Last year, I interviewed Derry Connolly, founder of John Paul the Great Catholic University (JP Catholic). I’ve finally edited the interview and am posting it today. In our conversation, Derry talked about his own life as it relates to the genesis of the school and about his vision for the university.
JP Catholic opens for its inaugural year on September 18.
Here’s the whole interview:
You grew up in Ireland. How did you end up in southern California?
I grew up in Ireland, and in 1977, I got a scholarship to go study abroad at Cal Tech. When I arrived in Pasadena, I spent a week living in a woman’s garage in Eagle Rock — I had no car, and I was trying to find an apartment before classes started. After a week of walking the streets of Pasadena, I couldn’t find anything and I was desperate. So I went to the Catholic church which was closest to Cal Tech — Saint Philip’s in Pasadena — knocked on the door and asked if there was an Irish priest there. There was. I told him “I’m desperate, classes are starting and I have nowhere to stay.” And he said, “I’ve got a solution for you.” He took me next door to the convent which had just been vacated by nuns and was being rented to six guys in the second graduating class of Thomas Aquinas College. So the first two years I lived in California, I lived with six graduates from TAC.
Initially I had planned to return to Ireland after school. However, I got married and had kids here. When I graduated Cal Tech with my PhD, I moved to Tucson, Arizona, where I spent six years working with IBM. Then I moved to San Diego to work for a research lab at Eastman Kodak. I spent nine years with that company. Then, in 1997, I joined the University of California San Diego.
The interesting anecdotes on my journey toward John Paul the Great Catholic University start on a day I’ll never forget: November 2, 2000… the first day I ever spent on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. A very interesting day, and one that changed my life.
Why were you on campus? What brought you to Steubenville?
I had a high school junior and senior, both of whom wanted to go to Franciscan, so I was dragged — not willingly — with two of my kids, plus two friends, to Franciscan. It was not high on my list of priorities, but it changed my life. The kids had lots of friends on campus, so they abandoned me. I went to noontime Mass, and there were 400 students at Mass, which really impressed me.
Between the noontime Mass and the evening Mass, I went to the library, and randomly picked a book off the bookshelf. It was a book called The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University edited by Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame. In the book, he discusses the great Catholic university, and writes that there are three words: great, Catholic, university. He maintained that a great Catholic university had to be first a great university — so he coupled the first and the last words — and then Catholic. And that made my hair stand on edge. I thought, maybe he’s got it backwards… Pope John Paul II would say that to be a great Catholic university, you have to be first a great Catholic organization and then secondly a great university. Five years later, that sentence from Hesburgh’s book is still clear in my mind.
At 5:30 in the evening I went to the second Mass for the day at Steubenville, and this time not only were all the pews filled, but more students was standing around the sides. Father Michael Scanlan said the Mass, and it lasted an hour and ten minutes. And when Mass was over, I thought everybody would rush over to the door, but it didn’t happen. He was an inspiring speaker, and the kids were on fire for the faith.
After Mass, at about eleven o’clock that night, I spent an hour at the Portiuncula, a replica of the church where Saint Francis of Assisi and his first followers lived. He felt that Christ told him, “Go, rebuild my Church.” In the Portiuncula, I had time to reflect back on a couple of things: The first was thinking about the 1,000 kids at Mass that day. These kids were absolutely on fire for their faith. The second thing I reflected on was Father Hesburgh’s statement that a great Catholic university has to be a great university before it’s a great Catholic place. And I thought Steubenville was a contradiction to that, because it is absolutely a great Catholic institution, but it does not rank academically as a great university. But from a Catholic perspective, I would say it is number one as a university — bar none. And my next thought was that I work and I teach at UC San Diego — a top-ranked school — but the kids there are not on fire for their faith in they way they are at Steubenville. So I reflected on those three things: Steubenville as a great university, the contradiction in Hesburgh, and my own experience of being in a top-ranked secular school.
My background is technology. I have a PhD from the top engineering school in the world and I’ve worked with some of the top technology companies in the world. I couldn’t have gone to a Steubenville. I couldn’t have gone to a Thomas Aquinas to do what I wanted to do. So I said, where would kids like me go? They couldn’t go to a great Catholic institution. So the Lord said to me, “Create something like that.” He planted the seed to do something about my idea. I said “No, it’s a huge undertaking, and absolutely ridiculous.”
A year later, I got promoted to managing all of the adult education at UCSD. I was managing a program with 40,000 students annually with a huge diversity. It had the full mix of a university, including humanities, but the thing I cared about was technology.
Another two years later, I started teaching a course at UC San Diego for graduate students in engineering, encouraging them to build high-tech startups. The students there were on fire for learning how to start up high-tech businesses. I would sit down and look at the class and say to myself, “Man, I would guess there are maybe only one or two Catholic kids in here. But I know these kids are going to change the world. They’re the best and brightest at one of the best technical schools in the world.” I began to ask the question: Could there be a university where students are on fire for their faith and which would also have the academics of a UCSD? This was the real start of the development of John Paul the Great Catholic University.
Then I had the chance to visit Assisi, and as I was sitting in the original Portiuncula, I started thinking back to two-and-a-half years earlier when I was at the replica of the Portiuncula. The Lord said, “You’ve done nothing about the idea since!” I realized that to build a University, and to make a difference in the Church, you have to train the people who are going to make a difference in society. And universities graduate lots of students… but the bulk of university graduates get jobs where they become cogs in a wheel. They go into society, they get married, they have kids, but they’re not the major influencers in society. The people who really influence society are the entrepreneurs, the leaders, the people who are top-notch innovators, and on the communications media side it’s the people who are creators. They are absolutely the influencers. If you can make those influential people on fire for their faith, then the university will influence a very large number of people. That was really the genesis of John Paul the Great Catholic University.
Tell me more about the particular goals of the university.
We have to be small and elite; we can’t train every Tom, Dick and Harry. However, we can really focus on forming those who will influence the culture. That’s a very small subset. We’re looking for talent. We really want to recruit the best kids, so we want kids with high GPAs and kids with that creativity and innovation — and kids who are willing to take a risk.
What influences society more than anything else? Media and technology. I worked at IBM in the mid-80’s. In 1980, IBM owned an industry — the computer industry. By 1990, two young people changed that forever. They took the king of the industry and said, “Sorry, guys, we’re going to displace you.” So Michael Dell and Bill Gates forever transformed that industry. Michael Dell was only nineteen!
Today, the cost of producing media is nose-diving. Here in San Diego, people are working on new media technologies. In five years’ time, you’re going to have a high-definition TV set on your cell phone. You’re going to have portable media display devices that will forever change the media industry. The Hollywood of today — the power of the big guys — is going to become just like IBM. There is a huge convergence today of what I call media-enabling technologies that will forever change the media industry. What’s going to be king is content — content that is radically different from the two-hour films that you have today. We have a wonderful opportunity to be positioned to influence a convergence of media technology that will radically transform the industry… from a creative point-of-view, to influence content… and from the technology point-of-view, to influence delivery.
Is delivery going to change the kind of content that’s delivered?
Delivery will absolutely change what the king of content is. Content will be radically different going forward. The technology is happening now, and the content will very quickly follow. You can see it with delivery of content on the Internet. It’s getting really good and it’s changing.
From a Catholic perspective, we really need to take a stronger role in influencing the people who create content and who understand the technology to deliver content.
John Paul the Great Catholic University will be an innovator in another important way: it will adopt a new model of the way a university graduates students. Most institutions graduate individuals. When you graduate from a university, they graduate you and you only. You study, you’re on your own the whole time through university, you graduate on your own, you go to a job on your own. That model has to change. If we’re going to have an impact, we’re going to have to graduate teams. The university is an incredible environment to build new businesses, because it’s the one time in life when people from hugely different disciplines can think together about how to create businesses. They can afford to risk and go out to create businesses. It’s a wonderful time in one’s life. Here’s the challenge of John Paul the Great Catholic University: Can we not only graduate individuals but can we do something to incubate companies of the future that will influence content and content delivery in the whole media space?
What will the curriculum at the school be like?
When you come to John Paul the Great, a couple of things will happen to you: hopefully, just like at Steubenville, you’ll become rock solid in your faith, but you will also understand what drives business. You’ll understand what drives the need for technology and technology products, what drives the need for media and media content. You’ll understand business, first and foremost. In addition to understanding your faith, in your freshman year you’ll come to understand what drives business… the business models and strategies that influence how you make money out of media. In the second year, you’ll go back and start learning the basics of how you make that happen. Many times in the educational system, it’s the cart before the horse… if you ever get to understand the business, you might build up to it in your senior year. We’re going to start with educating eighteen-year-old kids about the business models and strategies. And then the students will come back and say: Okay, now that we know what drives business, let’s learn the tools… the software, the hardware, the business models, and to start thinking about building companies around content. In their last two years, a big part of the curriculum will be centered on coming up with an idea that makes business sense, and the school will help incubate this idea.
What kind of faculty will this require?
We’re hiring faculty that are not research faculty. They’re not judged by how many papers they can write. They’re judged by this standard: What is their experience of building businesses based on technology or media products? We’d love our faculty to leave the institution every five years and go off with a bunch of students to pursue some great business idea, because we don’t want them hanging around and getting stale. The idea is to hire knowledgeable entrepreneurs who will excite the kids, and when they see an opportunity, will leave to start up a business with a team of students. We’ll hire somebody else to come in fresh. It’s a different model for faculty and a different model for students. We’re inventing the future of Catholic higher education. It’s a totally novel concept.
What’s the impetus for choosing a team model of education?
Businesses are teams. In the class I’ve been teaching at UCSD, I form teams. Teams come up with wonderful ideas… absolutely great ideas. But the minute they walk out of the classroom and get their grade, there’s nothing in the system to support them continuing those teams. So year after year, I see this pattern. In a given year there may be five or six good ideas. I give the students grades, and they all go their separate ways… they graduate individually. There is nothing in the university system that does anything to keep those guys together. And the only way that we as a Catholic institution can carry out the vision of John Paul II to proclaim the Gospel — which is the only reason for a Catholic institution — is to empower students as a team. If you choose not to be part of the team, that’s fine; at least you’re far more useful when you go into a business if you understand how businesses work.
What keeps most of us from proclaiming the Gospel is that we don’t have the support structure. If you get a job as an individual in a company — for instance, if you go into an IBM tomorrow morning — you’re one guy. And you’re surrounded by all these others. You’re likely to pull back into your shell and not proclaim the Gospel. However, if you put five guys from a Catholic university into a company, spreading the Gospel is going to be really important for that business. Why? Because the entrepreneur who founded the company is going to be on fire for the faith. The head business guy will be on fire for the faith, and so will the software innovator, the writer, the producer. The top five people in that company all have different skills, but share one thing in common — a love and enthusiasm for the Catholic faith. That company that will put faith first. If you have one person hired by a major director, they’re going to make no difference. We will only be successful in evangelizing if we can keep a core of people together, going out together, and saying, “We’re going to build it.”
Suppose I have a successful entrepreneur working with Spielberg or a big studio. He’s on fire for his faith, and he has a great idea, but he’s got a wife and three or four kids that he’s got to support. He would love to have four or five kids working on his idea, so he comes to John Paul the Great Catholic U and says, “I have a wonderful idea, and I’m looking for a bunch of students to work on it.” He would come every week after work to mentor these kids, and after two years of work, the entrepreneur would leave Spielberg because he’s built the nucleus of a business. The students have benefited from adult supervision and coaching over the two years… he’s coached them for two years. The campus environment and the time of mentoring allow the business to get past that risk period, so that the team can go off together and put the business plan into action.
Tell me about the faith formation at the university.
The theology faculty will be absolutely critical. They have to be ready to engage several groups: the student, the non-theology / philosophy faculty, and society. The theology faculty won’t engage these groups by writing distinguished articles for distinguished journals that sit in distinguished libraries at distinguished institution of theology. The teachers have to be standing on platforms in the community saying, for example, that embryonic stem cell research is not consistent with Catholic teaching. They have to align themselves with the Church on issues facing people in the media and in technology in the community. They must be highly visible Catholic spokespersons. If they want to end up as chair of the philosophy department at Notre Dame, they shouldn’t come to John Paul the Great Catholic University, because we’re not going to allow them to do that type of academic research. The faculty needs to be steeped in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and in Sacred Scripture. One of the things I admire about John Paul II is that every thing he wrote is tied back to Scripture; there’s always a scriptural basis for his teaching.
What about formation outside of the classroom? This is going to be a campus with residents, and not commuters, right?
Right. There’s no other way to accomplish our goals. Student life will be modeled on the life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. We’ve hired staff who graduated from Steubenville… guys who are young, can connect with kids, are on fire for their faith, and can replicate what happens at Franciscan University. It’s the model that we like best. Not that we don’t like the other Catholic schools, but there’s only one thing you can copy.
Will all of the degrees be bachelor of science?
Yes, all of them, including the media program.
How important is academic freedom in the vision of John Paul the Great Catholic University?
I like the analogy of a baseball field. In a baseball field, when you’re out in outfield, there are wide open spaces, you can hit the ball wherever you want. But when you’re inside — home plate or wherever — there’s a dugout and stands with definite boundaries. Faculty cannot take positions that are at odds with the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, the Church allows great freedom in terms of how you can implement the teachings of Christ. There are huge opportunities in all the “dos” of the teachings of Christ and the Church. There is enormous freedom… that’s the outfield. There are a million things people can go do which are not inconsistent with the teachings of the Church. Just play on that part of the field. Academic freedom at our university means you need to follow the rules and then, within that framework, take advantage of all the freedoms you have.
Does the school have a patron saint?
St. Joseph of Cupertino, the patron saint of students doing exams. I quite like the guy. He worked well for me! I got much farther academically than I anticipated, and he played a pretty significant role.
Some people are fearful about the direction technology is taking. The world seems to be more and more driven by technologies such as the Internet, mobile phones, etc. What is your sense of the direction in which technology is taking the culture?
You know, I love what John Paul II said. He challenged Catholic universities: go out and understand the culture, and inculturate — permeate the world with the values of Christ. We shouldn’t fight or resist technology; we simply need to figure out how we can use it to proclaim the Gospel. We shouldn’t have this attitude that people are always going to do bad things with technology. The worst thing we can do is to be forever complaining about how it’s bad. Instead, we should pay attention to all of the potential for good in technology. Let’s figure out how we can use it for the betterment of mankind. I’m interested in the opportunities to do good. And our ultimate goal is to help people on their way to heaven.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the school?
One thing that is pretty important is that we’re not associated with any order. We’re not associated with the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Legionnaires of Christ, or any other order. We’re simply picking priests who are aligned with what we want to accomplish. We’re not associated with any lay organizations — for example, Opus Dei. The bottom line is that we’re an absolutely independent group of Catholic parents. We’re aligned with the magisterial teachings of the Church, and we have the consent of the local bishop. We’re not going to do anything to step out of line with him. He’s supportive, and wants us to be faithfully Catholic.