Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, one of the great figures in modern American Catholicism and president of Franciscan University of Steubenville from 1974 to 2000, died yesterday at the age of 85.

There will be many well-deserved tributes and commemorative pieces about him in the coming days, but one aspect of his life and ministry is especially worth remembering – his early struggles as president of the College of Steubenville (as Franciscan University was called before 1980) to restore its financial health but above all to renew its Catholic identity. 

It is easy to forget the state of Catholic higher education in the 1970s. Academic dissent, the culture of hedonism and the loss of a Catholic identity had crept onto much of the Catholic academic landscape. Father Scanlan was hired in 1974 to begin renewing one small part of Catholic education. His achievements ultimately extended beyond Steubenville to the whole of Catholic higher learning in the United States.

The College of Steubenville was in dire straits in 1974 when a search committee took up the task of finding a new president. There were financial problems but even worse, there was a challenging atmosphere of indifference to the Catholic Faith in parts of the campus. It was emblematic of a time of uncertainty, and virtually all of the candidates for the job of president told the search committee that the College could actually stay open only by being combined with some other state school. At least one of the candidates said flatly that the school could not be saved and that his job as president would be to end the life of the College of Steubenville.

The lone dissenter among the candidates was Father Michael Scanlan, a name familiar to everyone in the College. Scanlan was a graduate of Williams College and the Harvard Law School and had served in the Air Force before entering the TORs in 1957. Ordained in 1964, he expressed a great desire to undertake missionary work for the order in the Amazon, but his superiors had other ideas. Instead of heading to Brazil he had been sent to Steubenville to take over the job of dean of faculty at the College, from 1964-1969. He was also well known as one of the leaders of the Catholic charismatic renewal, and was then rector of St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

In his interview with the committee, Father Scanlan was quite clear in his belief that the biggest problem facing the school was neither its academic nor its financial concerns but the spiritual health of the institution, its students and faculty. He then declared his commitment to bring a renewed spiritual vitality, a return to Franciscan roots and a commitment to the Gospel. “The climate,” he said, “had to be spiritual, with theology as the principal focus.” It was a bold statement to make to a committee that was not entirely made up of Catholics, but that afternoon when they took their vote it was decided unanimously that only Father Scanlan’s name should be passed on to the board.

On Saturday, October 5, 1974, Father Scanlan was inaugurated president of the College of Steubenville. His inaugural address provided a clear sense of direction for the school and anticipated virtually all of his hopes for the spiritual renewal of the College:

I would like to speak to you today about the identity of the College of Steubenville. I hope to avoid a multiplicity of nice sounding words and general qualities and goals that apply to all colleges. I hope I will convey to you a distinctive identity. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us men do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, but rather a lamp is placed on a stand where it gives light to all in the house. I contend that the College of Steubenville, for many of you, is like a lamp under a bushel basket and it needs to be placed on the lampstand . . . The light under the bushel is what this College is in its deepest identity. The adjective “Franciscan” summarizes what we are at our roots and what we will be if we but stir up the Spirit already in us. And we need to stir the Spirit – for we haven’t always been true to our Franciscan identity – and indeed, I just directly ask forgiveness and apologize to anyone who has been hurt because of these kinds of failures which come so easily in human enterprise . . .

The College must constantly become new again. It is called to reexpress continually eternal values in the present day with the present people to meet today’s life. This is where a college meets the needs that other religious bodies cannot. The principle of newness at Steubenville is based on the newness of God.

Father Mike, as he was soon called, spent the first three months of his tenure with the students. He ate in the cafeteria with them, played tennis, touch football, basketball and volleyball with them, and he attended every party he could find. The experience was an enlightening but disturbing one, and he was convinced even more clearly that his proposed approach was absolutely essential: The College of Steubenville needed a profound Catholic renewal and a return to its Franciscan roots.

Emblematic of the poor spiritual environment was the low attendance at Sunday morning Masses. In fact, a student life administrator sent a proposal to the new president requesting that Mass be moved to afternoon. The main reasons cited for the proposal were the large number of inactive Catholics on campus and the reality that students were too exhausted from Saturday night parties to attend. Other petitions soon followed, such as a renewed demand for unlimited open visitation in the dorms and an end to the campus curfew.

Rather than merely refuse the Mass proposal, Father Mike declared that he would be celebrating the liturgy himself, and that it would be one and a half hours in order to have time for preaching, singing and praise. He then not only rejected the other petitions, he inaugurated a system of “households,” an innovative residence life program requiring students to form small groups for ongoing communal prayer, sharing and mutual support. Not only were the “households” to be an experiment starting in the following spring, by the next fall they were to be mandatory – with no exceptions.

Going hand in hand with the spiritual reform was the crucial decision to launch a bachelor’s degree in theology, marking a significant addition to the curriculum. The sad state of affairs in theology at the College was not unique in Catholic higher education. In the unsettled years following the Second Vatican Council, theology had suffered throughout academic circles. Father Michael correctly saw that going hand in hand with the spiritual revitalization on the campus was the need for a vibrant faculty engaged in theological study and teaching.

By 2000, when Fr. Scanlan stepped down as president, more than 700 Franciscan University alumni were in service throughout the Church. They continue to hold positions as youth ministers, Catholic school teachers, directors of religious education, catechists and leaders of RCIA programs. Not surprisingly, the faith environment on the campus has also fostered in many young people a desire for the religious life and the ability to discern vocations to the priesthood.

Beyond Franciscan University, Father Scanlan was one of the key pioneers in the renewal of Catholic higher education and was a model to reformers on campuses across the country who were eager to work for an authentic Catholic identity for Catholic schools in the era before Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking apostolic exhortation Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990 that itself provided a blueprint for renewal in Catholic higher ed.

Father Scanlan will be missed by Catholic educators and Catholic students everywhere. For all engaged in Catholic higher education, we would do well to remember his admonition:

If Catholic universities do not produce the future priests, sisters, and brothers, the loyal and scholarly Catholic theologians and philosophers, the Catholic business and professional people taking the high road of moral behavior, and the Catholic parents of the succeeding generation’s Church leaders, who will?

[This post is based in part on material from Matthew Bunson’s 2003 history of Franciscan University.]