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Despite Growing University Trends Toward Lay Leadership, BC Plans to Elect Another Jesuit President

In 2010, only five Jesuit colleges and universities were led by lay presidents. Today, 23 of the 28 schools in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities have lay presidents at the helm.

Each time a Jesuit president of a university retires reflects a chance that this number may creep higher.

But despite this trend, the Boston College Board of Trustees Executive Committee has every intention of putting another Jesuit in the role of University president following the retirement of University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., in 2026. 

“To fulfill our responsibilities as trustees, the Executive Committee believes that we need to do all we can to identify, recruit, and name a qualified Jesuit as BC’s next president, one who will advance the University’s distinctive mission and heritage,” said Board of Trustees Chair John Fish in a June 7 press release.

According to Board of Trustees member Jonathan Rather, the board unanimously agreed and recommended that the initial candidate search be within the Society of Jesus.

“I think BC’s, if you will, secret sauce and differentiation is that Jesuit tradition, in terms of its roots in formation,” Rather said. “You see that in every facet of the school, from the curriculum to the senior leadership, and I think it’s so important that that remains at BC.” 

BC has 50 Jesuit members in residence, making it one of the largest apostolic communities in the Society of Jesus. Since the University’s founding in 1863, all 25 of its presidents have been ordained Jesuits.

Holy Cross elected its first lay president, former BC Law Dean Vincent Rougeau, in 2021. In 2022, Fordham, with one of the largest concentrations of Jesuits in the world at 130 members, elected Tania Tetlow, its first lay president after 110 years of exclusively Jesuit presidents.

According to Tetlow, who also served as the first lay and woman president of Loyola University New Orleans, lay presidents have the same mission as Jesuit presidents: to uphold the tradition and mission of Jesuit education.

“For me, being the first lay president at Loyola, it was an opportunity to remind everyone that given the waning number of priests among us, that we have to own the mission as lay people or else we will lose,” she said at a press conference after taking on the role at Fordham.

According to Rather, this transition toward lay presidents is likely due to a decrease in the overall number of Jesuits.

“I think, sadly, it’s just less Jesuits,” Rather said. “I think the pool of candidates for Jesuit presidents at universities is tougher because there’s less candidates. So it is difficult.” 

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the total number of Jesuits worldwide peaked in 1965 with a little over 36,000 members. By 2020, 14,839 remained—less than half.

The increasing average age of Jesuits nationwide doesn’t make it any easier. With the average age of a Jesuit in the United States hovering at 65 years old, finding a University president who can serve a long-term tenure is also difficult—Leahy was 47 when he took on the role.

But according to Richard Jacobsen, a member of BC’s Wall Street Business Leadership Council Executive Committee, the legacy of Jesuit presidents at BC upholds the school’s mission and distinguishes it among peers.

“I don’t know how central Jesuit tradition has remained for those schools,” Jacobsen said. “I know in contrast, it remains at the core of what Boston College is, and I would imagine that that tradition is going to continue.” 

Jacobsen added that the perceived success of the past two presidents at BC makes the board eager to find a 26th Jesuit for the role. 

“The results … that you see and the trajectory that Boston College has been on during Father Leahy’s ongoing tenure and Father Monan’s before his is probably the best testament as to why we should to find a successor who is a Jesuit,” Jacobsen said. 

Additionally, with the amount of turnover of university presidents, Rather said it is important for BC to have another Jesuit in place.

“University President is a tough job right now,” Rather said. “There’s been tremendous turnover. There’s been tremendous stress. So I think it’s incredibly difficult, even more reason that I think it’s important that BC continues with a Jesuit president to continue that tradition.”

According to BC’s statement, the University intends to identify candidates in the fall and begin  interviewing them in early 2025. Jacobsen said he does not yet know what BC plans to do if a Jesuit replacement for Leahy cannot be found.

June 10, 2024

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