By Tracy Seipel, Associate Director of Storytelling, Santa Clara University

Julie Sullivan (photo by Jim Gensheimer for Santa Clara University)


At Santa Clara University, three significant milestones have occurred in March: March 19, 1851, the day of its founding; March 21, 1961, when the decision was made to admit female students; and now, March 1, 2022, the day Santa Clara named Julie Sullivan as the University’s first permanent lay woman president.

That the announcement from SCU’s Board of Trustees came on the first day of Women’s History Month seems only fitting for the seasoned Catholic university leader. But when she arrives on campus on July 1 with Bella, her beloved Labradoodle, one thing is certain: Sullivan won’t be dwelling on being a first. She’s worn that mantle, with great success, since 2013, when she became the first lay and first woman president at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Instead, Santa Clara’s 30th president wants to meet and engage with her new community—students, faculty and staff—to talk about the University’s mission of developing leaders of competence, conscience and compassion.

What they will find in her, she says, is someone who is “accessible, loves people, always listens, is courageous, and not afraid of making a well-informed decision, based on convictions.” After all, at a 171-year-old institution, “You’ve got to understand the values, convictions and traditions that you’re building upon.”

Sullivan will start that day as she always does, before dawn, reflecting on the words to “Here I Am, Lord,” the modern Catholic hymn, inspired by Isaiah 6, and written in 1979 by Dan Schutte, then a theology student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (now officially incorporated into Santa Clara): “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Santa Clara’s incoming president derives both strength and solace from her deep Catholic faith. Sullivan is always discerning God in her work and leadership, asking, “What is your will for me today? Who am I going to encounter (to whom I can say or do something for) that will reflect your will?”

Sullivan believes her role is to inspire the Santa Clara community to collectively embrace a bold path forward, or vision, then work together to create it through the lens of Jesuit, Catholic and Ignatian spirituality.

“Education is about acquiring knowledge and about acquiring wisdom,” she says. “It’s the development of not just your mind, but your heart, and really understanding what your purpose is in the world. At Catholic institutions, we develop the whole person: their heart, their spirit, their mind.”

Lifting Others Up
At the University of St. Thomas, Sullivan has worked tirelessly to inspire that sense of possibility, by helping to establish the Morrison Family College of Health, a new School of Nursing, and the Dougherty Family College. The latter is a two-year pathway program that progresses toward a Bachelor’s degree for historically under- resourced students. “I’m most proud of how we increased access and opportunity for talented low- and moderate-income students to come to St. Thomas,” she says.

Helping those students graduate with a college degree not only boosts their confidence and employability, she observes, but also sets their future generations on a different trajectory. At Santa Clara, Sullivan has similar goals to build new pipelines for talented low- and middle-income students. She also wants to explore how Jesuit core values can further animate the University’s culture “so that everyone feels heard, valued and included.”

And by growing Santa Clara’s collaborations with its Silicon Valley partners, Sullivan hopes to achieve that same goal. She explains, “Technology is permeating our lives, but how do we integrate our understanding of the human condition with the growth of technology?”

Coming to Santa Clara also brings Sullivan closer to some of her grandchildren who live in the Bay Area. Her family includes five grown children—a blend of stepchildren, adopted children, and biological children who live around the world. Her husband, Robert Sullivan, is the former dean of the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego.

Sullivan’s leadership style is certainly informed by her experiences as a woman, mother, and wife, along with faith, belief in education, and optimism. And though her appointment may be groundbreaking at Santa Clara, Sullivan is part of a growing trend of women taking the helm at U.S. Jesuit and Catholic universities.

Today, for example, most of the 28-member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities are led by lay presidents. Seven of them—at Le Moyne College, Loyola University Chicago, Loyola University New Orleans, St. John’s College in Belize, Xavier University, Regis University and Santa Clara [the latter two with interim leaders]—are women.”

Sullivan, who is now board chair of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, notes that 35 percent of its approximately 200 member institutions are led by women as well.

For Sullivan, the increase in women leaders of Catholic ministries is just one tenet of the gradual opening of the Church to a diversity of thought—something she believes will make the Church and its institutions stronger.

A Passion for Teaching and Leading
As the first permanent lay president at Santa Clara, Sullivan will also bring a unique experience that its previous Jesuit leaders didn’t have—that of being a parent. “I believe that I may be able to empathize more with students and where they are in their life’s journey,” she says. “My role is to help them.”

It’s an impulse that comes naturally to the Florida native, who grew up an insatiable learner. By 7th grade, she was already being asked by teachers to assist other classmates with reading, and later volunteered to be a tutor in a local Head Start program.

The reality of educational disparities haunted Sullivan, even as she went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college, earning not just one but three degrees from the University of Florida: a Bachelor’s in accounting, a Master’s in taxation, and a Ph.D. in business.

Recognizing her passion for teaching, she became a professor of accounting, first at the University of Oklahoma, followed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then at UC San Diego. Her talents did not go unnoticed at UNC or UCSD, where Sullivan was also tapped for administrative roles. In 2005, the University of San Diego hired her to be its executive vice president and provost. Eight years later, she became president of the University of St. Thomas.

Decades of on-the-job lessons have helped Sullivan hone her leadership style. So have important insights from mentors, including the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she met through a trustee and friend at St. Thomas. “Justice Ginsburg was a leader who knew she could only get things done if other people joined her in the effort,” says Sullivan. “She knew that people don’t follow leaders because they have to: they follow them because they want to.”

Yet Sullivan is the first to acknowledge that a Catholic university lay president’s success depends on a close partnership with the priests on campus. At the University of St. Thomas, Sullivan says it’s been invaluable for her to work with priests “who respect me as an individual and as a leader, and are aligned with me philosophically as partners.”

She recalls an example from last summer, when Rev. Christopher Collins, S.J., Vice President of Mission at St. Thomas, met with groups of faculty and staff—just before students returned to campus—to host reflections and discernment with them as a way of remembering what they had been through, and what they had learned, during the pandemic.

“So often in our busy world, we just push our emotions down, but Fr. Collins helped us articulate and recognize our feelings in a way that built bonds in our community,” says Sullivan of Fr. Collins’ gift of Ignatian spirituality. “I’ll look for opportunities to support and participate in similar things with the Jesuit community at Santa Clara.”

Santa Clara Magazine Managing Editor Leslie Griffy also contributed to this article.