Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, PhD (1981-2004)

Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, PhD

In November of 1981, Barry College officially became Barry University and Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, OP, PhD, became the school’s fifth president. Both events were highly indicative of the change that was to come over the next two decades, transforming Barry from a small school to one of national prominence, the fourth largest private university in the state of Florida.

When Sister Jeanne took over the office of the presidency, she found strong foundations but a number of challenges, including a deficit and relatively small operating budget of approximately $6 million. Illustrating the drive and non-stop work ethic that would earn her nicknames such as “nun on the run” and “power nun,” the Detroit native quickly went to work on a program to raise money and engage the local community. During her first year in office, she hosted 105 “friendship luncheons” for prospective donors and attended more than 72 community events. She also hosted more than 800 Barry friends, students, faculty and staff at her home to let them know of her plans for the future of the university.

By the end of her 23-year tenure, Sister Jeanne had the satisfaction of seeing many of those plans come to fruition. Under her leadership Barry’s enrollment increased from 1,750 in 1981 to more than 9,000 and its endowment grew from $770,000 to $24.1 million. In addition, the number of buildings on campus increased from 16 to 55. Four schools were initiated, including the School for School of Professional And Career Education (PACE), Computer Science, Biological and Biomedical Science and Podiatric Medicine, and 19 off-campus learning sites were opened around the state. She also oversaw the purchase of the Orlando School of Law and helped guide its path to accreditation.

Raised in Detroit, Michigan, by a widowed father, who she often referred to as “the anchor of her life,” Sister Jeanne joined the Order of the Dominican Sisters of Adrian at 16. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Siena Heights College in Adrian and a master’s degree in biology and doctorate in educational administration from the University of Arizona. She was the executive to the president of St. Louis University, where she was an associate professor of education and a member of the graduate faculty. She was a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco and Siena Heights College. She has served as superintendent at the Adrian Dominican Independent School System in Michigan, Illinois and Florida.

Equally known for her compassion and her grit, Sister Jeanne never hesitated to step in to help a community or individual in crisis. In 1982, she worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to create a system to keep track of 300 Haitian immigrants released from Krome Detention Center. In 1992, she intervened on behalf of three Chinese women who spent more than a year in a room at the Miami International Airport waiting to be granted asylum on the basis of fear of political persecution.

A more controversial intervention occurred in 2000 when she acted as a mediator between the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez, the boy at the heart of a headline-making international custody battle, and the federal government. She received both praise and harsh criticism when she eventually abandoned her neutrality and advocated for the boy to remain in the United States.

Sister Jeanne has been an active member of numerous civic and professional associations, including the Board of Directors of the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges, the Southeastern Florida Holocaust Memorial Center and the Governor’s Constituency for Children. She was also the first woman named to the Orange Bowl Committee and the Non-Group, an influential alliance of Miami-Dade business leaders. She has also been honored by numerous organizations including the YWCA, the Mayor’s Economic Task Force 101, the Miami Shores Chamber Commerce and the Anti-Defamation League.

In 2005, she became chancellor of Barry University with the goal of helping more women in developing countries attain advanced degrees from Barry and other U.S. universities.