March 19, 2019 — Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, a theologian, Jesuit priest and educator, has been named the 29th president of Santa Clara University. He succeeds Fr. Michael E. Engh, SJ, who announced in June 2018 that he will be concluding his presidency at the end of this academic year.
Fr. O’Brien, who currently serves as dean the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, will become president on July 1, 2019.
“The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius ends with a simple observation — if we are grateful for all that we have been given, then the most natural response is to want to give back. … I accept this honor as a way of giving back and serving,” Fr. O’Brien said today after his presidency was announced.
Since 2016, Fr. O’Brien has served as dean of the Jesuit School of Theology, where is he is responsible for overseeing the academic, enrollment, fundraising and student-life operations of the 85-year-old Catholic theologate, one of two theology centers in the U.S. sponsored by the Jesuits.
He previously spent eight years at Georgetown University, the last five as vice president for mission and ministry. In that role, he oversaw the largest inter-faith campus ministry in the country and cultivated the Catholic and Jesuit mission of higher education and Ignatian spirituality among faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni.
As the next president of Santa Clara University, Fr. O’Brien brings a deep knowledge of the requirements of higher-education leadership, having spent significant time at both Georgetown and Santa Clara. He is a widely recognized Jesuit leader nationally, having served on the boards of three Jesuit universities — Seattle University, Marquette University and Boston College — and on the faculty of the Jesuit Leadership Seminar, which helps form Jesuit university leaders from around the country.
Fr. O’Brien is also a popular educator, having been chosen by Georgetown students in 2016 to receive the Dorothy Brown Award for Excellence in Teaching.
From left: Paul Gentzkow, Search Committee Co-Chair; Fr. William Rewak, SJ, 26th president and Chancellor Emeritus; Fr. Michael E. Engh, SJ, 28th president; Kitty Murphy, Search Committee Member and Associate Professor; Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, 29th president; Lisa Kloppenberg, Search Committee Member and Interim Provost; Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, Jesuits West Provincial; and John M. Sobrato, Chair, Board of Trustees.
“We are delighted to have chosen Fr. O’Brien from a rich field of Jesuit leaders to guide Santa Clara University as it embarks on a new phase of growth, educational excellence and accessibility, and innovation,” said Board of Trustee Chair John M. Sobrato, who co-chaired the search committee.
“I am deeply humbled to be asked to take the helm of Santa Clara University and to build upon all that Fr. Engh and his team have accomplished over the last decade,” said Fr. O’Brien. “During my three years as dean of the Jesuit School of Theology, I have gotten to know well the Santa Clara family: our outstanding faculty, dedicated staff, and talented students. I look forward to working with each to build on the strong foundation laid by the 28 presidents who preceed me, to take Santa Clara University to its next level of national prominence.”
Fr. O’Brien comes to Santa Clara University at a pivotal time, as the university recently went public with a $1 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign, Innovating with a Mission: The Campaign for Santa Clara University. Santa Clara is seeking in the campaign to expand scholarships and endowed professorships; to create a centralized campus for interdisciplinary STEM education benefiting students of all majors; to increase the diversity of its student body and faculty; and to fortify its athletic program.
Fr. O’Brien was born in Montreal, Quebec, to an Irish-Catholic family of five, which moved to Florida when he was four. He became a naturalized American citizen at age 22, after graduating from Georgetown in 1988 with a degree in government.
He then returned to his home state to attend law school at the University of Florida, serving as an editor on the Florida Law Review. He practiced corporate litigation for two years, after which he had a mini-epiphany that led him to leave his law practice and begin teaching social studies at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida.
After years of discernment, Fr. O’Brien joined the Society of Jesus in 1996 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. During the course of his 10-year formation as a Jesuit, Fr. O’Brien earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University and a Master of Divinity and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, now part of Boston College. He taught philosophy and ethics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and business law at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
Among his pastoral work during his Jesuit formation, Fr. O’Brien served as a chaplain for the Jesuit Refugee Service in immigration detention centers in Los Angeles and worked serving migrants on the Arizona-Mexico border. He also spent time caring for patients in a leprosy hospital in northeast India and ministering in Bolivia, Mexico and Guatemala.
After his ordination in 2006, he worked for two years as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. He joined Georgetown in 2008.
In 2011, Fr. O’Brien wrote the book “The Ignatian Adventure, Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life,” which has sold more than 40,000 copies and been translated into three languages.
Fr. O’Brien is also a regular writer on the intersection of theology and contemporary society. He was a commentator about the Church on MSNBC from 2013 to 2015 and appeared in a video on the news site mic.com debunking the notion of a “war on Christmas,” which was the most-viewed video on the site in 2017.
At today’s announcement, Fr. O’Brien said: “The measure that will matter most — at least for a Jesuit university — is the lives we have impacted and the change we have affected, for the good of humanity — especially those on the margins — and for the greater glory of God.” [Source: Santa Clara University]