St. Thomas' female president reflects trends in Catholic education

Julie Sullivan
Julie Sullivan, at a press conference Thursday, Feb. 14, that announced she'd been chosen the next president of the University of St. Thomas.
MPR photo/Alex Friedrich

The University of St. Thomas today made history by choosing a new leader who is not a priest. The St. Paul-based school has named Julie Sullivan, 55, to replace Father Dennis Dease, who steps down later this year as president.

Sullivan is the first lay person and the first woman to head the school in its 128-year history. Dease, 69, is retiring on June 30.

Sullivan is currently the executive vice president and provost of the University of San Diego -- a Catholic campus with about 8,300 students. The enrollment at St. Thomas is slightly higher at about 10,500 students.

"Our mission statement says that we seek to educate students 'to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good,' " said Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, chairman of the St. Thomas board. "I see those qualities and that commitment in Julie Sullivan. She will be an outstanding president."

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Sullivan is also a married mother of four. She acknowledged to supporters the major change her presidency represents.

"I'm sure many of you are wondering: What does this mean? How will this be different? Should we be scared? I believe my appointment reflects the signs of the times," she said.

Rev. Dennis Dease
Rev. Dennis Dease, shown in a file photo from 2007, will retire as president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul on June 30, 2013.
MPR file photo/Art Hughes

Catholic universities are turning increasingly to laypeople to lead their schools. The number of American priests is down by about one-third since the mid-1970s, according to a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.

That decline has become apparent on Catholic campuses. About a decade ago, 50 percent of Catholic college presidents were members of the clergy. Now it's about 40 percent.

Sullivan's appointment also reflects the relatively strong presence of women in leadership roles among Catholic colleges and universities.

Women lead about one-third of the Catholic colleges in the United States, according to Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. That compares to about one-fourth of all other types of colleges -- public and private. "Catholic colleges continue to have more women presidents than any other cohort of colleges in the United States. And it's one thing we're very proud of," he said.

Women are better represented, in part, because the majority of the Catholic colleges in America were founded by women's religious orders, Galligan-Stierle said.

Female leadership among Catholic campuses has been flat for the past decade. But Galligan-Stierle says Catholic colleges are still faring better than the rest of higher education, which has seen a decline in female leadership.

Still, having a lay woman head a Catholic school will bring changes to the campus, said MaryAnn Baenninger, the lay president of the College of St. Benedict.

"If the institution switches from a celibate cleric to a married layperson, that changes the flavor," she said. "Perhaps the new president has children, or grown children, or grandchildren. All of those things are relevant to how the community responds to the person."

Being from the laity sometimes means working harder to make sure the school community knows you're protecting the Catholic mission and identity. Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University in Illinois, said that was her experience. At Dominican, it was always assumed that past presidents -- who were religious sisters -- would nurture the university's Catholic mission, she said, adding that she couldn't benefit from that assumption because she is lay.

Years after becoming president, Carroll said, she realized the lengths she'd gone to to preserve Dominican's tradition.

"The sisters would say to me that the Dominican community talked more about mission and Catholic identity with a lay president in the role than when a religious sister was in the role.," Carroll said.

Julie Sullivan's move to St. Thomas follows a recent controversy at the University of San Diego. Last fall, faculty accused the university's president of limiting their academic freedom.

The president had canceled the visiting fellowship of a British theologian who had signed a public statement that Catholics could support civil same-sex marriage.

Sullivan declined on Thursday to say whether she agreed with the president's decision. A St. Thomas trustee said he knew about the controversy, and that Sullivan had nothing to do with it.