University presidents reflect on the life of Fr. Ted Hesburgh

Holy Cross Fr. Edward Malloy, who retired in 2005 as the 16th president of the University of Notre Dame, reflects on the life of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh at Hesburgh's wake Tuesday in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. (CNS/University of Notre Dame/Matt Cashore)

The recent death of the widely admired Congregation of the Holy Cross priest Ted Hesburgh (1917-2015) -- president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, where he served as president from 1952 to 1987, and longtime civil rights champion -- has generated an outpouring of reflections from many quarters.

NCR reached out to current college and university presidents for their personal and professional memories of Hesburgh. To some, he was an important mentor. To others, a respected and admired leader, colleague and friend. To all, he left a deep and lasting impression through his relationships and by what he accomplished. Today, Hesburgh's life continues to be felt on many campuses around the country.

A funeral Mass for Hesburgh will be celebrated at 2 p.m. EST March 4, followed by his burial at Holy Cross Cemetery. A memorial tribute will take place at 7:30 p.m. the same day at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. More information on the events.


"As a student at the Notre Dame Law School (1978-81), a highlight of the year for us was when Fr. Ted would come to the Law School lounge to celebrate Sunday evening Mass for us. It happened once a year, usually, and I remember thinking, 'Here was this internationally-renowned educational and human rights leader, who seemed every bit as comfortable celebrating Mass in the very casual Law School Lounge as he was engaging world leaders about human rights abuses.' His obituaries and messages from the university from Fr. Jenkins the past few days confirm that this was a man devoted to his core to his vocation as a priest.

At one of these Masses, Fr. Ted told us a story that I'm sure has been repeated many times. I myself have repeated this. He told us that he was often asked how he managed to get through the Vietnam years with relatively few incidents on the Notre Dame campus. In addition to his famous 15 minute rule, he said that he felt students had the rest of their lives to be conservative; they should be liberal while they were young.

Fast forward thirty years and when I became president of Canisius College, Fr. Ted's tenure at Notre Dame seemed even more amazing. He was such an influential leader in American Catholic higher education just as the world and the country were changing in profound ways. He helped chart a course for American Catholic higher education that encouraged us all to pursue our Catholic identity and academic excellence. Notre Dame in the Hesburgh era showed us that these were not incompatible goals. In a time when presidential tenures are relatively brief, Fr. Ted's ability to stay both relevant and revered at Notre Dame for so long was indeed a blessing."

John J. Hurley, Notre Dame '81 (Law)
President, Canisius College
Buffalo, N.Y.


"It was immediately clear to me as a philosophy graduate student at Notre Dame in the early Seventies that the University was deeply committed to academic excellence and saw no incompatibility between that goal and maintaining and deepening its Catholic character. I attribute this directly to Fr. Hesburgh and I have tried to emulate this in my presidency.

There are two keys to achieving these twin goals, both of which are articulated in the Hesburgh-inspired Land O'Lakes statement of 1967. Catholic universities have to embrace academic freedom. They must also create an environment welcoming to faculty and students of all faiths. I hope I have done this at Duquesne University."

Charles J. Dougherty, Ph.D., Notre Dame '75 (Ph.D., Philosophy)
President, Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit


"Fr. Hesburgh devoted his life to service in the most extraordinary of ways.  He was a priest first -- but also a gifted educator and skilled public figure committed to social justice. His capacity to bring people together in a constructive, productive manner was unparalleled. 

In higher education, we've felt his impact in countless ways -- most notably as a leader of what was a seminal moment in the development of Catholic higher education in the last century: the Land O'Lakes Statement. This helped to establish Catholic higher education as an authentic partner within the higher education sector in developing the contemporary American academy. Up until then, there was a question as to whether Catholic universities were really part of the mainstream. The Land O'Lakes Statement provided the foundation of the role and contributions that so many institutions have been able to make in the last 40 years -- from Notre Dame to Georgetown to so many of our colleagues around the nation.

We will deeply miss Fr. Hesburgh but continue to feel his presence and his impact every day."

John J. DeGioia, Ph.D.
President, Georgetown University
Washington, D.C. 


"For years, I have followed and admired Father Hesburgh's unparalleled career and legacy as a true trailblazer for all of us in Catholic higher education. I have always been amazed at his intuitive ability to look at complex issues and seek truth and perspective from all sources in making decisions. He guided Notre Dame through some difficult and controversial times, yet never wavered from ensuring that the institution's mission was always at the forefront -- proving that the pursuit of truth is not incompatible with the Catholic intellectual tradition. I'm also proud of our shared background as natives of Syracuse and that Le Moyne was one of the first colleges to present Father Hesburgh with an honorary degree in 1954."

Dr. Linda LeMura
President, Le Moyne College
Syracuse, N.Y.

LeMura is the first woman to lead a U.S. Jesuit-sponsored institution of higher education.


"I met Fr. Hesburgh only once. I was introduced to him by Fr, Paul Reinert, SJ, who was an equally important figure in the 60's and 70's. Fr. Paul was president of St. Louis University and both he and Fr. Ted went to Rome to get permission from the Vatican to allow their institutions to be governed by lay boards of trustees. Until then, Religious Orders -- like the Jesuits or the Holy Cross Fathers, or Bishops "owned" and governed all Catholic higher education institutions in the country. (There were about 240 colleges and universities then. There are about 220 today.)

Fr. Ted and Fr. Paul asked permission to allow their respective boards to become majority lay boards. Since 1967, this is the common way institutions are governed, with talented lay professional men and women joining a few religious priests and nuns to take full responsibility for the guidance and development of the institution. They recruited the best businessmen and women, and various professionals and civic leaders to constitute their boards. These two institutions were the first in the country to do so. Fr. Ted was convinced that a modern university needed the expertise and talent of lay people who could do a much better job that men and women trained for religious life, for teaching and research.

Now, 50 years later, institutions like Notre Dame are not only superior academic institutions to what they were in 1965, but also more Catholic and more grounded in the mission of the Church. They are better universities, more financially secure, and more respected in intellectual and professional circles. Fr. Ted was the pioneering university president who moved Catholic education out of the parochial straightjacket that it had grown up in to becoming not only mainstream but admired and prized by students of all faiths. Today, a place like Loyola University Chicago is seen as a welcoming and vibrant ecumenical institution with a healthy percentage of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu students. This is a direct legacy of Ted Hesburgh's vision of how a Catholic university ought to contribute to America in a pluralistic, democratic society."

Michael J. Garanzini, S.J.
President, Loyola University Chicago


"As someone who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Charles Eliot, the preeminent president of Harvard University, I saw in Father Hesburgh a leader in the tradition of Eliot, one who not only transformed his own campus into a national institution of excellence and renown but also transformed the very notion of what a university should be.

As a scholar of religious studies and someone who was raised in his faith tradition, I have always admired Father Hesburgh as a figure who transcended and reshaped the world in which he was molded and into which I was born: the apparently morally clear worlds of America and American Catholicism of the 1940s and 50s. He, with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John XXIII, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., built the bridge for those who would walk it from those worlds to the much more complex and infinitely more challenging worlds of the following decade.

And lastly, as a university president myself for the past fifteen years, I continue to marvel at the skill, vision, and wisdom he brought to the calling."

John Sexton
President, New York University
New York City


"Father Ted was a larger-than-life figure during my time at the University of Notre Dame, an amazing accomplishment given his humble and gentle demeanor. He exhibited quiet leadership and a genuine caring for all of his students that has deeply influenced me as President of Notre Dame College. When I began here, Father Ted's example was foremost in my mind. I remembered my time as a student, and the comfort and security that came from knowing that Father Ted's door was always open for any student who needed him. I remembered him as a warm President who was always out and about on campus, always interacting with students. That is the kind of president I am striving to be, and I am using Father Ted's behavior as a model. 

Father Ted's deep and abiding faith was also a huge influence on me. I remember sitting several rows behind him on a flight back to campus, and I was curious as to what he was reading on the flight. I was deeply moved when I saw that it wasn't a magazine, or a popular novel ... it was his well-worn prayer book. His faith has been an inspiration to me."

Thomas G. Kruczek, Notre Dame '77 (BA, Psychology), '79 (MBA)
President, Notre Dame College
South Euclid, Ohio


"Father Ted Hesburgh used his presidency as a 'bully pulpit' to address the issues of his time including civil rights, the Vietnam conflict, and student unrest. Today, college presidents must model 'servant leadership' to address economic inequalities, religious discrimination, political suppression, inclusivity, access to education and the consideration of the transcendent. At his core, though, Father Ted was first and foremost a priest and it was this vocation that animated his entire life."

Fr. Thomas B. Curran
President, Rockhurst University
Kansas City, Mo.


"I was one among many who had the privilege of calling him friend and mentor. His wisdom, common sense, holiness, humor, and love enriched so many lives. When, after 24 years at the University I was preparing to leave Notre Dame and move across the road to Saint Mary's College, he invited me to spend a few hours with him. Our conversation soothed my nervousness and helped me to understand my new role. I will be forever grateful to him for many things but especially for that afternoon."

Carol Ann Mooney, Notre Dame '72 (Law)
President, St. Mary's College
South Bend, Ind.


"Father Ted Hesburgh was surely the greatest university president of the 20th Century, not just for Catholics but for all of higher education. I admired him greatly long before I ever knew I would be a college president, myself. His outspoken advocacy for justice and civil rights remains an inspirational model that no other university president has begun to match. He built the modern Notre Dame, a great university, but even more, he set a high standard for leadership across institutions. In Catholic higher education, we are forever indebted to his strong stance in favor of institutional autonomy for the sake of our independent tradition in Catholic intellectual thought. He was the exemplar of the phrase 'speak truth to power' whether to a bishop, a pope or a president of the United States. We will not see his likes again!"

Patricia McGuire
President, Trinity Washington University
Washington, D.C.


"A thoughtful, bright man with great integrity and enthusiasm for young people."

Dr. Donna Shalala
President, University of Miami
Coral Gables, Fla.

Shalala worked for a short time with Hesburgh on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.


"Father Hesburgh seemed bigger than life to me as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. It seemed impossible to me that he could have the global influence he had while at the same time leading, quite effectively, a major international university.

What I remember most vividly about him is that somehow, despite all he had on his plate, he always found the time to exchange a word with everyone he encountered on campus. As I rose in the ranks as an academic leader, I often thought of the model that Father Hesburgh provided. He taught me that pursuing academic excellence was perfectly consistent with maintaining a personal focus on social justice and working to make the world a better place.

Most importantly, he taught me by example that academic leaders must never forget that we are in the people business. He made me feel important as a student, and now I try to make every student, faculty member, staff member and alum feel exactly the same way he made me feel. He set the gold standard for what it means to be a university president and his example shapes what I do every day in my role as a college president."

Dennis Hanno, Notre Dame '77 (BA, Business)
President, Wheaton College
Norton, Mass.

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to the NCR. He can be reached at]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here