Providence, R.I. — Most college presidents follow a career trajectory that starts with professor and continues through department chair, dean, and provost.
But Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 bypassed most of those titles when he was named president of Providence College in 2005.
“I had had none of the jobs you’re supposed to have to be a college president,” he said.
Father Shanley described his nontraditional path from philosopher to campus CEO as part of the MBA Program’s Leaders on Leadership course. The course, taught by Dr. Matthew Eriksen, associate professor of management in the School of Business, is designed to help students become more authentic and moral leaders by learning from well-respected leaders working in a variety of fields.
For the students, Father Shanley is a speaker “they can all relate to because he’s someone whose leadership they’ve all experienced,” Eriksen said.
Father Shanley told the class that prior to becoming president, he was happy serving as a tenured associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University, working on his third book. He didn’t have an MBA and had limited management experience — six months as an associate dean and also as editor of an academic journal with one employee. He explained that he thought he might consider moving on to administration later in life, but certainly not at the time.
Small candidate pool
But the job description required PC’s president to be a priest in the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, and he was one of the few people considered for the position.
And, Father Shanley was confident that he could do it.
“What I was convinced about at the time was that I am well-educated enough that I can learn what I need to learn in order to do this job,” he said. “I will surround myself with really smart people, and I will ask questions until I learn what I need to know.”
He described setting the vision for the College by establishing the Strategic Plan and aligning its core constituencies, including students, alumni, donors, faculty, and civic groups.
Father Shanley also strives to motivate and inspire people as he manages change, which is inevitable for everyone. “No company, no institution is going to get better if it just stays the same,” he said, adding that his biggest challenge as president of the College is “making sure I keep making decisions based on my core values” as a Dominican priest.
Leaders need to be self-aware and cognizant of their strengths and weaknesses. Father Shanley said he knows he is not a detail-oriented person, but he surrounds himself with people who get things done. “You have to supplement weaknesses with people who complement you,” he said. “I’ve met too many people who don’t understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and can’t compensate for that.”
During the question-and-answer session, Eriksen asked Father Shanley “Why lead?”
The president said that leading the College was not a personal ambition of his, but rather an act of obedience to God.
Father Shanley described how, at a Harvard conference for new college presidents, he listened as colleagues described how they had worked their way up the ladder. When it was his turn, he told them: “I’m here because God wants me to be here,” he said. “Somehow the providence of God said ‘I want you to do this.’”
The priest described leadership as a call. “It’s a call to recognize the gifts you’ve been given by God, and it’s a response to what God asks of you,” he said.
Father Shanley added that the purpose of an education is leadership. “You’re learning in this class how to lead other people, how to lead your families, how to lead our country, how to lead institutions, and how to make this world a better place,” he said.
Linda Coutu, an MBA student from Greenville, R.I., said she appreciated Father Shanley’s insights. “I was touched … that he was president because of obedience,” she said.
“It choked me up.”
— Liz F. Kay