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Celebrating the life of Sister Vivien Jennings, former president of Caldwell

Sister Vivien Jennings, former president of Caldwell University, with other former faculty members.
Sister Vivien Jennings smiling.
Sister Vivien Jennings holing a certificate.
Sister Vivien Jennings with other faculty members.
Sister Vivien Jennings with other faculty members.
Caldwell University Faculty and students on tour with sister Vivien.
Sister Vivien.
Sister Vivien with President Dr. Blattner.

Sister Vivien Jennings, O.P., former president of Caldwell College, passed away on May 5. She served as president of the college from 1984 to 1994.

Sister Vivien’s leadership paved the way for many historic firsts at the college. She was president when the decision was made in 1985 to transition from an all-women’s institution to a coeducational college. She expanded intercollegiate athletics, was the first director of the Educational Opportunity Fund, a professor in the English Department, a director of continuing education and started the Fanjeaux study-abroad experience, which allows members of the campus community to learn in depth about the Catholic Dominican tradition.

Her former colleagues reflected on her accomplishments, from building strong academic programs to improving infrastructure, but most important how she modeled working hard and taking risks while remaining humble and caring about the well-being of employees. “She had a way of making everyone feel important and validated, signs of a great leader,” said Sheila O’Rourke, vice president for institutional effectiveness, who first worked with Sister Vivien starting in 1991. “She was a visionary who seemed to foresee the changing landscape in higher education we are dealing with now.”

Dr. Marie Mullaney, professor of history, remembers how Sister Vivien would say, “’In higher education, to stand still is to regress, to go backwards.’  This was an especially important approach that guided the college decision to become co-educational.”

Caldwell University President Nancy Blattner, Ph.D. said that Sister Vivien’s decision to transition Caldwell to co-education “was understandably controversial at the time,” but “positively changed the institution in terms of our student body, the degrees we offered, and our place in the field of higher education in New Jersey.”

Sister Mary Joseph, O.P., was a member of the executive administration and the board of trustees when Sister Vivien was president and the decision was made to accept male students. “It was really very visionary.” Sister Vivien was very good at connecting people, even outside the college. “A gift of hers was putting the right people together,” said Sister Mary Joseph. She always saw the needs of those she worked with and recognized their talents. “She could see things in people they could not see in themselves. She was a quiet, moving individual who had extraordinary results.”

One of those results was Caldwell’s rising enrollment. By the time Sister Vivien left the presidency in 1994, enrollment had grown from 400 to nearly 1,000.

One reason for the increase was the support she provided in expanding intercollegiate athletics. Former chaplain Father Bob Stagg recruited Mark Corino, and Sister Vivien hired him to coach the men’s basketball team and to build the athletics program. She trusted that Corino’s vision was equal to that of the institution. “She and Sister Patrice Werner played great roles in allowing athletics to be a part of the college’s vision,” said Corino, assistant vice president and director of athletics. “Sister Vivien had outstanding leadership qualities and understood the value of athletics.”

Sister Michel Rodgers, O.P., recalled how early on when one of the teams won a championship and the Athletics Department did not know how it could afford travel for the team members,   Sister Vivien said, “I will find the money and they will go.” Dean Johnson, associate director of athletics, was hired by Sister Vivien in 1990. “She is one of the big reasons we are as successful as we are today, with our growth in enrollment, added athletic teams and improved facilities.” The naming of the Jennings Library was appropriate too, he said, since “she was a scholar and very focused on the academic reputation of Caldwell University.”

Sister Michel worked at the college in several positions including sociology professor, residence life director, assistant academic dean, and vice president of student life.  She remembered how Sister Vivien asked her to oversee a new academic advisement office. “She was so supportive, and the program eventually won first place in advisement nationally,” said Sister Michel.

Al Neiman, professor of accounting and an accountant, was also hired by Sister Vivien. “She was an inspiration, humble and grateful.” Trish Verrone, professor emerita of English, remembered how at an all-campus meeting Sister Vivien once said, “‘Never use the word  “small” to describe the college because, although we may have fewer students than some other institutions, we are big in ideas and vision.’ Since that time, I have spoken at many open houses to students and parents, and I have never used the word. I have always remembered and respected that,” said Verrone.

Sister Vivien held a bachelor’s degree in English from Caldwell, a master’s in English from Catholic University, a master’s in communications from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in English from Fordham. She saw the value of emerging media.  She worked in telecommunications at Barry University and at the Catholic Telecommunications Network in New York City.  In the early ’80s, seeing that communications was an expanding field, she founded a communication arts certificate program at Caldwell and then as president in 1988 hired Professor Bob Mann to work toward the creation of a communication department and major, a goal achieved in 1995. “Sister Vivien and Sister Patrice were constant advocates of the creation of the Communication department and major,” said Mann.

Andrei St. Felix, director of the Educational Opportunity Fund, remembered that when the EOF office was in transition, Sister Vivien would come by every Friday to ask if the staff needed anything. “She cared so much about the program; she wanted to make sure we had everything we needed for it to run efficiently.”

At Sister Vivien’s funeral on May 9, Sister Patrice Werner, prioress of the Caldwell Dominicans and former president of Caldwell serving after Sister Viven, spoke of her mentor and friend as a “preacher of truth, the valiant woman.”

“If she gave you a job, she trusted you to do it well.  She didn’t look over your shoulder as you were doing it but you knew that you could go to her for encouragement and counsel if needed,” said  Sister Patrice. Even in her later years despite frailty, she continued “to stand tall in the life of the Congregation she loved so much, still sharing her knowledge and Dominican vocation with others, fully involved in community activities,” said Sister Patrice.   

That was certainly evident just two weeks before Sister Vivien’s passing when she spoke to a  class of undergraduate students about the beauty of the great Dominican saints—Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena—and their zeal for spreading the truths of the Catholic faith.       

“She was a beautiful woman,” said Sister Mary Joseph.  Perhaps Coach Johnson reflected best the sentiments of her many friends and colleagues on campus. “She was easy to talk to. I will miss her.”