In memoriam: Isabel Charles, first woman appointed Arts & Letters dean at Notre Dame

Author: Carrie Gates

Isabel Charles At Wall Of Honor

Marie Isabel Charles, assistant provost emerita and former director of international studies at the University of Notre Dame, died Sunday, Nov. 26. She was 97.

Charles joined the University faculty as an associate professor of English and assistant dean in the College of Arts and Letters in 1973, just a year after undergraduate coeducation was introduced and at a time when less than 10 percent of the faculty was female. She became dean of the college in 1976 and was the first woman appointed as dean or assistant dean at Notre Dame.

“As the first female dean of the College of Arts and Letters, Isabel was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, language studies and international programs,” said Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C., president emeritus of the University. “She personified a public intellectual who was a perfect fit for Notre Dame. She took the initiative in our efforts to have more women serve in leadership roles in the colleges, in student affairs, in athletics and in other major areas of University life.”

Charles made a lasting impact as dean of the College of Arts and Letters through her work to develop the liberal arts curriculum and build an academic community that empowered female scholars.

“Isabel was a true trailblazing leader at a time of critical transition for Notre Dame,” said Sarah Mustillo, the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the college. “It must have meant so much to those first classes of female students to see a woman in these important leadership positions on campus. With her strength and courage, Isabel set the stage for the generations of women leaders who followed in her footsteps.”

“We are proud to carry that legacy forward in the service of Notre Dame.” - Michael E. Pippenger 

In 1982, Charles began her role as assistant provost and director of international studies, where she significantly expanded the University’s international presence and reputation. She traveled the world to visit existing study abroad locations and create new programs in Ireland, Greece, Spain, China, Egypt, Jerusalem and Australia, among others. During her tenure, Notre Dame’s study abroad program grew from six to 16 locations.

“We are blessed to have had the leadership of Isabel Charles. Her work to build new international programs is a testament to the importance of engagement in the wider world as students, faculty, administrators, and as a University,” said Michael E. Pippenger, vice president and associate provost for internationalization.

“We are proud to carry that legacy forward in the service of Notre Dame.” 

Charles retired in 1995 and, in 2018, was added to the University’s Wall of Honor. Established in 1999, the Wall of Honor recognizes men and women “whose contributions to Notre Dame have been lasting, pervasive and profound.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she entered the Dominican Order in 1945. As a Dominican Sister, she taught at several Catholic schools and earned her bachelor’s degree in English and French from Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, in 1954. She received a dispensation from the Dominican community in 1975.

After completing a doctoral degree in English at Notre Dame in 1965, Charles taught and served as executive vice president and academic dean at Ohio Dominican College before returning to her alma mater.

Charles is survived by sisters Joanne McGinnis, Sara Kennedy and Patty Went, as well as 22 nieces and nephews and many grandnieces and -nephews.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. A livestream of the Mass will be available here.

Originally published by Carrie Gates at on December 01, 2023.