Sullivan, William J., SJ (b. 1930)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 2/22/2006
  • Essay 7656
Father William J. Sullivan is a Jesuit priest who for 20 years (1976-1996) served as president of Seattle University.  During his presidency he guided that institution's growth and stabilized its financial foundation.  Following his tenure as president, he served for another 11 years as chancellor. Sullivan also distinguished himself as a leader in the greater Seattle community.  He chaired the Seattle Organizing Committee for the 1990 Goodwill Games and volunteered his considerable expertise for the benefit of many educational organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest.  The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Father Sullivan First Citizen of 1990. In 2009 Seattle University honored former president and chancellor Sullivan by naming him President Emeritus of Seattle University.

Early Years

William J. Sullivan was born in Freeport, Illinois, on December 20, 1930.  His mother was Bessie Burton Sullivan and his father was Arlie Sullivan.  When William was four years old, his father died of a blood infection. His mother moved the family (Loren, William, and Kathleen) to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where a Catholic high school for girls, St. Mary’s, and a Jesuit boarding school for boys, Campion, offered her children the chance to have a Catholic education. 

Sullivan graduated from Campion High School in 1948 at the age of 17 with the highest grade point average in the school’s history.  He immediately entered the Jesuit novitiate at Florissant, Missouri.  He earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy in 1954 and a master's degree in philosophy in 1957, both from St. Louis University. In 1961 he was ordained into the priesthood at the Faculte de Theologie in Lyons, France.  Sullivan then undertook his tertianship (last year of Jesuit training) in Munster, Germany.

An Independent-Minded Educator

In 1964, Father Sullivan enrolled in Yale University’s Department of Religious Studies.  He was the first Catholic priest ever to do so.  From 1967 to 1971, he served as the acting chair for the Department of Theology at Marquette University.  After receiving his doctorate from Yale in 1971, he was appointed dean of the School of Divinity at Saint Louis University.

Just as Father Sullivan began his work at Saint Louis University, the entire faculty of nearby Concordia Lutheran Seminary was dismissed.  Sullivan took Concordia’s seminarians into the program at Saint Louis University, arousing the suspicions of church traditionalists including Cardinal Carberry of Saint Louis.  In 1975 the new president of St. Louis University abruptly terminated the Divinity program.

Seattle University

Father Sullivan joined Seattle University as provost in 1975 at the behest of then-president Father Edmund S. Ryan, SJ.  The university was on shaky financial legs at the time and had been undergoing a difficult period of student unrest.  Father Ryan sensed in Sullivan a blend of ecumenical outreach, fundraising talent, and bold leadership skills that suggested he could help to guide Seattle University onto steadier ground. 

In less than a year Father Ryan announced his retirement due to ill health precipitated by stress. Father Sullivan was named acting president on February 27, 1976, and on May 3, 1976, Sullivan succeeded Ryan as Seattle University President.  The Seattle Times later described the school at the time Sullivan took over as being “known for powerhouse basketball, a puny endowment, and a revolving door to the president’s office” (May 2, 1996).

Sullivan’s success at Seattle University was almost immediate.  After just three years he was telling a Seattle Weekly, reporter:

“Basic has been restoring the financial stability of the institution.  That’s a means and not an end, I know.  The faculty can say, 'He’s a businessman,' and mean it critically; outsiders mean it as a compliment.  But it’s just fundamental.  It’s the way you remove restrictions on the natural educational rhythm of life here ... I guess the other most important thing would be beginning to reestablish the presence of Seattle University to this community ... [and we have] competent, dedicated people who work well together ... When I took this job my goal was to make Seattle University the center of Catholic education in the area.  I haven’t changed my mind.”

Involving the Community

Sullivan credited Seattle University’s fiscal stability with “living efficiently” (The Seattle Times, March 5, 1978).  Sullivan’s fundraising efforts were also already bearing fruit as Seattle’s business community took note of his financial management skills. 

Sullivan joined the Rainier Club, the College Club, and the University Club and became active on the boards of the Rotary Club, the United Way, and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.  He cultivated the Seattle business community and spread the word about Seattle University.  Helping the greater Seattle community care about Seattle University was one of Sullivan’s chief aims.  “Our success is related to how well we involve the community in what we do,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Seattle University is not an island” (April 19, 1986).

Returning the University to Education

In 1980, Sullivan eliminated Seattle University’s athletic scholarships and pulled the Seattle University Chieftains out of the National College Athletic Association’s Division One to play lower-key state and regional teams.  Many alumni and some of the Seattle business community criticized Sullivan’s decision and prophesied that the school would alienate donors, but Sullivan held firm, shifting Seattle University’s focus from basketball back to education.

Sullivan also changed the composition of Seattle University’s Board of Trustees, tripling the number of non-Jesuits and bringing on non-Catholic business leaders.  He raised student tuition but also increased financial aid.

On May 30, 1981, Father Sullivan was awarded the Distinguished Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.  The award recognized Sullivan’s ecumenism, for which Sullivan credited the Jesuit educational philosophy.  He described this philosophy to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “God is to be found in all things; in nature, in other human beings and in other religious organizations.  It teaches deep respect for all beliefs, because God can be found in all of them” (May 31, 1981).

Sullivan clarified Seattle University’s role as a Catholic University in an interview with Seattle Times religion editor Carol M. Ostrom: “Catholic university -- university is the noun, Catholic is the adjective.  Seattle University first and foremost must be a good university just as a Catholic hospital must first be a good hospital” (April 29, 1989).

Chapel of St. Ignatius

In the winter of 1991, Father Sullivan announced plans to build a chapel that would serve as a center for spiritual life for the Seattle University community and also be an enduring and significant architectural gift to Seattle’s civic community. 

In November 1993 Sullivan announced that Seattle University would buy the law school of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He personally negotiated this acquisition. The Law School is now housed on the Seattle University campus in a building that bears his name.

The architect eventually chosen for the project, Steven Holl (b. 1947), used the spiritual and intellectual teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola as the inspiration for his design. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was a sixteenth-century saint and the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the order of priests who administer Seattle University.  The Jesuits are known for rigorous spiritual and intellectual discipline.  The Chapel of St. Ignatius was dedicated on April 6, 1997. 

First Citizen

In addition to his exemplary leadership of Seattle University, Father Sullivan reached out to business and civic groups in the Seattle community.  In 1982 he helped organize Target Seattle with the goal of improving communication between the people of what was then the Soviet Union and the United States.  He was a member of the 1990 Mount Everest International Peace Climb, celebrating Mass at 20,050 feet.  In 1990 Father Sullivan chaired the Seattle Organizing Committee of the Goodwill Games.  And if any further proof of his loyalty to the Seattle community were needed, Sullivan satisfied it by leading the University of Washington football team out onto the field at Husky Stadium when the Huskies played (Catholic) arch-rival Notre Dame in 1995.

On May 17, 1990, Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Father Sullivan First Citizen of 1990.  The First Citizen Award recognizes outstanding volunteerism and civic leadership.  Sullivan’s first grade teacher, Sister Julia, was present at the awards banquet.  “I was only nineteen,” she told The Seattle Times. “I wasn’t prepared to teach such a gifted child -- and he was gifted ... I used to say a prayer hoping that the Lord would fill in the gaps.  It’s such a reward seeing him succeed.  It’s like a dream.” Restaurateur Victor Rosellini, who was First Citizen of 1984, added, “Sullivan fit into the community and understood the community immediately, and he’s given to community efforts ever since.”  Sullivan said, “I’m extremely pleased to have my name associated with some of these honorees.  It gives me a sense of responsibility to continue my involvement with the affairs of the city.  I feel strongly that an independent university like Seattle U. needs to be involved in the community” (May 21, 1990) 

In 1996, under Father Sullivan’s leadership, Seattle University formed the School of Theology and Ministry.  In accord with Sullivan’s strongly ecumenical history, the program included collaboration between Seattle University and several Protestant denominations to provide a graduate theological education for both clergy and lay people throughout the Northwest.

William Sullivan Day

As part of the festivities celebrating Sullivan’s 20th anniversary as president, Mayor Norm Rice proclaimed May 3, 1996 “William Sullivan Day.”  The Seattle Times summed up Sullivan’s two decades at the Seattle University helm, stating “The earthy priest with the heavy shock of white hair and broad smile once said that education for Jesuits means teaching to use freedoms for the good of others as well as one’s self.  For 20 years, he has done that with distinction” (May 2, 1996).

On May 15, 1996, Sullivan announced that he would step down as Seattle University president.  During his tenure, Seattle University’s operating budget grew from $10.2 million in 1975 to $91.6 million in 1997, enrollment increased to nearly 6,100 students, up 42 percent from 1976, and two major fundraising campaigns brought in nearly $93 million.  Father Sullivan had spearheaded Seattle University’s massive building and rebuilding efforts that impacted almost every building on campus.  In nine out of 10 years preceding Sullivan's arrival, Seattle University had finished the year with a deficit; during his tenure as president, it finished each year with a surplus.  Upon his retirement in September 1996, Sullivan became a chancellor of Seattle University, retaining the title of president emeritus. 

For the Community

During the summer of 2001, Father Sullivan chaired the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Committee on Patient Research.  The committee reviewed the Fred Hutchinson Center’s current practices regarding patient protection for patients participating in cancer research trials. 

Sullivan went on to serve on the Fred Hutchinson Patient Protection Oversight Committee.  This is a standing committee that monitors Fred Hutchinson’s ongoing implementation of improvement recommendations made by independent reviewers.

Sullivan retired as chancellor in 2009. Seattle University honored him by naming him President Emeritus of Seattle University. This is "a first for Seattle University and a rarity in higher education" ("Sullivan Named First SU President Emeritus").

Sources: Walt Crowley, William J. Sullivan, S.J.: A Celebration of Seattle University’s Renaissance During 20 Years Under Its 20th President (Seattle: Seattle University, 1996); Walt Crowley, Seattle University, A Century of Jesuit Education (Seattle: Seattle University, 1991); Steven Holl, The Chapel if St. Ignatius (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999); “Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Patient Protection Oversight Committee Releases Progress Report,” April 30, 2002, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center website accessed October 31, 2005 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,“Seattle University installs Fr. William J. Sullivan, SJ, as its 20th president on May 3, 1976” and “Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius” (by John Pastier), (accessed October 31, 2005); George Weigel, “The Resurrection of Seattle University,” The Seattle Weekly, May 16, 1978, p. 13-15; 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, p. B-1; “The Sullivan Era At SU: 20 Years of Excellence,” Ibid., May 2, 1996, p. B-6; Sally MacDonald, “Sullivan Reflects On His Decade At SU -- The Man Who Dropped Basketball Stuck Around To See School Thrive,” Ibid., May 2, 1986, p. B-2; Julie Emery, “S.U. President Draws High Marks For His Second Year,” Ibid., March 5, 1978, p. A-24; Richard Martin and Mary Rothschild, “The Rev. Sullivan Saluted A Mass and mass celebration as SU’s ‘Father Bill’ turns 70,” Ibid., December 18, 2000, p. B-1; Carol M. Ostrom, “Is 'Catholic University' an Oxymoron?” Ibid., April 29, 1989, p. A-12; “Rev. William Sullivan Wins Citizen Award,” Ibid., March 5, 1990, p. B-3; Nancy Bartley, “William Sullivan Named Seattle’s First Citizen,” Ibid., May 21, 1990; Charles Dunsire, “Seattle U.’s Sullivan Aims For Quality, Not Quantity,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 3, 1981, p. H-1; Steven Goldsmith, “New Buildings Mark Seattle U Turnaround,” Ibid., April 19, 1986, p. A-4; John Iwasaki, “Celebrating The Sullivan Years,” Ibid., May 1, 1996, p. B-1; Ruth Pumphrey, “Jeweler and Priest Receive Awards For Brotherhood,” Ibid., May 31, 1981, p. E-2; "Sullivan Named First SU President Emeritus," Seattle University news release, April 1, 2009, Seattle University website accessed April 1, 2009 (
Note: This essay was updated on April 1, 2009.

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