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Layman honoured for outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education

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Layman honoured for outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education

By Laura Ieraci

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The most recent lay president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) was recognized recently for his outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education by both the Vatican and the U.S. government.

“It is a very nice surprise at the end of a 50-year career,” said Dr Michael Galligan-Stierle, who retired June 30.

Galligan-Stierle received two awards while in Rome in May for the ACCU’s annual Rome Seminar, organized in conjunction with The Lay Centre, for senior executive leaders in Catholic higher education.

Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, presented him with his induction into the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, which recognizes Catholic who have performed outstanding service to the church. United States Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich presented him with a certificate of appreciation for his 50 years of service to U.S. higher education. These awards are but two of two dozen awards he has earned over the years.

“It means a lot” when people step forward on behalf of “a country, an organization or a church to recognize a significant difference was made because of your life’s journey and profession,” he said.

Prior to retirement, the 69-year-old executive said he was reflecting on all the people who helped him in the unfolding of his journey, too.

Dr Galligan-Stierle began his career in higher education as a campus minister in 1971. While a campus minister, he taught theology and religion at a number of public and Catholic universities for 30 years. Concurrently, as of 1980, he worked for the Archdiocese of Miami, taking on a number of director positions related to religious education and campus ministry. As of 1990, he served at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia as the director of campus ministry, an adjunct professor, and co-director of mission and ministry.

Then, in 2001, he took a position as the assistant secretary for Catholic higher education and campus ministry with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He began as ACCU vice president in 2006, and became president in 2010. He holds a PhD in sacred scripture and a master’s in psychology.

Looking back at his career, Dr Galligan-Stierle noted that he was a “trailblazer” of sorts as the first lay person in all of the jobs he took for the first 35 years of his career. While 70 percent of campus ministers today are lay people, he said, there were only six lay people working in campus ministry across the country in 1970. As trailblazers in lay ministry, he and his wife of 41 years, Pamela, who also served as a theology professor and university chaplain, had the opportunity to innovate and start new programs that had never existed in parishes and on campuses before.

Among his accomplishments in campus ministry, Dr Galligan-Stierle said he is most proud of his book, “Gospel on Campus: A Handbook of Campus Ministry Programs and Resources,” which served as a primer for training campus ministers nationwide for a decade.

His responsibilities at the USCCB comprised helping the bishops with the nationwide implementation of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” He recalled his major accomplishment as defusing the “contentious situation between the U.S. bishops and the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities” and shifting focus and action toward implementation.

As ACCU vice president, Dr Galligan-Stierle focused on the relaunch of the Journal of Higher Education and the quarterly newsletter, which he revamped, as well as on organizational growth. Indeed, membership grew from 200 to 250, and attendance at the annual meeting jumped from 250 to 500. The annual budget also doubled to $2 million.

During his nine years as ACCU president, Dr Galligan-Stierle had a direct hand in publishing four books, 20 pamphlets and five white papers. He is most proud of his two edited books: “A Mission Officer Handbook: Advancing Catholic Identity and University Mission, Volume I” (2014) and “A Mission Office Handbook: Collaborating with Partners, Volume II” (2015), both available on the ACCU website.

More recently, the ACCU launched the Catholic Identity & Mission Assessment, a tool that helps colleges and universities measure where students are at across various categories when they enter, when they graduate and as alumni. For nearly four years, he also oversaw the development of an online program, to be launched in the coming year, that will provide formation and increase executive leadership skills in Catholic higher education.

Under his leadership, the ACCU worked to emphasize Catholic identity and university mission and to address recent shifts in teaching, learning and funding. Keeping Catholic higher education affordable is among the biggest challenges currently, he said.

“Society is going through a significant transition in learning and communication,” he said. “The traditional model of learning is being reimaged in significant ways, and this has economic consequences and requires changes in teaching styles.”

“There is a revolution hitting Catholic education today that is as significant as the printing press, and it affects teaching and learning. People are still finding their way as to the best way to do this,” he said. “The new generation has a thirst for knowledge, but they want to learn in a new way.”

Dr Galligan-Stierle said Catholic colleges and universities are also faced with a new social phenomenon that sees fewer students taking part in groups. 

“The students of this (current) generation are not ‘joiners,’” he said. Among young adults, the trend is “choosing a personal path that suits me best. They are not looking at institutions for answers.” 

One consequence is that they are less engaged in churches, although they have a thirst for spiritual things. This trend means Catholic educators need to find new methods to incarnate the Gospel for this generation, he said.

Despite the challenges, “at the end of the day, Catholic higher education in the United States is very innovative and is finding ways to pass along learning to the next generation,” as per the guidelines of St John Paul II, especially as regards Catholic social teaching, vocations and God’s creation. It is also very effective in taking students from the conceptual to the concrete, he added. 

Empirical research also demonstrates that Catholic school graduates have less debt, make more ethical decisions in the marketplace, average $1,000 more in salary per year, are more likely to pay off debt, are larger church donors, are more engaged in community service, and are more likely to attend Sunday worship, as compared with other university graduates, he said. 

“Catholic higher education in the United States takes its identity and mission very seriously,” he said. It’s “not perfect, but it’s the best that exists and it’s going to get better.”

Dr Galligan-Stierle said he is very excited about the ACCU’s board selection to lead ACCU into the future. He described the incoming president, Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, as “very competent” and a “tremendous successor.”

He said he looks forward in retirement to having the “time to do the things I haven’t had a chance to do,” but intends “to take an extended retreat and ask God” where he is calling.  “I’d like to help as best I can. We will see what the future brings,” he said.

For the moment, he is enjoying his six grandchildren, gardening, fishing, playing basketball, and doing some speaking and consulting.

“It has been a tremendous opportunity to live a life wherein I was able to share my gifts with God’s people for 50 years by serving within higher education and doing it as a representative of the Catholic Church,” he said. “It has been a beautiful, blessed journey, and I look forward to it continuing in new ways — just at a different, less intense pace.”

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