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Barry's enrollment grew slowly but steadily, from 45 students in 1940, to 290 in 1950, to almost 800 in 1960. The early curriculum was precisely what one would expect of a women's college in which all the dorms were named after the Virgin Mary: courses in religion, philosophy, English, secretarial science, and home economics, all designed to produce young ladies less equipped for employment than for marriage. Indeed photos from the Fifties and early Sixties, showing young, mostly white women in pleated skirts (never pants) walking the palm-tree-lined campus, suggest the college more closely approximated a finishing school than an institution of higher learning.
The school changed slower than the times. Barry went coed in 1975, but men didn't make up a significant portion of the student population until the mid-Eighties. The sexual revolution of the late Sixties and the equal-rights fights of the early Seventies produced nontraditional career options for women, but Barry still primarily trained its students to become teachers, nurses, and social workers. At the beginning of its fifth decade, in 1980, the school remained what it had always been: a small, conservative, Catholic college in a quiet, middle-class suburb of Miami. Like most of the students it had produced up until that time, Barry knew its place.
Then Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin arrived. Named Barry's fifth president in 1981, O'Laughlin had big ideas for the school. "I didn't see why we couldn't be like Loyola, like St. Louis University, like Notre Dame," she remembers, naming three of the nation's largest and most successful Catholic-affiliated universities. O'Laughlin herself came to Barry from St. Louis, where she had been executive assistant to the school's president. "I was the first woman the Jesuits ever let into that office," she says, with lingering satisfaction.
Sitting behind her desk, wearing a black suit and white silk top, O'Laughlin, who has been a nun since the age of seventeen, looks every bit the corporate CEO. Only the emerald-crusted gold cross around her neck and the photo just over her shoulder of her with Pope John Paul in Rome give Sister Jeanne away.
For twenty years O'Laughlin has beat the pavement looking for financial support for Barry from the South Florida civic and business community. "Honey," O'Laughlin confides, sounding less the nun and more the girl she once was from Depression-era Detroit, "I went to Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, you name it. I was so desperate for money, people said, “Sister Jeanne, you'd go to the opening of an envelope.' And they were right."
O'Laughlin's fundraising forays became the stuff of campus and local legend. "Some guy told Sister Jeanne if she dressed up in a white gown with a feather boa and sang “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina,'" relates Barry vice president of institutional advancement William Fenton, "he'd give her a million dollars. She did it." A few years later, another potential benefactor dared the nun, who had never danced, to kick up her heels at the United States Ballroom Championships for two million dollars. No problem.
Sister Jeanne cultivated lucrative personal relations with South Florida's power elite. She became the first female member of both the Orange Bowl Committee and the Non-Group, a collection of business people and civic leaders that, depending on whom you talk to, is either a superoctane version of the chamber of commerce or Miami-Dade County's shadow government.
Her prominence was most evident during the Elian Gonzalez custody struggle, when the nun's house served as the site for the reunion between the child rafter and his Cuban grandmothers. After initially supporting the grandmothers' right to return to the island with Elian, O'Laughlin mysteriously reversed her position, arguing he should be allowed to remain in the United States. The flip-flop made her a central figure in the ongoing controversy (see "The Flighty Nun," February 24, 2000).
It did not, however, hamper her ability to fundraise. The $120 million capital campaign Barry completed in 2000 exceeded the school's goal by $20 million. Most of that will go toward expansion.
"I've been a builder," O'Laughlin boasts. Indeed. Barry has more than tripled in size since O'Laughlin was named president. Enrollment, more diverse than ever (47 percent of Barry students are identified as either black or Latino), has risen from approximately 1700 to more than 8000 students, with 6000 of those attending classes on the Miami Shores campus (the rest are registered at 22 Barry satellite campuses and extension centers throughout the state). Subsequently the number of campus buildings has mushroomed from 16 to 54. And O'Laughlin is not done yet. "If we can sell the house I'm living in, we can build a graduate medical building," says the 72-year-old wistfully. "I want to build one more building before God says, “That's enough.'"
People will not send their kids to school in an urban setting they perceive as depressed, dilapidated, and unsafe, no matter the number of new buildings on campus or the quality of education. That's why God invented college towns. This point was driven home to Sister Jeanne in 1992, when she had her purse snatched during a lunchtime trip to a convenience store a block north of the Barry campus. Following the attack, which left the nun shaken and slightly bruised, she bemoaned what the world, and in particular her little part of it, had become. "Twelve-thirty in the afternoon," she observed. "And you can't go to the corner store anymore."