Father Brian Shanley, O.P., began his service as president of St. John’s University exactly as the big snowstorm hit New York a couple weeks ago. “I was two for two in snow days,” he said.
We spoke on Day 3 (Feb. 3) when the university returned to hybrid learning, the norm for these Covid-19 times. When the pandemic began last March, Father Shanley was still in charge at Providence College, where for 15 years he was the longest-serving president in school history.
With many St. John’s students learning remotely, and some faculty and staff working the same way, Father Shanley said he misses “the hustles and bustle of a college campus.”
“This campus (at St. John’s) is normally so vibrant, with so many people around,” he said in a phone interview.
Father Shanley, a self-described people person, said he would normally be out and about on the main Queens campus, greeting students and attending student organization meetings, and learning about St. John’s.
As a Dominican priest, formally the Order of Preachers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Father Shanley is a skilled communicator. “I look forward to communicating with the whole St. John’s community,” he said.
He said one important task is to develop a vision for where St. John’s University “wants to go as an institution” in a strategic plan to guide the next 5-10 years at the Vincentian school, which marked its 150th anniversary in 2020.
When Father Shanley alerted his provincial, or religious superior, about submitting his name for consideration as St. John’s president, the response was positive. Also came the reminder that Dominican priests had taught at St. John’s for “a good period of time” as philosophy and theology professors.
Once he becomes fully acclimated with his new responsibilities, Father Shanley said he hopes to be able to teach as he did at Providence, where he annually led an ethics course. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto. Before assuming the presidency at Providence in 2005, he held a tenured faculty position at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“I love teaching. I miss it,” he said. “It’s a way of staying connected with students.”
Father Shanley was approached about the St. John’s presidency a couple months after leaving Providence in June. “It struck me as, ‘This is God opening a door for me.’ St. John’s is a great school. I know it from the Big East,” the athletic conference in which St. John’s, Providence and three other Catholic schools in the Northeast are members.
He was intrigued by the position because St. John’s possessed many attributes that he was seeking if he were to again serve as a college president. It is Catholic, and yet different enough from Providence to present a new challenge. He was also looking to go to a larger university, with graduate programs. St. John’s has more than 100 majors and programs. Its New York City location, with campuses in Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan, also was a plus.
“St. John’s ticked off all the boxes,” he said.
The university’s mission serving a student body primarily from the New York metropolitan area, with many first in the family college students among them, also was intriguing.
The pandemic presents serious financial challenges to St. John’s ability to carry out the Vincentian mission it has embodied since 1870. “The challenge for us…is to continue to offer students the kind of scholarship aid they need to come to St. John’s,” Father Shanley said. “Every campus is incurring expenses that they didn’t anticipate…The financial picture is challenging for us.”
The university’s commitment to community service by students, faculty and staff also has been challenged in recent months, the new president said.
With a nod to St. John’s athletic teams, Father Shanley promised to be in the stands as often as possible, especially at home games. He has enjoyed the recent successful run of the men’s basketball team coached by Mike Anderson.
“Mike is the key,” he said. “He knows how to build winning teams.”
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