Q&A: Seven questions for Father Sheeran
By Jean Torkelson
Photo by Brett Stakelin
Jesuit Father Michael Sheeran became president of Regis University in 1993 and retired at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year. During his 20-year tenure, Father Sheeran led the university to a doubled enrollment growth—from 7,500 students to more than 15,000—and to significant recognition among U.S. universities, including a top school ranking in the Western United States for 16 consecutive years from US News and World Report.
In June, Father Sheeran, who is on a six-month sabbatical in northern Colorado, answered “Seven Questions” posed by the Denver Catholic Register. His remarks have been edited for space.
Q: What do you consider among the greatest joys and accomplishments of your tenure?
A: The visit of Pope John Paul II and President Clinton during my first year as Regis president (Aug. 12, 1993) was the sort of event one doesn’t even dream of. I was deeply struck by how these two men who disagreed on some important issues, especially the right to life, could still find common ground to work together to change the world. … The ability of pope and president to find common ground motivated me to start Regis’s Institute on the Common Good, where people who disagree with each other are invited to seek the common good.
Q: What events or challenges took you by surprise, and how did you meet them?
A: The big surprise to me was the economic downturn starting in 2008. Regis was hit like everybody else and we had to downsize our staff. … Lots of folks sent me messages saying they were praying for me as I worked with the vice presidents on cutting budgets. They knew their jobs might be on the line; but their concern was over the stress I must be feeling. Never have I felt more supported in my role as president of a Catholic school than when I got those notes.
Q: Is there any goal you wish you still had time to see accomplished?
A: I was deeply touched this year when all sorts of Regis donors created an endowed fund in my name to generate financial aid for the utterly impoverished youngsters who come to Regis U from Arrupe Jesuit High School.
Q: What was the best advice you gave to your successor?
A: I urged (Jesuit) Father John P. Fitzgibbons to continue to model a Catholic style that flows right out of the texts of Vatican II. It’s a Catholicism that invites rather than gives commands. It remembers that today’s Catholics are much better educated in secular subjects than ever before in history. They expect to make up their own minds. Our job is to present the Catholic tradition in an attractive, persuasive way so our students can recognize and be drawn to the wisdom of their Catholic heritage.
Q: What do you consider the great challenges facing Regis University, and Catholic universities in general, in the next two decades?
A: I’ll leave it to Father Fitzgibbons to talk about Regis University’s future. As to Catholic universities in general, I think a huge issue in the next two decades will be finding the money to pay fair wages to their faculty and other employees at a time when state and even federal government aid is on the decline. ….
As well, I hope everybody who is interested in forming the human person and not just in the retention of facts will support more government aid to education rather than less. After all, the rationale for government support of education is twofold: First, the preparation of workers the economy will need; second—and much more profound—the preparation of citizens capable of discerning voting and even of making personal sacrifices to achieve the common good.
Q: As you say goodbye to students, do you have a surefire piece of advice you like to pass on to them?
A: I like to remind them that God made a good world and then invites us to co-create with him to help the world realize its potential. It’s the graduate’s vocation to take God’s good world and make it better. Their Regis education has equipped them to make an impact.
Q: What’s next for Father Sheeran?
A: I’ll be on sabbatical until the beginning of January. The summer will be (spent) at a fishin g cabin.
From September through December, I’ll be reading theology at the Jesuit theology school at Boston College. …. In 2013 I’ll become president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) in Washington, D.C. The job involves getting to know what policies are being developed in Congress and the Department of Education and communicating the information to leadership groups from the 28 American Jesuit universities. … As someone trained as a political philosopher, I should get lots of up-close experiences of government to reflect on.
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister