Fr. Bill Beauchamp
Fr. Bill Beauchamp
Here are some things to know about Father Bill Beauchamp, who will stop being the University of Portland’s 19th president in May, after 10 years of being a quietly fine president.

There are two types of things to know about his ten years as the boss of the bluff – things that you can see and measure and count, and things that you feel and sense and realize happened hardly without a ripple, big as they were.

Some of those first sort of things are brick things, like two new residence halls, and a new bell tower, and vast epic renovations of old shaggy buildings. Some are cool numerical things, like the fact that applications to the University tripled during his presidency, and the University led all its peers in America in Fulbright grants, and Peace Corps volunteers, and student community service hours, and entrepreneurship programs, and acquiring riverfront property that used to be so fouled with chemicals and creosote that your eyes watered when you walked across it but which will soon enough be a clean lovely redolent green space on one of the great rivers in the West in one of the great cities of the West.

One of the smallest universities in the NCAA’s top college division won a national title in soccer. The University won 21 West Coast titles while he was president. We lost count of athletic and academic All-Americans; last I heard it was fifty. We annually won the bang for the buck award among all Oregon universities. We lost count of visitors who had won the Nobel Peace Prize; last I counted it was four. We raised about $250 million from donors who invested in the University’s work and idea, more than any other college in the Northwest during those years.

These are good things, great things, laudable things, excellent news release fodder, great sales pitches, terrific outcome assessment. I celebrate them, I savor them, I am delighted by them, for I go back more than twenty years, and I remember times when such things were unimaginably far out of reach and dreaming.

But I might suggest that what you really ought to know about Father Bill Beauchamp, about his presidency, are the quiet subtle things – things that really changed the University in remarkable ways. Things like how under his direction we grew ever more open as a Catholic university, at a time when we could easily have become rigorous and defensive and frightened of swift social and cultural change. But we didn’t. We welcomed more students and faculty of other faiths and no faiths than ever before. We threw the doors of the big tent open a little more. We grew more confident that people who came to know us would see the sweet mercy and brilliant humility of Catholicism at its best, and become fans and agents for our species of spiritual substance.

Under his direction we grew more confident that our real peer was no other university at all, and that our real ambition was to be the most unusual and innovative small Catholic university in America, one that could, if we worked hard enough, find ways to bring the creative genius of Catholicism, its absorption with the miracle of the moment and the Christ in every heart, with the endless ways to apprehend and celebrate holiness, to every discipline, every audience, every constituency, not merely here on the bluff but in Portland and Oregon and America and abroad.

Under his direction we finally grew up, is what I am trying to say. For many years we were poor and good and hardly anyone knew. Then we were no longer poor and becoming excellent and a few people knew. Now we are stable and confident and we want the world to know. Now, finally, we are good enough to realize that we actually could be a Catholic university of stunning imagination and creativity, one that students and donors flock to so as to share in the energy and community, the spiritual zest and exploration, the defiant attempt to invent ways to solve the worst problems in the world, if we work hard enough, and dream big enough, and recruit enough like-minded friends and agents. Why not? Why not us?

Why not us? – those would be the right words with which to sum up Father Bill Beauchamp’s presidency. He was quiet. He was calm. He never led with a roar or a fist or a shout or a shining turn in a gleaming video clip. But he saw where we could go, and he quietly led and shoved and edged us in that direction, and he never basked in adulation for it, and he never will – he’s a shy man from Detroit, and glitz and hoopla is not his style. But he was very good at his job for ten years, and his excellence will make a difference for a century at Oregon’s most ambitious and innovative Catholic university. That’s a lovely sentence to be able to write. Thank you, Father Bill.
The writer is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of an essay collection called The Thorny Grace of It.