University Chancellor Rev. James Donald Monan, S.J., a pivotal figure whose 24-year tenure as University president transformed Boston College from a commuter school into a nationally recognized institution of higher education, has died. He was 92.
Born in Blasdell, N.Y., on New Year’s Eve 1924, Monan entered the Society of Jesus in 1942, at the age of 17. A graduate of Woodstock College—a now-defunct Jesuit seminary located in Woodstock, Md.—and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, Monan was ordained a priest in 1955. A recipient of 13 honorary degrees, Monan served on the boards of dozens of organizations and institutions.
Monan became BC’s president in September 1972 after serving as academic dean and vice president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. He was a noted Aristotelian philosopher in addition to his leadership in higher education.
“Fr. Monan devoted more than four decades of his life to Boston College, playing a decisive role in its reorganization and increased recognition in American higher education,” University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. said to University Communications. “He has left a lasting legacy, and earned the gratitude and respect of the entire Boston College community for his leadership during his years as president and chancellor.”
What leadership it was. Two years before Monan arrived, in April 1970, students went on strike in the face of tuition hikes, as BC faced a budget deficit of a few million dollars. By the fall of 1972, BC was more than $30 million in debt. Monan restructured the Board of Trustees to include more business-oriented members and lay people, and in 1973 hired Frank B. Campanella as BC’s first executive vice president, a role that would focus specifically on fiscal matters and University administration. Campanella served in that role until 1991. BC began to use depreciation accounting in 1974, a more fiscally savvy technique that BC said at the time was “unheard of in a university setting.”
In April 1976, BC undertook a capital campaign that sought to raise $21 million. It ended up at $25 million. By 1982, BC could boast 10 years spent in the black, and the endowment at the end of the 1981-82 school year reached $36 million. In 1989, after an aggressive capital campaign raised $136 million, the endowment hit $250 million. It passed $350 million in 1992, and $500 million in 1995—by the time Monan became University chancellor in 1996, it stood at $590 million.
Monan gained a personal reputation during this time as remarkable leader in American higher education. In 1983, he was elected the head of both the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. When he announced his resignation in 1994, then-chair of the Board of Trustees Geoffrey Boisi had kind words as Monan transitioned to his new role as chancellor. Boisi said that Monan had tried to resign on multiple occasions, but the Board had never accepted his resignation.
“In one sense, we view this as an evolutionary transition,” he said to The Heights. “We’re pleased we’re going to continue to have a close relationship with him. He is one of the best chief executive officers of any institution in the country.”
And students recognized those contributions.
“Father Monan revolutionized BC in so many ways,” Nancy Drane, former UGBC president and BC ’94, said in 1994. “I don’t think most students realize how respected and admired Father Monan is at other schools. We were privileged to have been here while he was president.”
BC also undertook an extraordinary physical change during Monan’s tenure. In 1974, the University acquired Newton College of the Sacred Heart, which became Newton Campus. The hillside residence halls Rubenstein and Ignacio, with the capacity to hold 748 students, began a “building explosion” when they opened in 1975. They also helped the number of on-campus residents to surpass the number of commuter students for the first time.
Walsh Hall opened in 1980, bringing on-campus housing to capacity to 5,392 students, or 50 percent of the undergraduate population. Robsham Theater opened in 1981, giving space to artistic talent at BC—the music department was added in 1988, and a full theatre department was created in 1993. In 1981, BC opened the $28 million state-of-the-art Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Library, featuring a computerized catalog that was a pioneer for its time. In 1988, BC opened Voute Hall and 80 Commonwealth Ave., which was later renamed Gabelli Hall. The same year, Conte Forum replaced McHugh Forum as BC’s center for hockey and basketball. When 90 St. Thomas More Rd. and Vanderslice opened in 1993, BC reached 76 percent on-campus housing capacity. Corcoran Commons opened in 1994, adding an entire dining hall to serve Lower Campus.
BC also gained a national reputation during Monan’s tenure for academic excellence. Doug Flutie’s 1984 Hail Mary pass and subsequent Heisman Trophy win are often credited for an increase in applications, but by 1981, more than half of applicants were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. In 1986, Barron’s elevated BC from its “very competitive” classification of schools to “highly competitive,” and in 1990-91 it further improved to one of the nation’s 44 “most competitive.” BC ranked 40th in the 1996 U.S. News and World Report rankings—it now ranks 31st. When Monan started at BC, students came mostly from the Northeast—by 1996, BC was attracting students from all 50 states and 40 countries.
Flutie aside, many credit that reputation to steps BC took to create a world-class research university. In 1975, BC established its first endowed position: the Thomas I. Gasson, S.J. Chair in Theology. Faculty pay in 1972-73 was in the 50th percentile nationally—by 1980 it was in the 25th percentile, and by 1993-94 it was in the top 10 percent. The construction of the Merkert Chemistry Center in 1989 bolstered BC’s reputation in the sciences, and the Presidential Scholars Program (renamed for Gabelli in 2014) attracted high-caliber students from around the country and world with a half-tuition merit scholarship that was later elevated to full-tuition.
“When I came to Boston College, I had not even the wildest dream that I would be here this long, but rather the understanding that I would stay as long as I could be effective,” Monan said in 1992.
Twenty years earlier, in his first interview with The Heights, Monan—smoking his trademark pipe—was asked how he would stay connected to students as president. He said that although he would necessarily focus much of his time on administrative and financial matters, he saw another set of responsibilities in his role.
“I will try and give all the time I can to students because after all students are what we are all about,” he said. “It’s frankly in many ways what can be the part of teaching and administration that is most enjoyable: just to talk to the people, to listen to them, get some of their ideas, get some of their enthusiasm. This is what can be most encouraging.”
Featured Image Courtesy of the Office of News and Public Affairs