Father William Sullivan, in his 32 years at Seattle University as president and later chancellor, helped to transform the university. Current SU President Stephen V. Sundborg suggests Sullivan's work has set it on a course to be the Northwest's premier independent university.

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Father William J. Sullivan follows in the long line of Jesuit missionaries who worked far afield, often for decades, and then were called home when their work was done. This month, after 34 years nurturing and transforming Seattle University, he returns to the Wisconsin Province of Jesuits, in the state where he grew up.

Sullivan served for 20 years as president of Seattle University and another 12 years as chancellor, assisting me, his successor. He purchased a law school, built the internationally acclaimed Chapel of St. Ignatius, righted our university’s financially listing ship, and set it on its present course to be the premier independent university of the Northwest. In appreciation, Seattle University and the Seattle community have proclaimed him the school’s first president emeritus, hosted a reception for the entire campus community, and toasted him at a Rainier Club dinner attended by, among others, Bill Gates, whose wedding to Melinda French was performed by Fr. Sullivan in 1993. The honors were fitting tributes, for in mind, spirit and deed, Fr. Sullivan stands among the greatest generation of the nation’s Jesuit university presidents.

The great generation of American Jesuit higher education is characterized by gracious and articulate priests who led their universities by the strength of their wills and the power of their personalities. They are the symbols of their institutions and first citizens of their communities. Operating before e-mail, they had an individual presence and influence that cannot be replicated in a new era.

Moreover, they took the helm amid a battle to reshape contemporary Jesuit higher education in America. In several remarkable ways, they defined the territory of our colleges and universities and on which we as successor presidents now build. They often served long terms, established governance and boards that serve us well today, forced through balanced budgets and became prodigious fundraisers. Several transformed narrowly focused Catholic colleges into universities embraced and supported by the larger community. They built and modernized ramshackle campuses while developing academic quality, core curricula, scholarship and new programs.

Sullivan was among those who defined the place and purpose of Catholic higher education in American academia, culture and religion, while animating the university with the modern emphases of the Jesuit mission. And like the other great Jesuit presidents, he was a friend-maker, winning by warmth and graciousness a new and enduring cohort of supporters.

The result is a profound set of accomplishments. He expanded, renewed and transformed the campus. He founded the School of Theology and Ministry, a national model of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The Chapel of St. Ignatius, as our trustees noted in a proclamation, “today serves as the university’s heart and soul.” He enriched Seattle University’s intellectual climate through a variety of scholarships and, by establishing the Seattle University School of Law, extended SU’s values-based education to the legal community.

Since Sullivan’s presidency, the times and challenges of Jesuit-inspired higher education in America have changed. Enrollments have often doubled, staff and faculty tripled. We have four times as many programs, and the growth of our budgets has been topped by everyone’s expectations for higher education and the sheer complexity our operations.

A Jesuit president’s role has been complicated by a growing list of important issues, including technology, diversity, globalization, regulation, sustainability and greater competition for resources and enrollments. I welcome such changes, which make for a richer, more engaging campus with a breadth of resources and even more connections to our community.

But today’s generation of presidents can no longer put their personal stamp on universities the way Sullivan’s generation did. They had the freedom to act, yes, but that brings with it the challenge and loneliness of acting alone. Sullivan and his generation rose to the challenge with confidence and filled the space with courage. I am in awe of how large-heartedly they responded. In Sullivan’s case, I see an enduring legacy in Seattle University’s thriving campus, first-rate academics and rising prominence. Our city and our region are better for his service.

Stephen V. Sundborg is president of Seattle University.