Susan Hanley Duncan, Class of 1984

Tell us a bit about what brought you to SHA!

That’s easy! I come from a family of Valkyries. My mom, Jean Kipp Hanley, was a 1957 graduate and my aunts Mary Carol Kipp Mosley ’60 and Susie Kipp DeGaris ’69, were also SHA grads. I really admired those three women and I wanted to be like them. I never looked at other schools, really. I recall as an eighth grader, going to watch girls like Susan Elpers and Liz Lewis play sports and I would sit in the student section. I could not wait to get there. Going to SHA was just in my blood, I guess!


What are some of your fondest memories from SHA? A favorite teacher/subject?

I definitely have great memories of my leadership roles at SHA. I was involved with CAC and I just loved it. I also have a great memory of making the field hockey team for one year – my sophomore year – and Mary T. Meagher Plant was on the team that year so I just thought that was the biggest deal! I was not a great athlete, so I could not believe it when Bunny Daugherty put me on the team! I would ride my bike up to SHA every day before the tryouts to run the field with my stick. She must have felt sorry for me and put me on the team (says with a laugh). I will never forget the Apple Tournament that year; if you were on JV, you got to dress for the game, and if you were really good, you might get called up to play. I’ll never forget hearing my name called and I ran up to go in to play and Bunny said, “Here, you are keeping stats, you’re the smartest girl on the team.” Ha! I was thrilled to have the job, and I really loved that year.

I loved History and English. My training with Father Butler and Father Wagner was so valuable; they taught me how to write well and proof my work. Both of those men were such great teachers. Mr. Gallagher led Speech & Debate, and I really liked him too. The skills I learned prepared me for a career in law. Finally, I loved Sister Lorna even though I didn’t do so well in her classes – Physics and Chemistry. I remember crying in one of her Physics exams thinking to myself, “What is the lowest grade I can get on this test to pass the class?” We were the very first class to give her the first Beaker dog!

All of my teachers at SHA were just fantastic, and they cared about us not only as students but as human beings. They all made a great impact on me and supported all of us no matter what path we pursued.


Who would you say have been some of your greatest influences in life, and why?

My mom and dad. My mom was a teacher, and she taught us the value of education and worked with us on our studies. Of course, my dad was a lawyer and I’m lucky that I sort of combined the best of both of them in my own career as a lawyer and professor. They really modeled service in their lives and taught us how important it was to give back. When you have been blessed, you’re expected to do a lot for others.

My aunts have always been a huge part of my life. I don’t have sisters and besides my mom being my best friend, my aunts Susie and Carol have been so important to me. They are the most positive people you could know, and they always empowered me to do whatever I put my mind to. My aunts and my maternal grandmother have been great influences in my life.


You are the first permanent female Dean of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) School of Law.  What an achievement! What drew you to law, and what would you say are the elements of your career you enjoy most? 

My dad being a lawyer certainly was the catalyst for my own interest. Growing up, I loved going to work with him, being in the courtroom and attending trials. A lot of my summer jobs were working at the County Attorney or County Clerk’s offices, so I always really loved the law. I also wanted to make a difference in the world, and I felt like law could give me the platform to do that. 

When you ask what I love the most about my career, I have to say that as a Dean, I get to be a visionary and help with the strategic plan for the Law School. I love young people and I love school, so to have the opportunity to be around these very bright young students and colleagues on an intellectual level is just so much fun! Being a cheerleader for your institution and meeting amazing alums and hopefully getting them to invest in the future leaders of the state and the country is the best part of the job. I get to help us move forward as a school and then also work individually with great students, staff, faculty, and alumni.


Our core values as you well know, are Community, Service, Leadership and Reverence. Do any of those speak to you in a strong way?  If so, why?

When my daughters were students, it became clear to me that the core values really aligned with what I was taught and learned while I was at SHA. I love all of them. I very much value community, whether that is my own family, work community or the community at large. Leadership and service have always been a part of who I am as a person, an employee, or volunteer. With reverence, my mom and dad expected us to treat others with dignity and respect no matter who they were. I think all four values together provide a great roadmap and north star for me. I often ask myself “Am I touching on all of these?” They are great grounding rules to help me evaluate how I am living my life and I check in with the core values each year as I set my personal goals. They are just a wonderful set of values to try and live by.

In fact, I credit Sacred Heart and the core values with helping me get my current job. It was during an alumni dinner during four days of interviews for the Dean position that someone at my table asked me, “What are your values?” I immediately responded, “They are community, reverence, service and leadership.” They seemed very impressed; they loved hearing that and they could tell that the response was from my heart. So, I have to thank Sacred Heart for helping me embody those core values!


What advice would you share with young women today – especially SHA students – about the field of law? What areas of law are you seeing as opportunities for the future?

As far as general advice I’d give to them, it would be to major in something you love in college, because you’ll do well in it. A variety of majors appeal to law schools so don’t get too caught up in what areas best feed into law school. We like diversity of classes. Also, take opportunities for leadership roles while in college, participate in service; perhaps if you’re an athlete, continue that commitment and focus. All of these things show law schools that you are multi-dimensional and not just entirely focused on academics. Also, get to know your college professors, or at least a few of them, really well. Many people forget to do this, and those professors will write you wonderful letters of recommendation when it comes time to apply to law programs. Go to their office hours and get to know them. Sometimes, those letters of recommendation are the determining factor when it comes down to choosing between one applicant or another. 

As far as fields of opportunity within law, environmental law has huge potential right now and for the foreseeable future. Immigration law is also very big right now, as is intellectual property, and air and space law. Ole Miss is the only law school in the country right now that has an air & space program and that is going to be hugely important in the future. What law governs space? That will be a great field to get into right now, especially as it grows and evolves. The best thing about having a law degree is that you don’t even have to practice law. So many professionals in all types of disciplines and industries have law degrees. It can open so many doors for doing a variety of things in life. For women, it can also be a great career because it can provide great flexibility for moms, too. I will never forget coming to a Career Day at SHA one day, and a girl who had attended St. Agnes (our parish at the time) said to me, “I never knew you worked; I just always thought you wore pearls and a dress to carpool when you picked up your girls!” My choice in career enabled me to be available at so many of my children’s important events and activities, even though I was a full-time working mom.


Have you had a mentor throughout your education or career?

Well, I’ve talked about my parents, but professors and colleagues throughout the years also have been mentors for me. I will say that they are just so important; mentors help you to see your own potential and sometimes give you the confidence to try something when you’re just not sure. I’ll never forget my Dad leaving a note on my pillow when I lost the race for Student Council president at SHA. He said, “I am proud of you. I’ve never regretted anything I’ve tried, but often regretted not trying. I’m proud of you for trying.” That advice has stuck with me, and that is what mentors do for you. They give you the confidence to keep trying.


What drives you every day to get up and do your work?

I know that so many people are depending on me each day, and that invigorates me. As Dean, each day is so different! I love that about it; it is so energizing because it’s fast-paced and I am never bored, always challenged. 


How do you stay grounded? What activities do you enjoy when you aren’t working?

Seeing my family is first and foremost; any time I can be with them is so wonderful. We love to travel and have been so fortunate to see so many parts of the world. I love the outdoors; we golf and have a lake house where we unwind. I love to read!


As someone who sent her three daughters to SHA, what are some of the areas of evolution/innovation you have noticed as a student/parent/alum?

I love the IB program. Two of my three daughters went through SHA full IB. The curriculum at SHA prepared all of my girls for college and beyond, and I love that IB has been incorporated into all of the schools on campus. It is just a great educational philosophy. The Jean Frazier Leadership Institute has been such a fantastic addition to the programs at SHA. I cannot wait to see how that continues to evolve. Giving women leadership skills before they go to college – especially when entering a co-ed situation –can make such a difference in your trajectory. I have enjoyed learning about how many young women are participating in the Leadership Institute program. It has been so great to see how SHA has embraced overall wellness of its students, especially as we learn more about the impact of social media and other influences on young people’s mental health. I appreciate that SHA is always working to provide support for girls in a holistic way that benefits their wellbeing. I am also so proud to see the creation of programs to support students who learn differently, with the formalization of the Horton Family Accessible Education Center.


How do you stay connected to SHA friends?

Definitely by attending reunions. I try to get back for them, and had a great time at our last reunion two summers ago. I have recently reconnected with one of my very best friends from SHA, and it is wild how you can go years without talking to a Sacred Heart girl and just pick right back up where you left off. I feel like even if I run into someone who I haven’t seen in decades, we instantly connect with each other. Sacred Heart is just such a special place.


Fill in the blank…“If not for SHA, I….”

I know I would not be where I am today. The academic preparation totally set me up to succeed at Miami of Ohio and then in law school. It gave me the foundation for academic rigor without question, but it also gave me a strong Catholic foundation for my life. My faith is a huge part of my identity and without SHA, I am not sure I would have grown in my understanding of what that meant. Our faith deepened through our classes, extracurricular activities, and senior retreats, etc. All of these opportunities cemented what my parents had already ingrained in me, but I credit SHA with reinforcing what kind of life I wanted to have and how to live it. 


What does being part of a SHA family legacy mean to you?

We all have similar memories, cheers, understanding of senior retreats, and even some of the same teachers. We have those shared experiences. Not having had sisters, Sacred Heart opened my eyes to how powerful sisterhood can be, and how much these women can help you grow as a human being. Being a part of a true sisterhood is such a privilege. That was life-changing for me, and knowing its value, I hope to pass it on to other young girls. I was blessed to have three daughters! I am so happy they all experienced the SHA sisterhood, too.  To be a part of the sisterhood that changed my life, that’s what it means to me.


Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

A heartfelt gratitude to the Ursuline Sisters and teachers who taught us and all of the alumnae who invested in us. It takes a village to raise young girls and I hope I can do my part to ensure others also have this fantastic experience. As I grow older, I appreciate even more the sacrifices the sisters made to turn their vision into our Dear Sacred Heart.


Thank you, Susan!

Susan is available to speak with alumnae and current students about a career in law, please contact Megan Brumleve Theisen ’95 at [email protected] or 502.736.6408 to be connected!