David Mulroney Photo by Michael Swan

Mulroney takes world view of Catholic education

  • May 2, 2015

TORONTO - The diplomat’s take on what it means to be educated includes getting out of your country and out of your comfort zone. For incoming University of St. Michael’s College president David Mulroney, his diplomat’s understanding of education also happens to be Catholic.

The former ambassador to China takes over at Canada’s largest Catholic university with more than 4,000 undergraduates and more than 200 graduate students July 1. While it’s too early to announce specific programs, Mulroney will be pushing for more opportunities for St. Mike’s students to study abroad.

“I actually think it is part of what it means to be an educated Canadian, to have that experience abroad,” Mulroney told

The Catholic Register after his appointment was made public April 23. “It’s experience of the wider world. It’s fundamentally part of your education.”

But that’s not just the ex-diplomat speaking. Mulroney is convinced nothing could be more Catholic than an experience of the world beyond Canada’s borders.

“We’re connected to the world’s first great global organization, the Catholic Church,” Mulroney said.

A distinguished senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs over the last three years, Mulroney uses Cardinal John Henry Newman to try to convince students they should take risks and make sacrifices to gain international experience.

“My champion… is John Henry Newman. You need to have this passion first of all. So you’re not going just to party with other foreign students. It’s sort of a hole in you that you need to fill. You’re keenly interested. It’s part of who you were meant to be,” he said.

As the author of a report for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada on “Canada’s Asia Challenge: Creating Competence for the Next Generation of Canadians,” it’s a safe bet Mulroney will be looking for ways to send St. Michael’s students to China and other Asian countries for part of their studies. But Mulroney also wants to find ways to send Catholic students to study in Rome and other Catholic centres. He envisions opportunities for students to engage in Catholic social teaching and social justice directly, working and studying in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

“It’s absolutely fundamental in terms of knowledge of the faith,” he said.

A focus on the Catholic difference at St. Michael’s is what will make Mulroney successful as an institutional leader and a fundraiser for the Catholic college, said Michael Higgins, former St. Thomas University president.

“The Mulroney appointment is grand news,” said Higgins, currently the vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. “I think David Mulroney understands with a welcome clarity the centrality of mission to Catholic higher education. Catholicity is not a decorative or residual dimension of St. Michael’s. It is constitutive of its very essence.”

Getting ready to take on the new job has been a process of prayer, reflection, conversation and reading Vatican documents such as Ex Corde Ecclessiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution for higher education. But Mulroney is aware that fundraising will be a big part of his job at St. Mike’s.

“It comes back to having a story to tell,” he said. “There is a fundamental mission for this university at this point in time. Canadians, though they may not always agree with the Church, I think they look to the Church when we’re operating as we should as a source of optimism, as a source of answers, as a place of confidence in an otherwise troubled world.”

People will give to St. Michael’s if they know what the college stands for, he said.

“When I say it’s distinctively Catholic, I mean that students who come through here will leave with something more than they arrived with. They will leave with an appreciation for their faith, their faith will be deepened and they will play a role as Catholics in their families, in their education and school communities and in the larger community,” said Mulroney.

“That’s an inescapable measure we have to think about.”

Not only did Mulroney graduate from St. Mike’s in 1978, so did his mother, the former Barbara Hood, and his uncle, Canadian novelist Hugh Hood, as did his sister, Catherine.

Mulroney’s Basilian ties run deep, having grown up in St. Basil’s parish and attending St. Michael’s College School before going to university.

Mulroney takes over from Congregation of St. Joseph Sister Anne Anderson, who has been president since 2008. Anderson was the first woman to hold the job. Mulroney will be the second lay person after Anderson’s predecessor Richard Alway.

The tradition of St. Michael’s really begins with the Basilian Fathers creating an opportunity for Irish immigrant boys to gain an education that the Protestant establishment of pre-Confederation Upper Canada would never have given them.

“One of the great legacies of St. Michael’s is that it has always been a home to people who are slightly on the outside,” said Mulroney. “I want to be sure that we’re continuing that.”

Mulroney wants to be sure Catholic high school students in every corner of the city know they have a home waiting at the University of Toronto.

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