Derry Connolly is celebrating media month. The Vatican kicked it off with Communications Day on May 4, and the U.S. bishops follow with Catholic Communications Day on May 18.
Connolly, the founder and president of John Paul the Great Catholic University, launched an ambitious endeavor to create a school that teaches students to use the media to spread truth and values, while also teaching them about business, technology and entrepreneurship. That’s an odd place for an Irish engineer to end up.
He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office in San Diego, Calif.
You’re from Cork, Ireland. Do you have a favorite childhood memory?
My parents owned a pub, so I grew up in a pub. It was an interesting place to grow up. There was never a dull moment. My mom worked at the pub all of the time. My dad worked in a creamery. I was the oldest of six kids. I have two brothers and three sisters.
My favorite memories are from being an altar boy. What I remember best is nearly burning down the church. It was on the same day I was confirmed. Later in the day, they had Benediction and I was the altar boy. While doing the incense, I spilled it on the carpet. I had these great imaginations of the Church going up in flames. Thankfully, the priest was able to step it out pretty quickly.
How did you end up starting a new university?
The idea for John Paul the Great came to me on a Friday night at Franciscan [University of Steubenville] in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I wanted to try to connect the idea of what I saw at Franciscan with students on fire for their faith with what I did day-to-day teaching students at one of the top 20 schools in the U.S. learning entrepreneurship. It was a contrast to me to look at Franciscan and see students who know the Lord, but aren’t on the top end of the academic spectrum vs. academically brilliant students who have no idea who Christ is. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a school that combined the best of both?”
At first, I said, “God, great idea, but don’t ask me. Ask someone else.” For three years I kept putting this out of my mind. I felt I couldn’t do it because building a university is such a large undertaking. I felt I was reasonably sane and questioned why do something that would require so much money. Eventually, I felt I had to say Yes and give it a shot. In 2003, I started doing something about it.
How does an engineer from Ireland end up as president of a U.S. Catholic university?
My undergraduate work was in mathematical science. When I came to the U.S. to do my Ph.D., I did it in applied mathematics, in the field of mechanical engineering.
After working at IBM and Kodak, I joined the University of California-San Diego. In November of 2000, I took my oldest daughter to Franciscan University of Steubenville against my will. I didn’t think Franciscan was a top-tier school from an academic perspective, but when I went there I realized I needed to look at it from another perspective. I saw students incredibly on fire for their faith. That was something I hadn’t experienced before.
Why did you focus John Paul the Great University on media?
I figured that if you were to do a university that had spirituality and academics, what is it that students should study? I think that the single biggest challenge the Church faces is that it has no influence on the media. So that was the third leg in the stool. It completed the puzzle and helped me to realize what the ingredients of the school should be.
I would have a tough time looking at the vast majority of Catholic universities and saying their primary goal is evangelization. If you’re going to build a Catholic institution that has to be a huge part of what you’re about. The reason you see these new institutions cropping up is that there is a hunger among the young to put the Catholic dimension of their mission ahead of their academic mission.
From an anecdotal perspective, many of the graduates that I personally know who have gone through K-12 Catholic school and Catholic universities have no clue as to who Jesus Christ is. That says there’s something wrong with the institutions. Our fundamental is that if we graduate a single student who doesn’t know who Jesus Christ is, then we have failed. Our students have to intimately get to know who Christ is.
Where we are today in the media world is that there’s a radical shift from the old media of television and film to the new media of the Internet and cell phone. We want to focus on how we can be part of the new media and influence it. If you look at the university in this country that influences new media more than any other, it’s Stanford. Ultimately, we’d like to be the Catholic Stanford.
How do you keep your Catholic identity strong?
Well, you can do it in the classroom, but you also have to do it in the culture. With schools like Thomas Aquinas College [in Santa Paula, Calif.] and Franciscan, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Academically, we’re totally novel, but spiritually we’re just copying what they’re doing.
One key thing that we’re busily implementing here is Franciscan’s household system. The household system is where you make a spiritual commitment with other members of your household. It’s peer-to-peer accountability. We had a new household that formed before Christmas. They asked for an apartment where every member of the household can live in the same apartment. It consists of three-bedroom apartments that can hold seven people.
We ask all faculty to sign that they will respect and not teach against Catholic teaching. Our theology faculty of one has the mandatum. We require that every student take a Catholic-based course every quarter. We also ask students to pray an hour a week in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
While we have a chapel and a chaplain, we’re very tied to Good Shepherd Catholic Church. One of our philosophies is that it’s very important for students to be a part of parish life, so most of what we do is at the parish.
A lot of what happens is student driven. One student, for example, liked the idea of praying the Liturgy of the Hours each evening. So, we facilitated that. Anyone who wants to come can come. There are now about 20 students praying the Liturgy of the Hours every evening for about 20 minutes.
Do you have any non-Catholic students?
We had one, who signed up for the RCIA program. By Easter, we were 100% Catholic.
How many students do you currently have?
We started in 2006 with 30. This year we doubled to 60. We plan to double again next year. Sixty percent of our students come from California. We’re currently renting office space for our temporary campus in the San Diego suburb of Scripps Ranch.
What’s been the most daunting challenge in starting a university?
The biggest challenge has been the sheer bureaucracy of building a university. That’s been very time-consuming. Accreditation is a huge part of that. Securing approval from the state of California took a year and a half.
We would like to have our own campus within the next decade. That’s a huge undertaking that’s best done after you’ve graduated a class and are accredited. We would like to be at a total of 1,600 students. That process will be slow. We don’t have the luxury of throwing $200 million at the problem.
How did you come up with the name?
Originally, we were called New Catholic University. We had been struggling to come up with a name for a year when Pope John Paul II died. That’s when we said that’s the best name we could have.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.