Father Brian Shanley Takes Charge of St. John’s University on Feb. 1
HILLCREST— Father Brian Shanley is leaving home, once again.
On Nov. 24, St. John’s University announced it had elected him to be its 18th president. His new job starts on Feb. 1, 2021.
But Father Shanley, a Dominican friar, grew up in Warwick, a suburb of Providence, R.I. home of Providence College, where he spent four years as a student, earning a history degree in 1980.
Later, Father Shanley served 15 years as the college’s president, gaining notoriety by improving campus facilities, increasing the faculty, and building a more diverse student body. He is the college’s 12th and longest-serving president.
But being a Dominican, Father Shanley always knew being posted near his hometown could never be permanent. He explained that the Dominican Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 to “preach the Word of God with a certain intellectual sophistication.”
“I’d say, preaching and teaching are the two main things that Dominicans do,” said Father Shanley in a recent phone interview from Providence. “Thomas Aquinas — arguably the smartest Catholic who ever lived — was a Dominican. So, we got involved in universities early on.”
“But,” he added, “part of the Dominican life is itinerancy in the footsteps of Jesus and his apostles. You’re supposed to not stay in one place necessarily. I knew I was supposed to go someplace else.”
St. John’s hired a recruiter to help conduct a national search for the replacement of current president Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, who announced his retirement in June.
When the recruiter reached out to Father Shanley, the friar felt his future became clear.
“It was like an answer to a prayer for me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yep. Okay, this is the place.’ I love New York. I’ve always wanted to live there, and I love St. John’s. I’ve been in the Big East [athletic conference] with St. John’s for 15 years and really admired the school.”
The 18-member search committee included faculty, current and former Board of Trustee members, and students. Board chair William J. Janetschek led the committee.
“Father Shanley’s steadfast devotion to Catholic education and student success were apparent from our very first conversations with him,” Janetschek said. “He has a demonstrated record of achievement. We believe that he is the ideal candidate to serve as our beloved university’s 18th president.”
In 1870, Bishop John Loughlin, the first bishop for the Diocese of Brooklyn, created St. John’s in Brooklyn with help from Vincentian fathers. In the 1950s, the campus moved to the Hillcrest neighborhood of Queens. The university now has satellite campuses in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Long Island, while international campuses are open in Rome, Paris, and Limerick, Ireland.
The university offers more than one hundred degree programs to its current enrollment of 15,700 undergrads and 4,450 graduate students; 1,400 full and part-time faculty members teach them.
These instructors teach and encourage the Vincentian fathers’ mission: compassion to serve those most in need, in the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul.
Although Father Shanley is from the Dominican tradition, he has “long admired St. John’s commitment to the founding mission set forth by the Vincentian community.”
He added, however, that he is aware of the “challenges of the current times,” like how to enliven “remote” learning and make up for lost revenue in the COVID-19 era.
“The first and most important challenge is the human toll that the pandemic has taken,” Father Shanley said. “Students and faculty are suffering from a lack of human interaction with each other.
“And then, there are also financial issues that we’re going to need to worry about.”
Father Shanley said enrollment has dropped because people fear getting the coronavirus in classrooms, dormitories, or athletic facilities. Revenue from tuition and room and board slid commensurately.
“If your revenue is down, you have to cut expenses,” Father Shanley said. “The last thing you want to do is dip into your endowment.
“I’m sure St John’s is already doing everything it can. But until I get there, I don’t want to say I know what we’re going to do. That will be Day 1.”
Whatever paths he takes, Father Shanley said efficient communication is critical with alumni, trustees, faculty, or staff. As for students, he knows he has to bolster his social media skills. He said Brian Browne, executive director of university relations, is already coaching him about Twitter and other platforms.
“But I think the danger of social media is that you say things that you subsequently regret,” he said. “So, I’m wary of the immediate reactions that I see repeated on Twitter. Maybe it’s because I’m an academic, but every word matters to me. And I never write anything without multiple drafts and thinking it over.”
Golf, Chinese Martial Art Fan
Father Shanley enjoys golf and the Chinese martial art, Xing Yi Quan. He described himself as a sports junkie who loves professional football and college basketball. He said he’ll be the biggest fan of St. John’s teams, even when they play Providence.
“But,” he added, “I will not root against Providence College. In the Big East, we’ve always rooted for each other, except when we play each other. But now I’ve got two teams that I’m going to care passionately about.”
Professional baseball, however, is a different story.
“I’m a diehard Red Sox fan,” he said, “but I will not root for the Yankees or the Mets. I think I can get away with that.”
Meet Father Brian Shanley
Born: July 7, 1958, Warwick, R.I.
Ordination: May 22, 1987, Dominican Order of Preachers
Providence College, B.A., History, summa cum laude, 1980
The Catholic University of America — Ph.L., Philosophy, 1984
The Dominican House of Studies — M.Div., Theology, 1986
The Dominican House of Studies — S.T.L., Theology, 1988
The University of Toronto — Ph.D., Philosophy-Collaborative Program in Philosophy and Medieval Studies, 1994
Providence College — Instructor, 1988-1991
University of Toronto — Teaching Assistant, 1991-1993
The Catholic University of America — Assistant Professor, 1994-2001
Candler School of Theology at Emory University — Associate Professor, Fall 2002
The Catholic University of America — Associate Professor, 2001-2005
Providence College Board of Trustees, 1999-2005
Providence College President, 2005-2020
St. John’s University President, elected 2020, takes office February 2021