On a day that began with teeming rain—but ended with bright sunlight and a warm breeze—Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., Ph.D., President of St. John’s University, was formally installed in his new role after taking office in February.
Fr. Shanley’s investiture took place on September 24 on the Queens, NY, campus, during a ceremony that recalled the academic heraldry that forms the bedrock of all institutions of higher learning.
During his remarks, Fr. Shanley drew parallels between the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans, to which he belongs, and the Congregation of the Mission, known also as the Vincentians, who founded St. John’s. Upon deeper reflection, he said, “I have come to realize there is a lot more to the Vincentians that I wasn’t seeing because I too easily assimilated them into the model of which I was most familiar: my own order.”
He added, “I needed to explore what is new, different, and challenging about the Vincentian community to understand why God led me here.”
At the heart of the Vincentian charism is loving service to the poor—which is service to Christ himself, Fr. Shanley stressed. “The greatest way to lift a person out of poverty is a college degree, and that must remain at the center of who we are as a University,” he said. He added that also at the heart of the work done by St. John’s is the study and exploration of the systemic structures that produce exclusion, marginalization, and injustice.
Fr. Shanley wants to emulate St. Vincent de Paul’s talent for collaboration and organization. “These are virtues we need at St. John’s,” he explained. “For us to flourish, we need to emulate Vincent’s genius for collaboration and for drawing out the talents of others—especially our alumni. We need to do a better job with engaging our alumni in the mission of our University.”
Fr. Shanley also spoke of the need for intellectual humility, which he said is a critical element of a Vincentian University. “It is a virtue that allows us to own our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing a deeper truth. It applies to both professors and students. It is the willingness to reconsider one’s views, to avoid defensiveness and the need to always be right. It implies the openness to evidence and an orientation to truth wherever it is found.”
“Since arriving at St. John’s University, Fr. Shanley has demonstrated that he has the experience and the passion—and is uniquely equipped with the leadership skills -- necessary to move the University in the direction that we want to go, both now and in the future,” said William J. Janetschek ’84CBA, ’17HON, Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees and Retired Partner and Chief Financial Officer, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P. “In just a few months, he already has made an impact and developed an astute awareness of the transformative power of the St. John’s experience.”
Fr. Shanley’s dear friend and successor as President of Providence College, Rev. Kenneth R. Sicard, O.P., gave the ceremony’s benediction. Earlier in the day, he reflected on his relationship with Fr. Shanley. “Brian and I have been friends for more than 35 years, and I had the good fortune to serve as his Executive Vice President when he was President of Providence College.”
“That allowed me to be a firsthand witness to the many decisions he made, all of which bore the imprint of his leadership style—a style characterized by wisdom, collaboration, kindness, compassion, and strength. This strong leadership, along with his extraordinary vision, defined his presidency and made him so successful. We are a better and stronger institution because of him. I have no doubt that he will be as impactful at St. John’s as he was at Providence—and that God will continue to bless him in this important new ministry.”
Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., President of St. John’s University’s sister institution, Niagara University, offered his congratulations to Fr. Shanley as well. “St. John’s is blessed to have Fr. Shanley as its 18th President. He is a wonderful priest and educator and seen as an exemplary leader in Catholic higher education. He is a man of immense intellectual gifts who lives the creed of St. Dominic de Guzman, the founder of the Dominican Order: ‘Have charity among yourselves, hold fast to humility.’ As a priest, president, and member of the Congregation of the Mission, I am honored to welcome Fr. Shanley to the Vincentian family.”
Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio Ph.D., D.D. ’08HON, Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, noted that a spirit of ecumenism now permeated St. John’s University, as a Dominican priest has been called to lead a Vincentian university. “The diversity of this University and the surrounding area is something of which we can be proud,” Bishop DiMarzio offered, adding, “Because we see that people of great diversity can live in peace with one another—and this University is a microcosm of that diversity.”
Representatives from the University’s student, faculty, and alumni communities also offered warm welcomes to Fr. Shanley during the ceremony.
Criminal Justice major Hajarah Dar, a junior, noted that her first interaction with Fr. Shanley was during a conference call in February. “Fr. Shanley wanted to meet some of the student leaders on campus to discuss the realities of being a St. John’s student. As young adults all living under the uncertainty of the pandemic, it was comforting to know that someone wanted to check in with us and see how we were doing.”
Hajarah added, “On behalf of the student body, we want you to know we are ready to partner with you…We give you our trust and know that you will uphold our core values. Your success is our success. We are excited that you have joined us and wish you nothing but the best in the years to come.”
Tarik S. Turner ’98C, Managing Director, Institutional Equities, AllianceBernstein L.P.; Basketball Television Studio Analyst, FS1 Television; and Member, Board of Trustees, St. John’s University, noted that Fr. Shanley is a great sports fan and a visionary leader with a deep commitment to student success. “He has an excellent track record of uplifting student enrollment and academic achievement. He’s someone who can inspire as a leader, friend, and confidante.”
He added, “His humility and willingness to listen make him approachable to students. He has a good balance of giving people room to do their jobs but also holding them accountable. A term we use in athletics is ‘high motor,’ someone with high energy, who can engage with people, whether it’s students, alumni, faculty, or potential donors. Fr. Shanley has hit the ground running and demonstrates collaborative leadership.”
“With the arrival of Fr. Shanley, we continue our growth as individuals and as an institution so that we showcase the best of St. John’s,” stressed Sharon See, Pharm.D., BCPS, BCGP, FCCP, Clinical Professor and Assistant Chair, Department of Clinical Health Professions, College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “Change can be challenging, but the time is right to explore new ideas and look forward to a new beginning.”
Before the investiture was officially performed by Mr. Janetschek, Very Rev. Stephen M. Grozio, C.M., Provincial Superior, Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, and Vice Chair, Board of Trustees, St. John’s University, offered a commissioning prayer for Fr. Shanley. “We promise you our support and fidelity in this magnificent Vincentian educational mission that you now undertake with God’s help and the guidance of St. Vincent de Paul himself.”
Fr. Shanley was then presented with the symbols of his office: the presidential regalia, indicative of the academic life of the University; the presidential medallion, the symbol of his high office; and the mace of St. John’s University. The mace symbolizes faculty and students and announces by its presence that those who follow it bear the power of higher learning—which dispels the darkness of ignorance and oppression.
Closing the ceremony, a rousing rendition of “Feeling Good” was performed by Remy A. Martin ’16P, ’18GEd, St. John’s Voices of Victory, and the Mixed Chorus, under the direction of Nigel W. Gretton, Director, Performing Arts.
“Thank you for inviting me to learn from the Vincentians,” Fr. Shanley said. “I sincerely believe that is why God brought me here.”