Dr. Peter Meehan
Photo: Bryn Gladding Photography
I think that senior administrative roles, particularly in education, allow the individual to build experience that feeds their sense of vision. Many of the university presidents I admire say that they didn’t seek to become a president, but that they found themselves developing, often quite unwittingly, into one.
I have been fortunate to have had ranging experiences – from teaching high school, undergrads and grad students, and administrative experiences in both Catholic and public institutions. As my experiences began to shape my own philosophy of education and my sense of vision, I found myself presented with new opportunities to grow, including as an academic dean and later, as President of Corpus Christi/St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
What all of this has taught me is that, rooted in my commitment to Catholic higher education, my role here is to serve and to bring my sense of vision to the community I am serving. I had many great experiences working to shape the vision and mission of my community out west, and I am looking forward to doing the same here at St. Jerome’s University.
That’s an interesting question. I would say that they are if they are rooted in and have a focused sense of mission and vision. That should shape their identity, which is an ongoing and evolving project. A secular institution can have this too, depending on its leadership and the will of the university community they serve.
A Catholic university is one rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition, which is about questioning and exploring the world in all of its complexity. A long time ago someone referred to it as the “2,000-year conversation between the Church and the world.” I like that. Its goal is the never-ending pursuit of knowledge and truth by emphasizing the unity of faith and reason.
Catholic universities are confident that truth exists. For me, it is “the way” that a Catholic university is catholic that matters.
Catholic universities understand education and formation together. They should be open to everyone, and emphasize the needs of the “whole person” in their mind, body, and spirit. They are not clubs or a sect, and one of their important goals should be to make people feel included. Anything that would encourage exclusiveness or a lack of inclusion would not be truly Christian. Read the Gospel accounts. Jesus is the model. He is always including, always at the margins or the peripheries of his world.
First of all, it has reinforced for me that there is a great network of Catholic institutions across this country which are vibrant and strong and have exemplary leaders. One of my predecessors in this role, Fr. Norm Choate, CR, was one of the founders of the ACCUC, and former SJU presidents Drs. Doug Letson and Michael Higgins were both prophetic voices in its work on behalf of Catholic higher education. Since becoming a president six years ago, I have been very interested and involved in the work of the ACCUC. We meet formally twice per year, normally in conjunction with Universities Canada, and I have many more informal meetings with my ACCUC colleagues throughout the year.
Many of our institutions, particularly in Ontario, are the founding institutions for our partner public universities, and we understand the importance of working with them and of engaging with the world in order to realize our Catholic missions. Again, for these institutions to be both Catholic and catholic (meaning “universal”) I think we realize that our institutions have to offer more than tradition.
I am an historian, so I am naturally drawn to the idea of tradition, but we also need to be vital – by which I mean to be in regular dialogue with our students in order to understand their challenges and frustrations and desires in this moment in time.
Pope Francis talks about the importance of creating cultures of “encounter and dialogue.” I think that is very important. Truth is unchanging, and my acceptance and belief in Christian truth grounds me, but for our Catholic universities to be truly present to our communities of students, faculty, and staff, we must be open to truly encountering them – meeting them “where they are.”
Chair, School of Liberal Arts, Dean
Teacher - St. Mary’s Catholic High School,
Notwithstanding COVID, which is presenting serious challenges to all of us right now, we are seeing a number of trends in higher education across the country. The decline of domestic student numbers in most provinces is taking place at a time when public funding to our institutions has been significantly decreased.
When I was an undergraduate student in Ontario, I recall the governments of the day speaking freely about the fact that fifty cents of every higher educational dollar spent on my education was being covered by the government. With increases to the cost of higher education and government funding not keeping step, that figure has decreased significantly. For us to be able to continue to offer our high-quality teaching, learning, and research environments, as well as to provide the extraordinary student experiences that St. Jerome’s University is known for, fundraising to support our mission and vision - our very reason for existing - are going to be very important priorities for me.
My family and I truly loved our six years in Vancouver. We made so many great friends at the university, and I have two brothers and a sister all in BC, and we are all very close. And now we have our two daughters, Bridget and Claire, both studying at UBC. But as my wife Laura and I discussed it, we came to the conclusion that we are Ontario people. However, we didn’t know that we would be coming back so soon!
Ultimately, I see this work as vocational. Vocation is about God’s voice speaking to you in your life and experiences. I feel called to Catholic higher education as vitally important work, and I am absolutely privileged to be in this important leadership role at St. Jerome’s University, which has played such an important part in the history of Catholic higher education in Canada.
It has made things a little awkward – particularly with regard to meeting people. A significant aspect of my work is relational – building relationships with students, faculty, and staff in order to serve the mission of the university. Not being able to do that – at least in person has made that a bit challenging. But people here have been very warm and generous with me in my early days – and very patient with me as well! I am looking forward, as the pandemic recedes, to building more relationships with people in person, and to getting to know our students, faculty, and staff as well as Kitchener-Waterloo.
Alumni are our ambassadors. They keep alive the best moments of their experiences here at St. Jerome’s in their hearts and their minds. This allows them to bring a contagious enthusiasm for St. Jerome’s to those they interact with within the local Kitchener-Waterloo community, and to wherever they settle after they leave the university. I have already had numerous interactions with our alumni, many of whom left here more than 50 or even 60 years ago, as well as many of our young alumni. They all have that sense of contagious enthusiasm in common, which is an expression that I think is associated with good teaching.
Right now down time means getting out of boxes! After moving back to Ontario, we have a lot of unpacking to do. Mostly I like to spend time with my family. It has been an unbelievable journey for Laura and I to watch our four children grow and develop, and we are very proud of all of them. After living out the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Vancouver, with the six of us and two dogs living under one roof, we are now getting used to having only one child, our youngest, Rory, at home.
Balance is always something that I have struggled with, particularly with such a busy home life. But I realize how important it is. When I have any free time, I continue work on my biography of Philip Pocock, the seventh Archbishop of Toronto, which is nearing completion. Pocock’s life has been a remarkable prism through which to understand a number of developments in the church and the world during the 20th century. I also enjoy golf, tennis, and reading.
I am grounded in my faith, which teaches me to lead with kindness, compassion and understanding. I tell my kids that if they have done their best, that is all anyone, including God, can ask of them. I try to live that out too.
I also find inspiration in the church and the world right now from Pope Francis. His emphasis on the importance of mercy and compassion, as well as his writings (including his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and his blueprint for the renewal of the church, Evangelii Gaudium), are the results of his deep pastoral sensitivity and have resonated with me very strongly. His newest encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti, “On fraternity and social friendship” was just released, and it too is so profound. Addressing the importance of fraternity and social friendship, Francis cuts across lines of difference to speak to all people of goodwill with a positive message delivering what the world needs, when we need it.