Building on a legacy of charity and education

Getting to know Clarke’s Sr. Joanne Burrows, SC

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

This is the third part in a series on the presidents of the Catholic college and universities in the archdiocese.

DUBUQUE — It would be difficult to find anyone more passionate about higher education than Sister Joanne Burrows, SC. “It’s an exciting thing. It’s a good thing,” she said recently in an interview with The Witness. “I’ve spent my whole life dedicated to higher education. It’s what gives me the energy to get up every morning.”

Sister Joanne celebrated her 40th anniversary as a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati on March 19. Almost all of her four decades of religious life have been devoted to work in higher education, the culmination of which has been her service as the president of Clarke University in Dubuque, a role she has held since 2006.

The path that led Sister Joanne to Clarke began first in Washington, D.C., where she was born, and in neighboring Maryland, in the suburbs outside the district, where she and her five siblings were raised. Sister Joanne went on to receive her undergraduate degree in graphic design from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1975. She also pursued a master of arts degree in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological Union and Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, and a doctorate in higher education from The Ohio State University.

Sister Joanne worked in a variety of professional roles in higher education before becoming the president of Clarke. She served first in admissions and then as the assistant dean of student life at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. She was the assistant academic dean at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, and a faculty member and then a department chair at Indiana State. Sister Joanne also served as the vice president of academic affairs at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Saint Mary of the Woods, Indiana. “I’ve been in about every area of higher ed,” she reflected.

When presented with the opportunity to become Clarke’s president, it “was just clear that it was a good fit,” she said. “I wanted an institution that was Catholic. I liked that it was smaller in size, that it had adult and graduate and traditional enrollment. I wanted something that was founded by women religious, and Clarke had a great connection with the BVMs (Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary). My own congregation is not related at all, but there is a very similar spirit in the orders.”

Sister Joanne said the BVM sisters are really the key to understanding the Catholic identity of Clarke. The now co-ed university was initially founded by the sisters as a female academy in 1843. “Faith at Clarke has very much been influenced by the BVMs. They are the fabric in the fabric of this place and their core values are our core values,” she explained. “The values of freedom and education and charity and justice and being for the common good are very much things that students are taught about and think about here.”

Students at Clarke are required to take six hours of religious studies classes and six hours of philosophy during the course of their studies. “Not every student here is Catholic, but no matter what their background is we engage them in that whole con­versation of spirituality and something that is bigger and beyond them that we call God,” Sister Joanne said. “As an institution we have worked hard to make faith something that people are conversant about. Spirituality is very much a part of the life here.”

Catholic colleges and universities like Clarke face a number of difficulties today. “There’s been a big trend away from the liberal arts and a real questioning of the value of a college education,” Sister Joanne explained. “There has been an increased emphasis placed on vocational readiness and career training. But at schools like Clarke and Loras and Mt. Mercy, we’re looking at more than just that. We’re also looking to graduate people who are capable of continuing to learn all their lives, people who are going to be able to engage the world both critically and caringly. Sadly, that is not valued in our society today.”

Another significant challenge for places like Clarke, which has about 1,100 students, is enrollment. “We’re a tuition driven institution. And we’ve watched high­er education as a whole shrink,” said Sister Joanne. “We have lost one million students in the last five years in higher education in this country. We’ve gone from having 17 million students enrolled down to 16 million. That’s in part because of that questioning of its value. It’s also in part because of the changing demographics with the size of the family today. We’re just seeing fewer and fewer young people.”

But Clarke is not shying away from addressing today’s challenges head on. The Clarke community has a resilient spirit, which it has demonstrated many times in its history, most notably in 1984, when it began to rebuild after a devastating campus fire.

Clarke is once again moving forward and today is looking for ways to offset its small size through the formation of new partnerships. Sister Joanne said Clarke is working with the other Catholic colleges and universities in the state to see how they can collaborate more and possibly share certain services and resources for their mutual benefit.

“The six Catholic schools in Iowa want to maintain a Catholic presence in higher education in the state,” she said. “Education in this state started Catholic, and we don’t want it to go away, so we want to find ways to enter into alliances with each other that help give us some economy of scale so that we operate more efficiently and then can be more effective in what we deliver to our students.”

Clarke is also taking important steps to distinguish itself in the higher education market place. Last fall, it implemented a new program known as Compass, which is meant to be an over-arching experience for students across their four years. Organized around the concept of the common good, Compass has eight outcomes it hopes to help students achieve in areas such as spiritual growth, communication, critical thinking and leadership. Compass encourages students to ask questions like “Why am I here?” and “What do I hope to get out of college?”

“Compass empowers students to make intentional choices inside the classroom and out that will lead them to the life they want to live and the profession they want to have and the way they want to be in the world,” Sister Joanne said of the new initiative. “And it is also important for us because it helps Clarke set itself apart. It’s our value statement that what happens at Clarke is different than at other institutions.”

Sister Joanne will celebrate her 10th anniversary at Clarke University later this year. She’s optimistic about the future of the institution she’s leading and its ability to continue to positively shape the lives of its students. “When you listen to students who graduate from here and you hear them talk about our core values and what they mean to them and how they live them through outreach and service, it’s very inspiring,” she said. “Our students learn how to be in right relationship with one another and build up relationships in the world around them. And it is through relationships that people are pulled beyond themselves to do things that they never thought they could do before.”

(Photo contributed by Clarke University. Sister Joanne M. Burrows, SC, (center), the president of Clarke University, speaks with students Emily Grant and Parker Wilken.)

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