10 Years Along

Q&A with Boston College President William P. Leahy, SJ

Ten years ago, Rev. William P. Leahy, SJ became the 25th president of Boston College. In a recent interview with Chronicle, Fr. Leahy reflected on his first decade at the Heights, and offered comments about BC today and in the future.

A 10-year anniversary is often a good time for "taking stock." In what ways do you think Boston College has changed since you arrived 10 years ago?

On the academic front, we have clearly improved in our faculty. We have more endowed chairs, and we have more faculty who are not only excellent teachers but also first rate scholars and researchers. Because of the quality of our faculty, BC's academic reputation continues to improve, and I think we are poised to make even more advances as we focus on specific areas of the humanities, social and natural sciences, and our professional schools.

The quality of our students continues to increase, as well, thanks to the tremendous efforts of the admission staff - and also to the faculty and alumni - who are engaged in identifying students, interesting them in BC and then helping us to enroll them.

Another area in which we've made advances is in the campus itself. Not only have we acquired additional land, we've also constructed new facilities and updated buildings. The Biology and Physics departments have much improved teaching and research areas. The departments of Philosophy, Theology, History, and Economics are in new space in 21 Campanella Way, and we have constructed another residential facility for upper classmen on Lower Campus and renovated our freshman residence halls on both the Newton and Upper Campuses.

And a particularly important development: We're more comfortable talking about aspects of BC's mission, not only as an academic institution but one with a Jesuit, Catholic heritage. Our Office of Mission and Ministry is active on this front - its Intersections seminar program will involve 120 faculty and staff this year, for example. I also think there's a greater comfort level on campus in general in discussing our mission, and understanding it as not only an intellectual one, but also one with social aspects and Jesuit and Catholic dimensions.

I would say the biggest accomplishments of the past 10 years tie into those changes and developments. But in the end, BC's success comes down to students making the most of their opportunities on campus to grow intellectually and personally, to faculty excelling in their various disciplines, to administrators doing their jobs day in and day out, and to alumni, parents and friends who have committed time, great interest, and dollars to Boston College.

You've stressed many times the importance of faculty to Boston College. What do you think are the qualities of a successful BC faculty member?

We have high expectations for our faculty: We want them to be strong teachers, quality researchers, and generous in service, whether it's to their profession or the wider community. We want them to have the best possible preparation for their position at BC, and to have the desire to teach and be engaged with and advise their students, whether undergraduate or graduate.

I also think it important that faculty have dreams, a drive within to expand the bounds of knowledge; that their pursuit of truth so animates them that they inspire students to ask similar kinds of questions and engage in similar quests.

In my experience, great faculty not only are people alive with enthusiasm for their particular discipline, but also care deeply about their students and challenge them.

It's important that faculty be university citizens, that they care about the future of Boston College. Everybody at BC has a responsibility for its future. The best departments are the ones where the faculty have a plan and commitment to the continued improvement of their unit.

As you look ahead, what are BC's biggest challenges?

There are several great challenges for BC.

First, to make sure that our Jesuit, Catholic heritage remains vital on campus. The number of Jesuit faculty and administrators continues to decrease, and so does the number of individuals knowledgeable about and committed to our intellectual and religious tradition. The administrative and faculty cohort of the University will change dramatically because of retirements in the next decade. That puts more pressure on us to hand on our intellectual and religious tradition to new people, who often come here without knowing much about BC and its heritage, but fortunately who are willing and eager to learn about Boston College.

Second, financial resources. While we're thankful for the support we receive from alumni, we also know that the percentage of alumni who give annually has largely remained static during the past decade. Our alumni clearly have a deep affection for BC, and want to have the next generations benefit from the BC education that so shaped their lives. We have to do a better job of finding ways to engage alumni, to appeal to them and say, "Give succeeding generations the chance you had. Keep BC a school that is need-blind and meets the full demonstrated financial need of all accepted students, so our admission programs can continue focusing on attracting the very best students."

An additional challenge is to prepare the next generations of Catholics for service to the Church, especially helping to renew the Catholic community in the US and around the world. We're not a parish; we don't have a catechical function, but we certainly have intellectual engagement and formation opportunities to help our students to understand they have a calling, a vocation to live. We need to challenge our students to develop their talents, and to go forth and help the world deal with significant issues and problems. We'd like them to act responsibly while they're here, but we also want them to be agents of change for the rest of their lives.

Look at it this way: Why did the Society of Jesus start schools? It was to influence the wider culture through its graduates. So, whether the students are Catholic, Christian, members of other faiths, or unsure if they believe in God, we want to call upon all of them to look at what they believe and why they believe, and see how that moral compass affects their future directions.

You've heard the concern expressed by some as to how Boston College can remain true to its roots as a Boston, Catholic institution yet aspire to be a leading national university that attracts the country's best students. How do you reconcile these aims?

The mission of Boston College has evolved over the years. In the Civil War period, BC began as a place to provide Catholic education for children of immigrants - not solely, but mainly. In the succeeding decades, BC still had a largely Catholic focus and it was local; students commuted to school for the most part.

As American society has changed, so has the challenge for BC. The University maintains its interest in and its links to Boston, but the needs of the Catholic Church and the society around it have evolved. There is a legitimate expectation of BC to help prepare the next generation of leaders for not only the Catholic community but also wider society.

Our mission has evolved beyond the local and regional - it's even moved past the national. Our international outlook, I believe, fits with what St. Ignatius wanted Jesuit schools to do, which is work for the greater good and prepare graduates who, through their talents and personal and moral commitments, would help transform the world. The statement Ignatius is said to have made to Francis Xavier, "Go set the world aflame" - that's what we want our graduates to do.

With the high cost of college education, do you think there is a sense of entitlement among some students and their families? Can a university like Boston College fulfill its mission while making students feel as if they're getting "full value" for their money?

I think we have to recognize that students and parents do have high expectations, given what they're paying for college now. It comes out of wanting the best for their children. But I think there are times when we have to say, "We can't meet all of those desires. They're not appropriate for us." We have to say, "The focus should be on using gifts for others, not just for self."

It's back to that calling: helping others, not just accumulating. The Gospel says, "What we receive as a gift we should give as a gift." When we talk about formation, how we want to form our students - not indoctrinate, not coerce - we do have expectations and goals. We want our students to recognize their gifts, develop their talents for others and understand their call to act responsibly in life.

Our students who go on service trips often come from homes that are, by comparison, so privileged, and they go into sections of the United States or into foreign countries and live in a radically different context. And they love doing it. The human spirit responds to people in need. When students are engaged in service, that's the way they get in touch with God. Our challenge is to help them find service opportunities, but then also help them to reflect on that experience and what they are going to do about the conditions that so shocked them. When you hear students talk about going to El Salvador and Appalachia and call it a "life-changing experience," you want to ask, "Was that still true six months from the time you got back? How life-changing was it really?" That's where the spiritual component built into service experiences is so important.

Another way to respond to entitlement is through religious retreats. Students in America are so busy, so caught up in the various realities of their lives, they often do not take time to reflect, to listen to themselves and give God a chance.

When we can take the focus off self and onto the transcendent and the needs of others, it leads to a healthier perspective.

One of Boston College's most well received initiatives in recent years has been The Church in the 21st Century.

Fr. Leahy and Boston Archbishop Sean O_Malley, OFM, Cap, at the 2004 press conference announcing BC_s acquisition of 43 acres and several buildings from the Archdiocese of Boston, now known as the University's Brighton Campus. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

What's made it successful? How does it fit into BC's mission?

Our C21 initiative is part of the long history of the Church responding to issues of the day, and needs of the wider community. In its 2,000-year history, the Church has faced major problems, such as the bubonic plague and the French Revolution. Now the US Catholic Church has critical issues facing it. In terms of personnel, priests and nuns are declining in number, and aging. And we have seen the devastating effects of clerical sexual abuse.

Boston College is in a position where it can assist the Church - and given the resources and commitment in a place like BC, we have not only the ability but the obligation to do so. We were once a struggling school that relied on the generosity of the Church as an institution and on individual Catholics. Now we have an opportunity to give back to that Catholic community that has so shaped us. So much of the renewal of the Catholic Church in the US will be shaped by what happens on the campuses of Catholic institutions and through the talents and commitment of their alumni.

Through the past four years of C21, I've found that though people have questions and issues about the institutional Church, they still consider themselves part of the Catholic faith community, and their faith is still very much alive. It's the institutional expression of that faith which needs to be strengthened.

This is why initiatives like C21 are so vital to the future of the Church. We have so many issues that need to be discussed, and a place like BC is an environment where that dialogue can take place, whether it's among groups of bishops or laypeople. And it can help our students to realize that faith matters.

My hope for C21 that it will continue to identify issues that need engagement and dialogue and prayer.

Ideally, what should each Boston College undergraduate do before he or she leaves the Heights?

First of all, I hope all our students focus on developing their intellectual talents and personal gifts, and that they live responsibly while on campus.

Having said that, I have a variety of other hopes for BC undergraduates while they are here, some small, some large.

For example, I hope that undergraduates develop a habit of reading a daily newspaper, and that they develop a love of books. I want them to read.

I'd like them to have had an international experience, whether a year, a semester, a summer.

I'd want them to develop a fluency in a foreign language.

I'd like them to have made a religious retreat during their time at BC.

I hope that by the time they graduate they have begun the process of integrating the intellectual, social, affective and religious dimensions of their lives. And I hope that our students assimilate a deep desire to use their gifts for the good of others.

Being a college president these days is no easy task, to put it mildly. We hear about the stresses higher education administrators must deal with these days, from faculty, from alumni, from students and their families. So why would you want to be a president?

There's no question that for higher ed administrators, there are extra pressures. It's harder and harder to get really talented academics to go into administration and do it well. I think a lot of people get tired of the frustrations of administration, given the kinds of expectations that are so prevalent today.

But as to your question, "Why be president?", the answer is straightforward: It's a ministry of the Society of Jesus, and I'm a Jesuit priest. Also, BC is a school that has had a wonderful impact on higher education, as well as the Catholic and non-Catholic world, and I think the need is greater than ever for BC. The vision inspiring BC remains so valid and is so needed, I'm just glad I can be part of it.

If you hadn't gone into higher education, what do you think you might have done?

Before I got interested in the Society of Jesus, I'd have said teacher - though perhaps not in higher ed. Since I've done so much administration, I might have gone into the world of business, some area of management. I might have been a lawyer.

I wouldn't have been a farmer; that just didn't appeal to me. I had four uncles who all had farms, along with my dad. Of all their children, only my brother Tom is a farmer.

What in Boston has made the biggest impression on you during your time here?

Other than the drivers? (Laughs)

One of the most positive things I've seen is that Bostonians have great passion for their city. They identify with it. You see it manifested in sports, of course, but I also see it around neighborhoods.

What distresses me about Boston is that it has not solved its public education problems. And I think we have to do much better at creating and retaining jobs in the metro area, and addressing the cost of housing.

What are your hopes for BC during the next 10 years, and beyond?

I would like BC to continue providing the best possible undergraduate education it can, emphasizing the liberal arts in an atmosphere of caring and faith, and also offering quality selected programs in the graduate and professional areas.

I think we have an obligation to make sure the ethical and moral and religious dimensions of our intellectual quest remain in the forefront. I want BC always to be interested in the formation of students, their lives and values.

I want us to continue to be concerned about access to BC, about the importance of the endowment for financial aid. If you are a student with academic talent, have great desire to serve, and you want to come to BC and you meet the admissions standards, there must be a way for you to come here. One of our students just went back to Rwanda. She was an orphan, a victim of the genocide. She came to the US to Houston, a Catholic parish there funded her high school education, and she applied to BC with talent but no resources at all. We provided her financial aid, and she's now graduated and has returned to work in her country. That's an example of what BC is able to do for people, something that is reflective of our institutional values and commitments.

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Sept. 21, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 2

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