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The Leahy Legacy: Looking Back on Leahy’s Tenure at BC

The role of a university president is pivotal in setting the tone for a school—University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., is no exception.

Leahy leaves a long (the longest, in fact), impactful, and complicated legacy on the Heights. Take a look at his presidency through an extensive timeline of the events that marked, marred, and made his time at Boston College.

1995

In October of 1995, the Board of Trustees appointed Leahy to serve as successor to Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J.

According to Board members at the time, Leahy was an early contender for the role.

“The board was very enthusiastic,” said Doug Whiting, director of public affairs at the time. “They had a serious conversation about the direction and future of the University and felt very good about Fr. Leahy’s vision.”

In an interview with The Chronicle the following month, Leahy offered a distinct vision for BC’s future in the world of Catholic higher education.

“We should strive to be the meeting place between the Church and modern culture,” Leahy said. “To do so, we must have schools which rank with the best secular schools and which are permeated by religious commitment.”

1996

Shortly after taking on the role of University president in August, Leahy confronted his first scandal while in power at BC—wager danger.

BC made national headlines after it was revealed that two of its football players engaged in illegal gambling against their own team in a game against Syracuse. 

Communications with the press were mostly led by members of the athletics department, though Leahy addressed the school community in a short, 188-word message as well.

“Boston College has been and remains committed to excellence in academics and athletics,” Leahy said in the letter. “We will continue on that path.”

1997

Leahy caught heat with the student body after an alleged incident at a community meeting he held with students. 

When an AHANA student expressed her dissatisfaction with BC and said she blamed herself for her parents having to work multiple jobs to pay tuition for somewhere she wasn’t content, Leahy allegedly responded that if students were dissatisfied, they should consider transferring.

Bright pink posters titled “University Notices” were placed around campus publicizing details of the incident. In an interview with The Heights, Leahy responded to the allegations.

“The last thing I wanted to do was indicate that if someone doesn’t like something they should accept it or leave,” Leahy said. “I want people to bring forward reactions and comments on a range of issues.”

The incident sparked a conversation about issues of diversity on BC’s campus, culminating in a rally on Gasson quad focused on promoting conversations about racism, sexism, and homophobia, as well as increasing diversity in the University’s leadership.

Protestors then marched to Leahy’s house where representatives met with him privately before he emerged to address the crowd.

“As you can tell, we had our meeting, and the issues and demands have been presented to me,” Leahy said. “Many of those that I share. I have meetings and am really busy, but I have agreed to meet with student leaders.”

1998

Leahy was faced with his first personnel controversy when then BC Law Dean Aviam Soifer sent out a letter to staff and students announcing that he was resigning from his position “after extensive discussion with the administration and with abundantly mixed feelings.” The language of the letter led some to speculate that Leahy asked Soifer to resign.

In a town hall discussion with the students of BC Law that packed Stuart Dining Hall, many students probed Leahy with questions about the timing and circumstances of Soifer’s departure, but he declined to comment.

1999

Leahy made a deliberate move to invigorate the arts at BC when he prompted the creation of the Arts Council and issued its first report in 1999. 

During its first year at BC, the Arts Council issued a report evaluating the “state of the arts at BC,” hosted the University’s inaugural Arts Festival, and hosted the famous “The Taking of Christ” painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in the McMullen Museum of Arts for the painting’s North American debut.

Also that year, just in time for the new millennium, Leahy launched BC’s “Ever to Excel” campaign, aiming to raise $400 million—the University’s most ambitious campaign thus far.

“Posterity will look back on this night and speak of the men and women who seized a kairos moment,” Leahy said at the kickoff gala for the campaign.

2000

Conversations about expanding diversity grew at BC in 2000 as the then UGBC administration made public advocacy efforts with administrators and the Board of Trustees.

In a public focus group meeting, Alvin Barnett, then UGBC vice president and BC ’01, shared that he had spoken with Leahy that morning about the possibility of creating a Vice President of Multicultural Affairs position within the administration, but alleged that Leahy discarded the idea out of concern that the position would become a “token minority.”

Leahy was, however, receptive to the idea of hiring a special assistant to the president to spearhead multicultural concerns, Barnett said.

2001

In the Spring of 2001, the University began its “master plan” to redesign and renovate BC’s campus.

“Father Leahy has been very concerned about the aesthetics of the campus,” said Rev. William B. Neenan, S.J., then University vice president. “Buildings at BC are attractive. There’s attention paid to general aesthetics.”

Later that year, as the BC community grappled with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Leahy addressed the student body with an email two hours after the initial attack on the World Trade Center.

“We’re stunned, we’re shocked, we cannot believe what we are seeing on our television screens,” Leahy said. “And yet in the midst of all these emotions and confusion, we gather today as the Boston College Community to support each other, to reach out in faith and to be present for each other and every one of us in this community.” 

The following evening, over 4000 students packed Conte Forum for a mass led by Leahy.

2002

After the Catholic Church’s coverup of persistent sexual abuse was uncovered in 2002, Leahy initially refrained from public comment on the matter, though he published an op-ed in The Boston Globe in April about the joys of priesthood.

That summer, Leahy spoke to various news outlets directly about the scandal, condemning the Church’s coverup and calling for new ways to reckon with it.

“I think people feel betrayed,” Leahy said to The New York Times. “I do.”

He also announced the creation of BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center as a way to decipher the Catholic faith in the wake of the scandal.

2003

After months of student advocacy, Leahy approved student group recognition for Allies of Boston College, an advocacy group supporting and educating people about the LGBTQ+ community at Boston College.

Leahy had previously refused to recognize any LGBTQ+ student organizations in the past because of their conflict with Catholic doctrine.

2004

Boston College expanded its horizons and acreage in 2004 by spending $107.4 million to purchase the land that would later become the Brighton Campus from the Archdiocese of Boston. 

While Leahy said the University couldn’t pass up the opportunity to secure a piece of property so close to BC’s main campus, he noted that paying it off would require a great deal of generosity. 

“It’s important to recognize that we must be able to fund this acquisition largely with gifts,” Leahy said to The Chronicle at the time.

2005

Student advocacy surrounded Leahy again in 2005 as many members of the BC community pressed him to add “sexual orientation” to the University’s non-discrimination statement. 

In an open letter to the BC community published in The Chronicle, Leahy defended his decision to keep the statement as it was.

“I know that some do not agree with the University’s position regarding the non-discrimination clause, and I regret that,” Leahy said in the letter. “But I hope we can continue to engage in dialogue about ways in which we can underscore our basic commitment to the dignity of every member of the Boston College community.”

The letter also states that Joseph Herlihy, BC’s then general counsel, would meet with UGBC leaders to discuss possible improvements to the statement.

Also notable for Leahy’s 2005—he was nearly arrested.

“A suspicious, undistinguishible man was apprehended and questioned on campus,” the Boston College Police Department blotter reads from Sunday, March 27 of that year. “The man was released when it was discovered that he was Father Leahy. 2:40 p.m.”

2006

2006 brought another major expansion for BC after a merger with the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge was approved by the United States provincials of the Society of Jesus.

“I am confident re-affiliation will strengthen both schools and enhance their efforts not only to prepare future priests and lay people for ministry in the Church but also to engage critical issues of our day,” Leahy said at the time.

2007

The University’s purchase of the Brighton Campus and merger with the Weston School of Theology culminated in 2007 with the official launch of the School of Theology and Ministry.

“The STM was largely the vision of Father Leahy,” then president of the STM Rev. Richard Clifford S.J., said at the time. “He had the vision of a large and well-resourced school of theology and ministry that drew on three already existing entities and he felt that the whole would be greater than its parts because of the stimulating connection.”

2008

Just six years after the conclusion of its successful “Ever to Excel” campaign, BC launched yet another campaign in 2008—this time tripling its goal.

The “Light the World” campaign aimed to raise $1.5 billion in honor of the University’s 150-year anniversary in 2012. 

“Throughout its history, Boston College has always set high standards and has never steered away from challenges,” Leahy said at the time. “We established seven strategic directions for Boston College in our Strategic Plan that address our academic priorities and help respond to societal needs. This campaign will provide the resources to achieve those goals.”

2009

The spring after launching the campaign, however, saw the University’s endowment take a turn, plummeting 25 percent.

In a letter to the BC community, Leahy explained that the drop was largely due to increased financial support for students and families paying tuition during the ongoing recession.

He added that the University had no intention of letting the national crisis slow down plans for major campus renovations.

2010

Leahy started the new decade off by welcoming a $20 million donation from Peter and Carolyn Lynch to launch the Lynch Leadership Academy, a program to better train new school principals—the first in the nation to merge the agendas of public schools, charter schools, and Catholic schools.

“Carolyn and Peter Lynch have done so much on behalf of public and parochial education in the Greater Boston area,” Leahy said at the time. “The establishment of the Lynch Leadership Academy demonstrates their commitment to providing the training to prepare effective leaders for Catholic, public and charter schools.” 

2011

At the midpoint of the fundraising effort, for the “Light the World” campaign, BC announced it was halfway to its $1.5 billion goal, right on track despite seeming setbacks to offset costs from the recession.

“From a financial standpoint, Boston College has emerged from the economic downturn that began in 2008 in a position of strength,” Leahy wrote in an open letter to the BC community.

2012

Leahy was confronted with handling a student tragedy in 2012 after the body of Franco Garcia, a student in the Woods College of Arts and Sciences and a member of BC’s marching, pep, and symphonic bands, was found in the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

The discovery ended a nearly two-month search for Garcia by family, friends, and peers. 

“The news of today causes deep sadness, and our hearts go out to the Garcia family and his many friends at Boston College,” Leahy said at the time. “More than ever, we need to remember them in our prayers.”

2013

In the day following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Leahy held a mass of “Hope and Healing” for the BC community in St. Ignatius Parish—the same space that runners sheltered in 24 hours prior.

“We come with certain hurts and a sense of confusion: ‘Why do these things happen? How can we carry on?’” Leahy said during the service. “It is this very community of faith that engages us and provides us support. Tap into that reservoir of goodness around us—there is no need to be alone. ”

2014

When one of BC’s own became mayor of Boston in 2014, the University hosted the inauguration in Conte Forum. Leahy welcomed Marty Walsh, BC ’09, and delivered the opening remarks at his mayoral inauguration that January.

2015

Climate Justice Boston College organized a Valentine’s Day rally and vigil outside Leahy’s office urging the University to divest and “break up with fossil fuels.” The demonstration was not registered in advance with administrators.

Members of CJBC at the time said they wanted to make an intentional effort to garner more attention from the University.

“They’ve already told us BC won’t divest, so it’s pretty useless to continue to cater to what they want us to do when what we’re doing is clearly in opposition to that,” Alyssa Florack, BC ’17, said to The Heights at the time.

2016

In January of 2016, BC’s “Light the World” campaign reached its $1.5 billion goal, marking an end to one of the largest capital campaigns in higher education that decade.

The following month, Leahy composed the University Strategic Planning Initiative, a steering committee to analyze and decide institutional spending priorities in the years to come.

2017

Leahy made a rare public statement on a political policy in 2017, condemning then-President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban the entry of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries in a letter with Executive Vice President Michael Lochhead, and Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley.

“This Order undermines a key strength of our higher education system, as it turns away talented faculty and students who seek to immigrate to the United States,” Leahy wrote in the letter. l“For decades, colleges and universities in America have benefited from such individuals, and our nation has enjoyed the fruits of having the world’s greatest post-secondary education system.” 

The letter also promised support for members of the BC community affected by the ban.

2018

In the spring of 2018, Leahy received the Spirit of Francis Award from the Catholic Extension Society, recognizing his commitment to reaching out “to the margins of society.”

“I accept this award on behalf of Boston College and all the students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni who help BC live out its mission,” Leahy said at the award’s ceremony. “It is truly a community effort.” 

2019

In a panel discussion led by the Church in the 21st Century Center, Leahy discussed the revitalization of the Catholic Church and suggested major changes in the years to come.

​​“It seems to me the possibility of change is greater now than ever because so much of the previous superstructure of the system is collapsing, and so out of that we see parishes meeting it very well,” Leahy said.

2020

On March 11, 2020, Leahy sent an email to the entire student body, informing them that the remainder of in-person classes for the year would be made virtual due to the growing COVID-19 outbreak and that all students must move out of their dorms by March 15.

By May, Leahy announced that in-person classes would be returning for the fall semester. When students made their way back to campus in August, various testing procedures, social distancing protocols, and a statewide mask mandate were enforced.

Outside of the pandemic, 2020 also saw the start of one of BC’s largest undertakings to date—the purchase of Pine Manor College and establishment of the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success to support underrepresented and low-income students.

2021

Leahy came under fire in 2021 after the publication of a Heights article detailing multiple students and one faculty member who warned him of inappropriate behavior by Rev. Ted Dziak, S.J., who worked at BC from 1990–98.

Dziak went on to work at Jesuit schools in New Orleans, Jamaica, and New York and has since faced allegations of rape and abuse.

In a letter responding to the article and growing criticism, Leahy emphasized that the allegations of sexual misconduct were not from Dziak’s time at BC.

“There were no reports of sexual misconduct by Father Dziak at that time and none have been made since,” Leahy wrote. “I discussed these matters with Father Dziak and reported them to his Jesuit superiors, emphasizing aspects of his behavior that conflicted with university standards.”

2022

2022 brought continued calls for the establishment of an LGBTQ+ resource center to Leahy’s mailbox as Mayor of Boston Michelle Wu and a total of nine Boston city councilors signed an online petition demanding a resource center at BC.

“An LGBTQ+ Resource Center would foster a strong sense of belonging and security among Queer and Trans students,” the petition reads. “It would serve as a tangible sign of inclusion and care offered to LGBTQ+ students, who often have a more difficult time finding these vital necessities on campus.”

2023

In September of 2023, BC announced the “Soaring Higher” campaign—another capital-raising effort and, again, the largest in the school’s history. 

Seeking $3 billion, the campaign will be Leahy’s final fundraising effort in his role as University president.

“I am confident that the campaign’s focus on obtaining additional resources for academics, financial aid, and student life will help the University to maintain its upward trajectory,” Leahy said in a press release.

The following month, on October 13, Leahy issued his first and only statement to the BC community addressing Hamas’ attacks in Israel the week prior, condemning the initial attack as well as the violence caused by Israel’s retaliation.

“The situation in Israel and Gaza distresses all at Boston College and highlights the need for compassion and dialogue as well as remembering the beliefs, values, and bonds we share as a Jesuit, Catholic university,” Leahy wrote. 

2024

Presently, the University is also facing a lawsuit for sex and pregnancy discrimination by Hristina Nikolova, a former marketing professor who alleges that Leahy made inappropriate comments implying she should prioritize her role as a wife and mother.

BC filed its defense in February, denying the allegations. 

In April, Leahy was criticized for giving the President’s Medal for Excellence to President and CEO of CVS Health Karen S. Lynch, BC ’84, just a month after CVS began distributing abortion pills. 

“Karen Lynch was honored at the Wall Street Council Dinner for her leadership as a CEO,” Jack Dunn wrote in a statement to The Heights. “Her award is unrelated to products CVS may provide at its pharmacies.”

But the legacy isn’t sealed just yet. Leahy has from now until the summer of 2026 to complete the “Soaring Higher” campaign and put any finishing touches on BC before he departs.

“For the next two years, I intend to keep working as always on advancing BC,” Leahy said in the University’s press release on June 7.

June 10, 2024

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