Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

With her last semester as dean of the William F. Connell School of Nursing drawing to a close, Susan Gennaro spoke about the lessons she has learned about leadership, service, and nursing at the Spring 2021 Connell School Pinnacle Lecture.

During her March 30 talk, she shared how she decided to become the dean of the Connell School, a discernment process that reflected her Jesuit education. “It’s really about the mission and the values. Being able to understand [Boston College’s] mission and being able to really live it has been the most wonderful thing,” said Gennaro, a graduate of Le Moyne College.

Gennaro, who has served as Connell School professor and dean since 2008, was the Dr. Maureen P. McCausland Pinnacle Keynote Speaker at the venerable lecture series where each semester a nurse leader speaks to CSON students, staff, faculty, alumni, preceptors, practitioners, and others.

Leadership is about helping people to move forward, Gennaro said—not by pushing them, but by putting your hand out and helping people to move along with you.

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Gennaro’s deanship has been marked by innovation and growth in both undergraduate and graduate academic programs, formation, and global initiatives. During her tenure, the Connell School established a new doctorate program, the Doctor of Nursing Practice, and the SCRUBS retreat for sophomores. The school’s global outreach has expanded from a single trip to Nicaragua to four international service learning trips and a summer elective with an institution in Switzerland.

Gennaro also has set the tone for the school’s strong commitment to fostering an environment that values inclusiveness and diversity. She has overseen the establishment of the KILN program, which prepares student leaders to provide care in a multicultural society; the Seacole Scholars, a learning and living community for first-year students; and the Diversity Advisory Board.

An internationally esteemed nurse researcher specializing in perinatal care, Gennaro has placed a strong emphasis on research at CSON, which has tripled in the last few years.

During her tenure as dean, CSON also has dedicated itself to keeping the local community healthy by creating programs for teens in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood as well as for veterans.

After stepping down as dean, Gennaro will remain on the CSON faculty where she will continue to teach, edit the highly regarded Journal of Nursing Scholarship, and conduct her NIH-funded research.

Gennaro shared this advice she got from a fellow nurse leader: “You can go anywhere you want as a leader, but you’re not a leader if no one is following.”

Gennaro’s talk followed introductions by Haub Vice President for University Mission and Ministry John T. Butler, S.J., and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley. Vice President Joy Moore, executive director of the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success, served as moderator and Gennaro’s conversation partner for the event.

Quigley said Gennaro was “one of her generation’s most distinguished nurses.” He highlighted her myriad accomplishments and called her deanship from 2008-2021 a “remarkable, lucky 13 for the University and an extraordinary period of leadership and distinguished service.”

He also described how her participation in the Ignatian Colleagues Program—a national program of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities designed to educate and form administrators and faculty more deeply in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition of higher education—affected her and her work on campus. “Susan took those lessons to heart and became an exemplar on campus. She, as much as anybody that I’ve known over these 13 years, has brought this [ICP] mission to new and powerful life.”

Quigley concluded by acknowledging Gennaro’s leadership of the Connell School during the pandemic. He called her an “indispensable leader” who has demonstrated “incredible grace and willingness to share her expertise.”

Fr. Butler, the son of a nurse, shared a personal story about Gennaro who, along with her husband William Fehder (a retired CSON faculty member), regularly visited with and provided care and comfort to his mother after her cancer diagnosis.

“I have great love for our dean because she loved me and my family,” said Fr. Butler. “My friend is a nurse who took care of one of the dearest and closest people in my life, and in so doing so, took care of me.”

Gennaro discussed change, something most new leaders are tasked with creating. She recalled advice she received from nurse leader Angela Barron McBride about the importance of the pace of change: “People need time to change. If you come in and try to do too many things too quickly, it’s like there’s a tornado that’s come. Things change, but it’s destructive.”

As a new dean, Gennaro talked with every Connell School faculty member to help inform the path forward and the school’s strategic aims. She asked them three questions: What is so important and precious at the Connell School that it should not be changed? What would you like me to change? What do you need to be able to do your job the very best you can?

Gennaro shared another piece of advice she got from Claire Fagin, who served as dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing: “You can go anywhere you want as a leader, but you’re not a leader if no one is following.”

Early on, she created a vision task force and it made clear what the priorities of the school were; consistency of messaging about those priorities helped to build trust.

Gennaro said participating in opportunities that BC offered, such as retreats and other programming, led to her forming invaluable relationships with University colleagues outside the Connell School, senior leadership, and benefactors.

The last year-and-a-half of Gennaro’s deanship will forever be connected to the pandemic, which completely upended nursing education in the classroom and in clinical settings. To figure out how to educate nursing students in accordance with licensing requirements while also keeping them safe, recalled Gennaro, “I had to draw on every single leadership quality, every relationship I had, and every communication skill I’ve developed.”  

Gennaro expressed gratitude to the CSON faculty, particularly the department chairs, and CSON’s leadership team, as well as her family, especially her husband, “the wind beneath my wings.”


Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications | April 2021