PROVIDENCE — For 15 years, Providence College President Father Brian Shanley has been involved in nearly every facet of campus life — something which has occasionally come as a surprise to his students.
“A while ago, I was teaching an ethics class and had a student come up to me after our first meeting to say ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could teach too,” Father Shanley recounts with a laugh.
“I’m not sure if he realized exactly how I got here.”
That sense of ubiquity means that PC’s campus will certainly feel very different after June 30, when Father Shanley will officially mark the end of his tenure as the longest serving president in the school’s history.
Since taking office in 2005, Father Shanley has overseen immense change at the college, all while maintaining a very close personal relationship with students and faculty, due at least in part to his insistence on teaching at least one course a year (something altogether uncommon for university presidents).
“Honestly, it’s therapeutic for me to be able to take some time away from my regular duties and just talk about Aristotle,” he says. “And it also lends me a bit more credibility with the faculty. But the most important thing is that teaching has helped me to keep my focus on the main purpose of the college, which is our search for truth.”
Father Shanley’s own search for truth began at Providence College: the Warwick native was a member of the school’s Class of 1980, where he was introduced to the rich and vibrant intellectual tradition of the Dominican Order. Seven years after graduating, Father Shanley officially took his own place in this tradition with his ordination into the order. Despite his remarkable accomplishments as a teacher and as a researcher, it seems clear that Father Shanley’s most remarkable contribution to the Dominican intellectual life has been his administration of Providence College, which he guided through major challenges ranging from the Great Recession to the Coronavirus — although his leadership philosophy has an unlikely inspiration for an expert on mediaeval theology.
“I think Bill Belichick really did a great job of summarizing what it takes to lead a large organization,” Father Shanley says. “He said that the reason he did a much better job coaching the Patriots than the Browns was because he learned to stop micromanaging and instead focus on doing the things that only a head coach could do,’ while delegating all of the details. I’ve worked with some terrific cabinet members during my time that have allowed me to do just that.”
This has sometimes meant creating entirely new positions in the cabinet, such as Father Shanley’s 2006 decision to create a Vice President for Mission and Ministry, a position which works to promote the school’s Dominican mission and foster a Catholic environment on campus.
“One of the things that has changed the most since I was here as an undergraduate is the level of religious formation that incoming students have, and their relationship with the Church,” Father Shanley says.
“In the 70’s, most of our students were coming from families that regularly went to church, and were fairly uniform in their makeup. But now we have to be prepared to have a wide variety of different conversations based on the background of our students and the relationship they may or may not have with Catholicism.”
Over the course of Father Shanley’s time at Providence College, this effort grew from the introduction of a single cabinet member to an entire administrative department including 20 full-time employees.
Responding to a changing student body has been a major theme of Father Shanley’s presidency: in addition to the Office for Mission and Ministry, he also hired the school’s first Chief Diversity Officer, and recently made the decision to promote this to a cabinet-level position by creating a Vice President for Institutional Diversity (the search for someone to fill this position is ongoing). The past 15 years have seen the campus become three times more racially diverse, with the office particularly promoting outreach to first generation college students.
It is not just the student body that has been changing, however.
“I think the most dramatic change we’ve seen in the past decade and a half would be the campus,” Father Shanley says.
Over the course of his presidency, the school has invested almost half a billion dollars in construction and renovation, including building the Ruane Center for the Humanities in 2013 and the Arthur and Patricia Ryan Center for Business Studies in 2017.
“One of our greatest accomplishments was finally uniting the campus,” Father Shanley says. Providence College had long been divided by Huxley Avenue into an East and West campus, but the school’s decision to purchase a section of the street from the city of Providence in 2012 allowed them to bring the two halves together.
Father Shanley also worked to bring together clergy and laypeople of different faiths by helping to establish the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange in the Theology Department in 2007, building upon the college’s proud history of Catholic and Jewish engagement. The JCTE fosters interreligious learning, understanding and friendship through lectures, colloquia, and other programming involving members of the greater Providence community representing both faiths.
During his tenure, Father Shanley also positioned Providence College to serve students on the world stage, creating the college’s first Center for Global Education, a hub for international activity, including developing and coordinating student opportunities abroad, providing services for international students and scholars, facilitating opportunities for faculty to teach abroad and providing programming directed toward the development of an internationalized campus.
Providence College was recently ranked 6th in the United States for semester-long study abroad in the category of Master’s Colleges and Universities by the Institute of International Education (IIE) for the 2017-18 academic year.
Father Shanley also shepherded the college through two intense periods of self-evaluation and candid reporting to the Committee on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (CIHE/NEASC), resulting in 10-year re-accreditations in 2008 and 2018.
Father Shanley’s successor will be Father Kenneth R. Sicard, who currently serves as the Executive Vice President and Treasurer of the college. After several years of working side by side with Father Sicard, Father Shanley has full confidence in his ability to lead effectively.
“Father Sicard knows this college inside and out, and he’s going to be great.” Father Shanley says. “Honestly, the only thing he might need to get used to is the sense of final responsibility that comes with leadership — you can get a lot of people yelling at you after every decision you make.”
As for Father Shanley, dealing with the unexpected pandemic at the tail end of his tenure has prevented him from making any firm plans for what to do with his retirement.
“I’m definitely going to need to take at least six months to clear my head,” he says, adding with a laugh that it might take him almost as long to clear his office of the “fifteen years’ worth of junk I’ve accumulated.”
Although he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to academic life either as a professor or a researcher, for now Father Shanley is content to take some time to explore some of his other passions. “I’ve been looking forward to getting some golf in,” he says, “and the other day I realized just how long it’s been since I’ve been able to sit down and really just listen to a piece of music. I can’t wait to be able to just sit down with Strauss or Verdi again.”
It seems fair to say that after 15 years of dedicated service (the final months of which have been spent addressing an unprecedented global health crisis), Father Shanley is entitled to at least that much.