Obituaries

Rev. J. Donald Monan, 92, former Boston College president

From left, Rev. Donald Monan; Judge David S. Nelson, and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

Globe Staff/File

From left: The Rev. J. Donald Monan, Judge David S. Nelson, and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

The Rev. J. Donald Monan, who during 24 years as president of Boston College steered the school from financial turmoil to a period of unprecedented growth that saw remarkable gains in everything from endowment to academic stature to football ranking, died Saturday in the Campion Health Center in Weston. He was 92.

“Father Monan devoted more than four decades of his life to Boston College, playing a decisive role in its reorganization and increased recognition in American higher education,” said the Rev. William P. Leahy, a Jesuit who succeeded Father Monan as Boston College’s president.

Advertisement

“He has left a lasting legacy, and earned the gratitude and respect of the entire Boston College community for his leadership during his years as president and chancellor,” Leahy said.

Father Monan “exemplified selfless dedication and service in the name of the Lord,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said in a statement.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“During Father Monan’s more than 24 years as president of Boston College, the university grew in strength and stature, confirming its leadership in Jesuit higher education and providing an important presence of the work of the church in the Archdiocese of Boston and well beyond,” the cardinal said.

“He was responsible for taking this commuter school and setting it in the direction to become a major university in the country,” said Jack Connors, who formerly chaired the college’s Board of Trustees.

Father Monan was BC’s 24th president, leading the Jesuit school from 1972 to 1996. That year he became chancellor, a position created expressly for him. Father Monan’s presidency was easily the most significant since that of the Rev. Thomas I. Gasson, who oversaw the school’s move in 1913 from the South End to Chestnut Hill.

Advertisement

Many go further, crediting Father Monan with being the most important president in the school’s history. He took BC from being a regional school with a primarily commuter student body to being one of the three leading US Catholic universities, on a par with Georgetown and Notre Dame.

“Father Monan’s goal was not simply to create a world-class Catholic higher-learning institution for greater Boston, but to create the finest Catholic college in the country and the world,” said US Senator Edward J. Markey, who received his undergraduate and law school degrees from BC. “He had incredible vision, passion and energy.”

Father Monan’s impact extended well beyond the BC campus. Boston Magazine once named him the city’s best politician. In 2002, he was appointed head of a special commission to propose ways to overhaul the state judicial system. In 1999, he played a key role in keeping the New England Patriots from moving to Hartford. In 1993, his intervention was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the replacement of Boston Garden by the FleetCenter, which is now the TD Garden.

“Father Monan was sort of a safe harbor where people who had polarized themselves could come back together,” Larry Moulter, who was president of the New Boston Garden Corp., once said of his role in getting the FleetCenter built.

Father Monan’s tenure almost exactly coincided with John Silber’s at Boston University. Silber was BU’s president from 1971-1996. Both men took over financially troubled institutions located on Commonwealth Avenue. Both men had great ambitions for their schools. And both men transformed them. How each did so, though, was a study in contrasts.

Silber delighted in outrageous comments and confrontation, which earned him a national reputation and such a high profile that he won the 1990 Democratic nomination for governor. Father Monan preferred conciliation and compromise, invariably staying behind the scenes.

A classic inside player, Father Monan studiously avoided the limelight. “He moves like a ghost, but he’s very efficient, very effective,” the late Boston College historian Thomas H. O’Connor said in a 2002 Globe interview. “Sort of an eminence grise: very low key, very quiet, he speaks very softly — yet a very important presence in the city. Generally, most people wouldn’t know him.”

‘He has left a lasting legacy, and earned the gratitude and respect of the entire Boston College community.’

The Rev. William P. Leahy, Boston College president 
Quote Icon

In a 2000 interview with The Heights, the BC student newspaper, Father Monan took pains to credit the “period of dramatic change and improvement in quality” at BC to “an extraordinary team of people in the principal positions in the university, and in our board of trustees.”

BC had begun to change significantly during the presidency of the Rev. Michael P. Walsh, in the 1960s. The number of faculty doubled. New facilities were built. Student enrollment increased by a third, and the number of commuting students began to decline.

Yet the cost of those changes nearly bankrupted BC. By 1972, the school was running an annual deficit of $4 million. Faculty and staff salaries had been frozen since January 1971. There was talk of the University of Massachusetts absorbing BC.

Monan (left) during a ceremony naming a field at Boston College High School in his honor in 2016.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File

Father Monan (left) during a ceremony last year naming a field at Boston College High School in his honor.

Father Monan, who had recently been a finalist for the presidency of Fordham University, addressed BC’s financial difficulties in several ways. He implemented a new accounting system, brought in a different group of financial managers, and greatly increased the school’s emphasis on alumni contributions. The last approach proved especially fruitful, as Father Monan quickly demonstrated his prowess as a fund-raiser. Under his leadership, BC’s endowment rose from $5.7 million in 1972 to $448 million at the time he announced his retirement, in 1994. The endowment now stands at $2.3 billion.

Balancing the books did not, however, mean cutting back. In 1974, BC acquired Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a neighboring Catholic institution with an all-female student body. Its addition helped accelerate BC’s evolution from a largely male school. It also gave the school considerably more space. A construction boom ensued, with on average a major building a year added to the campus. Notable additions included a new sports arena, the Conte Forum, and a research library, named for former US speaker of the House (and BC alum) Thomas P. O’Neill Jr.

Asked in a 1992 interview with Boston College Magazine to cite his most satisfying achievement as president, Father Monan said, “I probably get the greatest satisfaction from going to the O’Neill Library at night, when it is absolutely filled with students working, and just recognizing what a great benefit that facility is to the whole learning process, for both students and faculty.”

Many of the new buildings were dormitories. In 1976, residential students became a majority at BC for the first time. The student body took on an increasingly national character, as the number of applicants to BC more than doubled during Father Monan’s presidency.

Even more than Father Monan, it was a student who was most responsible for BC’s elevated profile: Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie. “Doug Flutie is one in 50 years,” Father Monan said of his heroics on the gridiron in a 1984 Globe interview. Although BC’s football fortunes have yet to match those of the Flutie era, a renewed emphasis was placed on athletic success.

“We’ve arrived at this position of strength without any strain on the university or its admissions policies,” Father Monan said in that same interview.

As Flutie’s star rose, Monan was a reassuring presence at his side.

“It seems like every important moment along the way, he was there,” Flutie recalled on Saturday. “When I won the Heisman . . . I have a picture of myself and him and Ronald Reagan together. He was always there for me.”

Over time, though, BC’s presence in the world of big-time athletics did create problems. Prior to Flutie’s arrival on campus, there had been a point-shaving scandal involving the basketball team. Shortly after Father Monan retired, 13 football players were implicated in a betting scandal.

The expansion of Alumni Stadium from 32,500 seats to 44,500 at the end of Father Monan’s presidency proved controversial with the school’s neighbors. More generally, football Saturdays created town-gown problems over such issues as traffic, parking, and boorish behavior.

In 1996, the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame presented Father Monan with its distinguished American award. Previous winners include Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and comedian Bob Hope.

Monan in 1996, at an event marking his retirement.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Father Monan in 1996, at an event marking his retirement.

James Donald Monan was born in Blasdell, N.Y., near Buffalo, on Dec. 31, 1924, the son of Edward Roland Monan and Mary (Ward) Monan.

Father Monan attended Canisius High School, a Jesuit institution, in Buffalo. A talented athlete, Father Monan played goalie on the school’s championship hockey team.

Canisius’ importance for him did not end at rinkside. “One of the reasons I became a priest was because of the example and my admiration for Jesuit teachers that I had had,” he recalled in his Heights interview. “I really became a Jesuit in order to be a teacher, to be a teacher and scholar, engaging in intellectual life.”

Father Monan earned his bachelor’s degree and licentiate in philosophy at Woodstock College. After serving as an instructor at St. Peter’s College, in Jersey City, N.J., from 1949-52, he resumed his graduate studies, earning his licentiate in sacred theology at Woodstock, a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Louvain, in Belgium, with postdoctoral work at Oxford University and the universities of Paris and Munich.

Returning to the United States in 1960, Father Monan spent the next dozen years in a variety of positions at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, N.Y.: instructor, professor, academic dean, vice president, and acting president.

Father Monan liked to say scholarship and teaching were his first love. He published “Moral Knowledge and Its Methodology in Aristotle” in 1968. He also helped write two textbooks, “The Philosophy of Human Knowing” (1952) and “A Prelude to Metaphysics” (1967).

It was a mark of Father Monan’s eminence in the world of Catholic higher education that he contributed to the drafting of Pope John Paul II’s controversial 1990 document, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities”), which directed Catholic educational institutions to emphasize their Catholic nature.

Father Monan served as interim president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in 1996-97. In 2007, a professorship in theater arts at Boston College was endowed in his name.

“What I’m most grateful for,” Father Monan said in his 2000 interview with The Heights, “is to have had a part in the dramatic improvement in the stature of the university.”

A funeral Mass will be announced for Father Monan, whose three nephews and niece are his only survivors.

Father Monan (left) and O’Neill at the 1973 Boston College graduation.

Globe Staff/File

Father Monan (left) and O’Neill at the 1973 Boston College graduation.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.
You're reading  1 of 5 free articles.
Get UNLIMITED access for only 99¢ per week Subscribe Now >
You're reading1 of 5 free articles.Keep scrolling to see more articles recomended for you Subscribe now
We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles.
Continue reading by subscribing to Globe.com for just 99¢.
 Already a member? Log in Home
Subscriber Log In

We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles'

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com