Mission: Transformation

An education should be transformational, the 29th president of Santa Clara University says

Incoming SCU President Kevin O’Brien currently serves as the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. / Photo by Jim Gensheimer

A Jesuit education aims to change students into people who then change the world.

Santa Clara University’s incoming President understands the transformative power of education first hand.

“The measure that will matter most—at least for a Jesuit university—is the lives we have impacted and the change we have affected,” O’Brien says at his appointment announcement.

It was as a government major in the late 1980s at Georgetown University that Kevin O’Brien, S.J. first met Jesuits, saw them at work, and learned from them. There, a door opened a crack. Could Fr. O’Brien become a Jesuit, too?

The answer clearly is yes. Before being selected to lead Santa Clara, O’Brien led SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley since 2016, training another generation to serve. During his 22 years as a Jesuit, he himself served the poor in the Bronx, those dying of cancer in New York, lepers in India, and immigrants at detention centers in Los Angeles. He served as vice president of mission and ministry at his alma mater, as well as on the boards of Seattle and Marquette universities and Boston College.

But the answer to the question—could O’Brien be a Jesuit —is also eventually, yes.

His time at Georgetown planted a seed. But the kid from South Florida had other ideas. He wanted to make a difference. He figured politics was the way for that to happen. He liked the Jesuits. But he already had a plan and he wasn’t ready to deviate.

“God is patient,” O’Brien says. “And I am stubborn.”

O’Brien returned home, attended law school at the University of Florida, and went into corporate practice in preparation for his career in politics. It was … unfulfilling. It turns out that O’Brien’s plan wasn’t what he thought it was. The work? Noble. But the heart, for him, wasn’t there.

It was at this time, as he struggled with things not being exactly as he hoped, that a serendipitous offer arrived. Could O’Brien teach at a Catholic high school?

Kevin O’Brien, S.J., grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Here are the three O’Brien siblings as youngsters. / Courtesy O’Brien

One of three kids from an Irish Catholic family, O’Brien attended Catholic high school in Florida, where his family immigrated from Canada when he was a toddler. The education gave him a nice balance—learning and working with the poor and marginalized at school while he occasionally hobnobbed on country club golf courses where his father handled media scheduling and other communications for golf pro Jack Nicklaus, as Nicklaus—then in his heyday—won 18 major championships.

But O’Brien didn’t jump at the opportunity to teach right away. He worked a bit longer in law before finally giving in to the call of Catholic education.

And then he did.

It also wasn’t exactly right, this teaching business. It was very close to being right, though.

O’Brien put his Jesuit education to work. He used the practice of discernment—being aware, reflective, and loving to what was happening inside and around him. It took time. But after a few years of work, he confirmed his path. O’Brien wanted to be a Jesuit.

“The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius ends with a simple observation—if we are grateful for all that we have been given, then the most natural response is to want to give back,” O’Brien says at the announcement of his selection as SCU’s 29th President. He starts on the job on July 1, 2019.

The incoming Santa Clara President went on to join the Society of Jesus in 1996.

He was ordained in 2006, earning a master’s in philosophy from Fordham University, and a Masters of Divinity and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Ordination 2006
Fr. O’Brien’s 2006 ordination. / Courtesy O’Brien

He served and he gave—he made a difference as Jesuit, not a politician. For O’Brien, here was a more direct route to the good he wants to achieve. He wrote—the book The Ignatian Adventure, Experience the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life, and pieces for MSNBC and CNN. A video of him debunking the idea of a war on Christmas took off in the viral world of all things online. Students at Georgetown recognized him with the 2016 Dorothy Brown Award for Excellence in Teaching.

And now he’s fully Santa Clara’s.

He’s been part of the community for a while. Most recently, his work as the Dean of the Jesuit School of Theology made him part of campus. And put him out into the world as SCU’s emissary: into 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, our community, and our mission. He brings to the job a few priorities of his own: improving access to high education and ensuring the campus climate is one that welcomes a variety of voices and people.

He becomes Santa Clara’s President at an important time.

The University is in the middle of a fundraising campaign to ensure its benefits can be accessible, maintain its Jesuit heart, and reach into the future with interdisciplinary education that can shape tomorrow.

The $1 billion goal—launched publicly by President Michael Engh, S.J.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, with a judicious helping of discernment.

“The Mission blends with the Valley,” O’Brien says at the announcement, “as if to borrow from the poet Seamus Heaney, hope and history were rhyming.”

Watch the announcement of Fr. O’Brien’s appointment as Santa Clara University 29th President

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