St. Thomas: Priest preferred, no longer required

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2011 - 7:09 PM

The next president of the University of St. Thomas won't have to be a priest to get the post.

The St. Paul university's governing board changed its bylaws last month to allow a Roman Catholic layperson serve as president.

It will still show priests "strong preference."

The move acknowledges the shrinking number of Catholic priests interested in and qualified for colleges' top jobs. Seton Hall University in New Jersey recently hired a layperson after its first search -- for priests only -- was unsuccessful.

About 60 percent of Catholic colleges are now led by lay people, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

"The board felt that while it has a strong preference to continue to have a priest, it also wants to have the broadest pool possible," said Doug Hennes, St. Thomas vice president for university relations. The action also allows a brother or sister to become president.

Still, some alumni are concerned.

"I believe the action the board has taken is designed to separate it from the diocese," said Dick Houck, who graduated from St. Thomas in 1951.

He worries that picking a non-priest will "only take St. Thomas further away from the teachings of the church."

To respond to such concerns and to preserve Catholic identity on campus, many Catholic colleges and universities have hired Catholic mission and identity officers, Galligan-Stierle said.

The bylaws change doesn't hint at a coming retirement for the Rev. Dennis Dease, who has led the university for two decades, Hennes said.

"He has no immediate plans to retire," he said. "It's just good planning to look ahead."

Most of Minnesota's Catholic colleges and universities still have leaders with a "Father," "Brother" or "Sister" before their names. But the College of St. Benedict and the College of St. Scholastica are led by lay presidents.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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