Leadership & Traditions

A History of Leadership

When President Rhona Free, Ph.D., became the University’s ninth president on July 1, 2015, she joined a group of visionary leaders—women who formed and served the University’s mission since its founding in 1932. Like the University itself, the presidency has evolved over the years to meet the needs of our ever-changing society.

University of Saint Joseph Presidents

In the University’s early days, the president was the Major Superior of the Sisters of Mercy of Connecticut, a position that oversaw 800 Mercy members. Consequently, the president delegated many executive functions to the dean, who oversaw the University’s day-to-day operations and functioned much like the president does today.

Those Who Served in the Presidential Capacity Include:

Mary Rosa McDonough, RSM, Ph.D., Founding Sister and Dean: 1932-1950

Sister Rosa McDonough, one of 14 Founding Sisters, earned a doctorate in Psychology from Catholic University, becoming the first Sister from Hartford to receive an advanced degree.

She was regarded by those who knew her as a person dedicated to excellence. Her relentless pursuit of the best was evident in all she created: the University’s academic programs, resources, and buildings. During the construction of the campus’ administrative building (now named McDonough Hall in her honor), Sister Rosa was seen at the site every day inspecting progress and requesting changes. As a teacher, Sister Rosa taught courses in philosophy, logic, and psychology. She pushed her students to think for themselves, to pursue graduate studies, to contribute to their community, and to cultivate a love of life-long learning.

Under her leadership, the University defined itself with: a values-centered curriculum that combined liberal arts with professional preparation; the campus landscape plan which thoughtfully factored future growth; and the standard of excellence that has become the USJ hallmark.

M. Theodore Kelleher, RSM, Dean and President: 1950-1969

Sister Theodore came to the University in 1936 to teach German and French, while she completed degrees at Catholic University and Columbia University. She then served six years as principal of Mount Saint Joseph Academy before returning to USJ as dean in 1950. During her administration nine buildings were constructed on campus, including four residence halls for students, a residence for the Sisters of Mercy, the Pope Pius XII Library, McGovern Hall, the Gengras Center, and the Connor Chapel of Our Lady. Sister Theodore’s tenure also brought the formation of the graduate program and the expansion of many existing academic and student programs. She is remembered as “a great organizer and efficient administrator” who held a “deep and abiding belief in the creative power of women.”

Mary Consolata O’Connor, RSM, ’39, PH.D., President: 1969-1984

Sister Consolata first came to USJ in 1935 as a student, eager to study and serve the Catholic community. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Business and Economics before heading to Catholic University where she completed a master’s and doctorate. She returned to the University as a professor of History and, over the years, served as dean of students, academic dean, and finally, president.

Under Sister Consolata’s leadership, new undergraduate programs in Nursing, Business, Economics, and Dietetics were formed. The University reached record enrollment at that time and installed the first computer lab in 1978. Overseeing her final Commencement ceremony, Sister Consolata shared the philosophy by which she guided the University: “The challenge of all educated people is to discover what makes human life truly human, what this life is for, and to accept the responsibility to make better the human condition in whatever form we find it.” Following her “retirement” in 1984, she donated her time, effort, and energy to organizing and exhibiting the Archives, now known as the Sister Mary Consolata O’Connor Archives, located on the second floor of the Bruyette Athenaeum.

Mary Paton Ryan, RSM, Ph.D., President: 1984-1991

By the time she arrived at USJ, Dr. Ryan had earned a doctorate in English from Yale University, served as Yale’s assistant director to graduate studies in English, and had a long affiliation as dean at Marquette University. She brought great energy and enthusiasm to her position as president. While she served, the University launched its program for adult learners in 1985. Dr. Ryan focused on leadership training and served as a member of the American Leadership Forum. She worked with the late Professor Emerita Vincenza Uccello to open the University’s first Art Study Gallery. Dr. Ryan’s tenure was sadly cut short by her death from cancer in 1991.

Winifred E. Coleman, D.H.L., President: 1991-2004

Winifred E. Coleman came to the presidency with experience as an educator, administrator, and businesswoman. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from LeMoyne College and a master’s degree in Guidance and Student Personnel from Marquette University, she served as dean of students at two women’s colleges for a total of 24 years. She left academia in 1980 to direct the National Council of Catholic Women for five years and later established an Irish import business.

At USJ, President Coleman guided the institution through its first capital campaigns, which resulted in the O’Connell Athletic Center, the Carol Autorino Center for the Arts and Humanities, and the School for Young Children at Beach Park. President Coleman received a Doctor of Humane Letters from LeMoyne College 1993. The Student Union at Cazenovia College was named in her honor, as was the lobby of USJ’s Bruyette Athenaeum. 

Evelyn C. Lynch, Ed.D., President: 2004-2006

Before joining USJ in August, 2004, Dr. Evelyn Lynch served as the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. Her previous administrative positions were at Arkansas State University and Ball State University in Indiana, and she began her higher education career at Moorhead State University in Minnesota.

Dr. Lynch earned a B.S. in History with a minor in Psychology from the University of Tennessee. Both her master’s and doctorate degrees are in Special Education from Indiana University, Bloomington. While at the University of Saint Joseph, she encouraged community outreach, resulting in the creation of The Wellness Center on Church Street (in conjunction with St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church) and The School for Young Children on Asylum Hill (in conjunction with the Capitol Region Education Council and Asylum Hill Congregational Church).

Carol J. Guardo ’61, Ph.D., Interim President: 2007

Dr. Guardo built a diverse career in higher education, serving as a psychologist, professor, dean, provost, trustee and president at various institutions. In 1980, Dr. Guardo became the first woman provost in the history of the University of Hartford. She went on to serve as president of Rhode Island College from 1986-1990, and as president of the Great Lakes College Association, a consortium of 12 selective liberal arts colleges, from 1990-1996. She retired in 1996 to focus on higher education consulting, but was called out of retirement in to serve as interim president of the College of Saint Benedict. She took on that interim role again at the University of Saint Joseph in February 2007.

A graduate (with honors) of the Class of 1961, Dr. Guardo studied Psychology at USJ, earned a master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Detroit, and obtained her doctorate in Developmental and Personality Psychology from the University of Denver. Dr. Guardo has maintained close contact with her alma mater, including 10 years of service on the Board of Trustees, and was the 1980 recipient of a Distinguished Alumna Award.

Pamela Trotman Reid, Ph.D., President: 2008-2015

Dr. Pamela Trotman Reid became the eighth president of the University in 2008, following a robust career in higher education as an administrator, professor, and research scientist. She came to USJ from Roosevelt University where she served as provost and executive vice president. Dr. Reid earned her bachelor’s from Howard University, her master’s from Temple University, and her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout her tenure at USJ, Dr. Reid worked to build upon the University’s reputation for academic excellence and ensure its commitment to integrity, women’s leadership, and service. She initiated and launched the University’s first professional doctoral program by creating a School of Pharmacy in downtown Hartford, a move that garnered widespread acclaim from the Greater Hartford community. Other new programs developed under her guidance included the master’s in Social Work, master’s in Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis, the Doctor of Nursing Practice, and bachelor’s degrees in Public Health and Public Policy and Advocacy.

Rhona C. Free, Ph.D., President: 2015 – Present

Rhona C. Free, Ph.D., became the University’s President in 2015. Learn more about President Free.


University of Saint Joseph Traditions

Each fall, Convocation welcomes new and returning students in a traditional academic ceremony. Originally, the opening of the academic year was marked by a welcoming Mass. The modern-day Convocation, which began in 1987, blends the spiritual with the academic. Each year, the community gathers in The Connor Chapel of Our Lady and asks for God’s blessing and guidance in the coming academic year. Following welcoming remarks by the president, the faculty winner of the Father John J. Stack Teaching Excellence Award addresses the congregation.

Investiture marks a significant event in the life of a scholar. It commemorates the advanced academic standing of members of the junior class by dressing the students in the scholar’s garb for the first time. Juniors process to the Chapel in academic gowns and receive their caps from faculty members. The University first celebrated Investiture in 1934 in a ceremony that coincided with the Feast of the Presentation. Following Mass, juniors recited the “Catholic Students Prayer” and received communion. Faculty members and mothers of the junior class were then invited to join the students at a communion breakfast. Although the ceremony has changed over the years, the intent remains the same: Investiture provides an opportunity for the College community to recognize the students’ academic advancement and to ask for God’s continued blessing.

Since 1978, the University community has celebrated the Advent season with The Festival of Lights. A joyful celebration of music, dance, and liturgy, the festival involves many members of the community as active participants. Students, faculty, and staff read from the scriptures and the University’s choir and liturgical dancers perform throughout the ceremony. Sponsored by the Office of Campus Ministry, the Festival ends with a traditional lighting ceremony in which a light is passed throughout the congregation until all hold a lighted candle.

As a tradition, Baccalaureate Mass dates back to the first graduating class of Saint Joseph College. Essentially, it is a Mass held prior to Commencement to celebrate the accomplishments of the seniors. Baccalaureate Mass unites the community in worship one final time to bless the graduating students as they move into the next phase of their lives.

Commencement, of course, is the final ceremony of the college experience. Each May, graduating students receive their diplomas and move into the role of University of Saint Joseph alumni.

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