St. Thomas to allow non-priests to be its president

Acknowledging the shrinking pool

With an eye on the shrinking pool of Catholic priests who are capable and willing to lead colleges, the University of St. Thomas has changed its bylaws to allow non-priests to lead the institution.

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, confirmed a Board of Trustees report in the university’s bulletin announcement that said the university will now allow a brother, sister or lay Catholic to become president — although it will show priests “strong preference.”

Hennes said the current president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, has no plans to retire soon, and that trustees are “just looking down the road. It’s part of presidential succession planning.” An impending retirement of Dease “is really not an issue” in the decision.

He told me:

“The general concern is that the pool of available priests appears to be limited. Some Catholic schools have struggled (with recruitment.) There are fewer priests today than there were 20 years ago. We wanted to guard against that.”

Just recently, Seton Hall University, the University of Detroit Mercy and the Catholic University of America appointed laypeople to lead their institutions.

In this issue, St. Thomas is actually a latecomer, compared to its peers.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and universities, said 60 percent of Catholic schools have a lay president, with the rest having either a priest or sister at the helm.

Finding qualified priests is difficult not just because fewer men are going into the priesthood, but because those in higher education are so few. Most priests go into pastoral work, he said, and less than 5 percent go into higher education. Even the Jesuits — an order that’s strong in education — are hiring lay presidents, he said.

He told me:

“This move with St. Thomas is very much in line. When it goes into the market and is ready, it can look at the range of (candidates) without being encumbered by a challenge.”

For a little context, here’s a list of those leading Minnesota’s Catholic colleges and universities. A third are lay:

  • Father Dennis Dease, University of St. Thomas
  • Brother William Mann, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
  • Sister Andrea J. Lee, St. Catherine University
  • Fr. Robert Koopmann, St. John’s University
  • MaryAnn Baenninger,  College of Saint Benedict (lay)
  • Larry Goodwin, College of St. Scholastica (lay)