By Liz Sullivan
In the end, the result of a national search, the candidate was found just 40 miles north.
On March 19, Santa Clara University named Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J., its 29th president, effective on July 1, 2019, replacing Father Michael Engh, S.J. O’Brien has served as Dean of Santa Clara University’s Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley since 2016.
“We are delighted to have chosen Father 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, which conducted a deliberate, inclusive and thorough process. “Father O’Brien is charismatic, articulate and engaging, natural at building meaningful relationships, and collaborative and transparent–with an inherent grit and decisiveness. These are all qualities that are critical to leading this University.”
Engh announced in June 2018 that he was concluding his presidency at the end of this academic year after 10 years in that role.
“It is a great privilege to share in the dream of Santa Clara University,” said Engh during the announcement held at the Locatelli Center on the University’s campus. “I am pleased to pass the baton on to a qualified Jesuit.”
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Father O’Brien, 52, became a naturalized American citizen at age 22, just after graduating from Georgetown University in 1988 with a degree in government. He then returned to Florida, to which his family had moved when he was four, to attend law school at the University of Florida, serving as an editor on the Florida Law Review. O’Brien 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, Fla.
After years of discernment, he 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, Father 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 has taught philosophy and ethics at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and business law at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.
Before becoming dean in Berkeley, Father O’Brien 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. While at Georgetown, he also served on the President’s Cabinet.
“The challenges are great,” said O’Brien, “and the opportunities are many. It is not just the care of a campus, but of a community. What we are measured most by are the lives we have impacted and the change we have affected.”
As the next President of Santa Clara University, Father O’Brien brings a deep knowledge of the requirements of higher-education leadership, having spent significant time at both Georgetown and Santa Clara managing diverse operational and academic teams; working to ensure alignment between mission and the day-to-day realities of university management; collaborating with board members, external partners and donors; and working with faculty and staff to champion academic excellence. Moreover, 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.
In addition, Father O’Brien is a widely sought commentator about the Church in national media and writes in the field of Jesuit higher education and spirituality. 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.
“Father O’Brien knows how transformative education can be,” said Father Scott Santarosa, S.J., Provincial of Jesuits West Province. “He brings practical experience in his time spent at the School of Theology. He also said, “Here, I am Lord, I am ready to do your will. Father O’Brien is a fine Jesuit.”
Father O’Brien comes to Santa Clara University at a pivotal time, as the Silicon Valley-based private University recently went public with a $1 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign, Innovating with a Mission: The Campaign for Santa Clara University. The University is seeking to expand scholarships and endowed professorships, to create a centralized campus for interdisciplinary STEM education that benefits students of all majors, to increase the diversity of its student body and faculty, and to fortify its athletic program.
“God has blessed me with a life as a Jesuit beyond imagining,” said O’Brien. “In the spirit of Saint Ignatius (founder of the Society of Jesus) I accept this honor as a way of giving back. I am deeply humbled to be asked to take the helm of Santa Clara University and to build upon all that Father Engh and his team have accomplished over the last decade.”