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St. Joe's considering a lay president

St. Joseph's University is preparing for a sea change in leadership: a new president, a new provost, a new enrollment head, and a new chief financial officer. And more.

St. Joseph's University is preparing for a sea change in leadership: a new president, a new provost, a new enrollment head, and a new chief financial officer. And more.

The change could take on even greater significance as the Jesuit university contemplates hiring the first lay president in its 164-year history.

Though the university is weeks - maybe more - from making its choice, staff, faculty, and students at the Philadelphia campus are discussing and preparing for the possibility of a non-clergy leader.

In the last year, St. Joe's has faced faculty unrest over financial and management concerns, including votes of no confidence on several senior staff members, all of whom are scheduled to be gone as of June.

"We want the best person for the job," said Ann Green, an English professor and vice president of the faculty senate. "If that person happens to be a Jesuit, that's great. If not, but [he or she] can carry out the mission, that's great, too. This is a really complicated time for higher education, and we need a person who can both manage a budget and engage with the mission of the university and be an intellectual presence. We're aware that this is a challenging role to fill."

A lay choice would follow a trend at the 28 Jesuit colleges around the country, where there was only one lay president a decade ago, John J. DeGioia at Georgetown. Nine Jesuit universities now have non-clergy leaders, and it will become 10 this summer.

Such a choice would also come as another major Catholic university in Philadelphia, La Salle, prepares to welcome its first lay leader this summer, Colleen M. Hanycz.

The increasing roster of lay leaders is the result of waning numbers of priests, coupled with growing demands on college presidents as financial pressure and competition mount in the higher education marketplace.

The population of priests nationally has been on a steady decline for decades, falling to 38,275 in 2014, a 7.5 percent drop from about a decade ago, according to statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown. Among Jesuits, the decline has been steeper. There were 2,395 in 2013, according to the center, down 27 percent from a decade earlier.

The number of aspiring priests entering seminary has stabilized. Because of an extraordinary increase in priest candidates before and during the 1960s, however, the overall number continues to fall as those priests age out at larger numbers, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the center.

What is important for education, officials at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities say, is that lay presidents commit themselves to carrying on the mission. Most are graduates of Jesuit institutions or have worked in the schools.

"The universities with lay presidents seem to be doing as well as the ones with Jesuits," Gautier said. "They've done a real careful job to make sure the charism continues."

The Rev. Charles Frederico, a 1995 St. Joe's graduate and vocation director for the Northeast Province of the Jesuits, said lay presidents have promoted vocations.

"They have been very generous with their time and efforts," he said.

St. Joe's, which is in Philadelphia and Lower Merion Township and has 8,860 students, for the first time conducted an "open" search for president rather than "Jesuit preferred."

The school launched the search after the Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie said he would step down in June after three years. St. Joe's business faculty last May voted no confidence in Gillespie, following earlier votes of no confidence by the full faculty against John W. Smithson, senior vice president, and Louis J. Mayer, vice president of financial affairs. Mayer recently was appointed chief financial officer of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Smithson will depart along with Gillespie.

While St. Joe's is not requiring that candidates be practicing Catholics, it is emphasizing the importance of understanding the university's mission and its connection to the Jesuits.

Candidates also must "come in with a plan on how they will engage" everyone, faculty, staff, and students, said Robert J. Bowman, search committee chair and vice chair of the trustees board. Bowman would not say how many candidates remained under consideration or if any Jesuits were among them.

St. Joe's has been preparing for change.

"The university has been intentional about teaching faculty and staff about the Jesuit mission," Green said.

Several years ago, she went on a pilgrimage with other faculty to Spain and Italy to learn more about the life of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Sister Mary Scullion, a 1976 St. Joe's grad and a member of the trustees board, said lay people also can have deep spirituality and commitment to social justice, something she says she sees as executive director of Project HOME, which provides housing for homeless families.

"One of the things I valued the most at St. Joe's," she said, "was the Jesuit spirituality and values that were so much a part of a great academic education, and as long as the next president has that, I'll be ecstatic."