By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Marie Joan Harris, Provost and Vice-president for Academic affairs at Avila University, was recently named one of 32 Women of Influence by Kansas City Business Magazine. The magazine selects Kansas City’s female leaders in the creative, corporate, nonprofit and entrepreneurial communities, based on their professional accomplishments, philanthropic endeavors and commitment to mentoring. Kansas City Business magazine has recognized more than 150 of Kansas City’s Influential Women in the past six years.
Sister Marie Joan grew up in Denver, “immersed in the Catholic tradition,” a daughter of a Catholic father and a Lutheran mother. She attended St. Francis de Sales elementary School, where she first met the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
She began thinking about religious life when she attended a mission meeting in the eighth grade, “but I didn’t tell anybody.” At the beginning of her freshman year in high school, the family moved to Salt Lake City, and the young girl was enrolled at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, taught by the Christian Brothers and Holy Cross Sisters.
“I had a very normal high school career,” Sister Marie Joan remembered. “I dated, I was vice president of my class and I enjoyed science, especially chemistry. I told my parents during my senior year that I was thinking about religious life, and my mother was upset.”
She decided to wait before entering the community, and enrolled at Loretto Heights College in Denver. “I was still attracted to the religious life, still attracted to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet because of their intrinsic values, the response to the needs of the neighbor and bringing about right relationships with others, all appealed to me. At the end of my freshmen year I realized I’d never know if I was making the right decision if I didn’t try. I made all the arrangements and then told my family. I’ve never regretted it.”
She was about 19 when she entered the community in 1960. “Vatican II was happening and changing the formation process and the theological education of sisters,” she recalled. “I entered the novitiate then went to the ‘juniorate,’ finishing my college degree and theology. I completed my master’s degree in chemistry and interacted with some of the leading theologians of the time. The mid to late 1960s were an interesting time. After I finished my degree and made my full profession as a Sister of St. Joseph, I taught elementary school for a year. I then went to KU to get my doctorate in chemistry.”
Sister Marie Joan came to Avila to teach part time in 1970. She taught two days then drove to Lawrence to spend the rest of the week working on her research. She finished her doctorate in chemistry in 1971and began teaching full time at Avila. She has followed the spectacular careers of some of her students through the years.
In 1987, it was announced that the academic dean was retiring and Sister Marie was encouraged to “look into the position.” She was named academic dean, then Vice-president of Academic Affairs and later Provost. All told, she has been at Avila University 42 years.
There have been many changes during those years.
Avila was founded in 1916 as the College of St. Teresa, a junior college for young women with emphases on education and nursing sharing a campus with St. Teresa’s Academy. In 1940, still housed on the campus of the Academy, it became a four-year, women’s liberal arts college, offering three degree programs, education, nursing and business. In 1963, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet made the decision to separate the two institutions, partly to establish an identity for the college apart from the Academy. The college relocated to 119th and Wornall Road, and in 1962, its name was changed to Avila College, still honoring its patroness, St. Teresa of Avila.
Since the mid 1950s, men had been admitted to Avila on a part-time basis, first in the evenings, later for day classes, but in 1969, the year before Sister Marie Joan began teaching at Avila, men were admitted as full-time students for the first time.
“Originally, you could count the number of men on campus on one hand,” she said. “Then soccer started and that brought larger numbers of men. Now of course, we have basketball, baseball, football, soccer, golf and cross country for both men and women.”
There are now more than 28 undergraduate degree programs, as well as graduate and MBA programs. The campus has expanded, with several state of the art residence halls, high tech classroom buildings and athletic facilities.
“Women are gaining more equality in coed colleges,” Sister Marie Joan said. “Men and women can learn from each other, talk to each other and respect each other, building healthy relationships.”
She was nominated to the 2012 Class of Influential Women, and along with 32 other women, attorneys, bankers, engineers, healthcare professionals and entrepreneurs, was recognized at a reception at the Kansas City World War I Memorial on March 6. She was told she might be the first woman in private higher education so honored. She said she was delighted to be part of such an interesting group of women.
“I like working with highly talented, interesting people, which is what I do here at Avila,” she said. “This job, Provost, vice-president of academic affairs, is based on collaboration — it’s never I, it’s always we. I have had incredible opportunities to work with people such as Takeru Higuchi at KU, the father of physical pharmacy. He was my research director.”
She looked around her office. “I love this institution,” she said. “This Influential Woman honor will help raise recognition about Avila and that it’s a university that will make a difference. I’m a part of the scheme of things here and I’m glad.”