Pat Donohue studied mathematics at Duke in the mid-1960s. Spurred on by her father, who stressed excellence at every opportunity, she graduated in only three years — in 1966. Diploma in hand, she began a teaching career that has culminated in her recent appointment as the sixth president of Mercer County Community College, where her early priorities include capital renovations and easing students’ access to financial aid.

But did she ever consider using her math degree as a springboard to a career in engineering or in theoretical or applied mathematics? “Back in those days women didn’t do those other things,” she says. It’s all right, though, she quickly adds. “I loved teaching right from the start. I focused on education.” Happy with her own career, she has nevertheless made it a priority to “make sure women know they can be engineers and mathematicians.”

The mother of three grown children, Donohue has seen both of her daughters enter scientific careers. One is in computer training with Boeing, while the other runs the chemistry labs at Hampshire College. She also has a son, a mathematician who works for EMC.

Donohue speaks at a meeting of the Princeton Regional Chamber on Thursday, May 3, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton Hotel. Call 609-921-1776 to register.

Donohue, who holds a Ph.D. in curriculum instruction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, grew up in St. Louis, one of three daughters of a homemaker with a keen interest in volunteering and an attorney who “was always involved in learning.” Her father, she recalls, “could have been a physicist or a mathematician, or anything else. He was always reading, and always challenging us to grow and learn, to stretch for all we could do.”

Donohue has been a high school teacher, and an international consultant, spending time in Maldova at the time when that Eastern European country was emerging from Communism and trying to figure out how to switch to a more open Western style of university education. She worked as a teaching assistant while she was earning her Ph.D., and spent time in university administration, where her positions included researching educational issues such as student retention, assessing and improving curriculum, and affirmative action.

From all of the career possibilities in education, Donohue chose to work in community college education. She has been vice chancellor for education at St. Louis Community College and acting president of St. Louis Community College in Florissant Valley. Most recently, she was president of Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.

She recalls the beginnings of the community college movement, which occurred in the late 1960s, just as the first wave of the huge Baby Boomer generation was coming of college age. “There weren’t enough colleges to handle them,” she says. Finances were also a factor. “We needed a way to provide higher education for people who couldn’t afford to go away,” she says, recalling that the community college was initially planned as a two-year transfer school.

The schools are now often thought of more as preparation in specific, job-related skills, but, Donohue points out, a good 40 to 45 percent of all undergraduates in the United States are attending community colleges. “Community college as the start of a bachelor’s degree is true for a huge number of students,” she says. Upon transfer to four-year schools, these students, on average, do at least as well — and often better — than classmates who matriculated as freshman.

The addition of skills-centric education in the community college came gradually. “You saw nursing programs grow, sometimes alongside hospital programs, and then often as a replacement for hospital programs,” says Donohue. “Automotive training programs grew as the job of mechanic became computerized. In time all auto vendors partnered with community colleges.” The same can be said across a whole range of industries, she adds. At MCCC, for example, there is training for jobs ranging from chef to pharmaceutical drug developer.

Donohue says that an important part of her job is to keep in constant touch with area employers to find out just what skills they need, and then to make sure that her school is preparing students in these skills.

As she is starting out at MCCC, where she officially took over as president on February 1, she is spending the bulk of her time acquainting herself with the students and staff through meetings and one-on-one conversations. Everyone starts out listening, but soon enough, she says, “they spill out what is bothering them most, and what they would like to do, to add or change.”

It’s early days, but the one problem area that has emerged from these meetings, she says, is concern over financial aid. “There are challenges from the students to make it easier for them to obtain financial aid,” says Donohue. The faculty is concerned about this issue, too. “They want to find a way to make it easier so that the kids can concentrate on their studies,” she is being told.

Nearly half of all MCCC students rely on some form of financial aid — loans, grants, jobs, or some combination of the three. Adults taking career advancement courses can generally pay their way without help, but many recent high school graduates, along with under-employed mature students, or downsized area residents, who turn to the school for new skills, often do need financial help.

Tuition for a full course load of 15 credits is about $2,700. That may not sound like a lot to many residents of Mercer County, which is, overall, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but it can be a huge hurdle for many MCCC students. “It’s a lot of money for a person with a $6 an hour job and three kids to feed at home,” is how Donohue puts it. A number of her students fall into this category.

On a related issue, Donohue says that many MCCC students need public transportation. The school’s adminstration coordinates with New Jersey Transit to try to ensure that the buses run when the students need them. “There are all kinds of details that you don’t think about,” she says of the job of running a community college. For example: “Is there a bus at 10 p.m., when some students get out of class?” Among her priorities is expanding public transportation service to the school.

Something else that comes with the job of college administrator is stewardship of the school’s buildings, its students and faculty, and its reputation.

Attending to MCCC’s buildings is right at the top of Donohue’s agenda. “We have these wonderful buildings, and we have an obligation to take care of them,” she says. She is lobbying for the money to make needed capital repairs to the college’s buildings, many of which are 35 years old. In the process, she plans to upgrade classrooms for modern learning, which, she points out, is more interactive than it was three decades ago. She also wants to re-configure the offices in which students and staff interact. Students now stand in a public hallway and speak to staff behind counters as they choose a course of study and sign up for classes. In the course of doing so, they “give their life histories,” she says, and they deserve a more private environment in which to do so.

Speaking to stewardship of a school’s human assets, and its reputation, Donohue, a Duke alumna, comments on the Duke lacrosse incident. The news that the students had been declared innocent had just been announced, and she showed some heat in defending the university’s president, Richard Brodhead. A number of news commentators were criticizing him for perhaps jumping the gun by firing the lacrosse coach and cancelling the team’s season after three students were accused of raping a woman at an off-campus party.

Donohue, however, praises — and empathizes with — Brodhead’s reaction.

“It’s the nightmare we all hope we won’t have to face,” she says. “The president reacted immediately, and acted responsibly. He took the position that we have to be responsible if there is a chance they did a bad thing. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen here.” It turns out that the allegations were not true, but, says Donohue, a college is in an awful position when there is an accusation of serious wrongdoing. “You’re caught in a dilemma,” she says. “How much do you act before the legal system has decided? At the initial moment, the president had to act on the best information available.”

It turns out that Brodhead chose punishment when none was warranted. That does not mean, however, that there wasn’t an underlying problem. In the case of Duke, there were allegations of racism and there were tensions between students and townspeople. “They (Duke) found ways to make it better, even if it wasn’t true,” says Donohue. They said ‘we can be better and we will be better.’ I like to think that’s what I would do.”

Donohue says that she has run into one similar incident. On her watch at another college an employee was accused of committing a murder. “I had to suspend the person, and put processes in place.” It is a college president’s job to be fair, and also to protect students, staff, and the college’s reputation. It can be a difficult balancing act, and Donohue says that she hopes she is never again involved in a similar incident.

What she does hope is that she is able to effectively gather information about just what instruction area residents need to prepare for the jobs that local companies now have available, and plan to put in place within the next few years.

She has already found a new home, “in Hamilton, right near the college.” She lives there with her two dogs Merlyn and Aladin, who “think it’s their job to make sure I get my exercise.”

She wants to continue to lead MCCC for something on the order of five years. Then it may well be time to retire. “I have a commitment to myself to retire,” she says. “I watched my father not retire, and collapse at work. He missed the opportunity to read all the newest things in physics, and to travel.” By the time that her father stopped working, he was not well enough for other activities.

Donohue, who has a 10-year-old grandchild, doesn’t want that to happen to her. But, in the meantime, she says, “I will go full tilt.”

Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, Box B, Trenton 08690. Patricia Donohue, president. 609-586-4800; fax, 609-570-3845. E-mail: info@mccc. edu. Home page: www.mccc.edu

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