On The Record

In mid-October, 10 days after he was named president elect, William P. Leahy, SJ, was interviewed by phone at his office at Marquette University. The interview was conducted by Public Affairs Director Douglas Whiting and Boston College Magazine editor Ben Birnbaum.

CHRONICLE: We understand that after it was reported in the Boston Globe that you liked Pepsi and M&Ms, you received shipments of each from well wishers.

FR. LEAHY: [ Laughter ] It's true, and if I'd only known I certainly would have said something about gifts to the BC annual fund.

How does it feel to be replacing a legend?

You probably won't be surprised to hear that a number of people have asked me that and I guess the way I look upon it is that I'm not replacing Fr. Monan, I am his successor, I am succeeding him. All my life I have tried to be myself, in all the responsibilities that I took on. And I intend to do the same at Boston College. I can't be Don Monan, but I can be myself. And I don't find, at least this afternoon, that I am intimidated by the thought of being the successor to a great university leader. I know there are many things that Fr. Monan did so well and I'm going to have to learn how to do them, period. But I also know that I have been put in places and in situations where there were many challenges, and God has given me the grace, and people have helped me, to do what needs to be done. So I think God will continue to provide. I guess that would be my simplest answer: that God and people will provide.

Didn't you spend some time at BC in the early 1980s?

I was there in regard to research for my doctoral dissertation on 20th century Jesuit education. I first visited BC in the summer of '82, and then for about six weeks during the following March and April. I worked in the BC archives and I'm sorry to say that like many grad students, I was more involved with the notes I was taking than with my surroundings. But I have always remembered the beautiful Gothic buildings and walking around the reservoir and thinking - they have some nice open spaces here.

Nice open spaces aside, what's the attraction of Boston College for you now? What did you see here in your more recent encounters that made you say, that's where I want to be?

Well, first of all and most obviously, BC is very well positioned for a leadership role in not only Catholic higher education but in American higher education. And I say that not only because of its facilities, student body and faculty, but because of the sense or feel on the campus that the place is ready to move to the next level. I especially felt this in the summer when I began speaking with trustees and administrators and faculty. They know the foundations are there for the next leap forward on a number of fronts, especially in graduate education. People at BC seem to have a sense of self-affirmation and great confidence in the institution. And I think part of the opportunity and the attraction of Boston College is its collegial, supportive atmosphere that says, we take intellectual efforts, intellectual dialogue, very, very seriously. It's a priority of the institution. That I find very exciting.

How would you characterize the style of leadership that we can expect to see during your presidency?

Let me give you some theory first and then get into style. From a theory perspective, I believe that leaders of institutions are expected to supply two things most of all. One is a compelling vision or sense of purpose for the institution. And that comes out of personal reflections, experience and dreams, but also from assessing opportunities and needs as well as from talking with the individuals who are part of the institution. I believe the senior-level management and the president bear a special responsibility to articulate that vision, and in very compelling fashion.

And the second thing a leader has to do is provide clear decisions. Doing that requires data collection and consultation, but ultimately leaders must set a direction.

As for style, though reading and reflecting about issues is essential, I tend to put people ahead of paper. I find I learn a great deal by meeting with individuals or having small group sessions. I also think leaders have to be compassionate in how they respond to people or issues. At all costs they have to avoid being overbearing or giving the impression that they don't care. As executive vice president [at Marquette], I stress the importance of having an atmosphere of caring and faith. And that's part of the way I believe leadership occurs.

The world is said to be divided into theoreticians and practical folk. As a college administrator, where do you fall on this continuum?

That would depend on the question or issue being put to me. But generally I'll say that I know people who are very fine theorists and abstract thinkers, and I am more oriented toward the practical. I'm more of a process thinker, probably, so that much of what I know and believe results from listening and reading what others have said or written. I'm pretty reflective and I take the intellectual life seriously, but I wouldn't call myself a theoretician.

You've been EVP at Marquette since 1991. It was your first high level managerial post. What have those four years taught you?

A great deal, to tell the truth. Among the more significant is that I've learned so much about the budgeting, financing and strategic planning processes. And I think I've learned a lot about how to be a public figure. I was Marquette's representative for much of a recent initiative to divert traffic from the center of our campus. I appeared at public hearings, I testified before the [Milwaukee] Common Council, I dealt with media and I know today that I'm much more comfortable being a public figure than I was four years ago. I had to do similar things for Campus Circle, a revitalization plan for the area around the campus that involved neighborhood meetings and dealing with people who were angry or upset and my job was not only to represent the university, but also to bring peace and understanding to the situation.

What or who are the major personal influences that have made you who you are?

I would go back to family. I was immensely influenced by my dad and his brothers and the way they worked together on our farm in Iowa. My dad was a quiet leader in his family and I learned a lot from him. And then I think that my peer group in the Society of Jesus has had more influence on me, probably, than any other group except family. Because they not only affirmed me, but they also helped change me. I have always said that people who are like me have affirmed me, but the people who are different have helped to change me. In the Society of Jesus, as I've traveled and lived in various parts of the country, I've had the great benefit of all kinds of people that I grew to know and become close to. I have benefited from some wonderful friendships.

Intellectually, I think the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley was the shaping experience for me. Earlier, when I studied philosophy at St. Louis University, I wasn't a person who wondered a great deal or who asked hard questions. I loved history and I had a mind for facts, and I enjoyed reading a great deal; but I didn't have the kinds of explicit, profound questions that began to surface when I was at the Jesuit School of Theology. For example, I can remember a course in Christology that was a very key course for me in helping me articulate what I believed and why I believed it. While at Berkeley I became very much a person who wondered and who asked questions.

In Adapting to America [Georgetown University Press, 1991] you talk about Catholic higher education having failed to achieve the national stature it ought to have. What's been responsible for that failure?

A huge problem in Catholic higher education is the duplication of efforts. We have not focused our resources and personnel in such a way that we can really have particular schools or departments that are steeples of excellence. So I think that duplication and a kind of localism help explain where we are and why we aren't in a better place. Another key issue facing Catholic higher education and those who are dedicated to it concerns questions of purpose and will. What do we really want to be and how committed are we to carrying it out? And we need people who have that compelling vision and who can enlist others in the enterprise. And then we have to make the tough choices.

It's the question of the greater good. I think it's pretty clear now that we don't have to have 230 Catholic colleges and universities, that our task is not so much to educate an immigrant population as it is to influence American academic culture and wider society. We should strive to be the meeting place between the Church and modern culture. To do so, we must have schools which rank with the best secular schools and which are permeated by religious commitment.

One of the things that I believe Boston College can do so well in the future is engage in that dialogue. At the risk of sounding like an Eastern elitist after only a few weeks as president-elect, I have to say that BC is located, after all, where the potential for dialogue about intellectual topics and themes is just immense. And because of BC's strengths, it can bring so much to the discourse that is underway - so much more than a lot of other institutions can.

Does what you're saying mean that some Jesuit colleges will close down?

I don't necessarily say that the Society of Jesus will close some of its colleges and universities, but what I do think will be the case is that the institutions will become much more known as Catholic universities, or colleges with a Catholic tradition, because there may be only a few Jesuits at those schools. I could see us, for example, putting a moratorium on manpower assignments to some institutions, and the Jesuits who were at these schools already would stay, but we wouldn't be assigning new ones to those schools. If our Jesuit schools are to survive, they will do so only on the basis of a deep, abiding vision that attracts talented people and generous support. If I can quote Proverbs , 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." And I think that's true of institutions as well.

How do you generally view the development of American Catholic higher education in this century?

Before World War II, American Catholic higher education had a clearer sense of purpose - to protect the faith and make it possible for Catholics to get a college education - than it has had since 1960. Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church worldwide has been involved in a great deal of soul-searching about its beliefs and its purpose and how it relates to contemporary society. And Catholic higher education in the last 30 years has been searching as well; and while it is academically stronger today, it has generally suffered from not having a coherent, convincing rationale. In effect, we took as our goal becoming like the secular schools that were defined as excellent. For a time we were so focused on becoming professional and academically respectable that we didn't give enough attention to communicating our Catholic educational heritage and mission.

How do you communicate that heritage and mission?

In regard to Jesuit colleges, the Society of Jesus got involved in schools in 1548 as a way of influencing the social order and our goal for centuries has been to graduate talented men and women who could be a leaven for good in society.

The phrase that I like a lot is, we are about informing and forming students so that they, in turn, can help transform society. We strive to communicate information, but we also try to promote certain values, and that's where the word formation comes in. And the combination of informing and forming can lead to the transformation of our world.

And so, if we and our schools are committed to integrating intellectual excellence and religious commitment, then I think no matter what happens, our schools will have a purpose and can contribute immensely to modern life.

We take it, then, that one place where you'd look for confirming evidence of this commitment is in the lives of students and graduates?

Absolutely. I would expect students of Boston College or any other Catholic university to graduate with evident competence. I want our graduates to be able to think critically, write clearly and to have a skill that will enable them to not only make a living but also contribute to society. A level of competence is essential in our graduates if we're going to call ourselves quality universities. But it's more than just competence. We must also graduate individuals who are compassionate and who are willing to invest in helping improve society, who recognize that they don't live just for themselves.

As you are well aware, Catholic colleges have in recent years become increasingly pluralistic in terms of their faculties and administrative staffs. How important is it that those hired to work at a place like Boston College be sympathetic to its religious traditions?

Some of the strongest supporters of Catholic higher education that I know do not come out of a Catholic background. I can think of people on this [Marquette] campus who are Presbyterian and Jewish and Lutheran. They teach well and they do fine research and they very much believe in the importance of an education that takes religion seriously. They're not just sympathetic to the tradition, they are very much committed to it. Others, who may not be as knowledgeable about our traditions, contribute in other ways, such as quality teaching or reaching out to help students. And that's a great plus as well. I think, in final analysis, that we need to be ready to assist the people we hire - some of whom may not know much about us - to interiorize an awareness of our religious and educational traditions, to understand the way Catholicism promotes freedom and helps individuals appreciate their worth and value.

At an undergraduate level, BC has always had a strong liberal arts tradition based on a core curriculum. Other institutions have in recent times been dismantling the apparatus. Where do you stand?

Colleges obviously vary in their curricular requirements. I am, however, very much committed to the liberal arts because I think they can lead to increased personal freedom. A liberal education is about freedom, about freeing the mind. And I think that when people study literature and history and mathematics and theology and social sciences, they can learn so much about life and culture. The liberal arts and a core curriculum enable people to benefit from a long tradition of learning and to ask questions that are pretty basic to the human experience. It challenges them to answer for themselves: How have human beings responded to various issues throughout the centuries? Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?

One of the first things we did when we got our hands on your book [on 20th century Jesuit higher education] was to look up the number of indexed references to BC. The answer was two. Then we came upon the number of references to St. Louis University - 10 - and then to Marquette - 10. Are we seeing evidence of a Midwest bias here?

You probably don't know this yet, but the remarkable thing about people from the heartland is that we have no biases, only deep, native wisdom. [ Laughter ] But to respond to the reference inequity that has recently become so obvious to me, let me say that I'll certainly review the issue when the book goes into a second edition.

A final question. We know you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan. What will you do if the Red Sox ever play the Cardinals in the Series?

Cheer for both. But my heart will be with the Cardinals. [ Laughter ] I knew you'd get around to the hard questions sooner or later.

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