Seattle University installs Fr. William J. Sullivan, SJ, as its 20th president on May 3, 1976.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 5/04/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3256
On May 3, 1976, Father William J. Sullivan, SJ (b. 1930) is installed as the 20th president of Seattle University, the Northwest's largest Jesuit institution of higher learning and one of the region's leading independent universities. Sullivan succeeds Father Edmund Ryan, SJ, who stepped down after only a year due to illness. Ryan had recruited Sullivan in 1975 as his provost for academic development.

An Education Innovator

William J. Sullivan was born in Freeport, Illinois, on December 20, 1930. After her husband's death in 1934, Bessie Sullivan relocated to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in large part because she knew it offered a Catholic education for her three children (Loren, William and Kathleen).

Sullivan seemed predestined to join the Society of Jesus. A superb student, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Missouri, and earned his bachelor of arts and a master's degree at St. Louis University. He completed his "theologiate" (seminary) studies at the Faculte de Theologie in Lyons, France, and was ordained there in 1961.

In 1964, Sullivan became the first Catholic Priest to enroll in Yale University's Department of Religious Studies and later served as acting chair of the Department of Theology at Marquette University. After taking his doctorate in 1971, he was appointed dean of the School of Divinity at Saint Louis University. There he raised the eyebrows of traditionalists by offering temporary facilities to the faculty of the Concordia Lutheran Seminary, which was beset by ideological conflicts. The new president of Saint Louis terminated the Divinity program in 1974 and stranded Sullivan.

Hearing the Call

At this moment, Father Ryan, himself an innovative educator, called from Seattle University and Sullivan leapt at the opportunity to reshape its academic approach. He took up his new duties on June 30, 1975.

Seattle University was then recovering from a turbulent period of student protest and fiscal difficulty, and the strain broke Ryan's health. Although present at SU for less than a year, Sullivan was the natural candidate to pick up the pieces. He was named acting president on February 27, 1976, and formally installed as the school's 20th president on May 3.

Goodwill Towards All

Sullivan's energy, intellect, and charisma helped to launch a renaissance at Seattle University. Under his hand, the campus was virtually rebuilt from the ground up, new programs such as a School of Theology and the Matteo Ricci College were launched, and enrollment swelled from 3,600 to nearly 6,000. He intensified the school's outreach and aid to recruit minorities while renewing its Jesuit ethos of faith, mental rigor, and community service.

Sullivan also provided leadership off campus, chairing the 1990 Goodwill Games among numerous other civic projects. For his "swan song," Sullivan personally negotiated acquisition of the former University of Puget Sound School of Law and its faculty's relocation to Seattle University, fulfilling a century-old dream for the school.

Father Sullivan retired in August 1996 after more than two decades of service. His successor, Father Steven Sunborg, SJ, immediately tapped Sullivan (and his "golden rolodex" of SU donors) to serve as his Chancellor.


Sources: Walt Crowley, Seattle University: A Century of Jesuit Education (Seattle: Seattle University, 1991); Walt Crowley, William J. Sullivan: Twenty Years (Seattle: Seattle University, 1996); Marsha King, "It's Official: SU President Will Retire In August; Sullivan To Step Down After 20-Year Tenure," The Seattle Times, May 15, 1996.
Note: The date of Fr. Sullivan's retirement was corrected on October 31, 2005.

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