Newsmaker: Ohio Dominican’s new president plans to run the school ‘like a business’ to guarantee its survival

Hayleigh Colombo  –  Staff reporter, Columbus Business First

Ohio Dominican University is a founded ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace

Connie Gallaher is ready to shake up higher education.

After a career serving in leadership roles for all three adult healthcare systems in Central Ohio, the new Ohio Dominican University president said there are many striking parallels between the sectors.

“Not only are we here to prepare and educate tomorrow’s leaders, but you’ve got to run it like a business,” said Gallaher, who most recently served as chief operating officer at OhioHealth and president of OhioHealth at Home before heading into a short-lived retirement.

“It took me back to my healthcare days,” Gallaher said. “Many a nurse or physician or social worker or pharmacist never wanted to hear you talk as though healthcare was a business. They would say, ‘We’re here to take care of patients.’

“What I would tell people is, ‘We’re in the business of taking care of patients,’ ” Gallaher said. “If you don’t also have a business mind about it, one day you are going to lose your privilege of taking care of patients.”

Gallaher replaces former president Robert Gervasi, who served four years in the role before retiring.

Gallaher, who also previously served as an administrator at Riverside Methodist Hospital, Ohio State University Medical Center and Mount Carmel East Hospital, takes the helm at a time when the university needs a boost in terms of enrollment.

Ohio Dominican University has struggled with enrollment during the last decade, an issue that was not helped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The university had 1,475 students enrolled in the fall 2020 semester, down from 1,641 students in fall of 2019. Many universities across the United States saw this sort of drop during the pandemic.

But ODU’s overall enrollment trend has been one of decline. In 2010, about 3,100 students attended the university.

Gallaher said higher education is an “industry that is going to be disrupted,” and that Ohio Dominican will have to make changes to be sustainable in the future.

“It’s no different than what we saw in healthcare,” Gallaher said. “The vast majority of those independent, smaller, private hospitals had to not only worry, they had to innovate (and) find partners.

“And that’s what I think you’ll see in a fair amount of universities and colleges across this country.”

That innovation could include increasing the number of corporate partners at ODU, shoring up fundraising, and addressing the cost of college, Gallaher said. Her goal is to think differently about what the university will need as it moves forward.

Gallaher said she laughed when Dr. Janet Bay, a neurosurgeon, retired OhioHealth executive and an ODU board member, first told her that the board wanted her to apply for the president’s job.

“I said, ‘What in the world are you thinking?’ ” Gallaher said. “The traditional university president has various credentials behind their name, generally, at the very least a Ph.D.”

But Bay told her the board was looking for someone different.

“She said, ‘Connie, if we wanted what we had always had, then we would follow the same pathway,'” Gallaher said.

In a statement, Bay said “Connie’s impressive background in the healthcare industry aligns more closely with higher education than many might suspect.”

“I am excited to see how Connie leverages her vast experience to find unique, creative and impactful ways to create new opportunities for ODU students to help equip them with the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to achieve professional and personal success,” Bay said.

Gallaher, who was raised Methodist, said she was also called by her faith to take on the new role at the university. Minutes before her interview, she said she read a prayer of discernment.

“I’m going to paraphrase it, but it said, you have been given a mission by God created for you,” Gallaher said. “While you may not appreciate or understand the reason for this mission today, you will be told that in another life. You have not been created for naught. You are a bond between people, a connection. After I got off that call, it was the first time in my career, (that) I understood one thing very clearly: this was not my choice. This time, my career was in other hands.”

She said the board could see her “deep conviction” for the challenge.

Gallaher said one of Ohio Dominican’s challenges is that it has not adequately told its story about its impact in the greater community.

“We’re a secret gem that this city has … and we’re going to learn to tell our story,” Gallaher said. “Use me as an example. I’ve lived here since I moved for undergraduate in 1974, and I knew of Ohio Dominican, but I didn’t know about Ohio Dominican. We have to do, what I would call, humbly brag.”

For example, she said, ODU has an “outstanding” physician assistant program, which educates professionals in an area that is going to be “direly needed” in the economy as needs in the healthcare industry continue to grow.

“We’ve got to share the story about how we believe in helping the underserved,” Gallaher said. “We’ve got to share the story of what we do with the Charles School. ”

The Charles School at ODU is a five-year, tuition-free early college high school where students can graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

While Ohio Dominican is a community asset, “It’s going to be important that we never rest on our history,” she said.

“A great rich history, still fraught with all of the right mission-oriented things, but we cannot rest on that,” she said. “It is a changing world. The goal is you have to remain fluid, dynamic, willing to spin on a dime.”

Gallaher said Ohio Dominican’s mission has never been more relevant: “To help people prepare intellectually, spiritually, as a whole person.”

“The mission is not for me to rewrite, because it still is relevant and it still works,” she said. “My passion is about the big picture and tomorrow, and really helping organizations evolve.”

What gives her confidence about the future of ODU? She said it is “the spirit of commitment, the spirit of conviction, the spirit of (doing) what it takes to succeed.”

“No one, except the Almighty, can predict the future and guarantee it,” Gallaher said. “But my confidence is in what I see.

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