Young, Passionate ... and President

By Lisa Carroll
Rev. James Shea
Photo: Jerald Anderson, University of Mary

Rev. James Shea describes himself as a North Dakota farm boy whose dream growing up was to become a parish priest in his home state. He had just begun living out that dream when his life took an unexpected turn.

On July 1, at the age of 34, he became the youngest college or university president in the country.

When the position was advertised at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., Father Shea was working in the western part of the state as the pastor of two parishes and as an instructor and chaplain at a Catholic high school. At first, he wasn’t sure he was ready for the advertised university position, partly because he had the job he had long desired and partly because he didn’t feel he had the proper experience for the presidency.

Through prayer and the encouragement of his bishop, he says he came to feel the job might be what the Lord wanted for him. Therefore he applied, competing with more than 20 other applicants.

During that process, Father Shea sought advice from the president of his alma mater, The Catholic University of America. Although Father Shea had only met Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., briefly once before, he says the older priest welcomed his questions and provided him with great insight.

“I respected Father O’Connell for his dedication to CUA’s Catholic identity and for the work he’s done at the university, so I wanted to see him,” Father Shea explains. “I came down and we had a wonderful visit. He was tremendously encouraging and answered a lot of crucial questions for me, and he continued coaching me throughout the process.”

On Dec. 5, 2008, the University of Mary announced that Father Shea would succeed Sister Thomas Welder as its next president. Founded in 1955, the school has more than 2,800 students and offers 44 bachelor’s programs, as well as selected master’s and doctoral degrees.

“Father Shea has a deep passion for Catholic education, which was clearly evident when he spoke of it during the interview process,” says Sister Nancy Miller, president of the university’s board of trustees.

Sister Miller explains that it became obvious during the interview that, although he is young, Father Shea was the right one for the position. He had shown himself to be innovative and collaborative in his work as a teacher, parish priest and member of the National Advisory Council for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, she says.

“He was quick to say that he has plenty to learn in this position,” she says. “He is very willing and approaches the opportunity with enthusiasm and confidence.”

That jibes with what Father O’Connell says: “Transitions always and understandably bring with them a bit of worry. In Father Shea’s case, however, the worry that he felt and expressed to me was clearly offset by his competence and energy for the task at hand.”

After studying at a college in North Dakota from 1993 to 1995, Father Shea enrolled at Catholic University upon receiving the Theodore B. Basselin Scholarship, a three-year academic scholarship offered to CUA seminary students who show promise in public speaking and the study of philosophy. He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1997 and his Licentiate in Philosophy in 1999.

“When I called to talk to the admissions people, I wanted to know if it was possible to ever leave the campus and go and see things in Washington,” Father Shea recalls about his initial visit to CUA’s campus. “I was so green, I really had no understanding of the city. I had never seen public transportation, like the Metro, before. It was the awakening to a whole new world.”

Catholic University is where the priest says he fell in love with education, partly because of the CUA courses he took and partly through his experience preparing students at two D.C. schools for their first confessions.

“What was very gratifying was that in the process of instructing them, I didn’t know if I was doing anything worthwhile or not,” he explains. “On the last day, when they made their first confessions, it was so beautiful and everything came together.

“That taught me the lesson that in teaching, you’re making a difference simply by being faithful and by being present. Then the work that you do does bear fruit and you’re not necessarily responsible for all the fruit. I didn’t know that before. I thought that it all depended on me and that I needed to see the progress as it happened. But I learned that’s not actually how it works. That was a valuable lesson.”

After studying theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Shea was ordained a priest in 2002 and was appointed to serve as an associate pastor in Bismarck and a chaplain and instructor at St. Mary’s Central High School, also in Bismarck.

As the time came for Father Shea to assume his university presidency, he says he felt a mix of excitement and nervousness, though he felt peace in knowing that this is what the Lord wants for him.

“I’ll have to be here, not just as a president, but as a student of the position,” he says. “This is a huge adventure I’m embarking on.”

Other University Presidents Who Are CUA Alums

Numerous CUA alumni have gone on to become presidents of universities and colleges in the United States. Here are 15 of the current presidents, listed with their CUA degree and the name of the institution they lead:

Rev. Thomas B. Curran, O.S.F.S., J.D. 1992
Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Mo.

Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., M.A. (in drama) 1983
Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.

William Fahey, M.A. and Ph.D. (in early Christian studies) in 1995 and 2003, respectively
Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, N.H.

Mark A. Heckler, M.F.A. (in drama with an emphasis on directing) 1979
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind.

Mary Hines, M.A. and Ph.D. (in philosophy) in 1969 and 1981, respectively
Carlow University, Pittsburgh

Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., S.T.D. (in theology) 1977
Niagara University, Niagara, N.Y.

Eugene J. McAllister, Ph.D. (in business and economics) 2003
University of Great Falls, Great Falls, Mont.

Rev. Kevin J. Mullen, O.F.M., Ph.D. (in theology) 1975
Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.

Sister Anne Munley, I.H.M., M.A. (in sociology) 1973
Marywood University, Scranton, Pa.

Barbara E. Murphy, B.A. (in English) 1969
Johnson State College, Johnson, Vt.

Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., J.C.L. and J.C.D.
(in canon law) in 1987 and 1990, respectively
The Catholic University of America

Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., M.A. and Ph.D.
(in theology) in 1982 and 1985, respectively
University of San Francisco

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., Ph.L. (in philosophy) 1985
Providence College, Providence, R.I.

Stephen J. Sweeny, B.A. (in Spanish) 1966
College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Raymond Yannuzzi, D.A. (in English) 1996
Camden County College, Blackwood, N.J.