Jesuit Father John Schlegel, retiring president of Creighton University, might soon find himself in the City That Never Sleeps, the economic epicenter of the world.
Either that or he’s moving to a country that more than 250,000 people fled last year to escape a violent ruler, economic turmoil and one of the world’s worst AIDS epidemics.
Those two alternatives — New York City or Zimbabwe — are as much as Schlegel is willing to say about his next Jesuit assignment after 11 years spent as Creighton’s leader.
In those 11 years Schlegel has built Creighton into the premier Midwestern private university of its kind, according to national rankings. He has grown enrollment and doubled applications to the school. He has expanded the campus by 40 acres and then transformed it with state-of-the-art buildings paid for by a historic $400 million fundraising drive that he spearheaded.
Schlegel said he is proud that Creighton’s Catholic identity has remained strong even as the number of Jesuits on campus has continued to drop. Creighton has made up for its lack of Jesuits by teaching faculty and staff about Catholic identity at annual retreats, Schlegel said.
“Without the Catholic identity we’d be just another good liberal-arts based Midwestern university,” he said.
But that identity — specifically the church’s anti-abortion stance — has caused friction with Omahans who might otherwise support the school, Schlegel said.
“Sometimes doing what we’re doing has come at a real cost,” he said. “That’s the price of doing business, I guess. … They live by their convictions, we live by ours, and that’s fine.”
Schlegel has known his successor, Lannon, since 1969, when Lannon was an undergraduate sitting in one of the first political science courses Schlegel taught at Creighton.
When Schlegel told the university’s board he was planning to step down, he put together a short list of potential replacements. Lannon, a Creighton alum and then president of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, was featured prominently on that short list, Schlegel said.
He thinks Lannon will be a good president, partly because he understands the Omaha area and already knows many Creighton alums and donors from his tenure as president of Omaha Creighton Prep. Creighton faculty who know both Jesuit priests say Lannon is gregarious while Schlegel is wry and reserved.
“The style will be different — I’ve been told that by many people,” Schlegel said. “But I think that’s good. I think change is very healthy.”
Change is exactly what Schlegel is trying to prepare for. He will drive east to Milwaukee, where he will take a six-month sabbatical and then head to either New York City or Zimbabwe for his next mission as a Jesuit priest. Schlegel said only that the mission won’t be another college presidency.
“You get up, you go to work, and a lot of times you don’t see the cumulative effect, how things are changing,” Schlegel said.
“I’ve been a little more reflective” in the past few months, he said. “I’ve been more appreciative of what’s happened here.”