Despite Growing University Trends Toward Lay Leadership, BC Plans to Elect Another Jesuit President

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In 2010, only five Jesuit colleges and universities were led by lay presidents. Today, 23 of the 28 total schools in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities have lay presidents at the helm.

Each retirement of a Jesuit president at a university is a chance for that number to creep higher.

But despite this trend, the Boston College Board of Trustees Executive Committee has every intention of putting another Jesuit in the role of University president following the retirement of University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., in 2026. 

“To fulfill our responsibilities as trustees, the Executive Committee believes that we need to do all we can to identify, recruit, and name a qualified Jesuit as BC’s next president, one who will advance the University’s distinctive mission and heritage,” said Board of Trustees Chair John Fish in a June 7 press release.

According to  Board of Trustees member Jonathan Rather, the board unanimously recommended and agreed that the initial candidate search would be within the Society of Jesus.

“I think BC’s, if you will, secret sauce and differentiation is that Jesuit tradition, in terms of its roots in formation. You see that in every facet of the school, from the curriculum to the senior leadership,” Rather said. “And I think it’s so important that that remains at BC, because I really do think that is what makes BC so different and so special.” 

BC has 50 Jesuit members in residence, making it one of the largest apostolic communities in the Society of Jesus. Since the University’s founding in 1863, all 25 of its presidents have been ordained Jesuits.

Fordham, with one of the largest concentrations of Jesuits in the world at 130 members, elected its first layperson and first woman president Tania Tetlow in 2022 after 110 years of exclusively Jesuit presidents. Additionally, Holy Cross elected its first lay and Black president, Vincent Rougeau, in 2021. 

Out of these 24 lay presidents of Jesuit colleges and universities, nine are women and five are people of color. 

According to Rather, this transition toward lay presidents is likely due to a decrease in the overall number of Jesuits. “I think, sadly, it’s just less Jesuits, right?” Rather said. “I think the pool of candidates for Jesuit presidents at universities is tougher because there’s less candidates. So it is difficult.” 

According to  a post by Nineteen Sixty-Four, a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown, the total number of Jesuits worldwide peaked in 1965 with a little more than 36,000 members. By 2020, that number had more than halved to 14,839. 

Additionally, the increasing average age of Jesuits nationwide makes it harder to find someone fit for the tenured position of university president. 

According to Tetlow, who also served as the first lay and woman president of Loyola University New Orleans, lay presidents have the same mission as Jesuit presidents: to uphold the tradition and mission of Jesuit education amid the dwindling number of Jesuit priests. 

In response to the rise of lay presidents, Richard Jacobsen, BC ’99 and member of the Board of Trustees Executive Committee, emphasized BC’s commitment to the Jesuit tradition.

“I don’t know how central Jesuit tradition has remained for those schools,” Jacobsen said. “I know in contrast, it remains at the core of what Boston College is, and I would imagine that that tradition is going to continue.” 

Jacobsen said maintaining its Jesuit tradition distinguishes BC from other Jesuit institutions with lay presidents.

“I think it goes to the very core of the college and a Jesuit education is, and I think one thing that has and will continue to make Boston College stand out is committing to the Jesuit tradition and all the values that entails,” Jacobsen said. 

Jacobsen also noted that the University is looking for another Jesuit president due to the perceived success of past Jesuit presidents at BC. 

“The results … that you see and the trajectory that Boston College has been on during Father Leahy’s ongoing tenure and Father Monan’s before his is probably the best testament as to why we should to find a successor who is a Jesuit,” Jacobsen said. 

Additionally, with the amount of turnover of university presidents, Rather said it is important for BC to have another Jesuit in place.

“University President is a tough job right now,” Rather said. “There’s been tremendous turnover. There’s been tremendous stress. So I think it’s incredibly difficult, even more reason that I think it’s important that BC continues with a Jesuit president to continue that tradition.”

According to BC’s statement, the University intends to have candidates identified and for interviews to start in early 2025. Jacobsen said he is unaware of BC’s plan if they cannot find another Jesuit to replace Leahy.