Committed to ‘True Education’

Donnelly College’s New President Shares Importance of Catholic Identity on Campus


Formerly the vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University, Msgr. Stuart Swetland is now president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. This year, Donnelly makes its debut in the Register’s Catholic Identity College Guide. Msgr. Swetland spoke with the Register a few weeks after he took the helm of Donnelly on July 1.

How did you discern your new role as college president?

I had been at Mount St. Mary’s for eight years and felt it was time to look for what else God was calling me to. I was nominated for the position here, and so I looked at Donnelly and liked what I learned. I think Donnelly is answering Pope Francis’ challenge for the Church to serve those who might not otherwise be served. This is the type of approach Pope Francis is calling us to — to reach out to those on the margins so they can share in the intellectual tradition of the Church and discover how they are called to serve Christ. We like to say that if Donnelly didn’t exist, we would have to build it.

How has your background as a college chaplain and professor prepared you for your new job?

Being a college president is like the role of a pastor. I am the spiritual father and chief academic officer. It takes into account my reputation in academic life and pastoral service in the spiritual life, with integration of faith and reason. Being a college president is a full-time endeavor, but I will still do my radio and TV work [as host of EWTN’s Catholicism on Campus]. I am excited as I go to meetings and meet people who love what they do: I want to be part of it.

The Donnelly mission statement is: “Donnelly College is a Catholic institution of higher education that seeks to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in our time by making the love of God tangible in our world. Specifically, the mission of Donnelly College is to provide education and community services with personal concern for the needs and abilities of each student, especially those who might not otherwise be served.” How do you envision building upon it?

I am excited about the mission statement. The whole role of Catholics and baptized Christians is to continue the mission of Jesus Christ — to reveal the merciful love of the Father — and we share that mission. Donnelly College makes it tangible to those seeking a higher education. Eighty-four percent of our students are first-generation college students; 71% are at the lowest socioeconomic levels, many of them minorities. Service is part of that. Our freshmen seminar focuses on service learning; they participate in a service project. From Day 1, they know that “to whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48), and they give back. We make the merciful love of God present. I help my staff and students to make the love of God known.

Last year, you wrote a feature for our College Guide about the importance of peer evangelization, catechesis for college staff and courses that weave together subject matter and faith. How do you hope to implement these ideas at Donnelly?

Donnelly College serves an urban core population. Fifty-five percent of our students are Catholic. We give witness as we educate first-generation students and show the many ways of radiating Jesus to the world, while providing a Catholic education that is relatively inexpensive for those who might not otherwise go to college. We are where success gets its start — in education and the spiritual life — whether it is to finish a high-school degree or take remedial work and then begin in college for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. We also have a program in Lansing prison with inmates, helping them in their rehabilitation.

We serve and see Christ in those underserved. We integrate Christ into our curriculum, providing a holistic education. Our core courses include fundamental theology, which looks at the fundamental questions of belief: who Christ is and what salvation is.

We have ongoing formation for everyone. Many of our students come from immigrant backgrounds, and we look at how we as a Church and college can support them. We have a campus minister, Father John Melnick — his job is like my former role as vice president of Catholic identity. Between the two of us, we are able to do campus ministry.

We have daily Mass, regular confession times and Bible studies — all that you would expect for a Catholic college and all integrating faith and reason.

How does your understanding of John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae aid your commitment to Catholic identity?

Two aspects: commitment to the truth and serving the underserved. Ex Corde says we need Catholic universities that are wholly dedicated to the truth. We want to radiate that: The role of a college or university is to be wholly consecrated to the truth. All professors who teach theology take the mandatum [stating they will teach according to the magisterium]. Donnelly does that well. Ex Corde also calls us not to exclude: We are proud to help make possible an education for those in the lower socioeconomic hierarchy and who have other barriers to an education.

“Excellence in the pursuit of truth” is one of Donnelly’s “Student Learning Goals.” How do truth and learning go hand-in-hand?

There is a struggle in the secular world to see that truth is knowable and, ultimately, a Person: Jesus Christ. We discover who we are in encountering the Lord. We are unapologetic that the truth is knowable and is a Person, Jesus the Christ. We truly educate: It’s not indoctrination and not just training. True education is the formation of the person to recognize what is true and how to think well. We form men and women who can research, analyze texts, make arguments and express their thoughts in writing and speech — they are able to share the truth, whether as part of English, history, theology, etc.

What advice do you have for college students about keeping their faith and pursuing God’s will?

There’s the old slogan I used at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center [at the University of Illinois, where he was chaplain] — it wears well — “Study hard, and pray harder” to discover who you are and what God is calling you to do.

Pray so you know God’s will. I think of my mom and dad. Because I knew them so well, I knew what they wanted, what their will was for me. In a similar way, when we draw close to the Lord, we discover his will: what will make him — and us — happiest. “In his will is our peace,” as Dante put it. God created us with a purpose in mind. We are all called to holiness. What does Scripture say about Christ? “He grew in age, grace and wisdom” (Luke 2:52) — we all are; that includes our state of life and the particular vocation that God wants for us.

What else would you like our readers to know about Donnelly?

A lot of people don’t know it exists — it is a well-kept secret. It is one of 11 diocesan colleges in the United States. It has a Benedictine flavor, due to its history, being founded by the Benedictine Sisters [of Atchison, Kan., and Bishop George Donnelly]. The Archdiocese of Kansas City is committed to the Church and the college. We’re one of those Catholic schools that John Paul II, Benedict and, now, Francis have called us to be committed to.

Amy Smith is the
Register’s associate editor.