Changing Hands

It is a delicate thing to hand over to another something as complex and precious as a university. But that’s exactly what happened this summer.

Changing Hands
Fr. Kevin O'Brien becomes the 29th president of Santa Clara University. / Image by Jim Gensheimer

It is a delicate thing to hand over to another something as complex and precious as a university. But that’s exactly what happened this summer.

After a decade of dedication to our alumni, to sustainability, to growing opportunity through the LEAD Scholars Program, and to becoming a deeper part of our immediate neighborhood by investments in STEM education and community immersions, Michael Engh, S.J. stepped down. Into his shoes—or should we say hats—steps Santa Clara’s 29th President, Kevin O’Brien, S.J. So, who is this man who will lead?

Like all of his predecessors, Fr. O’Brien is a Jesuit. He uses that tradition to measure himself—and our campus.

“The measure that will matter most—at least for a Jesuit university—is the lives we have impacted and the change we have effected,” O’Brien said as his appointment was announced.

Most recently O’Brien was the Jesuit over at SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology, leading new minds into divinity as dean. He is also a leader among Jesuits, not just heading up the order’s theology school in the West but also penning one of the best-known modern books on the order, The Ignatian Adventure: Experience the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life, in addition to pieces for MSNBC and CNN. A video of him debunk-ing the idea of a war on Christ-mas took off in the viral world of the internet.

When he taught at Georgetown, students recognized him with the 2016 Doro-thy Brown Award for Excellence in Teaching. His work at JST made him part of this campus before he was picked to lead it, and put him out into the world as SCU’s emissary: to the South on a pilgrimage to better understand racism in America, presiding over Mass at St. Agnes Parish in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and serving the homeless in Berkeley’s People’s Park. He knows the campus, community, and mission. He brings to the job a few priorities of his own: improving access to higher education and ensuring the campus climate is one that welcomes a variety of voices and people. He also inherits a legacy to protect and develop.

The University is in the middle of a fundraising campaign to ensure accessibility through scholarships and other programs, maintain its Jesuit heart, and reach into the future with interdisciplinary education that can shape tomorrow. The $1 billion goal—launched publicly by Fr. Engh in January 2019—is one of the most ambitious of any Catholic university. Only Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown have reached such numbers. Santa Clara will be the first in the West to do so. And O’Brien is looking forward to moving the University forward along that path, protecting its heart as we launch into the future.

Or as the man himself puts it: “Amid the contagious spirit of the Valley, and the rapid pace of change around us, the Mission reminds us that we have a tradition that grounds our striving.”

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