Catherine Dunn, PhD, began her career as an eighth-grade teacher in Lincoln, Illinois, after completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University. Subsequently, she was invited to teach a summer course at Clarke University and, at the end of the course, was offered a full-time position. Accepting the offer, she officially joined the faculty of Clarke University in 1973 and, not long after, became interim chair of the education department. During this period, Dr. Dunn took part in work on a multimillion-dollar Title III grant while concurrently continuing her education at Arizona State University, where she earned a Doctor of Philosophy in curriculum development in 1978.
While studying for her doctorate, Dr. Dunn was told by the chair of her department that she had leadership qualities that would make her an excellent university president. Deciding to heed that advice, when offered the position of vice president of institutional advancement at Clarke University in 1979, she accepted and excelled in that role until she was appointed as the university’s 14th president in 1984. Barely three months into this tenure, tragedy struck when a fire destroyed roughly one-third of the historic buildings on the university’s campus. Undeterred, Dr. Dunn brought everyone together to overcome the disaster, raising more than $15 million to rebuild the lost buildings.
Dr. Dunn served as the university president for more than two decades and brought with her significant expertise in leadership, strategic planning, interpersonal relations, curriculum development and fundraising. While she retired in 2006, she remains active with the university as president emerita, serving on the board of trustees and with the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Over the course of her career, she has additionally been involved with a wide range of professional organizations, including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Iowa College Foundation, among others.
Furthermore, Dr. Dunn has put considerable effort into serving her community as well. In 1989, she joined the Iowa Transportation Commission and became the first woman to serve as chair of the commission in 1994, a role she held for the next 12 years. She also spent time on the boards of the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, the American Trust and Savings Bank, Junior Achievement of the Tri-States and the Tri-State Community Health Center. A longtime member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she also specializes in ministry work and notably volunteered with the Crescent Community Health Center to help a Franciscan sister establish a clinic for individuals without insurance.
Attributing much of her success to her innate gifts, Dr. Dunn is also profoundly grateful for the education she received from both the public schools and the private Catholic schools she attended. She made a name for herself through her perseverance and her willingness to work with and get to know others. Dr. Dunn’s excellence has led her to be recognized with numerous honors and accolades throughout her career, including honorary degrees from such institutions as Loras College, Mount St. Clare College, the University of Dubuque and St. Ambrose University.
In addition, Dr. Dunn was presented with a Leadership Award from Crescent Community Health Center in 2020 and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Iowans by the Des Moines Register in 2000. Her civic work also led her to be awarded the Gilbert Chavanelle Award from the Dubuque Jaycees in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Award from the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce in 1993. In 1986, she received the First Citizen Award from the Telegraph Herald and was presented with a Bronze Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education at Clarke University, where she was previously recognized with a Silver Award in 1985.