Reflection and Vision

Fr. Leahy Discusses His First Year As President and Looks Ahead

On Aug. 1, William P. Leahy, SJ, will have completed his first year as president of Boston College. He sat with Publications and Print Marketing Director Ben Birnbaum recently to reflect on his first year in office and look to the future. The following interview will be published in the summer issue of Boston College Magazine .

Chronicle : What are the three most unbelievable things you've heard about yourself in the last year?

Fr. Leahy : [Laughter] If I'm restricted to only three, then number one would be that I was going to reinstitute parietal hours for the opposite sex in the residence halls; two, that the administration wanted to cover up the student gambling problem; and three, that I was going to dismiss faculty who'd posted signs saying they supported University recognition of the student gay and lesbian group.

Chronicle : I'll let you have you a fourth.

Fr. Leahy : That I canceled Midnight Madness because I want to downgrade BC athletics to Division II, if not III.

Chronicle : Are you surprised by these?

Fr. Leahy : Not entirely. Questions about my identity are to be expected, especially after a long period with a leader people knew well and trusted. Naturally, people are trying to figure out who I am: Am I for athletics, against this or that idea, a person who listens, a person who acts? After a while, as people get to know me, these questions will fall by the wayside and so will the rumors. In fact, I find that's already beginning to happen.

Chronicle : Are you a "conservative Catholic?"

Fr. Leahy : As you know, that idea began to fly even before I got here. And while I don't see myself as an extremely complex man, I really do hope that my religious faith and my relationship with the Church can't be reduced to a phrase or a generalization - whether conservative, moderate, liberal or whatever. In terms of the Church, for example, there are things that I would conserve, things I would leave alone and things I would change, and that's the problem with labels. In the end, I think that while faith is a gift to be lived and shared, it is also a personal and complex matter, and always evolving as you learn more about yourself and the world and God's presence in it.

But again, this kind of speculation is typical when there's a change in leadership. New college presidents tend to surface all kinds of hopes, fears and projections. Like all men and women, I'd prefer to be judged by what I do as opposed to what people believe I might do because of what they think I might be.

Chronicle : Where's BC headed?

Fr. Leahy : Upward. In September we're going to announce the details of a five-year academic plan that will dramatically enhance the quality of BC's faculty, students, undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, and research.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is that you simply can't stand still. BC became a top-40 ranked university by overtaking a lot of institutions that for some reason couldn't or didn't move forward as fast as we did. If we don't make progress, we move backwards relative to others and, more importantly, relative to our own responsibilities.

Second is that we simply need to keep getting stronger. We owe it to ourselves, our students, our graduates and our mission. Mediocrity isn't an option. That's not to say you don't struggle as you move along. But your goal has to be excellence; certainly ours is.

Chronicle : In the past year you've spent a fair amount of time meeting with alumni and others who are interested in BC, and I'd guess that you've gotten several earfuls about what's right and what's wrong on the Heights. What are some of the recurring themes that come up when people talk to you about the University?

Fr. Leahy : Well, I heard comments on many things. But in terms of themes, the ones that come up most frequently are pride in BC and the position it's attained, and a concern that BC not forget its religious roots and educational traditions. I think some of our supporters are concerned that in becoming a national and even international university we have overreached our mission. I found that very interesting.

Chronicle : How so?

Fr. Leahy : I think there's a sense behind this that a mission is something that's formed once and forever preserved the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If our mission once focused on immigrant Catholics from Boston's neighborhoods, now it is to tend to young people not only from Boston but also from neighborhoods around the country. And if our mission once was to teach, now it's to teach and also to promote research and the dissemination of knowledge - because that's a greater contribution, both to the world and to our students, and we should always try and make the greater contribution.

Chronicle : If you could change something about BC, what would it be?

Fr. Leahy : First, I'd make us better at integrating intellectual and spiritual concerns. Second, I'd make us academically stronger and more diverse at every level. And third I'd improve our level of service to students in all areas.

Chronicle : That's really four things.

Fr. Leahy : [Laughter] We should always try and make the greater contribution.

Chronicle : Roughly speaking, how do you spend your working days?

Fr. Leahy : My days vary. I spend a lot of time in business meetings with administrators, faculty, students and alumni. I spend many evenings at various functions or meeting with BC friends and supporters - followed by a return to the office for paperwork.

Chronicle : You've made it a point to meet informally with students, some of whom made a public issue of something you said during one of those talks last spring. Any regrets about being that accessible? Any plans to avoid meeting with students in resident hall lounges?

Fr. Leahy : No regrets and no change in plans. From a personal standpoint, I have to be accessible to succeed. I learn from talking with people. I also enjoy the company of students and like to know what they think, and like them to know what I think and to know me. And if sometimes they misunderstand my meaning or I misunderstand theirs, that's a danger in any relationship, but if the relationship is important you work it through.

Chronicle : Do you have time for yourself?

Fr. Leahy : I think it's important to have time for yourself, and so I like to take a day during the week where I can catch up on my reading, take a walk, get into my car to see if I can learn how to drive in Boston.

Chronicle : You'd be the first to succeed. What books are you reading?

Fr. Leahy : I'm reading something called The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America by Mary Oates. I have a long list of books I want to get to, most in history, higher education or religion. And someday I may find time to finish a Tom Clancy novel I started in October.

Chronicle : Did you learn anything from the gambling problem or Jim O'Brien's departure?

Fr. Leahy : I learned a lot about the depth of people's care for BC. They hurt when we hurt. In both situations it was not hard to figure where we needed to come out and we got there. Athletics, someone once told me, is a lot like a medical school. It's got a lot of potential benefit for a university, but risks as well. We've just got to make sure we continue to receive the benefits and I'm confident we will.

Chronicle : When you first came to BC, you said you'd spend a year "listening and learning." What have you found here that surprised you, that nobody told you before you were hired?

Fr. Leahy : BC is a large, complex place, so no matter how much I was told, there remained a lot to learn. But even if I'd known every fact about BC, I still would have needed to learn the culture. Every institution has a culture - its own language, customs and a set of understandings about the past and the future. And these are reflected in such things as how people treat each other; how work gets done; definitions of success; how people convey bad news or good news. All of this is part of culture and you can't learn that from a distance.

Chronicle : How do you assess BC's financial health?

Fr. Leahy : Well, first we have great strengths in our physical plant, our business practices and our gross endowment, which is approaching $700 million.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. For example, each time the endowment figure comes up we need to remind ourselves of how it translates into income support per student, which is the number that really matters.

In 1996, the last year for which we have comparative numbers, we had $2,337 of income support per student from endowment. By contrast, Notre Dame had $6,000 dollars to spend on each of its students from endowment income, while Brown had $5,300, and Duke had $4,300. Or to put it on another resource scale, Notre Dame raised more than $90 million this past year, and we raised $27 million. Now if you want to say that Notre Dame, Duke and Brown shouldn't matter to us, you can set this concern aside. But in fact they are our peers, competitors for students, faculty, corporate support. So this is important.

Chronicle : We're in the majors now with major league aspirations but without major league endowment funds or financial support.

Fr. Leahy : Exactly, and it's not because we're not capable of raising that money or that our alumni aren't capable of supporting us significantly. But we are for various historical reasons late on the scene. Other universities have been at it longer than we have, as a result of which they have more resources. We have to work harder at it. One of my jobs is going to be to help raise the funds that enable us to make excellence our hallmark in every appropriate area. This is a very serious issue for Boston College. If we could combine new development dollars with our proven ability to get the most out of our money, we would be absolutely formidable.

Chronicle : I recently heard someone ask you if your ambition for BC was that it be the best Catholic university in the country, and you said, if I can paraphrase you, that that wasn't enough of an ambition by your lights.

Fr. Leahy : We need to reach high. All year I've been telling people that we need to be ever stronger as a university and ever faithful to our religious and educational missions. This means that BC's contributions to its students and to society should be as large and as helpful as possible, and we should not limit our aspirations or abilities to "Catholic" issues, as many Catholic institutions did in the past.

But it also means that our being a Jesuit university is a great and unique strength. Our identity provides us with an important role to play in our society and with goals that other universities don't have. Standing in the long Catholic intellectual tradition, BC can be a bridge between faith and other forms of culture, a place that insists that life and our human gifts are worth taking seriously and celebrating. In these times that's a countercultural message and one that needs to be heard.

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