key Austin institution from a relatively good university into something much larger and more ambitious, while not abandoning its longtime social justice mission.
“We now have Fulbrights,” Jurick says, referring to the prestigious cultural exchange scholarships. “We get into the best graduate schools, which we didn’t before. What’s important is that we did it without lopping off the bottom. Many places that have managed to grow the stature and prestige of their institutions did it by upping the SAT scores and not accepting the students who were less prepared.”
St. Edward’s has kept its nationally recognized College Assistance Migrant Program, which recruits educationally disadvantaged students from the Rio Grande Valley, many of whom have gone on to academic excellence in part because they found fresh role models among the other St. Edward’s students.
This is not her first experience with reversing the fortunes of a university.
Before Jurick, 79, took on the role of academic vice president at St. Edward’s in 1988, she served as president of what is now known as Trinity Washington University in the nation’s capital. It was run by her Catholic order, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whose mother house is in Namur, Belgium.
“I managed to stay for five years,” Jurick says about her time in Washington, D.C. “I radically changed the institution, which didn’t make me terribly popular.”
Trinity was established in 1897 as a Catholic alternative to the Seven Sisters, the American women’s colleges founded as analogs to the Ivy League schools. Jurick, then in her early 40s, envisioned an expansive role for the quiet place during a time of rapid social change.
“Washington had burned on national television,” recalls Jurick, who retires from St. Edward’s at the end of June after 30 years in top leadership positions. “Daddies thought they didn’t need to send their girls to women’s colleges. Other colleges went co-ed. I established a weekend college adult program. Ours had been a fairly elite system, and now it was broadening out. That’s radically changing.”
Part of the change at St. Ed’s has to do with attracting major donors, deans and faculty while transforming the campus with new and remodeled buildings and open spaces.
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But St. Edward’s has also benefited from stability, with one interregnum, at the top. Two of those three presidents lasted far longer most college CEOs: Patricia Hayes (1984-1998) and George Martin (1999-today).
“I feel greatly blessed that during our 20 years working together, Sister Donna and I have enjoyed an extraordinary partnership based on mutual respect and trust and a common dedication to the mission and strategic interests of St. Edward’s University,” Martin says. “Sister Donna has been a good friend, a wise counselor and a gifted colleague with exceptional knowledge and leadership skills. As each day moves us closer to her retirement day, I feel a mounting sense of loss.”
To sit with Jurick for any amount of time is to be amazed how clearly and efficiently she communicates. It comes as no surprise that she excelled at public speaking at various levels of her education.
“I think I know how to facilitate things,” Jurick says. “That’s fun. Because you’re interacting with people. Part of it is I love what I do. And I think people know it. And I care about them, whether it be faculty, students or administration.”
Jurick, who was born and grew up in Dayton, Ohio, counts Croatian, Irish and German ancestors. Intellectually and religiously inclined, she attended a parish school, then a girls high school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order.
“After high school, I joined them,” she says of her decision to become a nun in 1957. “I didn’t tell anybody until after graduation. I certainly wasn’t going to miss the prom.”
In the 1950s, careers for women from her background were limited to a few roles such as nurses, teachers or secretaries.
“I thought there was a broader perspective — a calling beyond — that would reach more people,” she says. “In that day and age, you felt called. You could give to the world, to God, to yourself, to your family. As I have grown in religious life, I’ve deepened that feeling, but I still see it as not a job but a ‘being.’ I don’t think I understood it at that time.”
Jurick studied communication and philosophy at Our Lady of Cincinnati, a women’s college that became Edgecliff, later absorbed into Xavier University. She earned her master’s degree from Northwestern University and, after teaching high school, took her doctorate from Ohio State University.
Her religious order helped her along the way.
“We have provinces all over the world,” she says. “I belong to the Ohio Province. As far as I know, I’m the only one in Texas.”
Since she arrived, Jurick has held one or both titles of executive vice president — the equivalent of provost — and academic vice president.
How did she end up in the state? Jurick felt very much attracted to St. Edward’s mission of community service and helping the poor, as articulated by the Holy Cross Brothers and their longtime teaching partners, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters.
“I wouldn’t still be here if that hadn’t been the case,” she says. “The mission is still very much in sync with where it was in 1988. Yet this place has evolved. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t still be here. Can’t get bored if the mission is worthwhile and alive and you are a part of moving it forward.”
Neither of the school’s historical religious orders constitute a major faculty presence these days. The Holy Cross Brothers still have a house on campus, and their retirement center is next door; some of them serve on the campus ministry staff.
“So it becomes, how do you share that mission with the lay people who are part of it?” Jurick says. “How do you evolve into an institution where it is everybody’s mission? That’s what’s important about the church these days; everybody is part of it. The mission is Catholic, but it is more than Catholic; it embraces anyone who wants to be a part of it.”
Besides the Fulbright scholars, many St. Edward’s students study abroad, and the university makes sure that students across the economic spectrum can take advantage of that. Meanwhile, it has balanced its budgets and passed out regular raises, even when similar liberals arts colleges have not been able to do so.
Wandering among the high-design new buildings and remodels, it is hard to remember that, when this reporter came to town in 1984, the beautiful neo-Gothic main building was boarded up and condemned. The cool and welcoming plaza to the south was a dirt parking lot.
In the early 1990s, two critical projects sat on the drawing boards: what became the Ragsdale Student Center and the totally redesigned John Brooks Williams Natural Science Center. At the time, St. Edward’s found only enough money for one, so Ragsdale rose first.
“If we had built the science building first, it would have already been outdated,” Jurick says. “Lucky decisions got made.”
One strategy that has worked well for St. Edward’s is to attract international students — who make up 9.5 percent of undergraduates and 3.6 percent of graduate students, most of whom pay full price — as well as others who can afford the university’s not-insignificant combined tuition, fees, room and board, which can be as high as $61,670 a year.
“The question is how to balance the enrollment population between those who pay, those who can pay something and those who can’t pay anything at all,” Jurick says. “What we want is not just to provide a college degree for first-generation students, but a college degree worth what the more wealthy can pay for.”
Gratified with what has been accomplished over the past three decades, Jurick is not sure what she will do next, but no doubt it will include more attention to social justice.
“I’ll take some time,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll stop. I don’t think I’m a workaholic. But I like what I do. Community service and dedication to poor is wrapped up in the university. The thing that I’m so at peace is that retiring is, institutionally, the right thing to do.”
Andrew Prall, most recently at University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., will succeed Jurick and will take the title of provost while assuming both of Jurick’s roles.
“When you retire, you should retire,” Jurick says with a contented smile. “On June 30, I’ll give up this one office, move back upstairs to basically clear out and move on.”