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St. Vincent's Towey cites 'real pulse to campus life' among accomplishments

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By Richard Robbins
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Jim Towey, who will leave St. Vincent College in June after four years as its sometimes embattled president, said maybe the accomplishment he is most proud of is the student enthusiasm he professes to see on campus.

And he's not just talking about rooting for the football team, which renewed play in 2007 after a 45-year time-out. Towey said the number of students studying overseas has tripled, and the budget for campus ministry has quadrupled. There are more club and student groups on campus now than ever before, he said.

Since becoming president, Towey, 53, has embarked each year for Calcutta, India, with students who are given a close-up look at the world he embraced years ago as a close friend and adviser to Mother Teresa.

"One of the things I set out to do was to expand our service learning programs," Towey said, before Saturday's graduation exercises at St. Vincent.

"There is now a real pulse to campus life that's exciting," he said.

A former director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, Towey admitted there have been good times and bad at the Unity college.

When he invited his old boss, President George W. Bush, to speak at the 2007 commencement, the decision met some resistance, partially accounting for a backlash against Towey. It created "a group of alumni and faculty members that were chilling the champagne, waiting for me to leave," Towey said.

"I don't know much that I could have done differently," Towey added. "You either invite the sitting president of the United States or you don't."

Towey then alluded to President Obama's visit to Notre Dame last year, which created a firestorm of its own, based on differences over the issue of abortion.

When the stakes are high, Towey said, "You better get ready for one turbulent ride."

Towey was just the second president at the college who had not been a longtime member of the Benedictine community. Towey, who was new to academic life then, admitted he may have underestimated the challenges.

"When you come as a change-agent your role is not to be popular," said Towey, who felt that one of his "mandates" was "to make our Catholic identity more pronounced."

Time taught Towey a lesson. "I grew to appreciate," he said, "that the wheels of decision-making move a little slower" in academia.

Towey said he, his wife Mary and their children will move to the Washington area in July. He is beginning to think about what he will do next. The college, he said, will be in "good hands" with president-elect Brother Norman Hipps at the helm.

Towey said he actually prayed for at least one home football victory. Last season, the Bearcats, on their way to an 0-10 record, took it on the chin from Geneva College, losing to the Golden Tornadoes 38-20 at Chuck Noll Stadium.

Just a few weeks ago, Towey opened a letter from Geneva College's athletic director, who said that during the Sept. 12 game his school had permitted an academically ineligible player on the field. As a result, St. Vincent won the game, based on a forfeit.

For Towey, September's loss became an April victory, and a prayer answered.

"Sometimes fruit is borne long after the sacrifice, and it comes in unexpected ways," he commented.

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