The Franciscan University of Steubenville has announced that its chancellor and past president Father Michael Scanlan will be retiring on June 30, 2011. Dr. Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at the school described how the 79-year-old priest took a leap of faith to renew the school's Catholic identity.
“He saw his appointment as an opportunity to step out in faith, and do something radical – because a radical solution was needed,” Schreck told CNA. In 1974, the school was a “typical Catholic college,” suffering from cultural and financial upheavals. But the Franciscan priest set out to “make Jesus Christ the Lord of the campus in every aspect.”
“Fr. Michael said we had to establish a clearer Catholic identity, both in the campus life and in our academic offerings,” explained Schreck, who has taught at the school since 1978. In this way, the school took a different path from many other Catholic institutions of its day. “They began hiring people who were solidly Catholic and believed in faithfulness to the magisterium.”
“The rest is history,” said Schreck. Fr. Scanlan was president for 26 years, and has now been chancellor for 11 years.
The school's history began in 1946, when the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular founded the College of Steubenville. But the college might not have survived, if not for the radical decision of a young Harvard law school graduate.
Michael Scanlan had been engaged to be married, and held a position in the legal department of the Air Force. “But one day, at some point, he went out into the woods for a day – just to pray and ask God to reveal his will,” Schreck recalled. “He really wanted to dedicate his life to God, but didn't know how.”
“At the end of the day, he came out convinced that God was calling him to become a priest.”
After entering the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular in 1957, and being ordained a priest seven years later, he eventually became rector of St. Francis Seminary in Pennsylvania. Early in 1974, he met Alan Schreck – a recent college graduate – on the campus of Notre Dame.
“There was an international conference that I was helping to organize at Notre Dame, and Fr. Mike came out to be one of the speakers at the conference. We decided to go out for a little jog around the campus – and as we were going, he requested my prayers.”
“He said he had a big decision to make. He was being considered for the presidency of this small, struggling Catholic college called the College of Steubenville.”
At that time, Schreck said, the College of Steubenville was a “typical Catholic college,” where faith was “part of the campus life,” but not emphasized. “It wasn't fervently religious in any sense. There wasn't anything distinctive about its identity that would have set it apart in that area.”
The college had other problems as well. The school “was never bankrupt, but it was at the point of serious financial difficulties. This was not unusual, because it was the early 70s – when many, many Catholic colleges around the country were closing up, due to low enrollment.”
Schreck recalled that Fr. Scanlan's experiences with the “charismatic renewal” in the late-1960s, along with his own Franciscan identity, provided him with a vision for reviving the College of Steubenville.
“Fr. Mike is a priest to the core, and a Franciscan to the core. He brought a spirit of joy, and a certain simplicity and poverty of spirit. Even though Fr. Michael is a very intelligent man, and a very astute lawyer, he has a certain joy and exuberance. A lot of that is a reflection of St. Francis' spirituality.
“The charismatic dimension became important,” Schreck added, “and it was very much compatible with his Franciscan identity. Because of some of the same graces – openness to God, joy, and simplicity – the charisms of this movement and his Franciscan vocation really complimented each other.”
“He really wanted to focus on the clear teaching of the Catholic faith, and a powerful proclamation of the Gospel.”
Soon, he began making significant changes to the school's academics and culture. Although the college offered a few required theology classes during the early 1970s, it did not offer a degree in the subject.
“He said, if we're going to be truly Catholic, we have to recognize theology as central to our identity. Theology became a major, and they began hiring people who were solidly Catholic and believed in faithfulness to the magisterium.”
“The second thing was in campus ministry,” Schreck explained. At the time Fr. Scanlan became president, the most popular Mass for students was held at midnight. “A lot of students would go out and party, then they'd sort of drift into that Mass so they could sleep in all day the next day.”
“Fr. Michael said he wanted to take over the 10 o'clock Mass on Sunday morning, and it wasn't going to be shortened – it was going to be long, because he would be preaching. He personally said, 'I want this to be the focal point Mass.' It gradually became that, because people were attracted to his preaching of the Gospel.”
He also wanted to develop a stronger sense of community, having read studies that showed college freshmen were at risk for depression and suicide. His solution, which remains a distinctive feature of life at Steubenville today, came from the charismatic movement.
“In various charismatic communities, they had established what they called 'households,' which were small groups in which people would support each other,” said Schreck. For several years, all Steubenville students were required to join one of the households, a bold decision that Shreck said was surprisingly successful.
In 1975, Fr. Scanlan also began holding summer conferences on the campus. “He had conferences for priests, deacons, religious sisters, and the big one was for high-school-age youth.” The annual Franciscan University Youth Conferences now host more than 35,000 young people at 18 locations in the United States and Canada.
Along the way, Schreck said Fr. Scanlan never sacrificed the school's academic quality in the service of its dymanic spiritual life. “They were both necessary,” he observed.
The College of Steubenville gained university status in 1980, and became the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1986. At that point, Schreck recalled, “it seemed that the corner had been turned,” and Fr. Scanlan's experiment had clearly exceeded expectations.
Today, in addition to its expanded summer conferences, the university also offers distance learning, 42 undergraduate majors, and seven graduate programs. Schreck said that he expects the university to continue building according to Fr. Scanlan's blueprint after his retirement to a more private ministry.
“Because we put Christ first, at the center of our campus, I'm very hopeful about the future of the university,” Schreck said.