‘He speaks from the heart’: New president settles in at Benedictine University

New Benedictine University president Joseph Foy poses on the Lisle campus.

Every morning, new Benedictine University President Joseph Foy studies The Rule of St. Benedict, a guidebook for sixth-century monks.

Some of the chapters about religious life in the Middle Ages are cumbersome to read. But Foy has been absorbing Benedict’s advice and Benedictine traditions since he was drawn to the president’s job.

“The more that I learned about the values here, the more that I learned about the emphasis that’s placed on really supporting a diverse community of learners. That’s when I knew Benedictine was just where I wanted to serve,” Foy said in his first public appearance on the Lisle campus.

The Wyoming native is a self-described “empathetic introvert.” Yet he seems at ease in front of an audience, approachable and accessible. He can talk at length about Benedictine virtues – the “hallmark of hospitality” – and the “Star Wars” universe. He isn’t some ivory-tower type. Foy told students at a forum last week he’s happy to grab a coffee with them.

“He speaks from the heart,” said Katherine Donofrio, who co-chaired the school’s presidential search committee. “He’s always very thoughtful and he’s such a good communicator that helps you see what’s possible in the world. He just has that ability to take you to the next step and make you understand what you can do.”

Foy took the helm shortly after Benedictine became an independent Catholic university within the Diocese of Joliet after more than 100 years of sponsorship by St. Procopius Abbey.

Benedictine monks founded the school in 1887 as St. Procopius College in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to educate young men of Czechoslovakian descent. The school moved to Lisle and dedicated its first building on the campus, originally nothing more than a farm, in 1901.

“We remain committed to the faith traditions that they’ve helped to build here,” Foy said. “And we see that as an important part of how we have to live out our mission and our identity.”

Foy said he’s already met with St. Procopius Abbot Austin Murphy and Bishop Ronald Hicks. He’s met with leaders of the university’s Muslim Student Association and student government through their research presentations. He praised the school’s interfaith prayer room.

“He understands that really all are welcome at Benedictine. We have a very diverse population and he likes interacting with people,” said Claudia Colalillo, who also led the search committee. “He’s just really, really comfortable in his shoes.”

Getting started

Foy grew up with two sisters and his brother outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. His mom taught speech and communication at a community college. His dad, a Navy veteran, served as a gunner’s mate in Vietnam. Foy thought about running for office.

“Neither one of them were really much connected with politics or political office,” Foy said of his parents, “but I think that they did instill within me that sense of responsibility for others outside of myself.”

He once saw himself as governor of Wyoming. Instead, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame and became a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. He felt he could make more of a difference within a scholarly community.

“The very problems that I thought that I wanted to deal with in elected office are going to be dealt with by the leaders of the future en masse because I think that that’s the way that true change is going to happen,” Foy said.

He moved into university leadership roles with a desire to remove barriers in higher education. Before coming to Benedictine, Foy was interim president and vice president for academic affairs at Alverno College in Milwaukee, a smaller Catholic liberal arts school for women. Alverno was recognized as Wisconsin’s first Hispanic-serving institution by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017.

During his tenure, Foy helped create a plan to make Alverno a more culturally inclusive community. He also established an office of equity, diversity and belonging. He now oversees about 3,000 Benedictine students, including about 1,800 undergraduates.

“He’s got a servant leadership style that fits well with our community,” Colalillo said. “He also has a very keen sense of all the changes in the higher education landscape.”

Building relationships

Foy started July 24 with high ambitions. He plans to form partnerships with K-12 institutions and businesses to “create a high school to college to career pathway that is really transparent.” He’s also looking to expand the number of degree programs at Benedictine’s satellite campus in Mesa, Arizona, to address health care worker shortages.

“It’s really important for me to be able to build the relationships both internally and externally,” Foy said of his immediate focus.

As an independent university within the Joliet diocese, Benedictine will be governed by a board of trustees “who will uphold its Catholic and Benedictine identity,” Foy’s predecessor, now-retired school President Charles Gregory, said in a joint statement with Murphy and Hicks.

“They are not involved in the direct governance of our institution,” Foy said. “They don’t have the fiduciary responsibility, the governing oversight that the abbey once did when we were in that sponsorship relationship, but we still are recognized by the Catholic church. We’re still part of the Catholic church.”

The new status means Benedictine will be able to diversify its board and “create governance and representation that really reflects on the communities that we serve,” Foy said.

‘Ear of your heart’

Foy was invited to talk about his background for a Benedictine speaker series. But after three Black people were killed by a white gunman in a racist attack Aug. 26 at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, Foy wrestled with how he would respond to the shooting as Benedictine’s president.

“I instead want to just take a moment and ask that we really reflect on their souls, that we see their dignity, that we see and respect the pain and the loss that is felt by all of their families,” Foy told a gathering in the Goodwin Hall of Business.

Rather than sending out another email – he’s read far too many from other college leaders – Foy issued a “call to action.”

He encouraged students to grow in “relationship to one another.” He invited them to read “The Origin of Others” by Toni Morrison or the Gospels or the Quran or “historical, holy or philosophical texts that simply ask us to examine our biases and our assumptions so that we might heal ourselves and become healing for others.”

He quoted The Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen with the ear of your heart.”

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Joseph Foy

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from Carroll College in Montana; master’s degree in comparative politics and international relations and a Ph.D. in American government and comparative politics from the University of Notre Dame

Resume: Chair of the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin Colleges; associate campus dean and associate professor of political science for the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha; associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin Colleges; dean of the faculty at Marian University in Wisconsin; interim president and vice president for academic affairs at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Family: Foy and his wife have three children.