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Just days before the inauguration, two friends and colleagues who helped shape President Julie Sullivan are looking back on their time together.

Just days before the inauguration, two friends and colleagues who helped shape President Julie Sullivan are looking back on their time together.

Speaking to the audience at her inauguration Friday, Santa Clara University President Julie Sullivan will recognize the faces of many new colleagues and students excited to share the future of SCU with a proven innovator in Catholic higher education explore.

But Sullivan will also catch some familiar smiles in the crowd from a handful of friends and mentors who have worked with her at other universities, where they have banded together to achieve seemingly impossible goals.

Michael Dougherty will be among them. The longtime Minneapolis financier and philanthropist is expected to arrive later this week with a group of University of St. Thomas trustees, colleagues and alumni to greet their friend and now former president, who helped make St. Thomas one of the Best to do Catholic Universities in USA

“We’ve probably never seen anyone like Julie in our history,” says the St. Thomas graduate and trustee, who was on the board that hired Sullivan as the university’s first woman and in 2013 as its first lay president. “Now Santa Clara has done that, and they’re very, very lucky.”

What Santa Clara has, he explains, is an experienced, accomplished leader who inspires bold ideas and creative problem-solving, reads accounts and anticipates trends in the competitive world of higher education.

“She’s a little fireball, but she’s got a backbone of steel,” says the namesake of the two-year Dougherty Family College in St. Thomas.

The college opened in 2017 and is modeled after Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago. It helps underserved students navigate higher education and close the opportunity gap.

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“We’ll miss her here, but we really appreciate what she’s done,” says Dougherty. “Your board will decide what you will do. And Julie will be very helpful. I don’t know what it will be, but there will be three or four very real, important programs that she will launch. Give her a year or two to watch. let her show you.”

Always refer to “the common good”

In St. Thomas, Dougherty and others say, Sullivan’s nine-year track record speaks for itself: she helped found two new colleges, built two new residence halls, and expanded a new STEM campus that will open in 2024. She has re-established Centers for Student Welfare and Social Justice, launched a Racial Justice Initiative, raised $200 million in remunerated grants, and helped ensure all students have opportunities to develop their talents to lead a more equitable and create a more sustainable world. Since St. Thomas announced her departure in March, St. Thomas has renamed two spaces in her honor: the Julie H. Sullivan Center for Student Achievement and the Julie H. Sullivan Commons at Dougherty Family College.

“In everything we did,” says Dougherty, “she always referred to ‘the common good.'”

One of the most important characteristics of any Sullivan project is that it justifies the projected costs. If it’s not financially feasible, “it can hurt the whole institution,” he says. Next, she looks for good leadership and then “proper execution.” Treating people with dignity and respect – even if you disagree – is a must.

Dougherty describes Sullivan as intelligent and ethical, likeable and funny. She easily interacts with students, staff and faculty, across all cultures and identities. “That will not change,” says the entrepreneur and founder. “She is so true to who she is. I’ve never seen a person like her in my life.”

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These and other factors were at the fore when Sullivan and Dougherty sat down not long after they were hired to discuss how St. Thomas could reduce economic and educational disparities in north Minneapolis, which has a predominantly black population. Could St. Thomas found something similar to Arrupe College?


St. Thomas student with writing on hand that says

Founding the Dougherty Family College, which makes education more accessible to underserved populations, is one of Julie Sullivan’s greatest legacies at the University of St. Thomas.


After months of studying the concept with others in St. Thomas, Dougherty decided it could be done. He and his wife, Kathy, also agreed to become co-founders of Dougherty Family College.

“That’s one of the things that she’s most proud of, what we’re doing with these kids,” says the 1966 St. Thomas graduate. “Now other schools across the country, like the University of Wisconsin, are reaching out to us and the state of Arizona so they can come and see us.”

“You know there is hope”

Last month, Dougherty Family College received an anonymous donation of $10 million. When this sum is reached, it means that the college’s funding will continue in perpetuity.

“The children – many of their eyes are wide open. They know there’s hope,” says a proud Dougherty. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts with Santa Clara’s version of it.”

Sullivan’s good friend Buffy Smith, Dean of Dougherty Family College, wholeheartedly agrees. And when it happens, she says, “you can rest assured it will be done well.”

Watching Sullivan’s inauguration remotely online on Friday, Smith says she will be “filled with great joy and happiness for my friend and mentor.

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“President Sullivan has been a blessing to our St. Thomas Ward, and I am confident that she will be a blessing to the Santa Clara Ward.”

What she says SCU students, faculty, staff and alumni will soon learn about their new president is her “intentionality.”

“I would say every decision is mission driven,” says Smith. “It comes from her deep desire for those around her to be better than they thought they could be. And she is ready to accompany you on this journey.”

For this reason, Smith calls Sullivan “a compassionate, serving leader…someone who will be an example to you so that you can be an example to those you lead.”

An authentic leader

When Sullivan started in 2013, Smith—a first-generation African-American student raised by her mother and grandmother—found comfort in learning that Sullivan, too, had been a first-generation college student and was influenced by a strong-willed grandmother, which she ran her own school bus company.

Wherever she happened to interact with the President on campus, Smith also discovered that Sullivan was what she called an “authentic leader.”

“I would go to the gym and Julie would be there. And she would be the same person there, or wherever she was, whether walking Bella (with her dog) or talking to students. And that’s what makes her so popular, because she doesn’t change,” says the dean. “That is her. And that’s really important for young people. They are hungry for authentic leaders.”

As an example, Smith recalls the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenges sponsored by the ALS Association. During St. Thomas’ homecoming that year, Sullivan agreed to go into hiding.

“When I saw that our president was willing to do the same and participate, that’s just another level. She always made us feel that not only is she approachable, but that there is nothing she would ask of you that she wouldn’t do first.”


Group photo of Dougherty Family College

This has included painful budget cuts at the main St. Paul campus and at the Dougherty Family College campus in downtown Minneapolis over the years. The pandemic forced further cuts.

“We went through a difficult time together and were able to recover and become whole,” says Smith. She praised Sullivan’s transparency.

“There’s always a campus talk about what’s happening. She is listening. She will answer your questions. It may not give you the answer you really want, but it will explain why we’re doing this or that,” says Smith.

The dean notes that hate crimes on campus earlier this year had rocked scholars at Dougherty Family College, most of whom are black. But they’re also active members on their campus, “so you know they’re going to be marching,” says Smith proudly. They did, and Sullivan was there to interact with the students.

Some people on Sullivan’s senior council wanted her to leave the march early, Smith recalls, but Sullivan stayed until the last person could ask her a question about what the university would do about the matter. As Smith says, “She was ours.”

“Your beginnings do not define your destination”

Following the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police near a grocery store just 10 minutes from the Dougherty Family College campus, Smith recalls how quickly Sullivan called her to express her grief at this human tragedy express. She says Sullivan checked in with the scholars, faculty and staff at Dougherty Family College and then moved on to increase St. Thomas’ focus on DEI work.

“Some leaders only come during a crisis, but she’s there for the good times and the celebrations,” Smith says. “And that’s why she’s loved by a lot of groups on campus.”

After nine years of working with Sullivan, Smith says she’s learned something that’s important not only for herself but also for her students: “Embrace everything about yourself and your experiences.”

“Your beginnings do not define your destination. They don’t define your future or your destiny. You could have big dreams, but they are still small compared to the dream that God has for you. That appeals to me,” says Smith. “And that’s what I learned from watching her.”

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