Oral Histories

Cathy Veal


Cathy Veal


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Cathy Veal started her career at IMSA as Dean of Student Services. She arrived in August 1986, a month before the first students, having come from the North Carolina School of Science and Math. At the time, she describes the environment as having a start-up feel, with energy and enthusiasm. The faculty and staff had to plan a curriculum, draft a student handbook and processes for dealing with potential emergencies, and figure out how to accommodate the students in the main building before the residence halls were ready. She recalls how on the first extended weekend they worried that some students wouldn't come back. On top of that, rain had come through the roof in one of the areas of the building that was serving as a dormitory and staff worked to clean up in the mess during the middle of the night so that parents wouldn't worry and decide to keep their students at home.

A major challenge came in the second year when IMSA only had funding for half a year. They had to decide whether to admit a second class and risk having to close halfway through the year, or not admit a second class but have enough money to go the whole year with the charter class. They decided to admit the second class to show confidence, and it worked out in the end. Veal speaks to the challenge, and energy, of doing all the firsts - first curriculum, first prom, first graduation - while also bringing in new students and faculty.

Veal's roles at IMSA evolved over 30 years, from Dean of Student Services first, to Director of Communications, and then to the President's Office where she served as Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Board of Trustees. In those latter roles she worked more with external partners, from Illinois legislators to the Board of Higher Education. Then a position opened up in development and she took on the work of fundraising as Vice President for Advancement. When Stephanie Pace Marshall decided to retire as President, Veal moved back over to the President's Office where she worked with Max McGee as President. When he retired, she served as Interim President during a search for new leadership. She stayed during Jose Torres's first year as president and retired in 2015, after which she stayed another year in a voluntary capacity to help with fundraising for IN2 and the new science labs. Veal has since moved back to North Carolina, but remains involved with the IMSA community.

The IMSA vision evolved over the years as well. The early years were all about experimentation and pioneering, making IMSA a learning laboratory. Over time, focus moved towards outreach, with the Fusion program, field offices, and other initiatives designed to share educational opportunities across the state. In more recent years, attention has turned to marrying excellence and equity and better serving minority communities. There is a worry that IMSA has become more like a regular high school over time, and less pioneering, though perhaps this is a normal phenomenon that comes with maturity. Veal hopes IMSA will continue to be an institution that pushes the limit and puts in place innovative programs and breaks the mold.

The politics and budget have become more challenging in recent years, which makes it harder to innovate. Veal says she liked the more challenging aspects of her work, including the budget and lobbying, as well as bringing in new programming. In the early 1990s IMSA was one of the first pre-college institutions to start programs addressing the needs of LGBTQ students and their families and peers. This drew ire from some politicians, local religious leaders, and parents. Another controversial issue was a research study on why girls didn't take calculus based physics classes as often as boys and when they did, why they were more likely to drop out. The study was designed with four sections of the class, one of which was all girls. The study brought some legal challenges behind the scenes, but Veal says this was the sort of study an educational laboratory should do. In the end, they were able to use what they learned in the regular co-ed sections of the class, with better outcomes for the female students. Another major challenge was collecting and using data to demonstrate IMSA's impact to the Board, donors, and legislators.

The takeaway from her years at IMSA, Cathy Veal says, is the value of the people - everyone who believed in the mission and shared a sense of purpose. Her most challenging and rewarding work involved bringing people along in support of IMSA's mission. She says, "I would not change my work or my time there for any other experience anywhere."

Interviewer: Sara Goek. Duration: 42:39.




charter class, curriculum, funding, Illinois state politics, innovation, residential life, staff, students


Oral history


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Cathy Veal