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Chestnut Hill’s Sister Carol Jean Vale, among the nation’s longest-serving college presidents, prepares to retire

“Her soul is infused in the walls,” said one college alumna.

To honor Sister Carol Jean Vale's 30 years as president of Chestnut Hill College, the school asked a local brewer to craft a beer with her name. Out came Vale Pale Ale.
To honor Sister Carol Jean Vale's 30 years as president of Chestnut Hill College, the school asked a local brewer to craft a beer with her name. Out came Vale Pale Ale.Read moreJonathan Wilson

First came the “Sister Carol Jean Bean Red Velvet Latte,” created by a local coffeehouse in 2019 to honor the Chestnut Hill College president. Then last month a local microbrewer offered up the limited edition Vale Pale Ale.

Now, Sister Carol Jean Vale, outgoing president of Chestnut Hill College and the beverages’ honorary namesake, has her eye on something a little more vintage.

“I would prefer Carol’s Cab,” she said.

Who knows? She might get it. There is a college alumna who owns a couple of vineyards in the Finger Lakes. Is it too much to ask for a 76-year-old nun who spent the last three decades navigating the small Catholic college through higher education’s choppy waters?

“She leads with love,” wrote 1993 alumna Suzanne Coster McCarthy in a string of online tributes posted by the 98-year-old college as Vale prepares to say goodbye. “Her soul is infused in the walls.”

Vale, who will retire June 30, is hands down the longest-serving college president in the region and one of the longest-serving in the nation. Consider the average tenure of a college president is about six and a half years.

“I continued to have ideas about the future of the college, and the board kept reelecting me,” Vale said during an interview in her office, which was undergoing a pack-up last week.

» READ MORE: Chestnut Hill College names first lay president in its nearly 100 year history

Vale, a member of the college’s founding order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, in 2000 oversaw the first new building on campus in more than 40 years, then in 2003 led the school through its at-times controversial transformation from a women’s college to a coed institution. Today, nearly half of students are men, and Vale acknowledges that the college, which at the time had fallen to an undergraduate enrollment of 324, could not have survived without that move.

A few years later, the college purchased the adjacent Sugarloaf property, doubling the size of the campus, with long-term plans for up to 10 academic buildings and residence halls, which drew concern from some local community groups. That property is undergoing $6.7 million in renovations and is planned to be the site of new neurodiversity programs, including those serving students with autism. Along the way, she expanded academic and athletic programs, including adding Chestnut Hill’s first doctoral program, and has hired 90% of the faculty.

» READ MORE: Chestnut Hill College president to retire after 30 years in the job

“She has had grace under pressure at all times, maintaining such courage and dignity under some serious and interesting situations,” said board of trustees chair Cathy Lockyer Moulton, a 1992 alumna and Wynnewood resident.

Vale’s impact goes beyond the campus borders. She served as founding member and leader of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education, a group of nine local colleges that work together on summer research, faculty training, and other projects ― even though they compete.

“She has done a masterful job of navigating the various interests of the member institutions to identify those areas for collaboration,” said Beth Moy, chief of staff at Salus University and formerly the consortium’s executive director.

There were many challenges, and even with the conversion to coed, the college has bled enrollment over the years and was hit hard by the pandemic. At its high about a decade ago, it had about 2,400 students. Today, it enrolls about 1,400, a little more than 700 of them undergraduates.

Vale acknowledged a potentially difficult budget year ahead, with much dependent on fall enrollment. Deposits, she said, have come in more slowly as families struggle with higher gas and food prices and an uncertain economy.

“Higher education has been explosive,” acknowledged Suzanne del Gizzo, professor of English and chair of the Center for Integrated Humanities, “and she’s been a steady calm influence, trying to keep the boat upright. She’s balanced that stewardship with humanity toward faculty and staff, making sure those things impacted us as minimally as possible.”

Vale says she is most proud that she made “absolutely certain that the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph ... is firmly rooted in the life of the institution” and would remain after she is gone. The college offers orientation to all new hires and has sent some employees to a yearlong program on the legacy and history of the order, she said.

When she became president, more than 60 sisters worked there; now there are fewer than 20. Acknowledging she may be the last sister to serve as president, she said if she could offer one piece of advice to incoming president William W. Latimer, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and Chestnut Hill’s first lay leader, it would be: “Don’t change the culture.”

Vale was born into an Episcopalian family. With her father a Marine colonel, the family moved quite a bit. During their time at Camp Pendleton in California, most of her friends were Catholic. She went to Mass with them one Easter Sunday.

“Something happened ... that really changed my life,” said Vale, then an eighth grader. When Communion was served, “I had the experience that that was the body and blood of Christ.”

She told her parents she wanted to become Catholic. They were at first reluctant, but gave her permission when she was a high school senior. By that time, Vale had already met the Sisters of St. Joseph and knew she wanted to become a nun.

Her parents insisted she go to college for a year first, and she did. Then in 1964 she joined the Philadelphia-based order. She left for a couple years, thinking she would like to marry and have a family, and dated a man she fell in love with in college.

But by 1971, she was back.

“I was engaged, but God stepped in,” she said.

Over the years, she taught at elementary schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., eventually ending up here at Cardinal Dougherty High School. That’s when she decided to go to Fordham University for her master’s and doctorate.

“I really wanted to study in-depth the dynamic between mind, body, and spirit with regard to spiritual growth and development,” she said.

Vale had hoped to establish a program that looked at what happens physiologically during spiritual growth. She was a bit ahead of her time, she said, noting later studies would show changes in the brain during prayer.

In 1988, she became an assistant professor of religious studies at Chestnut Hill. She rose to president four years later.

Often dressed in a red suit — the college’s primary color — Vale makes a point of interviewing every professional employee the college hires. She just about never forgets a face or a name, and shows how deeply she cares, colleagues say.

“You can be in a crowded reception ... and her quality of presence with the person in front of her is like they are the only one in the room,” said Lynn Ortale, vice president for student life, who has worked for Vale for 17 years and who will leave at the same time to become president of Maria College in Albany.

A few weeks ago, the college held a four-day alumni weekend, where a keg of Vale Pale Ale flowed. The school had asked Chestnut Hill Brewing Co. to craft a potable in Vale’s honor. It brewed 10 kegs, two of which were canned, with a photo of Vale and a poem, “Come to the Edge” by Christopher Logue, which she began sharing with students early in her presidency:

“Come to the edge.

We might fall.

Come to the edge.

It’s too high!


And they came.

And he pushed.

And they flew.”

The beer is almost gone.

But Vale won’t be. She will continue to live with other sisters in a house not far from the campus where she has spent nearly half her life.