Leadership Goals

Leadership Goals

Fairfield University’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees, Sheila (Kearney) Davidson ’83

Fairfield University’s new Chair of the Board of Trustees, Sheila (Kearney) Davidson ’83

Sheila (Kearney) Davidson ’83 is the first woman to chair Fairfield’s Board of Trustees.

I [have] such a tremendous love for Fairfield that it is the perfect place for me to give back.

— Sheila (Kearney) Davidson ’83

During her freshman year on campus, Sheila (Kearney) Davidson ’83 recalls that there was a big celebration to commemo rate the first decade (1970- 80) of women undergraduates at Fairfield. “Back then,” she said, “I thought, ‘Wow, tenyears! That’s a long time.”

Now, after more than five decades of women on campus, Davidson has been appointed Chair of the Fairfield University Board of Trustees. It’s been a long time coming, but Davidson is proud to be the first female Board Chair, and she’s hopeful that she won’t be the last. She succeeds Frank J. Carroll III ’89, who served as Chair from 2015-22 and remains a University Trustee.

A first-generation college student, Davidson grew up in Clifton, N.J. Her father had turned down college scholarship opportunities because he needed to work full-time to support his family. Her mother had studied journalism at NYU for several semesters before being asked to leave — as all women were — to make room for World War II soldiers returning on the G.I. Bill.

Despite this, Davidson’s mom forged a successful career in journalism and her dad, a lifelong learner, was a self-taught historian. When it came time for their daughter to choose a college, they drew a circle on a map to mark a two-hour drive from home and told Sheila she could attend any Catholic college inside the ring.

Of all the viable options within that radius, “I was most attracted to Fairfield for a shallow reason: the beach,” admitted Davidson. “But I’m really thrilled that this was the school I chose, because the liberal arts education I got here has served me throughout my life.”

Davidson credits the richness of Fairfield’s core curriculum for encouraging a breadth of knowledge “such that you’d be studying Western civilization at the same time as, say, ancient philosophy.” A political science major, she remembers mulling over coursework as she walked up the path from the library to the Campus Center and “finding connections among all my classes… it just really set me on fire in terms of learning.”

Her junior year, Davidson spent a semester in Washington, D.C., where a Senate internship sparked her interest in the legislative process. “People were telling me, ‘You like to read and you write well; you’re always arguing and you’re not shy — you should be a lawyer,” she half-joked. The fall after her 1983 graduation from Fairfield, she enrolled at George Washington School of Law.

Davidson was captivated by corporate and securities regulation courses at law school. She interned in the trial unit of the enforcement division at the SEC, and her early law career included a five-year stint as a FINRA regulator (called NASD at the time). But, as a first-gen student with a mountain of student loans, she needed to earn more money. So, she answered a help-wanted ad in The New York Times and landed a job as a broker-dealer lawyer for New York Life Insurance Company. “Like Fairfield,” Davidson said, “New York Life has a very unique and embracing culture, so that’s where I found my home and my success.”

During her 31-year career at the company, Davidson has held leadership positions across New York Life’s legal, compliance, and administrative areas. She was appointed general counsel at the age of 38, and currently serves as chief legal and administrative officer. Recognized professionally as a diversity and inclusion champion, Davidson was the executive sponsor of New York Life’s women’s initiative.

Her abundance of professional qualifications — along with serving on other nonprofit boards and being a Fairfield University Trustee since 2003 — isn’t all that Davidson brings to her historic new role as Fairfield’s first female Chair. “I don’t just have a lot of experience,” she noted, “but also such a tremendous love for Fairfield that it is the perfect place for me to give back.”

As her tenure as Chair begins, “Fairfield is in a great position of strength, which is not true of a lot of universities post-Covid,” said Davidson. “I think Fairfield’s administration did a great job managing through Covid and we came out stronger, both relatively — because a lot of universities are struggling, but also absolutely — because our administration team is the strongest I’ve seen.”

She considers her principal role as Chair “to support that team and make sure they have the resources, advice, and guidance to do what they need to do.”

Current academic areas of focus for the Board include the University’s growth and transition from a regionally rated and ranked university to a national university, the establishment of a two-year regional college for low-income students, and the nursing school’s geographic expansion to Texas.

In terms of student experience, managing scale during this period of growth and preserving the “tight-knit Fairfield experience” are major priorities. “The most enduring ties that I have to Fairfield are my friends,” said Davidson. “It is the richest legacy because it’s such a tight bond, and while that may not be unique to Fairfield, Fairfield is uniquely good at it.”

Based on her own experience and from talking to other alumni, Davidson believes that this sense of close community is something special that people universally hold dear about Fairfield. “As we grow,” she concluded, “we have to be more purposeful about that, and we need make sure everybody feels welcome and included on campus.”

Other Articles in the Fall 2022 Issue

Letter from the President

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Fairfield Heads to Texas

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A Mindful Approach

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Game Changers

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Sean Crosby ’21, MS’22

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Sean and Winnie Atterbury O’Keefe, P’23,’26

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Joan (Barber) and Mitchel Syp ’72, P’01

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