Wednesday, April 04, 2001

Priest savors his role as XU president

By By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Trustees embrace him, faculty trust him and students are unabashedly fond of him.

        But the Rev. Michael James Graham, a Jesuit priest, knew all that when he agreed to become Xavier University's 34th president on Jan. 1.

        If anything surprises him three months later, it's that he's still having fun, colleagues still call him “Mike” and his new responsibilities haven't distanced him from students.

[photo] The Rev. Michael Graham celebrates Sunday evening Mass for students at Xavier's Bellarmine Chapel.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        Whether he's striding across the Victory Parkway campus or leading a lecture on early American religion in the famously demanding seminar he continues to teach, Father Graham is a priest-professor poised to capitalize on his new role as chief executive officer of an urban university with a rising national reputation.

        “It's special when you can take your course from the president of the university, and you can still go to his office and see him about class,” says senior Gretchen Lieb, 21, of Columbus.

        Inheriting a financially stable school and a refurbished campus frees Father Graham to challenge students to intensify their pursuits of academic excellence, service and leadership, and faith and justice.

        Father Graham, 48, was the trustees' first choice to become new president of the 6,500-student university, the Tristate's oldest, largest Catholic school. He succeeded the Rev. James E. Hoff, SJ, who retired after 10 years.

        Father Graham was chosen years ago and groomed by Father Hoff with the 39-member board's early, enthusiastic approval.

        “Mike Graham's strong academic and administrative background, combined with his commitment to XU and the Jesuit values that Xavier represents, put him in a category all his own,” board chairman Michael J. Conaton said when he announced Father Graham's appointment.

[photo] Father Graham stayed in Cincinnati to support the women's basketball team in the first round of the NCCA tournament while the men's team was playing in Kansas City.
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        Faculty know and trust him as a colleague to whom they granted tenure after watching him retain his sparkle while maturing into one of the school's most effective teachers.

        “He is vibrant and demanding intellectually,” says Roger Fortin, chairman of the history department. “He is attracting students who are motivated to do that kind of work. And there always is a waiting list for his seminars.”

Living among students

        More than characteristic Jesuit intellectual discipline supports this level of achievement.

        Father Graham is devoted to physical fitness. He uses an elliptical climber five times a week and lifts weights three times a week at a nearby gym before arriving at the office by 7:15 a.m.

        “I'm task-oriented,” he says.

        His connection with students goes beyond class and Mass. He lives among them in the upstairs apartment of the student honors house and hoists a few with students and patrons at nearby Dana Gardens after Sunday night Mass.

        No one was surprised to see him at the Xavier women's NCAA basketball tournament game recently at Cintas Center, when the men were playing in Kansas City. Fan support for the men's team is a “given,” Father Graham said. He stayed for the women's game to show his support.

    The Rev. Michael James Graham
   • Born: March 9, 1953, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
   • Education: Bachelor's degree in philosophy and psychology (summa cum laude), Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, 1975; master's degree in American Studies, University of Michigan, 1977; master's degree in psychology, University of Michigan, 1978; Ph.D. in American Studies, University of Michigan, 1983; master's of divinity, Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass., 1988.
   • Vocation: Entered the Society of Jesus, 1978. Ordained a priest, 1988.
   • Xavier University: Adjunct professor, history, 1984-85; assistant professor, 1989—94; associate professor, 1994-95; vice president for university relations, 1994-99; executive assistant to the president, 1999-2000; president since Jan. 1, 2001.
   • Family: Parents, Donald C. and Mary Ann Graham, Cedar Rapids. Four brothers, Jeffery, Stephen, David and Phillip Graham; two sisters, Laurie Valentine and Tammara Michelic.
        “He makes himself present where students are,” Miss Lieb says.

        Miss Lieb, who first met Father Graham at one of his lunches with randomly invited students, says undergrads often are surprised when Father Graham addresses them by their first names.

        In the same way, Father Graham talks with students before and after the standing-room-only, 10 p.m Sunday masses that he celebrates in Xavier's Bellarmine Chapel.

        “His homilies usually are on issues dealing with our personal lives and living our faith,” says Danyce Saul, a sophomore from Indianapolis.

        Father Graham works hard on those sermons, honing his manuscripts even as he readies himself in a side chapel minutes before Mass.

        At a recent Mass, Father Graham evoked laughter by mentioning “that ad,” a TV commercial that ran earlier this year in which he described how Cincinnati Bell services helped improve teaching and research on campus.

        Months earlier, candor and humor mixed in a typically self-deprecating sermon when Father Graham recalled that many graduate school classmates joined the Society of Jesus in the 1970s to pursue the Jesuits' commitment to justice.

        “Not me,” he says. “I wanted to be a college professor.”

        At best, he recalled of his callow youth, he was indifferent to the Jesuit commitment to the service of faith and promotion of justice.

        Today, those values are foremost personally and professionally, he says, telling students he hopes that they will mature as he did.

        To drive home his point, he quoted the Jesuits' world superior general, the Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach:

        “Injustice is rooted in a spiritual problem, and its solution requires a spiritual conversion of each one's heart.”

Service learning

        Father Graham says he wants Xavier to intensify its pursuit of justice in its Jesuit setting by expanding its seamless web of study, prayer and service learning.

        This, he predicts, will lead students deeper into surrounding communities, change their lives and deepen their faith, whatever it is. “If people are growing in faith and hope and love, something is going on. We will not be judged on how we prayed. We will be judged on what we do.”

        It doesn't matter that a third of Xavier's 4,000 undergrads are not Catholic, he says. “Wherever you find God, more power to you. What you want is a kid who comes back from the soup kitchen saying, "I wonder if there is something that I can do about that?'”

        Service learning also is an antidote to the student who might otherwise “bolt his or her butt to the desk chair” for four years of college.

        All of this, Father Graham says, will ease perceptions that Xavier is an elite bastion, isolated from neighboring communities.

        To divine what that he might do, look at where this body-building aesthete, with his formidable reputation as a teacher and preacher, has been:

        • Mike Graham came of age in Iowa during the Catholic tumult created by the Second Vatican Council's sweeping changes in the church.

        • His Ph.D. in American Studies came from the University of Michigan, famous for strong academics at every level.

        • He ignored the Jesuits' elite Loyola University in Chicago and came to Xavier in 1984 because the Cincinnatians aggressively recruited him.

        • He joined the Society of Jesus — the largest company of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church — as Jesuits were becoming a modern force for justice as well as religious fidelity and intellectual excellence.

        Father Hoff landed on a shiny, well-funded campus that met the goals of his strategic plan.

        In recent interviews, Father Graham says he is convening campus colleagues to hear what they want from the next strategic plan. He plans to initiate it by Oct. 1, saying it will give the first glimpses into what he plans to do. Meanwhile, he is willing only to discuss issues it might tackle:

        • What is the optimal size of the student body? XU has been stable for a decade at about 4,000 undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students.

        • How can XU — a hot school among white, college-oriented teens — also recruit top high school grads from African-American and Hispanic communities as well as foreign students and rural or blue-collar whites who traditionally have not applied to a selective university?

        • Should XU seek additional property in Evanston, North Avondale and Norwood?

        His biggest challenge will be making tough choices among goals and programs, knowing that he cannot fulfill everyone's expectations.

        The man guiding these decisions was an intellectually curious but “you can't make me go to church” teen-ager.

        At Cornell College — a Methodist college in Mount Vernon, Iowa — Mike Graham still was exploring the existence and nature of God. He even “toyed” with revoking the vows made on his behalf when he was baptized.

        It wasn't until graduate school that Father Graham decided, “I was going to take faith seriously, whatever that meant.”

        Encounters with Jesuits reinforced “that sense that this is where the path led, and I should live out my Christian faith. It was not what I wanted but where it was going.”

        He took a chance. Thirteen years after his ordination, he says, “It works.”

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