Mission Accomplished

Having raised BC's academic profile as AVP, Fr. Neenan prepares to shift roles

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

It was a newspaper photo of local college students attired in their school sweatshirts, William B. Neenan, SJ, says, that crystallized his mission as Boston College's academic vice president and dean of faculties.

Fr. Neenan, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was struck by the absence of a "Boston College" in the shot: The BC student happened to be standing in the middle of the group, shirt obscured. The image symbolized what Fr. Neenan was determined to address when, in 1987, he became the University's top academic administrator.

"To me, that photo suggested the idea of Boston College as a well-kept secret," recalled Fr. Neenan in a recent interview. "We had much to take pride in, a lot of potential to be a major national university, but nobody really knew about us."

Eleven years later, his tenure as AVP completed, Fr. Neenan can justly proclaim that Boston College is a secret no longer, as reflected by an undergraduate application rate that has hit unprecedented, sustained levels, and by consistently high rankings by national publications like US News & World Report.

It is this legacy his colleagues are hailing as Fr. Neenan prepares for his new role as vice president and assistant to the president, a position he will assume after a sabbatical this fall. Fr. Neenan's familiar persona as a witty, affable, well-read Midwesterner whose bon mots enliven University events, they say, should not obscure the acumen he demonstrated in overseeing an increasingly diverse, high-achieving faculty, and shaping BC's academic character as a national, Catholic university.

William B. Neenan, SJ. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"He wanted to make it clear that we had the ability to be the best," said Dean for Enrollment Management Robert Lay. "Bill gets the credit for taking leadership in building the reputation BC enjoys now, as well as a tremendous self-confidence and optimism. He was the right man at the right time."

"Because he's such a wonderful man, and has that great sense of humor, it's easy to overlook his major achievements," said Monan Professor of Law Daniel Coquillette, a former Law School dean. "When I chaired the search committee for the new academic vice president, we wound up discussing things I hadn't realized Bill had been so involved with. The scope of his involvement is impressive, to say the least."

That resume includes major roles in such milestones as the founding of the Jesuit Institute, revision of the undergraduate core curriculum, transfer of the graduate nursing and education programs from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to their respective schools, and the University's recent $260 million academic initiative.

"The University has made great strides over the past couple of decades," Fr. Neenan said. "We've diversified our student body, reaffirmed our commitment to a strong, traditional liberal arts curriculum, and achieved national recognition for the quality of our schools and faculty. But the major event that's taken place since I've been here is that Boston College has attained the self-confidence to be our own kind of school. There is really no one like us."

When they discuss his tenure, colleagues also like to cite numerous anecdotes depicting Fr. Neenan's willingness to reach out to students and faculty: his regular taking of meals in campus dining halls, for example, or the time his curiosity about "Melrose Place" earned him an invitation from several undergraduates to a viewing of the TV show.

"These are not trivial things," said School of Education Dean Mary Brabeck. "They help to build communities. As you strive for excellence, you need that human touch and Bill has provided that in great quantities."

Fortunately, Fr. Neenan says, his new position - in which he will work with the president on campus issues and in various capacities in an upcoming capital campaign - will enable him to maintain the bonds he has formed since arriving from the University of Michigan as the first Gasson Professor in 1979. The native Iowan found himself drawn to the University and after becoming A&S dean in 1981 he decided to offer himself as a candidate for the AVP position when it opened.

"It felt like a natural progression," he said. "I thought that of all the Jesuit universities, BC had the greatest potential to be a player in the national education scene. It seemed to me that this was where I could make a real contribution. After 11 successful years, I feel there is still limitless potential."

Fr. Neenan sees that potential as linked to BC's ability "to be Jesuit and Catholic, and to establish a position among the great secular universities." He asserts that the University's Jesuit character is as strong as it has ever been, as evidenced by the presence of the Jesuit Institute, the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, and other initiatives and events.

"These promote a dialogue between various voices," said Fr. Neenan. "There are Catholic voices, certainly, but in this day and age there have to be others. It's not just a matter of toleration, but of how we live as a society. For Boston College to encourage and support this dialogue, I think, indicates how sure, how self-confident, we are of our identity."

Fr. Neenan looks forward to participating in that discourse in his new role. He acknowledges that he will miss the regular interaction with deans and other academic officers, as well as "the formal platform" the AVP position provided "to make pronouncements and offer various other punditries."

At the same time, he notes, he plans to retain one of his now-famous practices, compiling his annual "Dean's List" of recommended books.

"Although I'm no longer a dean," he quipped, "I've had the title copyrighted."

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