The University of St. Thomas made history recently when Julie Sullivan was named the first woman to lead the 128-year-old Catholic institution. And a recent Star Tribune letter to the editor provided a glimpse of why it took so long.
The letter writer, who identified himself as a St. Thomas alumnus, called the decision a “slap in the face” to the nearly 40,000 priests in the United States. “There are plenty of priests who would be excellent St. Thomas presidents,” he lamented.
That may be true, but there are plenty of reasons for students and alumni to have faith that the St. Thomas board of trustees made the right call in hiring Sullivan from the University of San Diego after a nationwide search.
Sullivan, 55, may have provided the best explanation during her introductory news conference last month. “In my view,” she said, “the board’s decision was a reflection of their recognition that universities are very complex organizations today. And finding the best candidate to lead one requires a broad pool.”
The candidate pool St. Thomas considered in the search to replace the Rev. Dennis Dease included women for the first time because the university changed its bylaws in 2011 to allow a Roman Catholic lay person or religious person to serve as president. Dease is retiring after 22 successful years as president of Minnesota’s largest private college or university.
Sullivan’s academic expertise in accounting and taxation should serve her well at fast-growing St. Thomas, which just completed a $515 million fundraising campaign.
Since 2005, she has been executive vice president and provost at San Diego, a private Catholic university that has greatly expanded its research and academic programs during her tenure.
Sullivan joins a growing list of female lay presidents at Catholic institutions. Of the 194 members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 72 are led by priests and nuns, while 122 are headed by lay presidents, including 39 women.
It’s a welcome trend showing that more Catholic institutions are willing to break with outdated traditions and do what St. Thomas has done — pick the best candidate regardless of gender.