The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, never had any burning desire to become president of Villanova University. Formerly head of the university’s theater department and an award-winning director, he now says with a laugh, “I like to say they found me backstage and brought me out on stage to be president. It’s been the biggest acting job I’ve ever had.”
Father Donohue has been the university president since 2006. Since then, he has overseen a period of remarkable growth and transformation on the Lancaster Avenue campus in the heart of the Main Line, the product of two sweeping strategic plans. And he’s left his mark not just in the form of brick and mortar, but also on the curriculum, which places a solid emphasis on service learning.
Impressive for a reluctant aspirant to the topmost leadership position of one of the nation’s most prestigious Catholic universities.
Looking back on his ascent to the presidency, he recalls his initial response.
“Run. Run in the other direction,” he says, with characteristic wry, self-deprecating humor. “I was not really thinking about it at the time. I liked what I was doing. I enjoyed my work. I missed teaching a lot, and I still do, to this day. But my predecessor decided after 18 years to step out of the job, and it was advertised throughout the Augustinians that they were looking for a new president. Our superior, our provincial, was requesting names.”
Initially, Father Donohue’s was not one of those names. But one day an Augustinian friend asked him whether he had applied. The answer: No. But the friend persisted.
“He said, ‘Just because you put your name in doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. What’s the harm in trying? You’ve got what they’re looking for. Let’s just see what happens.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s true.’ Lo and behold, I got the job.”
Taking the job meant putting behind him a lifetime of dedication to the stage, a passion that first manifested itself when he was a boy growing up in Michigan. He was blessed with a good singing voice, and he found himself earning roles in productions like “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music”—anything, he recalls, “with kids in it.”
His love of theater never abated, and the Augustinians encouraged him to pursue it as a career—a career and vocation that has taken on a winding path from directing high school productions to overseeing Villanova’s highly regarded theater department.
Father Donohue studied at Villanova, where he received his bachelor’s degree, with a concentration in theatre and communication arts. Years later, after completing a master’s in theater from Catholic University, a master’s in divinity from Washington Theological Union, and a PhD in theatre from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he returned to Villanova as chair of the department.
As with his university presidency, Father Donohue’s gravitation toward the Augustinian order was also somewhat accidental.
“I saw an ad for them (the Augustinians) in a Catholic newspaper in Detroit,” he remembers. “I had been looking at different groups, and it just kind of struck me. I wrote and asked for some information. They wrote back. I actually joined them without knowing them, so it was kind of a fluke. Then I came to Villanova to study, that’s where our headquarters is, and the rest is history.”
He was ordained in 1979.
Villanova has a strong Irish tradition. So, as it happens, does Father Donohue, whose father, Morgan Patrick, was born in Ireland and came to the United States as a teenager. He became a U.S. citizen after serving in the Army. Morgan Patrick Donohue met his future wife, Mary, just before World War II.
“We started out in the Bronx,” he says. “They had four children. My father got a job with what was then the New York Central Railroad and worked as a railroad person all his life. When I was 5 years old or so, he got transferred out to Detroit. That’s where I grew up, just outside the city.”
Father Donohue has certainly come a long way and, although he was initially reluctant to assume the mantle of leadership, he has grown to love the job. In fact, his leadership was recognized this week by the Irish American Business Chamber & Network, which presented him with the Taoiseach Award at the 2020 Ambassador’s Awards ceremony.
“It’s a good life,” he reflects. “Villanova has a lot of very dedicated and good people who are interested in really pushing the mission of the university and making sure that we continue on our journey, and I’m honored to work with them. It’s a nice place to be.”
Photos courtesy of Villanova University