As Emmanuel marks the 25th anniversary of Sister Janet Eisner, SND's inauguration as President of the College, there is much to celebrate. And the best is yet to come.
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They came from all over New England and as far away as Washington, New York, California, London, and Rome. They came in formal dresses and black ties. Among them were leading figures from Boston's political, educational, business, social outreach, and religious communities, along with a host of Emmanuel alumni, faculty, staff, and friends. And on the evening of April 28, 2005, they gathered at the Boston Seaport Hotel with a singular purpose: to honor the vision, courage, and achievements of Sister Janet Eisner, SND.
There was much to celebrate. This special dinner, after all, marked the 25th anniversary of Sister Janet's inauguration as President of Emmanuel College. Speaker after speaker noted how, under her leadership, Emmanuel has met and overcome a succession of challenges to endure as a thriving academic community in the heart of Boston and emerge as a model for 21st century Catholic higher education.
Toward the end of the evening, after many moving tributes, Sister Janet herself took the podium. The 450-plus audience stood and united in prolonged applause. This was her moment, and everyone recognized it.
Except Sister Janet.
Realizing she had the attention of so many, she used the occasion not to take credit but to give it. Emmanuel's great strides, she emphasized, never would have been possible without the commitment and generosity of trustees, benefactors, administrators, volunteers, and countless others, to whom she owed immense thanks. She also took the opportunity to focus not on past accomplishments but on the future — and on how Emmanuel's unique mission as a top-caliber, Catholic, liberal arts and sciences college will continue to grow richer and deeper for promising young men and women. True to character, she anchored her remarks in the practical by announcing that the proceeds of the event would help establish Emmanuel's new Center for Mission and Spirituality. The Center, she said, will introduce students to the College's rich Notre Dame legacy. It also will help them integrate their interior lives with their outward actions as professionals, citizens, and family members.
Gratitude. The centrality of mission. A constant focus on students. These are the themes that have distinguished Sister Janet's 25 years as president. They also are the qualities of her character that have inspired the admiration and love of generations of Emmanuel students and the thousands who form the College's extended family across the country and around the world.
Still, as impressive as her tenure has been so far, all accounts suggest that her best years are still to come. Under Sister Janet's direction, plans are under way for innovative new initiatives in a range of areas, including the curriculum, physical plant, and programs aimed at helping students grow as leaders, ethical decision-makers, and informed citizens with the will and skill to give back to their communities. Sister Janet's energy for these exciting new efforts — which emanates from a deeply held love for Emmanuel and all who are connected to it — remains boundless.
In explaining great historical advances, some scholars point to large economic or political factors. Others credit the words, actions, and influence of single individuals. In looking back on the remarkable story of Emmanuel College over the last 25 years, all would agree that Sister Janet has played the pivotal role. Yet in Sister Janet's own estimation, there is indeed a larger force at work.
"Through these years there have been times of difficulty and uncertainty, times when my only prayer was 'My God, it is your work!' And throughout those times and now we are sustained by the One whose name we claim, Emmanuel, our God with us," said Sister Janet. "I love my job and my mission. That's a grace; that's a gift."
In 1978, when last there was a vacancy in the President's Office, Emmanuel College was in a state of flux. Though widely respected, particularly in Catholic circles, as an outstanding all-women's college, Emmanuel nonetheless was experiencing a decline in traditional undergraduate applications due largely to still-recent decisions by Holy Cross, Boston College, and other previously all-male institutions to welcome women. Also, the number of Sisters of Notre Dame at Emmanuel had begun to decrease, and the number of lay faculty and staff, and the role they played in the life of the College, was expanding. To usher Emmanuel into the new millennium, the new president would confront a raft of fiscal, cultural, and demographic challenges, to name a few.
Sister Janet Eisner, SND, was eager to take them on. Those who knew her were not surprised. For one thing, she was an Emmanuel woman. For another, she was well prepared.
As a student at Emmanuel in the early 1960s, she had known the women who had built new residence halls and other facilities, transforming Emmanuel into a truly residential college. After her graduation and entrance into the Sisters of Notre Dame, she served from 1967-71 as Emmanuel's Director of Admissions. In addition to recruiting classes that, until recently, were the largest in the College's history, she served as a member of then President Sister Ann Bartholomew Grady, SND's cabinet. The position gave her the opportunity, very early in her career, to learn first-hand about decision making, consensus building, planning, and the myriad of issues that attend the running of a college. After earning her Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Michigan, she returned to Emmanuel in the mid-1970s to join the English faculty. She was serving as Chair of the Department when the Board of Trustees formed a search committee to appoint a new president.
"I actually applied for the position because, in the first place, people encouraged me to do it," she explains. "Also, the College was going through a very difficult period, and I felt called by God to serve." From the very start, she sounded her trademark note of optimism. "'Choose life,'" she declared in her inaugural address, quoting the Book of Deuteronomy, "'so that you and your descendants may live in the love of Yahweh, your God.'" The message was unmistakable: here was a woman who would always choose for the long-term good of the College and students, who would work tirelessly to strengthen the College's founding mission and to apply it in ever more vibrant ways to meet the changing needs of students and the world they will inherit.
She would deliver on that promise in the years that followed — but it would be far from easy. In fact, it would require more resourcefulness, patience, and endurance than she or anyone ever imagined.
One of the most persistent and difficult hurdles she had to overcome was a constrained budget. A low endowment and limited revenue from tuition and fees meant little flexibility in improving programs and facilities and in recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty. Convinced that simply standing still as an institution was not an option, Sister Janet, the Board of Trustees, and administrators embarked on several initiatives to secure Emmanuel's future.
One was the development of academic programs for working men and women. By introducing and strengthening a range of top-caliber undergraduate and graduate degree programs in areas such as business, education, human resources management, and nursing, Emmanuel emerged in the 1980s as a school of choice for adult education in eastern Massachusetts. Over the years, Emmanuel's highly regarded Graduate Studies have also created a valuable intergenerational dynamic on campus.
Another important initiative was to take advantage of one of the College's most valuable assets: land. By granting limited-time use of campus facilities to neighboring institutions located in the adjacent Longwood Medical Area, Emmanuel acquired capital for a number of forward-looking projects. In the mid-1980s, for example, Emmanuel coordinated a joint venture between Beth Israel and Children's Hospital, providing a short-term lease of Alumnae Hall. The College used the resulting funds to transform Marian Hall into a modern science education center.
In time there would be other highly beneficial partnerships. In 1994, following negotiations with IBM, Emmanuel became the first campus in Boston to be fully wired for interactive technology including in its residence halls. Two years later, Sister Janet provided the founding vision for the Colleges of the Fenway (COF), an innovative, internationally acclaimed consortium of six neighboring colleges. Since the COF's founding, Emmanuel has offered its students the social and academic benefits of a large university while maintaining the close-knit community of a small private college.
Then, in 2000 and 2001, Sister Janet led Emmanuel through two of the most significant developments in its history. The first was the transition to coeducation. Thanks to thorough research and careful planning, this major step proved successful beyond all expectations and has resulted, over the last four years, in a five-fold increase in applications and a tripling of the College's enrollment. The other major development was Emmanuel's partnership with Merck & Co. By granting the pharmaceutical research and manufacturing company a 75-year lease of a parcel of its "endowment campus," Emmanuel immediately moved into what its auditor called "a new financial league."
Occurring as they did in such close succession, these two advances unlocked a host of new opportunities, which the College has been quick to seize. In just the last three years, Emmanuel has renovated St. Joseph Hall, re-purchased and re-opened Julie Hall as a modern residence hall with suites, and built the spectacular new Jean Yawkey Center. A groundbreaking new science partnership with Merck Research Laboratories-Boston is under way, benefiting faculty and students. Campus life is infused with a new vibrancy, and people throughout the region and across the country are increasingly aware of Emmanuel as a college on the move.
Such achievements have elicited high praise from even the most accomplished of Sister Janet's peers, colleagues, and friends.
"Sister Janet is easily the best president in the College's history," says Thomas Wall, who has taught philosophy at Emmanuel since 1969. "The reason is that she has done an excellent job leading the College not only in good times, but also in lean times. Not everyone can do both."
It is said that great achievements are the manifestations of great beliefs. In the case of Emmanuel, the history of the last 25 years stands as a testament to Sister Janet's unswerving convictions about community, faith, service, and the transformative power of education.
"The Emmanuel Essence" is a term administrators, faculty, and students often use to describe the spirit of warmth and welcome that characterizes life on campus. By her words and example, Sister Janet has nurtured this unique sense of expansiveness, which has a lasting effect on those who experience it. Even people who encounter it only briefly, such as visiting high school students and their families, remember the authentic atmosphere of caring and friendliness.
"It's like Cheers, where everybody knows your name," recalls C. Michael Daley, Chair of the Board of Trustees, whose daughter, Mary Beth Daley Grey, graduated from Emmanuel in 1990.
Meghan Murphy, who serves as president of the Class of 2006, says that the sense of closeness among students, faculty, and staff is as palpable today as ever. "The community feel played a big role in bringing me to Emmanuel," she says. "As a student, I've felt the camaraderie and encouragement come through in all kinds of ways and in many different settings, both on campus and off."
With its values of openness and mutual support, it is no surprise that Emmanuel also is recognized as a place where people of all backgrounds feel embraced as family. This is richly evident at the annual International Night, which celebrates the customs, cuisines, and traditions of cultures the world over. It also is seen in day-to-day interactions in classrooms and residence halls and in the bonds of friendship that endure long after graduation.
"Sister Janet relishes the multicultural campus that we have and does whatever she can to promote that," Thomas Wall says. "This comes right out of the Catholic tradition, which respects the intrinsic value of each person and the freedom and right of people to choose their own faith. She understands, too, that we learn a lot from each other. In particular, we can learn a lot about our Catholicism when we see it in relation to the value systems of other people."
From Sister Janet's perspective, an intellectual grasp of one's faith is an important part of becoming a thoughtful and reflective adult. It is also crucial to the formation of those who will participate in, and lead, the Church in the 21st century. To help students grow in their knowledge of Catholicism, she has encouraged the development of new academic programs and courses such as Sister Mary Johnson's class on the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. In her commitment to educate the "whole student," Sister Janet also has crafted the broader student experience to foster what she calls the "habits of the heart."
Spiritual and moral awareness grows, she says, when students have an experience of a community of faith. It was for this reason that she rallied alumni and friends around the renovation of the College Chapel — the spiritual heart of campus — in the late 1990s. She also oversaw significant enhancements to Emmanuel's Campus Ministry, which today offers an array of events, retreats and other resources for students hoping to explore their beliefs and deepen their spirituality.
Sister Janet continually weaves the 200-year-old beliefs and philosophy of the Sisters of Notre Dame into the fabric of College life. "Sister Janet has brought the spirit of our Notre Dame charism to the College," says Sister Susan Thornell, SND '70, an Emmanuel Trustee and an administrator at Mother Caroline Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts. "Everybody connected to Emmanuel knows what Notre Dame is about and what we want this College to be. Here at Mother Caroline, one of our volunteers is a recent Emmanuel graduate; she talks about Julie Billiart all the time because the Notre Dame heritage has been part of her life for four years."
Sister Janet hopes that the new Center for Mission and Spirituality will further integrate Notre Dame traditions into the academic, social, and spiritual dimensions of College life — and keep them vital in the minds and hearts of Emmanuel students and leaders for years to come. "We want to make sure that future generations have a true understanding of what this College is all about," she says.
Sister Janet is known for putting the tenets of her faith into action — and in the process offering a powerful example of what it means to give of oneself to others.
"I feel really humbled by Sister Janet," says Fred Proulx '06. "She gives me an awareness that with great power comes great responsibility to serve."
Inspired by Sister Janet's commitment — and by the values of social justice at the heart of the College's mission — students for years have been performing community service at the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Pine Street Inn, the Franklin Park Zoo, the St. Francis de Sales After School Program in Roxbury, and many other sites throughout the city. The overwhelming majority of students participate in service projects during their years at Emmanuel.
The strength of the community's commitment to service and social justice was reflected in the choice of May's commencement speaker: Kip Tiernan, the founder of Rosie's Place, a shelter for homeless women in Boston. "The students really responded to her," Sister Susan Thornell says. "They're committed to causes beyond themselves, and that's due largely to the climate that Sister Janet has fostered at the College."
Trustee Leslie McCafferty '76 sees the experience of "giving back" as having long-term effects on the lives of Emmanuel graduates. "Many of them go on to do more service and grow as good, concerned citizens," she says. "This is a legacy that Sister Janet will long be noted for."
Sister Janet has also carried on the College's longstanding efforts to provide educational opportunity to students of high potential but limited means. Throughout her tenure, even in the most financially challenging times, student financial assistance has remained a top budget priority. Today, 75 percent of students receive some form of aid to bridge the gap between the cost of an Emmanuel education and what they and their families can afford to pay.
The Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Emmanuel College in 1919 were inspired by the idea that education transforms lives. For them and all SNDs, teaching and mentoring young people was nothing less than the greatest work on earth. This vision, rooted in a profound respect for the dignity and promise of every person, has remained central to Emmanuel's mission for more than 85 years.
The presidency comes with a thousand duties, but for Sister Janet there is one that surpasses all others: to honor and advance the mission. "Emmanuel's growth is not just about increases or expansion," she says. "It is about growth in our depth of understanding of our mission — and in how we live it out."
In close collaboration with faculty and administrators, she consistently seeks new ways to bring the mission to life, to keep it rich and relevant for new generations of students. Expanded study abroad opportunities, innovative service learning courses, leading-edge interdisciplinary majors such as Global Studies, and popular new leadership development programs are just a few examples of how Emmanuel continues to respond to evolving student interests and the changing demands of an increasingly borderless and complex world.
Whatever new expressions the mission might take, Sister Janet's ultimate criteria for success remain grounded in old principles. She frequently challenges faculty and staff with a series of searching questions: Are our graduates able to think critically, communicate clearly, and appreciate beauty and truth? Are they aware of their responsibility to give generously of themselves to others, especially the poor and those in need? Are they prepared to discern worthwhile work and to be men and women of prayer, conscience, and compassion?
"I believe that one of the greatest gifts that Sister Janet has given us is her example of never taking her eyes off the mission," says Sister Mary Johnson, SND '79, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies. "Other institutions have been swamped by far less treacherous waters because their leaders became distracted by that which was not essential. Sister Janet has taught us that the mission is the essence of Emmanuel."
Trustee Leslie McCafferty adds, "Sister Janet runs Emmanuel in a way that keeps it true to the reason it was founded."
Energy, Wisdom, and Confidence
When meeting Sister Janet for the first time, many people are struck by her extraordinary vitality. People who have known her for many years notice something more: that after 25 years as president, her vigor is as extraordinary as ever.
"She has the same enthusiasm today that she had when she was named president," Sister Susan Thornell says.
Her energy shines through in her approachability, the focus she brings to every exchange, and the genuine concern she shows for all.
"I remember her from day one," Meghan Murphy recalls. "She was around on freshman move-in day, just like she's around at basketball games and other events. And when you interact with her, she remembers little details about you."
"She makes you feel as though you are the only person in the room," C. Michael Daley says. "She also has a tendency to listen before she reacts, which is good because she gets a better feel for what the issues are."
This willingness to solicit different points of view — from advisers, consultants, and many others — is one of the reasons she consistently makes excellent decisions for the College. "She probably has the keenest sense of judgment of anybody I have ever met," Thomas Wall explains. "I've had the opportunity to work with her on various committees, and she's just right on, all the time."
James Roosevelt, a longtime Trustee and CEO of Tufts Health Plan, says that listening has played a pivotal role in her success as a leader. "I've seen Sister Janet interact with government leaders, with donors, with members of the neighborhood, and, most importantly, with students and faculty. And the way that she is able to influence them is, clearly, because they understand that she listens to them first."
Sister Janet's wisdom has not gone unnoticed in wider circles. Throughout her presidency she has served on countless boards, commissions, and task forces focusing on higher education and Catholic issues. Most recently, Boston Archbishop Seán P. O'Malley, OFM, Cap. asked her to head a new committee consisting of leaders from Boston's business and nonprofit sectors. The committee provided insights and recommendations regarding the Archdiocese's comprehensive parish re-configuration effort.
Father Bryan Hehir, the renowned moral theologian and onetime Emmanuel faculty member, says that Sister Janet has played an indispensable role in the committee's historic work. "The Archbishop's goal," he says, "was to gather people with significant leadership capability — people who had experience with complex planning and organizational processes and who, in many instances, had dealt with questions in both the secular and ecclesiastical arenas. Sister Janet fit the role perfectly. When the committee was announced, her name alone created confidence."
It is with confidence that Sister Janet continues to lead Emmanuel into the future. While the College is excelling in ways that would not have been possible only a few years ago, she is far from complacent. Much work remains to be done, she says. Already plans are on the board for a thoroughly renovated Administration Building and a new academic and science building featuring state-of-the-art laboratories and classrooms. Also, she intends to forge stronger links between disciplines to create a more focused academic program — and to achieve a closer coordination between what students learn in the classroom and what they experience in internships and service projects throughout Boston and beyond.
Sister Janet's passion and vision for Emmanuel were never clearer than at her 25th anniversary dinner. C. Michael Daley remembers, "As Sister Janet spoke at the dinner, she glowed with a certain radiance and the sense of excitement and anticipation in the room kept rising. Looking at her, you just know great things are going to happen. The momentum toward the next set of advances at Emmanuel is remarkably strong."
Moved by the presence and tributes of so many friends and alumni at the 25th anniversary dinner, Sister Janet said, "How can I tell you of God's goodness to me? Of His faithful love for me over these years and the joy that brings me? I am grateful to you who have shared your faith, your hope, your vision with me; you, who have assisted, advised and worked with me over the years. Thank you so much!"
By Sam O'Neill