Faculty Profile: Mike O’Donnell

It was one of those moments when a professor you admire, in a class you enjoy, throws up his or her hands and says, “You can do better. You can be better.”

For Mike O’Donnell, Groton’s new dean of students, the moment was transformative. He sat among his Dartmouth College peers, in an Ancient History classroom, looking down at his midterm exam. The only comfort available, cold though it was, was that his classmates were looking at equally dispiriting grades. But it was his professor’s disappointment that resonated; the professor’s harangue focused on their privilege—the privilege of their intellects, the privilege of the education available to them—and his utter dismay at their squandering of these gifts. If they were not going to give their best effort, they were doing a disservice to themselves and the scores of young men and women who wanted to sit in those seats. What Mike took from that moment was that he needed to find a career that was meaningful, one that would honor the education he had received and the many teachers, mentors, and coaches who had supported him along the way.

An epiphany can be clarifying, but it doesn’t always point the way to a career. As a classics major, his options were myriad, from Wall Street to medical school; the only constricting factor was Mike’s desire to find work that was meaningful. In the fall of his junior year, Mike seized the opportunity to teach two classes at The Mountain School in Vermont, and to work closely with high school students in the classroom, while continuing his own education at Dartmouth. Dartmouth’s policy required students to take one semester off campus and away from the college; in the spring of his junior year, Mike helped coach the boys crew team at his alma mater, Noble and Greenough School. Within a few months, Mike had glimpsed life as a teacher and as a coach. Though these experiences were intriguing, and suggested a way forward, whether or not a job in education would fulfill his pursuit of a meaningful vocation was still an open question.

To test teaching as a possible career path, he accepted a job at Ransom Everglades School in Miami. He credits the move to an especially cold Hanover winter. At Ransom, he hit the trifecta: he could teach Latin and history and coach the crew team. A novice teacher, Mike was often on the run between Ransom’s upper school and middle school campuses, then off to another location for crew practice. He was teaching, but he wasn’t able to be a consistent presence in the lives of his students; his limited office hours didn’t always coincide with their free periods, and casual interactions were pressed by his need to get to his next class at the other campus. Mike felt like he was consistently dashing from place to place, which as a runner he had the stamina for, but as an educator contradicted his instincts. After three good years at Ransom, he was enjoying the teaching and coaching more than the sprinting that marked his transition from one role to the next.

Then the unthinkable happened: the Red Sox won the World Series, and Mike was in South Florida surrounded by disgruntled Marlins fans. He knew it was time to return home to New England. So Mike bid Miami farewell and accepted a position teaching classics and working in the dean’s office at St. Mark’s School.

Suddenly he was the dorm head to 25 junior and senior boys. He went from rushing from place to place attempting to build relationships on the fly to being in loco parentis—and he loved it. Finally he had the immersive experience he had envisioned; he could take his time getting to know students, and letting them get to know him. From that platform he could challenge them intellectually, support them in their trials, and inspire them to achieve beyond their expectations in and out of the classroom. It was a near perfect fit. But something was nagging at him: as a classics scholar, he wanted to test a hypothesis about The Iliad that he had begun to develop at Dartmouth.

Originally, he was political science major there and only took classics courses to fulfill a scholarship requirement. But what he thought interested him faded with familiarity, and what he was doing on the side became central to his academic career. Mike had taken a statistics course with a dynamic professor who made him think about statistical modeling in a new way. This led to his hypothesis and a proposal for his senior thesis topic—received cautiously by the classics department but wholeheartedly embraced by his statistics professor, who appreciated the audacity of applying a stylometric statistical model to a classical text. Mike sensed that by taking this approach he might uncover patterns of speech unique to each character in The Iliad. He readily acknowledged that this should not be the case based upon the prevailing theories of the text’s authorship and the nature of the ancient language itself. However, the outcomes suggested that he was onto something, something that might serve a doctoral thesis. He left St. Mark’s in 2010 to test the waters of a PhD pursuit in the classics, but quickly concluded an intellectual hobby, however interesting and fun, would not be his vocation, that his determination to do something meaningful would not be sated in academia.

So Mike returned to the frenetic pace of boarding school life and Groton’s Deans’ Office. Working with Associate Dean Libby Petroskey, he sees his role as one of team-building within the faculty, the dorm heads, and the student community. With a quiet and understated manner, his goal is that the residential life program reflect Groton’s mission, and that the deans, collaborating with student leaders, faculty, and staff, ensure that in all interactions the members of our community treat each other with kindness and care. He intends to build upon the legacy of care and support that has been a hallmark of the Deans’ Office for the past 20 years, while tackling many of the challenges that confront residential life today.

This past summer Mike, his wife Ryan, and their cat PJ, moved into Hundred House, in the old library apartment. As he settles into Groton’s routines and rhythms, he savors the easy distance from classroom to the Deans’ Office to the cross country trails—giving him ample time to be a regular and calming presence in the lives of his students, advisees, and athletes.

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