Not a Sister Among Them, but These New Presidents Still Promote a Catholic Vision

Mike Ekern, U. of Saint Thomas

Julie H. Sullivan, of the U. of Saint Thomas
July 01, 2013

A growing share of Roman Catholic colleges are being led by laypeople rather than priests, brothers, or nuns, a trend driven by the rising average age of members of religious orders and a shift in church teaching that allows lay Catholics to take on new leadership roles. But each transition to a lay presidency brings with it questions of whether and how the college will keep its Catholic identity.

The trend toward lay leadership has continued for more than a decade and isn't reversing, says Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Of the 195 Catholic colleges in the United States that the association represents, 119 were led by lay presidents in June, and of those, 32 were led by laywomen. Three women who have just become lay presidents reflect on what the change will mean to them and their institutions.

Helen J. Streubert, 58, left her post as vice president for academic affairs at Our Lady of the Lake University, in San Antonio, to become president of the College of Saint Elizabeth, in New Jersey, this month. The college has been led by nuns for 114 years.

Ms. Streubert says she was initially anxious about becoming the first lay president. "I wanted to be sure that the community was ready for a change in leadership," she says. The departing president, Sister Francis Raftery, has led the college for 16 years.

Ms. Streubert was assured, she says, that this was the right time for the college's transition. Saint Elizabeth's trustees had opened the presidential search to any Catholic candidate. To preserve its Catholic identity, the college has a mission-and-values administrator who ensures that all major decisions made by Saint Elizabeth's president adhere to the college's religious traditions. "The most important thing is to ensure the heritage and the legacy of the Sisters of Charity," Ms. Streubert says. And that "is really the whole community's responsibility," not hers alone.

Ms. Streubert's first step as president will be to work on strategic planning, she says, but she expects to focus on continuing to diversify the student body, particularly with more first-generation students.

Julie H. Sullivan, 55, has stepped down as executive vice president and provost of the University of San Diego, a Catholic institution, to become both the first female and first lay president of the University of Saint Thomas, in Minnesota. She succeeds the Rev. Dennis Dease, who was set to retire June 30 after 22 years at the helm.

Ms. Sullivan was chosen two years after Saint Thomas's Board of Trustees changed its bylaws to allow for Catholic presidents who are not clergy members. Catholic priests have led the college, which has more than 10,000 students, throughout its 128-year history. The trustees "made the decision up front that they were seeking the best person for this position at this time," she says.

She said this spring that she was keen to preserve the university's traditions. "I hope they're not changed," she explained, "because I want to go there because of what it is."

Catholic universities occupy "a unique position on the world stage today" to encourage interfaith understanding and dialogue, she says. "We're not here to proselytize to anyone. We're here to let people challenge their beliefs" and debate them.

A year ago, Anne M. Prisco became president of Felician College, in New Jersey, succeeding Sister Theresa Mary Martin. Until Ms. Prisco, who is now 56, arrived, nuns had led the college since its founding, in 1942.

Felician's lay presidency has brought logistical changes, like adjustment of the allotted salary to attract someone outside a religious order.

But it's not the transition away from a religious leader that Ms. Prisco says has caused the greatest shift on campus. "It's more about 'I'm a new president' rather than 'I'm a new lay president,'" she says. "The former president was here for 28 years. It was going to be a significant change."

When a layperson comes to lead a college "that's run by sisters, it's just a little different than institutions that are run by priests," she says. Her gender, at least, provided some continuity.

Among other goals, Ms. Prisco is working to raise money and to increase student enrollment. "My great hope," she says, is that the college not feel different to the students, faculty, and rest of the campus community. "I didn't come here to change the mission."