The Man Who Made Steubenville Is Stepping Aside After 15 Years

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio—During a quarter century in the leadership of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Father Michael Scanlan turned a stumbling, small-time concern into a humming center of Catholic intellectual and devotional life, doubling enrollment in the process.

The “Scanlan revolution” as some have dubbed it, will mark a milestone on June 30 when the Third Order Regular Franciscan priest steps down as president and immediately becomes the university's first chancellor, an elder statesman's role that relieves the 67-year-old priest of the day-to-day management of an institution that he has come to personify.

Father Scanlan's reasons for the move are simple. “I'll be able to spend more time speaking, preaching and interacting with the students,” said the priest, who will also be available to help the new administration with fund raising and other issues. He said he will also continue to write books (he published three while serving as president) and host EWTN's Franciscan University Present, a television show that features Steubenville colleagues and guests.

Father Scanlan came to the priest-hood, and to Steubenville, by an unlikely route. A native New Yorker and a 1953 graduate of Williams College, he completed a law degree at Harvard University and entered the Air Force, becoming staff judge advocate.

Following several years of discernment, he entered the Third Order Regular in 1957 and was ordained in 1964. After a number of administrative and teaching assignments that included stints at Steubenville, he served as rector-president of the order's St. Francis Major Seminary in Loretto, Pa., from 1969 until taking the helm at Steubenville in 1974.

A Three-Pronged Approach

Once at the helm, his approach to the office was three-pronged: university identity, campus life, and administration.

Steubenville was a very different school in those days. It was known chiefly as a party-school, a reputation that had a dark side. Father Scanlan began his tenure as president in the midst of crisis — a student revolt, of which he made short work. In response to a “non-negotiable” demand for open, co-ed dorms and no Sunday liturgies came Father Scanlan's “non-negotiable” establishment of the household system, mandatory for every student, and an emphasis on religion.

Households consist of four or five students who regularly gather for prayer, sharing and social activities, including sports, as a support system. Public Relations Director Lisa Ferguson said Father Scanlan was inspired to establish the households as a Christian alternative to fraternities and sororities and to combat the alienation and loneliness that can come with college life, especially in the early stages. It also serves as a faith support or “positive peer pressure,” said Ferguson.

Father Scanlan then turned to academics, which were languishing at the school. He made it a point to “think with the Church,” and established theology as the college's pre-eminent department.

Staffed by some of the country's leading Catholic scholars, the department now turns out graduates who are in demand as directors of religious education, teachers and lay formation leaders. In 1980, the university added master's degree programs in theology and Christian ministry.

Hand in hand with theology came a spiritual renewal that has made the college famous. To this task Father Scanlan brought his own charismatic spirituality, then sweeping the American Church. The school quickly became famous as “the charismatic Catholic college,” a reputation that it sought to foster through conferences, seminars, publications and guest speakers who were leaders in the burgeoning movement.

Bucking the Trend

At the same time, still early in Father Scanlan's tenure, the school was teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Debt was deep, enrollment down and alumni dispirited. The challenge would require a deft administrative hand and some wondered if religion was really the way to go in an age of spiraling secularization.

He bucked another trend and angered the alumni by withdrawing Steubenville from participation in expensive intercollegiate athletics — still considered an effective way to put a school on the map and draw student applications. Father Scanlan decided to rely instead on intramural sports to help build the kind of campus community atmosphere that would be appealing to the students he wanted to educate.

But being out of step with the prevailing campus environment created a niche, especially for an institution that was in touch with the spiritual trends of the time.

Father Scanlan's plan was better business than some might have suspected. The Catholic emphasis and the fame created by the charismatic identity gave Franciscan University a national base of potential students, allowing the college to be selective.

“We did national marketing through national ministries,” Father Scanlan explained. Those ministries included FIRE, a Catholic Alliance for Faith, Intercession, Repentance and Evangelism, that used the Franciscan campus for most of its conferences. The charismatic magazine New Covenant started on the campus, as did its Human Life Center.

Father Scanlan credits his secular background with being of help at this point. “In the military, my job was setting up and running a legal office,” he noted. “This taught me administrative and organizational principles.” In fact, Father Scanlan gave an example of thrift by personally handling all of the school's legal affairs during his first seven years in office.

By the time a generous and anonymous benefactor paid off the university's entire debt in 1983, the school's financial situation had already been significantly turned around.

Steubenville is now a very different place than the one Father Scanlan found himself in charge of in 1974.

The university today draws just over 2,000 new students annually from all 50 states and more than 35 foreign countries.

“And they are excellent students,” says Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, publisher of Ignatius Press and former director of the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. “The notion that they would attract anything less than proven students is another version of the nonsense that a college cannot be truly Catholic and achieve high academic standards.”

Not Just for Charismatics

Even some of Father Scanlan's major imprints have evolved and changed over time, especially the college's reputation as an exclusive haven of charismatics.

Now optional, household membership has become a favorite feature of Steubenville campus life. The groups often organize around a favorite devotion or saint, including Cari Domini dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and the “Little Flowers” who admire St. Thésèse of Lisieux.

While still engraved in the popular imagination as synonymous with Steubenville, the charismatic movement is not the only spirituality on campus. Because of what Father Scanlan calls Steubenville's “dynamic orthodoxy,” the college is a beacon for young people who want to learn in close fidelity to the teaching magisterium of the Church.

“I don't think there's a separation any more,” said Father Scanlan. “It's more of a rainbow effect. There aren't two spiritualities on campus, but more like a dozen.”

These include groups that are dedicated to Marian spirituality, eucharistic piety and the pro-life movement. “People identify themselves in different ways, and we support all renewal movements that are orthodox and submitted to the Holy Father,” says Father Scanlan. “That's what it means to be Catholic.”

Students can join prayer groups and also find time for quiet reflection in the college's chapel of perpetual eucharistic adoration. In addition to Masses at which participants raise their hands in praise, the Latin Novus Ordo Mass of Vatican II is sung each month to the accompaniment of a student schola that specializes in Gregorian chant and classical hymns in English. The schola also sings at solemn vespers and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament each Sunday evening.

Today's bursting-at-the-seams campus is an outward manifestation of Father Scanlan's legacy. lt now sports the John Paul Il Library, a replica of the Portiuncula in Assisi, the St. Joseph office center, the Finnegan Fieldhouse for intramural sports, and Kolbe-Clare dormitory — all constructed or completed since “Father Mike,” as the students call him, first took over.

Programs in education, nursing, business, computer science, counseling, anthropology, economics, and social work have been added along with the founding of an overseas campus in Gaming, Austria, in the autumn of 1991.

U.S. News & World Report recently ranked Steubenville 27th out of 123 schools in the Midwest region. Father Scanlan is bullish about the future of the university, and he does not expect the college to suffer without him.

“We will continue with the same direction, spirit, and mission. The school will continue to expand in the same way,” he predicted.

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.