Randy Boyagoda will take over as principal and vice-president at the University of St. Michael’s College July 1. Photo by Michael Swan

St. Mike's new principal aims to bring innovation, maintain traditions

  • June 26, 2016

TORONTO – A Catholic college owes just one thing to the families of young men and women entrusted to its care.

“They should expect from the university a place that takes seriously what they’re called to do with those students — which is to discern their vocation over four remarkable years,” said Randy Boyagoda, the University of St. Michael’s College new principal and vice-president.

Boyagoda just landed the job of shepherding St. Michael’s 5,000 undergraduate students within the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto. He officially takes office July 1.

Boyagoda comes from perhaps the most secular and modern university in Canada, having been director of zone learning at Toronto’s Ryerson University and a professor of English literature and American studies there. Whereas Ryerson morphed from a polytechnical institute into a full-fledged university as recently as 1993, Boyagoda now finds himself in the leafy quadrangle of a school that traces its roots back to 1852. 

Ryerson became a university on the basis of its strengths in engineering and nursing and maintains a reputation for practical, career-oriented, technical education. St. Michael’s was a creation of the Basilian Fathers, who sought to deliver a classical education to young Catholic men. It has been the academic home of philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and Jean Vanier, literary critics such as Marshall McLuhan, theologians such as Gregory Baum and even poet Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.

For 164 years, St. Michael’s has been steeped in the idea of a liberal education — an experience of western civilization for its own sake and for God’s glory. 

“I see the opportunity here to challenge the status quo and create something better,” said Boyagoda as he looked forward to his new job.

He envisions a kind of entrepreneurial greenhouse, modeled after the technology business incubators that sprang up near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology in the 1980s. 

“One of the things I want to do is create an innovation space on campus,” he said. “Let’s call it the Angel Lab or something like this.”

This hardly makes Boyagoda an iconoclast out to smash St. Michael’s traditions or trample its values. In fact, St. Michael’s has a noble history of social and academic innovation. In 1929 the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at St. Michael’s was a startling innovation in the study of medieval history and philosophy built on the then-new technology of the photocopier. Photocopiers made it possible to bring together in one place copies of important medieval documents from libraries scattered across Europe. 

Catholic social justice has also called forth innovation on the St. Michael’s campus. In the 1990s undergraduates at St. Michael’s managed to open the first downtown Out of the Cold program in the basement of St. Basil’s Church. 

Boyagoda will not be alone at St. Michael’s in his enthusiasm for new technologies and innovation. He will be in company with the graduate faculty of theology’s dean James Ginther, who is famous for putting the works of medieval thinkers such as Robert Grosseteste online and then inviting a global community of scholars to contribute to a thorough analysis aided by programming tools.

“Can we use start-up methodology and culture, such as I learned over at Ryerson, to find new ways to engage the people around us?” asked Boyagoda. “That kind of energy and bounce will infect the city around us, will inspire the city around us.”

The author of historical novels and a critical biography of conservative American thinker Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Boyagoda has a reputation as a conservative, John Paul II Catholic. But Boyagoda’s conservatism has nothing to do with any sort of intellectual gated community trying to stop time. As a scholar and a teacher, he lives for the sort of broad and generous conversation that entertains all ideas.

“The idea of playing ideological games with our faith and our traditions ends with basically right-left divisions that are helpful to no one at all,” he said.

As the father of four and an academic who has built his career on teaching, Boyagoda feeds off the energy of youth.

“Fantastic energy combined with a certain amount of uncertainty about what I should be doing with this energy” is the starting point for every undergraduate, according to Boyagoda. 

Inject into that scenario the very Catholic idea of a vocation and almost anything might happen.

“My role as principal is not to come up with the ideas themselves, but to create the conditions for others to do so,” he said. “You do that by being excited and confident about what this place is and what it wants to be.”

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