33-Year-Old Priest Picked for President

University of Mary's new leader is admittedly inexperienced, but "raring to go."
December 15, 2008

A 33-year-old priest, currently serving as pastor of two North Dakota churches and as a high school religion teacher, is the newly announced next president of the University of Mary.

“The lack of experience, that’s something, it’ll be cured pretty quickly,” the Rev. James Patrick Shea says. “The youth will be cured pretty quickly too, right?”

A 2006 survey by the American Council on Education found that just 0.6 percent of college presidents were in the 31-40 age range, which will make Father Shea among the very youngest members of an otherwise graying club. (University of Mary officials believe he will be the youngest U.S. university president. For the sake of comparison, Lynn University, in Florida, in 2006 selected a president who was 33 at that time, and Philander Smith College's president was 37 when he took over the Arkansas institution in 2004.)

Father Shea acknowledges he’s an unusual choice in many respects, not only because of his age. Academically speaking, he lacks a doctorate but, as he points out, "I graduated from high school in 1993 and I was in academia until 2002.”

He notes that "in terms of both administration and in terms of fund raising, on one side of that question I don’t bring very much at all. And I think the Board of Trustees knows that." At the same time, he continues, "I bring tremendously good instincts. I have great people skills; I’m able to articulate a vision very well. And indeed I'm not a loose cannon, either.” (No argument on his people skills. Charismatic and at ease with clever one-liners, he adds: “I was the oldest of eight children, and that’s the type of formation that you need for administration.”)

Father Shea is also a known commodity in Bismarck, where the University of Mary is located: In addition to having served as priest and high school instructor in North Dakota since 2002, he grew up 38 miles from campus. He jokes that the only reason he didn’t attend University of Mary was its proximity. His parents would have constantly had him home helping them milk the cows.

“One of the great comforts is I’m no stranger to these people and they’re no stranger to me,” Father Shea says.

“I think there were some faculty surprised, particularly in his youth and lack of experience. But by and large I think faculty are supportive, just because many of them know who he is and have seen him speak,” says Rod Jonas, a professor and chair of the Division of Education. “I think most of them believe him to be very intelligent and articulate and, I think, a strong leader. I think those things are more important than the experience factor and his youth.

“In fact, I personally like his youth,” Jonas continues. “He’ll be raring to go from day one. I like that.”

“The more I hear from him and the more I interact with him, the more confident I am that he can do the work,” says Rebecca Chalmers, president of the University of Mary Teaching Faculty Organization and a faculty representative on the 14-member presidential search committee. “He’s wonderfully inquisitive, has a quick mind. I think everyone is pretty impressed by just how bright he is and he seems genuinely humbled by the opportunity that this position affords him.”

Father Shea says that his religious vocation was a key factor in his selection. He comes into the presidency at a time when many Roman Catholic colleges, faced with a shrinking pool of ordained possible presidents, are transitioning to lay leadership. Father Shea will replace Sister Thomas Welder, who has helmed the Benedictine university since 1978.

“To have a type of edge, to have a sense of being able to offer something different than the state universities, I think the University of Mary decided they wanted to do something to reinforce their Catholic identity,” Father Shea says. He explains that strengthening the Catholic identity, in an inclusive way, will be a priority for him in his presidency: “I do think, and this is a big conviction for me, I do think it’s possible to do Catholic identity in a way that doesn’t necessarily exclude other people, and [instead] engages them.”

Father Shea adds, however, that his first order of business will be “to get to know the university and the life.” He assumes the presidency July 1.

“Not until I’m 34.”


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