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Five days in the public life of Boston College’s president
On Tuesday, May 30, 2006, 10 years less two months from the day he took over as president of Boston College, William P. Leahy, SJ, began his Memorial Day–delayed work week with a visit to the dentist. By 11 a.m., a temporary fix having been applied to a problematic tooth, Leahy arrived at the Yawkey Center’s Murray Function Room for his first public meeting of the day, a briefing and lunch with 40 or so students, rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors, who had been selected to staff the summer’s freshman orientation programs.
As is invariably the case when he represents the University, Fr. Leahy, who turned 58 while this story was being prepared, was dressed in clerical clothing. And as is invariably the case when he speaks publicly these days, his conversation with the students (their uniform on this occasion was khaki and pastels) was framed by his descriptions of the significant enhancements to the University that are planned in the years leading up to 2013, when Boston College will shoulder the twin celebration of its 150th anniversary and its centenary on the heights of Chestnut Hill.
I have heard Leahy give variations on this briefing 15 or 20 times in the past year. Over the course of a week at the end of May and early June, during which I followed BC’s 25th president on some of his rounds, I would hear him give “the talk” four more times. Here is what it sounds like to me:
Following two years of study from within and without, Boston College is about to make a set of dramatic advancements because this has been BC’s habit since Gasson moved everyone out to the wilds of Chestnut Hill in 1913, and because universities that don’t move forward move backward and lose consequence.
Over the years leading to the University’s sesquicentennial, Boston College will press ahead on many fronts but definitively within seven “strategic” sectors closely tied to the University’s historic, educational, and religious mission. These are (1) liberal arts education; (2) student formation; (3) research in areas of social concern in which faculty can leverage a distinctive good; (4) research in areas of natural science in which faculty can leverage a distinctive good; (5) leader development in law, business, nursing, and education; (6) international engagement by faculty and students; (7) Catholic intellectual and pastoral life.
In support of this advance, Boston College will create new academic programs, hire new faculty, build and improve study, research, and residential facilities, build a student center (finally) and a replacement for the Flynn Recreation Complex, and comprehensively reshape the lower campus so as to knit together—in fact and in sensibility—the Chestnut Hill Campus and the newly purchased Brighton Campus across the six lane and two trolley track divide of Commonwealth Avenue.
The cost of all this will be imposing. It will not be met, however, as have large segments of previous advances, through increases in tuition or debt financing. Tuition is high enough, thank you, and so is Boston College’s debt, at $560 million. Nor will drawdowns on current endowment solve the problem. Boston College’s endowment—$1.4 billion before the market tanked in July—appears impressive but is in fact of modest size compared with those of other significant private universities, and even humble when placed against the backdrop of the University’s 14,000-plus enrollment and broad commitments. For example (Leahy will say), we are among only 20 private American universities that offer admission to undergraduate applicants without knowing their financial circumstances and with the guarantee that we will find the aid money to meet every admitted student’s “full financial need.”
And so the next leap forward will have to be funded by gifts. I am convinced this can be done (says Leahy) because the proportion of alumni who make annual gifts to BC hovers at 25 percent (close to a national average, but nothing to write home about when compared with 49 percent at Notre Dame, for one irksome example), while the proportion of alumni who express pride in BC and happiness with their experience of it is much higher (about 90 percent in surveys). If alumni, says Leahy, place Boston College as high in their philanthropic priorities as it stands, by all accounts, in their affections and regard, Boston College will become an institution with the financial strength to match its broad and ambitious mission.
Which points to what’s at stake: not whether Boston College will be relatively rich or poor, large or small; but whether Boston College, as a university, and as a university that is Catholic and—within Catholic—Jesuit, will over the next decade strengthen its position as a contributor of original gifts and flavor to learning, research, and society.
That’s “the talk.” And after 10 years of working on improving Boston College, facet by facet (see sidebar), it’s also Leahy’s vision of a comprehensive legacy, whether he chooses to use the L-word or not in his conversations, and he hasn’t yet, and I don’t believe, given his habits of character, that he will.
Sitting around a table with Leahy in the Yawkey conference room, the 40 students listened politely, perking up when the president referenced matters that seemed to touch their lives (or more accurately the lives of future students). Leahy did his best to move in the direction of their interests, talking about where new student and recreation centers were likely to be located, and how much they would cost to build, and about the importance of “student formation” within the BC undergraduate experience. Aware of how the word “formation” strikes many college students (and some adults) when it’s spoken by a Catholic priest, Leahy added, “I don’t mean coercion or indoctrination, but the formation of an ethical and moral compass within each student. We need to have an atmosphere at Boston College that allows people the freedom to explore, to make mistakes, to find out who they are; but without making mistakes from which they can’t recover.”
As is the case whenever Leahy meets with student groups, the conversation eventually turned to the question of whether the president spends a sufficient amount of his time with undergraduates. The students believe he doesn’t; they have never believed anything else (I can attest that students believed the same about Leahy’s predecessor J. Donald Monan, SJ). Leahy, I suspect, agrees with these students in principle (one doesn’t enter a teaching order of priests if one doesn’t feel called to engage with students), but his schedule, as he tells the orientation leaders, is dense with obligations, and he is Boston College’s only CEO and also the person into whose eyes donors want to look when they’re being asked to give large sums of money to build a new student center.
Meeting with alumni is, as he tells the students, an activity to which he devotes a third of his days on a seven-day-per-week basis—and, though he doesn’t say this, to which he is likely to devote a greater proportion of his time when Boston College launches a major capital campaign, as is expected, within a couple of years. Leahy also told the students that when the presidents of Boston-area universities get together for dinner, as they do regularly, the subject that occupies their conversation more than any other is how to parse hours and minutes in the face of overwhelming demands. The students listened respectfully, but it was clear that they were not buying.
Later during lunch, Leahy prompted a conversation about illegal drinking among freshmen, and the orientation leaders responded with a frank critique of college culture (“the ‘let’s get wasted’ mentality is ingrained”) and critiques of BC-sponsored social programs (most shut down at 11, just when parties begin) and what they said is unevenness in the way the University responds to disciplinary complaints by resident assistants. Several of the orientation leaders spoke of their freshman year, when often enough the consequence of not attending a (drinking) party on a Friday or Saturday night was to spend an evening alone in a dorm room—a first-year student’s archetypal nightmare. Leahy seemed impressed with the honesty and thoughtfulness of the comments and with some practical remedies the students offered. After further conversation, and with time running out, he asked the students if they would meet with him again at the conclusion of the orientation season, to talk about their experiences with the freshmen. When he excused himself a few minutes later to head off to another meeting, the applause for him was more than warm.
Descending with Leahy in the elevator, I made a vapid remark about the frequency with which students say they want to see him more often. He countered by telling me that a member of his staff had recently told him that based on demand and need he could probably fill his schedule with nothing but meetings with alumni. For a moment I wondered if he was having second thoughts about reconvening with the undergraduate orientation leaders; but it wasn’t that; he was just reminding me that the discipline he sets on his schedule is a guardrail over a deep precipice of competing demands.
From Tuesday to Saturday, I followed Leahy into and through and out of meetings because I wanted to write a story about what holds his attention as he concludes 10 years as president of Boston College.
Over the course of the five days, I attended 15 of the 25 meetings on his schedule, avoiding those that at which business, no matter my commitment to discretion, would have been perturbed by my presence. Among the meetings I steered clear of was an “issues” session with a group of faculty, an interview with a finalist for the Alumni Association directorship, a visit from BC’s outside auditors, appointments with donors and potential donors, and an assembly of the newly established Boston Archdiocesan School Committee, of which Leahy is a founding member.
On Tuesday, at 5:30 p.m.—three and one-half hours after I had parted from him near the entrance to the Yawkey Center—I caught up with Leahy in his President’s Suite, a nicely turned out reception and dining area on the top floor of the 21 Campanella Way office building. There would be no speeches or briefings at this particular “meeting,” which was a cocktail party honoring 31 retiring faculty and staff.
This was a crowd Leahy knew well—custodians to senior faculty—and he moved through the room bantering about weather and vacation homes, children and grandchildren, and urging guests to help themselves from trays of hors d’oeuvres that were being passed around by student waiters and waitresses. As he worked the room, he held a glass of Pepsi on the rocks, his drink of preference, which had been brought to him by a dining services manager soon after he arrived. (Boston College is a Coca-Cola campus, but on Leahy’s account a bottle of Pepsi is kept in a handy hidden place at every University function, like a flask of gin in 1925.)
As the time neared to walk over to Corcoran Commons and the Heights Room, where the retirees and a group of 25-year employees would be honored at a dinner hosted by the president, a couple of members of Leahy’s staff circulated through the suite, searching out those who hadn’t yet had their portraits taken with the president and bringing them to where Leahy waited in front of a camera set upon a tripod and two stand-mounted strobe lights. To a woman in a black dress who seemed uncertain about taking the final steps that would put her in front of the lens, Leahy cheerily called out, “Look, you’re in black; I’m in black,” and gestured to her to come forward.
Leahy holds punctuality an essential civility (in postmortem conversation about BC events, he always notes whether they started and ended on time), and he picked up the pace a bit. Some noticed. “Nice smooth elbow move there, Father,” said George Ladd, a 37-year member of the Lynch School of Education faculty, as the president eased him away from the camera to make room for the next portrait subject. Leahy laughed. “If I was really smooth,” he said, “I’d have your wallet.”
On the five-minute walk to the commons, an aide briefed the president about a conversation she’d had with the mother and father of a student who had been caught using illegal drugs. And at the predinner reception in the Heights Room, both the academic vice president and the vice president for community and government affairs followed Leahy as he moved among the guests with his Pepsi. Each of them was waiting to take the president off to the side of the room for some business conversation before dinner began. And one after the other, they did.
I caught up with Leahy the next day, at 12:30 p.m., when he joined seven Boston College trustees, three vice presidents, and a few staff members at a meeting of the Trustee Buildings and Properties Committee in St. William’s Hall on the Brighton Campus. They met in a curtained-off section of a large room tha t was once the site for archdiocese-wide assemblies of priests but whose most recent tenant had been a team from Sasaki Associates, the Cambridge-based architecture firm that for the past year has been developing a “master plan” with a particular focus on rearranging the lower campus and connecting to the Brighton Campus.
The meeting began with briefings on projects: a new chemistry lab in Merkert, a central office for information technology staff in St. Clement’s Hall, the sale of a property that BC had received as a gift, the leasing of apartment buildings in Brighton that will serve as the University’s first graduate student housing. Tom Devine, vice president for facilities management, then showed a grim 25-slide assessment of Gasson Hall’s exterior: spalled concrete, gaps in mortar, broken pediments, water stains.
The trustees wanted to know how this had happened, how much repairs would cost, and how long they would take. Leahy is a careful listener at business meetings, where he tends not to speak a lot. (In this case, he let staff answer the trustee questions, though he himself had previously reviewed an 80-slide version of the same report and could well have made his command of the issues apparent.) Diffidence is not in his nature, but a strong sense of courtesy is. I have often seen him gather himself to make a point at a business meeting but then gesture a go-ahead after noticing that another person was also prepared to speak. But as importantly, he is a listener because he wants to know what others know. Soon after he arrived at Boston College, I was at a meeting with him along with other staff members at which someone asked him what he thought his skills were. He replied that he did not consider himself to be creative, but he did know how to judge among competing ideas. It was important to him, he added, to have people with imagination working around him.
At meetings, he moves to an austere choreography, turning deliberately to face speakers, nodding slowly when he hears thoughts with which he agrees. Occasionally he will begin to write on a legal pad, and this means one of two things: He’s heard something he wants to be sure he remembers (for good or for ill), or he’s decided the conversation’s played out and he’s taking the opportunity to work on a memo or a to-do list. Early in Leahy’s tenure I gave a public talk, and I was flattered when he took a seat in the front row and scribbled furiously the entire 20 minutes I spoke. Afterward I told him I’d be glad to send him my script. He blushed and laughed and confessed.
After the plan for repairing Gasson was endorsed by vote of the committee’s trustees, three representatives from Sasaki Associates joined the group to run through a PowerPoint presentation on campus reconfiguration that they would make to the full 45-member Board of Trustees the following day. In the works for months, the presentation was familiar to everyone at the meeting, and it moved quickly, map following map, sketch following sketch, along with a spoken script dealing with massing, scale, sight lines, quadrangles, and square footage requirements. As with all groups that have been working together for some time, inside jokes had developed, the principal one being a Sasaki staff member’s habit of referring in mock high tones to Gas-sone Hall.
The presentation, which took about 30 minutes, ranged over every acre of Boston College’s three campuses, encompassing concerns over space for study, research, the arts, recreation fields, and housing. But the main work of the meeting was to decide between a project direction that required demolition of the lower campus residence Edmond’s Hall to make way for a new recreation center (a new student center would then go up on the Rec Plex site), or a direction that kept Edmond’s standing, with the recreation center going up on a portion of Shea Field or on land now occupied by a set of Mods nearest Walsh Hall.
The first plan was favored by the group in principle because it put the recreation center on what all agreed was its optimal site and because it rid the campus of a 31-year-old building that was “tired” and too large (800 residents on nine floors) to be a functioning student community as Boston College envisions the work of such communities in student life. The sticking point was that the demolition of Edmond’s could not take place before replacement residences were constructed, and this would delay and add expense to the project.
The committee had been over this issue before, but with a deadline for making a recommendation looming, they plowed it up again. How much would each option cost? How long would each take to complete? Why was the Edmond’s site optimal for the recreation center? What alternatives weren’t being considered, and why? Was it possible to recast Edmond’s as a sound residence hall? What if the functions of a recreation center were divided between two noncontiguous buildings? Should eyes be on the very long view of campus development or on the next decade? Should aesthetics trump expediency, or vice versa? Should Boston College commit a lot of money or a great lot of money to campus redevelopment? It was Leahy who brought the discussion to a conclusion. Edmond’s was the best site for the new building, he said, and Edmond’s Hall had to go if Boston College was to achieve its goals in student formation. As to the consequent delay, he said, he believed BC ought to be planning for the long term. As to cost, he said, the committee ought to recommend the better plan to the trustees, and he was confident that Boston College donors would support the better plan as well.
That evening, about 30 trustees gathered for dinner in the President’s Suite. An innovation that Leahy put in place a few years ago, the dinner on the evening prior to the quarterly trustee meeting has become a ritual stop for Boston-based as well as out-of-town trustees. Invited to offer grace, Leahy voiced an expression of thanks for past gifts and asked for continued blessings and guidance. Leahy is often called upon to pray aloud at Boston College gatherings, and while he has a taste for rotund rhetoric on ceremonial occasions, I’ve never heard him make a public prayer that aimed to sound like more than a man talking.
On the following afternoon, at a trustee meeting in a Fulton Hall classroom, the plan that included the demolition of Edmond’s was recommended by the Buildings and Properties committee and endorsed, in principle, by the board. (Funding details need to be developed, and gift commitments secured, before the board considers enactment.) As trustee meetings go, this one was fairly uneventful. The only significant vote, taken at Leahy’s request, was to reconstitute the academic vice president’s office as the Office of the Provost, a re-weighting of administrative structure that places the senior academic officer at executive vice president level. This system, in use at nearly every university of Boston College’s stature, will strengthen academic management at the University by providing Boston College’s new academic leader, Cutberto Garza, with more responsibility and authority than any of his predecessors have had.
The 2006 alumni reunion weekend began on Thursday night. It brought 4,000 men and women to the campus (and a record $33 million in class gifts), and on Saturday morning, at 11 a.m., Leahy met with some 500 of these returnees, who filled just about every folding chair that had been set up in Gargan Hall for what was billed as “An Hour with the President.” Leahy’s formal address to the alumni took about half an hour—the most extensive version of “the talk” that I heard him give during the five days I followed him around.
He began by positing the University as “never stronger in its academic quality, never better in its reputation, never more in demand by students, and in the best possible position to advance its Jesuit, Catholic mission.” He then outlined his seven strategic directions, this time citing particular research areas that Boston College faculty and students would mine to “improve society.” These included a center to study aging from economic, social, and health perspectives; another to focus on developing ethical business leaders; and a third to generate new methods for training teachers that could be adopted nationally. Leahy also said that Boston College would need to select a “niche strategy” that would allow it to seek originality and excellence in the sciences. (While he did not elaborate on the plan in his talk, the science initiatives on which the strategic plan has focused deal with advances in areas where biology, chemistry, and physics intersect, and that would be the focus of a new institute.) Acknowledging that this would prove an expensive venture relative to other academic advances, he said, “We cannot be a major university culture in the 21st century without excellence in science.”
He then offered a capsule account of Boston College’s finances: $1.4 billion in endowment, $560 million in debt, and $75 million in annual gifts. Before audience members could conclude that this was impressive, however, Leahy added: “Notre Dame has got $4 billion in endowment, and probably has no more than $350 million in debt.”
Leahy then arrived at his punch line, a matter he’d adverted to when he spoke with the students several days earlier, but which he made plain to the alumni: “We’ve got lots of budget pressures. Our commitment to need-blind admission costs us $65 million a year—only 10 percent of which is covered by endowment, the rest coming from general operations. We require new facilities, particularly if we’re going to keep our best faculty at Boston College. If we had to rely on tuition to fund our advancement, we could not thrive; but because we have a clear mission, we are able to raise funds from alumni and friends, and those funds are what will allow the mission to thrive.” Boston College’s challenge, he said, is to get alumni to respond to the message that they are critical to the University’s success.
Turning on a lapel microphone, Leahy then stepped away from the lectern and into an open semicircle in front of the audience to take questions. Are there fixed criteria for admission? (No.) What percent of undergraduate students are Catholic? (About seventy.) What’s the proportion of minority students? (Leahy answered thoroughly, parsing the numbers to distinguish among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians). Are diminished numbers of Jesuit faculty and staff a concern? (Yes.) Does BC believe it is important to provide students with “an international perspective?” (Yes.)
The questions were slow pitches, and Leahy was able to stroke back a few jokes as well as hit some long balls. “Iowans are always high on my list,” the Iowa native said before he offered his perspectives on admission criteria, which—in response to a follow-up question—included the statement that while religion is not used as a standard for acceptance or rejection, taking religious life seriously might be one of the factors judged positively by admissions officers, “whether applicants are Catholic, Jewish, or of whatever belief.”
The only question with speed on it came from a man who stood up and said that Boston College’s switch from the Big East athletic conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference this past year had “changed BC culture.” This, it turned out, was a reference to “donor-based seating,” a practice used by ACC universities that Boston College has instituted for the 2006 men’s basketball season, requiring that purchasers of season tickets first become donors at $1,000 or more to athletics.
Leahy replied that Boston College would have instituted donor-based seating for men’s basketball even if it had stayed in the Big East because athletics at Boston College, as at nearly all colleges, runs a deficit—in BC’s case, some $10 million annually, mostly a consequence of full and partial financial aid grants equivalent to 272 full scholarships—that is made up from the general operating budget. “The more we can cut that deficit and use that money for academic purposes,” said Leahy, “the better off we’ll be.” Leahy noted that in its first ACC year, Boston College had seen athletic revenues rise to $6.2 million, an improvement over “the four to five million” projected for BC in the Big East, and that he expected soon to see $10 million in athletic income in the ACC. He drew a laugh when he concluded: “Of course, if someone would like to endow our athletic program, we could have free seating for everybody.”
The Alumni Association convened a meeting in Gargan Hall after the president concluded his remarks. The main agenda was a vote leading to a reorganization of the association’s board and by-laws and an expansion of the association’s contacts and responsibilities within the University. Long championed by Leahy as a means by which the alumni organization would improve service to alumni and Boston College, the restructuring proposal had nonetheless been controversial.
But as with the elevation of the academic vice president’s status a day earlier, the vote was well prepared for, passing unanimously and without debate.
That evening, in a cold rain, I joined Fr. Leahy for a final lap, a set of 13 brief visits (or “visitations,” in Alumni Association parlance) to class reunion parties, scheduled at 10- and 15-minute intervals from 7:20 to 10:05 p.m.
In memory and in my notes, the visitations were a blur of rain, umbrellas, crowds, brief minivan rides, loud music, dancers, diners, and flashbulbs. Leahy, who was very conscious that he was dragging around six staff people from the alumni and development offices who hadn’t had much time off since alumni began checking into residence halls two days earlier, was determined to stay on schedule. “How are we doing on time?” he asked after most stops. Still, it was difficult to keep to the schedule. People wanted to talk to the president, and more wanted to be in a photograph with him, and he linked arms, put his hand on shoulders, and let arms rest across his shoulders while the flashes went off. In the lobby of the Murray Function Room, while a middle-aged cover band (made up of off-duty Boston policemen and firefighters, I was told) played “Help Me, Rhonda” for the Class of 1971, Leahy posed for 25 photographs before I stopped counting.
By the time we reached the Newton College of the Sacred Heart classes of 1956 and 1961, who were having dinner at Alumni House, “the visitation team” was running about 10 minutes behind schedule. But Leahy was relaxed. Raised in a home with older sisters, he is at ease with groups of women, and he stopped at each table to talk with the alumnae, asking names, asking about student days.
“We will make it on time,” he promised the staff as he got back into the van.
And we did, finishing up in a blur in Conte Forum, where the Class of 1991 was filling the basketball court in the Power Gym with heat and a pulsing sound I did not recognize as music I knew. As Leahy moved through the room, seeking out the class leaders for the requisite photograph, a young man in dress military uniform, with two rows of battle ribbons on his chest, came and stood by. When I looked again, I saw Leahy and the soldier talking seriously and quietly. As Leahy turned to go, I heard him say to the young man, “Call me.”
With his entourage trailing, Leahy then descended into Conte Forum, where the Class of 1986 was gathered in near darkness on a wood floor that had been placed over the ice rink, and where a DJ played music on a sound system that blinked and roared like an Airbus coming in for a night landing. I lost Leahy there (the black suit) and so did most other members of the “visitation team,” and we wandered around in the seats above, peering into the dark, and finally traced him by camera flashes on the other side of the rink.
Ten years in review
|Operating Budget||$341 million||$628 million|
|Endowment||$590 million||$1.4 billion|
|Number of Full-time Faculty||586||662|
(Full professor, with benefits)
|Percentage of Applicants Accepted||41%||29%|
|Average SAT Score (entering freshman)||1,248||1,325|
|% of AHANA (minority) Students||18%||25%|
|Undergraduate Financial Aid||$47.5 million||$100.8 million|
|Total University Gifts Received||$24.6 million||$76.4 million|
|Jesuits in BC Community||110||130|
|Research Grants||$18 million||$44 million|
|Source: Office of Public Affairs||Return to Top|
About the 25th president of Boston College
William P. Leahy, SJ, became the 25th president of Boston College on July 31, 1996, coming to Chestnut Hill from Marquette University, where he had been executive vice president since 1991 and a member of the history faculty since 1985. A native of Imogene, Iowa (population 66 in 2000), he was born in 1948 and raised with six brothers and sisters on a family farm (corn, wheat, oats, and soybeans). He entered the Jesuit order in 1967, following his freshman year at Creighton University. He holds master’s degrees in divinity and sacred theology from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, and a doctorate in history from Stanford University. He is the author of Adapting to America (Georgetown, 1991), an analysis of 20th-century American Catholicism as viewed through the histories of Catholic—and particularly Jesuit—colleges, and is chairman of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Successful college presidents, no matter the scope of their work, tend to be remembered for a single achievement: Chicago’s Hutchins for the great books movement; Harvard’s Eliot for the elective system; BC’s own Fr. Monan for bringing the University back from the brink of bankruptcy. At 10 years and counting, there’s little doubt Fr. Leahy is known for the Church in the 21st Century initiative that he established in 2002 to promote scholarship and renewal in the face of revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum