Remembering Pat Donohue

July 13, 2015

Pat Donohue, until recently assistant provost for community engaged learning programs and partnerships at The College of New Jersey, died last week. Pat represented the very best of higher education community engagement. In the nine years he spent at TCNJ, Pat built the college’s Bonner program into an extraordinary vehicle for learning and for positive community change. He did much more than that—creating and expanding a wide range of programs—but his work with the Bonners will be his enduring legacy.

What stands out about Pat’s work at TCNJ is the depth of his twin commitments to the development of his students as citizens and to the revitalization of the city where their work was focused, Trenton, NJ. Pat’s work embodied the understanding that his students would learn and grow the most when the work they were doing was embedded in sustained partnerships aimed at the achievement of long-term community development goals. Pat’s students were not involved in short-term, feel-good projects. Pat invited them to join him in making common cause with the residents of a city reeling from decades of job loss and disinvestment. He saw his college—once known as Trenton State—as a partner with the people of Trenton in an effort to create a more just future. Pat worked closely with Bobby Hackett of the Bonner Foundation to envision pathways for deep, high-impact student engagement that goes beyond conventional service. And he put the ideas they generated into practice.

I didn’t know Pat very well at a personal level, although our worlds overlapped quite a bit. I worked at Princeton and Rutgers-Camden while Pat worked at TCNJ, so we met at a number of professional gatherings and through friends. My primary knowledge of Pat’s work comes from having lived in Trenton for much of the time Pat worked at TCNJ. Knowing the city as a resident, I was constantly struck by the engagement of Pat’s students with everyone doing interesting and important work in Trenton. Pat had a longstanding partnership with Marty Johnson, a local legend in Trenton whose organization, Isles, has been creating positive change for decades. But Pat’s students were also mixing it up with the S.A.G.E. Coalition, an innovative and edgy group of public artists reconceptualizing the role of art in transforming urban life.

I learned a great deal about how to do this work well by paying attention to what Pat was doing at TCNJ and in Trenton. I am confident many others can say the same.

Pat’s death was by suicide, and the sadness and stigma of suicide can often distract us from celebrating the lives of those who become its victims. Whether death results from mental illness or from physical illness, it does not eviscerate the good works of life. Pat stands as an exemplar of higher education for the common good. We can honor his memory by redoubling our own efforts for our students, our communities, and the world.

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