New University of Dallas President Jonathan Sanford’s Goal: the ‘Integrated’ Person

‘I want our students to feel inspired to be outstanding leaders who are dedicated to rebuilding culture because of their intellectual formation and because of their moral and theological formation,’ he says.

Jonathan Sanford poses for portraits two days after beginning his tenure as the 10th president of the University of Dallas, March 10, on the university’s campus in Irving, Texas.
Jonathan Sanford poses for portraits two days after beginning his tenure as the 10th president of the University of Dallas, March 10, on the university’s campus in Irving, Texas. (photo: Jeffrey McWhorter / University of Dallas)

Jonathan Sanford became the 10th president of the University of Dallas (UD) in March. He was hired in 2015 as dean of UD’s Constantin College after 13 years of teaching at Franciscan University of Steubenville. 

In 2018 he became provost, during which time he oversaw the development of the university’s strategic plan to shore up academic excellence, the school’s reputation, and community and Church involvement. 

Sanford holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Buffalo in New York, a postdoctoral fellowship from Fordham University, and a B.A. in classical languages and philosophy from Xavier University. He and his wife, Rebecca, a registered nurse, have nine children. He discussed his new role in an Aug. 16 phone interview with the Register.

 

Tell me about your background. What led you to academia?

At the deepest level, it was a sense of calling. I felt profound gratitude for the excellent teachers I’d had both in high school and in college and felt that an academic life was a way to express that gratitude and pass on the gift that I’ve been given. I majored in classical languages and philosophy as an undergraduate at Xavier University. Nobody in my family had been an academic, although my mom was a teacher. I had planned to go to law school, but the idea of grad school kept hanging around. After praying about it with my wife, I eventually decided to take a stab at it. So I went to graduate school and found out that I really enjoyed it. Through my Ph.D. program in philosophy, I found that I enjoyed writing, as well, and really delighted in teaching.

 

What drew you to the University of Dallas?

I had my first appointment as a postdoctoral fellow at Fordham University, and then I taught at Franciscan University of Steubenville for 13 years. Part of my own sense of calling was to build up Catholic universities that were striving to be faithful to the magisterium, and therefore the University of Dallas had been on my radar for a long time. UD has a really outstanding reputation for an excellent rigorous core curriculum and majors, and so I had done some studying up on UD when I was at Steubenville. I was a professor of philosophy there and also working as an associate vice president for academic affairs while we were revising Franciscan’s core curriculum, and so I was studying what UD does and became more and more interested. 

I wasn’t looking for a job; I was very happy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and yet I was invited a couple of times to apply for a deanship at the University of Dallas. That deanship was for the undergraduate college, where the core curriculum is. There were still hurdles to get over because we had had five of our children in Steubenville, and my wife was really rooted in the community. We both needed to have a sense of conviction that this was what God was calling us [to do]. 

After prayer and discernment, I decided to just check it out. As I went through the interview process, I really found myself feeling at home at University of Dallas. We came to UD in 2015, and I was dean for two and a half years, and then was provost for three and a half years, and now I’m the president.

 

As someone who has worked at two Register and Cardinal Newman Society-recommended colleges, how does the kind of Catholic education at University of Dallas and Franciscan University Steubenville differentiate from other forms of higher education?

There’s certainly a full embrace of the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. What that entails, among other things, is that we don’t dissent — we fully embrace Catholic teaching. Now, not all students at UD and Franciscan are Catholic, but many of them are, and whether or not you’re Catholic, you’re going to be part of an education that fully embraces the teachings of the Church. 

What I would say the University of Dallas has in spades is a full embrace of that tradition of learning. It encompasses both the biblical tradition and that of Greece and Rome, and the fusion of the two is the Western tradition. We also have a really rich and vibrant life on campus. The sacraments and Mass are offered a couple times a day on our campus, and we have FOCUS missionaries who are leading Bible studies and working with our campus ministry office. 

The policies that are applied within the dorms and for our clubs and organizations all express a Christian anthropology. Again and again, St. John Paul II emphasizes in Ex Corde Ecclesiae and his theology of the body the recognition that we are unities of mind and soul, that God created us as men and women, and that, in our ultimate depths, we are sons and daughters of God. That conviction about who we are before God informs everything we strive to do at the university.

 

What are some of your goals as president? Are you looking to grow the college in any way?

We have a number of freshmen coming in that is much larger than expected, and so our enrollment for our first-year enrollment grew by about 27%. Right now, we are wrestling with whether to try to maintain that. 

There is a desire to be a little bit larger on the undergraduate level, but it’s a strategic question because we don’t want to lose the close-knit community of our undergraduate students. We also have a large graduate program, so we have over a thousand more students in our various Ph.D., master’s, MBA and M.S. programs. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth on the graduate level that wouldn’t have the same effect on the undergraduate experience. But I would say measured growth in the undergraduate side of the University of Dallas is our plan for the future.

 

Who or what are some of your leadership influences (saints, books, mentors)?

St. John Paul II is, by far and away, the most significant model for me. I grew up with him as our pope, and my approach to philosophy incorporates elements of his work. I admire the way he led the Church, fighting against communism and encouraging Catholics across the world. He was really a magnetic force that inspired people to fully embrace the faith. 

St. Thomas More is another tremendous model of somebody who exercised profound prudence and was careful and principled in the way that he led. He’s a great inspiration and somebody I turn to for intercession. 

St. Thomas Aquinas is my philosophical and theological patron saint, and I turn to St. Joseph, as well. 

In terms of more contemporary leaders, I admire President Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve studied his thoughts. 

Recently I was reading a biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton and found him inspiring. He led an expedition that failed to cross the Arctic, but he nonetheless preserved the lives of this whole crew.

 

Is there anything you would like to add?

We are eager to focus our efforts on rebuilding culture through forming the minds and hearts of our students. We have a strategic plan that I was able to lead — the process of its development — when I was provost of the university, and we’re focusing on strengthening our academic excellence and focusing on new ways to serve Church and country. Finally, we’re giving real focus to elements of what I was talking about in connection to Christian anthropology — that is to say, the formation of the students as an integrated whole. 

It's not just that we want to develop the intellectual virtues of our students: We want to foster further development of the moral and theological virtues as well. I want our students to feel inspired to be outstanding leaders who are dedicated to rebuilding culture because of their intellectual formation and because of their moral and theological formation. I want them to live lives that are witnessing to the truth with every facet of how they live.

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