Dr. Laurie M. Joyner: Fostering a Learning Community Built on Inclusive Excellence

The 10 Most Visionary Education Leaders of 2021

Dr. Laurie M. Joyner is the 20th president of Chicago-based Saint Xavier University (SXU). The inspirational legacy and core values of the Catholic institution’s founders, the Sisters of Mercy, attracted President Joyner. Shortly after becoming president in January 2017, she championed a number of strategic directions that have positioned SXU for a strong future.

As president, Dr. Joyner has advanced mission integration efforts, inclusive excellence initiatives and the alignment of organizational structure and resources to improve educational quality and institutional results. Under her leadership, SXU has shifted its enrollment management strategy, expanded academic and athletic offerings, initiated a range of revenue-generating efforts and launched an award-winning rebranding campaign. Together, these strategic directions have culminated in dramatically-improved institutional performance.

Dr. Joyner works closely with the Board of Trustees to institute leading practices in board governance and manages the senior leadership team. Senior team members have broad portfolios of responsibility spanning the University such as academic affairs, student life, finance and administration, marketing, advancement, athletics and others.

“There is no typical day in the life as President,” Dr. Joyner says. “This is part of what makes the position so interesting and challenging.” She adds that it is quite common to go in with a plan for the day or week that shifts due to pressing or unexpected issues emerging in any area of the University.

Dr. Joyner is incredibly adaptable, comfortable with ambiguity, and willing to shift strategy to achieve desired results. These qualities have made her a dynamic and results-driven leader who is capable of handling unexpected issues and challenges.

Saint Xavier University in Chicago

In the 1840s, the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Chicago at the invitation of Bishop Quarter to help meet the educational and health needs of the city’s immigrant population. Founded in 1846 and chartered in 1847, Saint Xavier holds the distinction of being the oldest Mercy institution of higher education in the world.

A federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution with a diverse student body, SXU educates students for competence, character and career success through its high-quality curricular and co-curricular experiences. The University recognizes that the true measure of its success is how well it helps students on their path to building meaningful lives while preparing for fulfilling careers.

SXU’s mission reflects the Sisters of Mercy heritage – to educate persons to search for truth, to think critically, to communicate effectively and to serve wisely and compassionately in support of human dignity and the common good. The institution achieves its mission through the efforts of its talented faculty and staff who are committed to creating a diverse, inclusive and equitable learning community.

Dr. Joyner takes great pride in SXU’s enrollment management strategy to improve access and affordability by keeping tuition increases to a minimum while expanding financial aid. Saint Xavier remains the most affordable Catholic university in the State of Illinois and a U.S. News &World Report ‘Best Value’ school. It is also a top performer in the area of social mobility among regional institutions in the Midwest per U.S. News & World Report (2022).

“Our guiding principles remain to become even more mission-focused, student-centered, performance-based and financially sustainable in order to protect and steward the SXU mission in perpetuity,” Dr. Joyner says. “This involves fostering a learning environment that values and celebrates diversity in all of its forms.”

University Operations During COVID-19 Pandemic 

Throughout the pandemic, President Joyner and her team kept the campus safe and their community healthy. Multiple mitigation efforts resulted in consistently low COVID-19 positivity rates on campus.

“Mitigation efforts included de-densifying campus early in the pandemic, instituting systematic symptom checking, enhancing cleaning protocols, and requiring masking and social distancing,” Dr. Joyner says.

The University’s Information Technology professionals ensured that all community members had the technological resources needed to continue University operations, especially the teaching and learning enterprise. Dr. Joyner points out that SXU’s extraordinary faculty quickly shifted from face-to-face instruction to remote instruction, ensuring no interruption of students’ educational progress. Other areas across campus also leveraged technology to serve students, including admission, student life, student services, advising, financial aid and health services.

Most classes are held face-to-face at SXU. Many faculty members and students prefer being together, learning in community. Dr. Joyner says it is because the University prides itself on building strong, personal relationships with students and families.

SXU strategically used federal COVID-19 relief funds to offset costs associated with the pandemic and to provide emergency financial relief to students, including the removal of more than $2 million in student balances.

“Competitive grant awards have allowed us to provide enhanced technology resources to students and faculty while innovating online course content to ensure its delivery meets the diverse learning needs and styles of our students,” Dr. Joyner says.

“We are the proud heirs to the noble legacy created by the Sisters of Mercy who instill in us the tenacity to stay true to our mission of serving others while rising above any challenge,” she adds.

Life Before SXU

“Saint Xavier University is my second presidency, so my life and core responsibilities before SXU were not very different as President of another liberal arts institution,” she says.

“My prior institution was largely residential, and my family lived in the President’s Residence on campus. This created a different dynamic, having the student population as our 24/7 neighbors who often gathered with our family for meals, celebrations, and other special events,” Dr. Joyner says.

She adds that since students are the main reason she does what she does, she loved the daily opportunities to get to know them and other community members in a way that is now harder to emulate – especially during COVID – on a largely commuter campus.

Discovering Passion for Education

Dr. Joyner discovered her passion and purpose as an undergraduate student at a faith-based institution similar to Saint Xavier. “It is not an exaggeration to say that my undergraduate education completely transformed my life as a first-generation student,” she says. “It helped me figure out who I was and what I valued, and to understand that I wanted to pursue a career in higher education.” Her dream of becoming a professor was born while sitting in a classroom as a sophomore in college.

After completing her Ph.D. in sociology at Tulane University, she followed the opportunity to serve as a professor at Loyola University New Orleans, her alma mater.  She eventually earned tenure and promotion and then served as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. At the time, her portfolio included faculty development, the first-year experience for students, and accreditation efforts for the college.

Initially, Dr. Joyner was reluctant to serve in an administrative role, but she quickly realized that the position provided the opportunity to influence more students and faculty across the entire University in a positive way versus just those in her home department.

After serving as Associate Dean for four years, the dean of the College encouraged her to pursue her first academic deanship. “I ended up serving as an academic dean and in multiple vice-presidential positions,” Dr. Joyner says. “These roles helped shape my understanding of the higher education ecosystem.”

“My life’s purpose is to help ensure that the same amazing learning opportunities I had remain available to hardworking, talented, and diverse students regardless of their backgrounds,” Dr. Joyner adds.

Success and Challenges

In Dr. Joyner’s mind, success means discovering one’s values, passion and purpose in life and then aligning those things with one’s calling or vocation. “In this way, it is possible to create an integrated personal and professional life,” she says.  She describes organizational success as effectively stewarding and achieving the organization’s mission by aligning actions and resources with the institution’s core values and purpose.

There are many challenges a leader has to overcome before achieving success. Dr. Joyner sees them as inevitable. “The most important thing is how one responds to such setbacks,” she says. “Reframing the challenge or working toward an effective course of action is important to building perseverance and resilience.” Dr. Joyner adds that she has been fortunate to have had talented mentors and valued colleagues with whom to collaborate through tough times and difficult challenges.

As a person of faith influenced by Ignatian spirituality, Dr. Joyner believes in finding God in all things. So, for her, even the toughest challenges or setbacks eventually lead to important learning and positive outcomes. “This is an encouraging reminder that life is all about showing up, staying focused and continuing to move toward important goals even when obstacles appear in our paths,” Dr. Joyner says.

Creating an Integrated Life

Dr. Joyner’s focus is on creating an integrated sense of self that links the personal and professional aspects of her life. Falling in love with the mission of her institutions has always been crucial to her.

“I also always tried to integrate my family – my husband, Jay, and our children, Jay, Alexander, and Christopher – in the life of my institution as well,” Dr. Joyner says. For example, when she was academic dean, her children attended daycare and summer camp on her campus. “As a family, we participated in concerts, plays, art exhibits, athletic contests and other events,” Dr. Joyner says. “To this day, my children talk fondly about literally growing up on the beautiful campuses we have served.”

Plans for the Future of SXU

Over the past five years, SXU has achieved several positive milestones, including recruiting four of the largest and most diverse first-year classes in the 175-year history of SXU, increasing first-to-second year student retention four consecutive years and securing nearly $16 million in federal grants to support student engagement, learning and success. SXU will continue to build on these achievements.

Dr. Joyner says that the dramatic improvement in SXU’s operating performance has enabled the University to pay down its long-term debt by nearly half, more than triple the endowment and produce the strongest financial ratios in more than a decade. “These positive results have allowed us to invest in our talented faculty and staff in the form of across-the-board salary increases as well as equity and merit awards,” Dr. Joyner adds.

Moving forward, Dr. Joyner and her team want to continue on the current incredibly positive trajectory while doubling down on their efforts to develop a stronger value proposition, create high-demand offerings that diversify and expand SXU’s current reach and build even stronger internal processes to enhance educational quality.

Personal Goals

Dr. Joyner believes passionately in the power and promise of Saint Xavier’s educational efforts to make a positive difference in the lives of students and the world. Her primary goal as an educational leader is to remain faithful to Saint Xavier’s vision and mission while leaving the institution objectively stronger and healthier than when she arrived, for the benefit of the current and future students, faculty and staff.