For the first time in its nearly 127-year history, the University of St. Thomas will be led by a woman -- not a priest.

The Roman Catholic university's Board of Trustees on Thursday cast a historic vote by naming Julie Sullivan as the new president of the St. Paul school, the largest private college in Minnesota with close to 10,000 students.

The first lay person to lead St. Thomas, Sullivan, 55, executive vice president and provost at the University of San Diego, also a Catholic university, was introduced after the board vote as the school's new leader at a campus news conference.

"I'm sure many of you are wondering, What does this mean? How will this be different? Should we be scared?" Sullivan said. "I believe my appointment reflects the sign of the times. ... the board sought to broaden their pool of candidates to all qualified Roman Catholics."

"In my view, 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."

Sullivan joins St. Thomas amid unprecedented growth in enrollment, endowment and fundraising. In October, the university reported it had exceeded an ambitious $500 million fundraising goal -- the biggest campaign for any Minnesota private college and, according to St. Thomas, larger than any in surrounding states. That campaign will bankroll new scholarships and bolster its endowment.

In breaking with the more than a century's tradition of appointing priests to lead St. Thomas, board members said they considered hundreds of candidates and wanted the most qualified Catholic to lead the school.

"She has proven herself as a scholar and as an administrator of a highly reputable Catholic university, and her contributions strengthened it," said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, former archbishop of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese and chair of the St. Thomas board. "I'm confident she will do the same for the University of St. Thomas."

Initially a male-only institution, St. Thomas went co-ed in 1977 and transitioned from a college to a university in 1991. The 14 presidents who have headed the University of St. Thomas since 1885 have been Roman Catholic priests, as dictated by one of the school's bylaws. But in 2011, the university changed that bylaw to allow a Roman Catholic lay person or religious person to serve as president.

The change was made knowing that the current president -- Rev. Dennis Dease -- was nearing retirement. Dease, 69, announced last May that he planned to retire on June 30, 2013, after 22 years as president. University officials said Thursday that Sullivan would officially start as president July 1.

As the number of priests, nuns and others who take vows to serve the Catholic Church continues to dwindle and many move toward retirement age, Catholic colleges have turned to lay leaders to help fill in the gaps. In Minnesota, the College of St. Benedict, St. John's University and the College of St. Scholastica have lay leaders.

Sullivan joins a growing list of female lay presidents at Catholic institutions of higher education across the country. Among the 194 Catholic colleges that belong to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 72 are led by religious people, such as priests and nuns, 26 of whom are women. At the 122 institutions with lay presidents, 39 are led by women.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, notes that in the past 10 years, "there's been a swing toward more and more lay people.

"In selecting a president for a Catholic college, today it's not a matter of whether the person is a male or female. Or a religious priest or religious sister or brother. Or a lay person. Board of directors are making decisions based on the person's faith life, the person's conviction to live out the institution's mission identity and the skill set that the person brings to best implement point one and two."

Sullivan, a Florida native who joined the University of San Diego in 2005, is an internationally known scholar in accounting and taxation, according to the university.

From July 2003 to 2005, she was a professor in the Rady School of Management at University of California, San Diego, with a joint appointment at its School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

She joined the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School in 1987. During her 17-year tenure at Chapel Hill, Sullivan served as interim dean, among other positions.

Amy Besnoy, an associate professor and chair of the University Senate at University of San Diego, a body representing school faculty, says overall she's enjoyed working with Sullivan. She notes that Sullivan, in particular, has done a good job of steering the school and its nearly 7,800 students through the recession.

"She has a very solid financial background," Besnoy said. "If St. Thomas is looking for someone who's going to help manage the fiscal health of the university, I think chances are you're in good hands. She definitely has that background. She got us through some very difficult financial times."

Sullivan met Thursday with faculty, staff and students on campus and is expected to make occasional trips to St. Thomas in the coming months, school officials said.

Clare Knutsen, 19, a St. Thomas student who was eating a sushi lunch at the school's student center after the announcement, said she's excited to see a woman leading St. Thomas.

"I think it's a great change," Knutsen said. "I think it's good to bring in fresh life, fresh opinions."

Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this report

Rose French • 612-673-4352