Under Sullivan, Seattle U Grows -- Academics, Finances And Not Basketball Measures Of Success

In 1976, when the Rev. William J. Sullivan became the fifth president of Seattle University in six years, the Jesuit school was known for basketball and red ink.

To regain academic respectability, Sullivan cut both.

"I think both these things masked the fact that there was some fine education going on here," Sullivan said. "Academically, this is a very good place."

The university has finished with a surplus every year since he arrived after running deficits in nine of the previous 10 years. Basketball is at the small-college National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level.

Since 1985, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have risen from an average of 988 to 1,009 and high-school grades from 3.08 to 3.40 for students entering this fall.

In October 1991, U.S. News & World Report listed Seattle U as one of the top 10 universities in the West.

Entering his 18th year as president, the longest term in Seattle U's 102-year history, Sullivan has climbed to the 21,000-foot level of Mount Everest and indulged a passion for sailing with the likes of Ted Turner.

In 1990 he served as chairman of the board for the organizing committee of the Olympics-style Goodwill Games and received the First Citizen award of the Seattle-King County Board of Realtors.

One of his goals is to maintain the university's "Jesuit spirituality" despite a decline in professors from the Roman Catholic order.

About 25 full-time faculty members, or 10 percent, are priests - down from 15 percent when Sullivan arrived but "probably in the top third" among the nation's 28 Jesuit institutions of higher learning, he said.

Half a dozen years ago, Sullivan began meetings with Jesuit faculty that led to formation of The Colleagues in Jesuit Education, a group of about 50 or 60 professors and administrators, Jesuits and non-Catholics.

They now meet a half-dozen times a year to discuss the school's mission as a Jesuit institution.

"You've sort of got a series of concentric circles at the university with maybe the Jesuits as the core group," Sullivan said.

Some Colleagues accompanied Sullivan to a conference on "Jesuit Education in a World Perspective" at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles in 1990. This spring he also described the program at a convocation entitled "The Christian University in the 21st Century" at Seattle Pacific University, founded by Free Methodists.

The Society of Jesus, known for rigorous spiritual and intellectual discipline, was founded in 1534 by Ignatius Loyola as an order devoted to uncloistered service throughout the world. It was approved by the pope in 1540.

"The key in the whole Jesuit perspective on things is freedom," Sullivan said. "Jesuits are not people who kind of set you on the road and tell you which way to walk."

Education for Jesuits means "especially to teach you to use your freedoms" for the good of others as well as oneself, and "looking on all creation as good and therefore as worthy of study," he said.

Sullivan was 4 when his father died and his mother moved to Prairie du Chien, Wis., because of the town's strong Catholic schools.

A football and basketball player in high school, he entered the Jesuit order at age 17 in 1948. Seven years later he began training for the priesthood at Lyons, France, where he was ordained in 1961.

After two years in Germany, he became the first Catholic priest to enroll at the Yale University divinity school, then took his first teaching post at Marquette University in 1967. Four years later he became dean of the divinity school at St. Louis University, and, in 1975, he came to Seattle U as provost.

It was, he recalls, "kind of a time of remission for Seattle U."

The school was founded by two Jesuit priests, aided by two Holy Names nuns who taught classes, as the School of Immaculate Conception in 1891. It became Seattle College in 1898 and the first three bachelor of arts degrees were awarded in 1909.

In 1933 the school became the first Jesuit college to enroll women.

In 1948 the Rev. Albert Lemieux began 17 years as president with a whirlwind of changes, renaming the school Seattle University and upgrading basketball to National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I status.

In 1958, led by future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, the Chieftains nearly won the NCAA championship, losing 84-72 to Kentucky after leading by as much as seven points in the second half. After that game, the school was put on probation for recruiting violations and the coach resigned under pressure.

By the time Sullivan took over, basketball was losing money and the school often had to borrow to pay its bills.

When he busted the program to NAIA status in 1980, it was running a $450,000 deficit.

Besides cutting his losses, Sullivan said he was happy to avoid potential misconduct by coaches and players and issues like waiving academic requirements for athletes.

"You opt out of all this trash associated with major athletic programs all over the country," he said.

Meanwhile, endowment has grown from $4.5 million to $52 million, the annual budget from $10 million to $65 million and enrollment from 3,400 students to 4,800 on Sullivan's watch.

New engineering and liberal arts faculty buildings have been completed in a $50 million construction program over the past six years. Another $21 million worth of work over the next two years begins this summer.

Curriculum additions include a doctoral program in education; undergraduate studies in computer software engineering, international business and environmental engineering and a one-year program for adults returning to college to get master's degrees in teaching, "probably the toughest program to get into at Seattle U right now," Sullivan said.

Besides "a much stronger sense of morale here on the campus," Sullivan said, "I truly believe our alumni are much prouder of their degrees than they maybe were 20 years ago."