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Leahy’s Detachment Will Be His Legacy, Former UGBC President Says

As a freshman, I often saw University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. walking on College Road, dining in Eagle’s Nest, and passing through Maloney Hall. We had never been introduced, so I would smile softly—quick enough to show respect, but not long enough to make it awkward.

Imagine my surprise when halfway through my sophomore year I discovered this man that I had been smiling softly at for the last 18 months was not in fact Fr. Leahy, but Fr. Joe Marchese, then-director of First Year Experience.

I believe this memory illustrates how many students experience Fr. Leahy. Unless you are one of the few freshmen he advises, or a member of a favored student group, it is likely that you have not had much interaction with our University’s president.

Consequently, student perception of Fr. Leahy is complicated to unpack. Most students view him as a disconnected figurehead, if they think of him at all. Some student leaders interpret his limited interaction with student life as a means to intentionally obstruct social progress. Still other students understand his decisions to use his time to prioritize the University’s financial future over campus involvement as a business decision.

I spent the beginning of my BC career in the first camp. I knew little about Fr. Leahy’s decisions or their impact on students. My perception of Fr. Leahy was almost non-existent, other than thinking how nice it was that he was always out and about on campus back when I thought he was Fr. Marchese.

I was president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College in 2014. As someone who prioritizes diversity and inclusion not only in her daily life, but also in her leadership and advocacy efforts, I eventually came to understand Fr. Leahy’s absence as a predictor of campus culture. For many of us students, Fr. Leahy’s refusal to speak out on social justice issues was antithetical to the Jesuit values promoted by the University. To add to the frustration, Fr. Leahy did very little to acknowledge or validate student concerns about real, pressing issues. As time went on, few of us could make sense of a leadership style that felt so far removed from the student experience. What was he prioritizing as president, if it wasn’t the students?

“As UGBC president, I found it much more difficult to organize a meeting with Fr. Leahy. If you thought that he valued the insight of student-elected representatives, you would be wrong. It took nearly a year for us to schedule our first and only meeting.”

For those of us who had the opportunity to work with the University to improve student life, Fr. Leahy’s absence created another hurdle. In countless meetings, we faced rejection without proper explanation, but the specter of Fr. Leahy was ever-present. Although unspoken, there was often a sense that administrators wanted to do more to improve student life but were forced to align with a vision handed down by the University’s highest leadership. Whether administrative fear was real or imagined, it was our reality.

During my time at Boston College, I had the opportunity to engage with Fr. Leahy exactly three times—once as an orientation leader, once as UGBC president, and once as a resident assistant. With orientation leaders, statements were filled with pleasantries and platitudes, no one asked any difficult questions, and the conversation overall lacked any real substance.

As UGBC president, I found it much more difficult to organize a meeting with Fr. Leahy. If you thought that he valued the insight of student-elected representatives, you would be wrong. It took nearly a year for us to schedule our first and only meeting.

When pressed about supporting LGBTQ+ students on campus, Fr. Leahy expressed his desire for the University to promote “education, not advocacy.” I asked numerous times for clarification on this statement, but never received an answer. I began to wonder if he himself even knew what it meant. Similarly, he expressed that it was not the University’s role to take a stance on social issues, a statement that was baffling to me in the context of the institution’s Jesuit values. In this same meeting Fr. Leahy asked us, “Why are you even here?”—making it clear that he believed his time was best served elsewhere, rather than meeting with student representatives.

This understanding of his leadership became clearer to me the following summer, when he came to speak at RA training. Faced with questions about the University’s efforts to support students of color, LGBTQ+ students, high-financial need students, and other underrepresented groups, Fr. Leahy struggled to provide meaningful, relevant—or even coherent—answers. This meeting finally confirmed my suspicions. Whereas I used to see his actions (or lack thereof) as intentionally dismissing student concerns in favor of another agenda, I now viewed him as someone completely unable to address student concerns.

Of course, this does not excuse his dismissal and invalidation of student experiences. It did, however, force me to consider his leadership in a new way. He clearly does not see himself as an arbiter of the student experience—he has the Division of Student Affairs for that. Instead, he chooses to focus on the future of the University. In that regard, Boston College has tremendously benefited from Fr. Leahy’s leadership.

In particular, the success of the “Light the World” campaign has cemented the University’s financial strength among other elite institutions. Furthermore, it brings Boston College that much closer to Fr. Leahy’s loftiest goal: to become “the world’s leading Catholic University.” There are plenty of students who recognize and admire this use of his leadership. Yet I, and many others, are left wanting.

It is true that many students do not give Fr. Leahy a second thought and feel unaffected by his leadership. But it is also true that there are many students who are struggling to feel safe and welcomed on campus, who are looking for institutional support or recognition and are left with nothing to validate their fears and experiences. Until these students are reassured otherwise, in policy and in practice, Fr. Leahy’s leadership will be remembered by many as one that prioritized financial security at the expense of the University’s most marginalized populations.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

November 16, 2016

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Leahy’s Detachment Will Be His Legacy, Former UGBC President Says”

  1. My question is what keeps you at BC then, Nanci? And where did you get the standards to look at BC and find it so deeply appealing?

    I suppose that for you to remain at BC, you acknowledge that BC is at least partially attentive, reflective and loving of its most marginalized populations (although it always can be more so). I believe Fr. Leahy has built this community. He may not be the most visible person on campus, but I believe any leader that has faithfully proclaimed the standards by which him or herself is condemned is a pretty good leader.

    • Although I’m no longer at BC, I certainly acknowledge that the University is at least partially attentive to, reflective with and loving of its most marginalized populations. But for me “at least partially” is not a standard to be proud of. As you said, there is always room for improvement, and I am most impressed by leaders and institutions that not only acknowledge that, but embrace it. In my personal experience, Fr. Leahy is not one of those individuals. When I was an RA, Fr. Leahy spoke to us about the importance of personal growth and change. Up until this point, he had not directly addressed the questions of my peers who asked questions about supporting marginalized student groups on campus; specifically, a question about microaggressions, a question about the 2015 die-in, and a question about an LGBTQ+ center. After hearing him promote these important ideals, I asked, “How have you personally grown and what do you plan to change so that you can better support students of color, LGBTQ+ students, high-financial need students, and other marginalized populations on this campus?” I am certain that not a single person in that room could tell you how he has changed or hopes to grow, because he did not answer my question in the slightest.

      I also am not sure I understand your statement, “I believe any leader that has faithfully proclaimed the standards by which him or herself is condemned is a pretty good leader.” Are you saying that if individuals do not fulfill the values they set for others are good leaders? If so, I have to disagree… To me, someone who is criticized for not upholding the standards they set is a leader who either a) does not believe what he says and therefore does not follow through in actions or b) is a leader who believes what he says but does not know how to follow through. Even if I were to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is in category B, one can only be a good leader in this position if he or she openly admits to their mistakes and learns from those they have hurt in the process. In my meetings with Fr. Leahy, I have only seen him defend himself and dismiss the concerns of others (for example, when a student shared her experience with microaggressions at BC, he responded that “sometimes people are too sensitive.”

      The real tragedy is that his leadership directly impacts those who can and want to do good, but fear that he will disapprove if they openly support the students who need it most. There are individuals who are able to navigate this obstacle successfully, but unfortunately they don’t always receive the respect and appreciation they deserve.

      If you honestly believe that Fr. Leahy’s legacy won’t be determined by his disconnect from students (aka his silence in the face of oppression), then you yourself may be disconnected from marginalized student populations at BC. I have had countless students and alumni express fear, sadness and anger about their BC experience to me. And although they are beautifully resilient, I carry their pain with me everyday. You asked what keeps me at BC… Although I am not physically present, I am connected forever to the institution because of them. And I hope that one day their voices and experiences will be heard rather than silenced.