The Path Of Monsignor James Shea

Written by: Brady Drake

Photos via the University of Mary

Monsignor James Shea became the youngest college or university president in the United States when he accepted the position with the University of Mary at the age of 34 in 2009. Since then, Shea has gotten a crash course in business that makes him a fitting feature for our magazine.

Shea’s journey to his current position began on a dairy farm in Hazelton, North Dakota, that was, “a hell of a lot of work.” The oldest of eight children, Shea said he took up every extracurricular he could in school because it got him out of a chore or two. As a result, he played basketball in high school, was involved in theater, was on the speech team, a member of student government and the editor of the student newspaper.

After graduating from high school, Shea began down a path of postsecondary education where he:

  • Began his undergraduate degree at Jamestown College, majoring in English and history
  • Earned a Bachelor’s and Pontifical Master’s Degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
  • Studied classical Greek at the University of Texas at Austin and continued at the Vatican’s North American College, studying theology at the Gregorian and Lateran Universities in Rome
  • Studied management at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business

You may notice that the list does include business management studies, however, Shea will openly tell you that he may have been qualified to oversee the $55,000 budget of the parish he used to serve in western North Dakota, he was not ready for the $55 million budget he walked into at the University of Mary.

“I’m a Catholic priest, and my joke is that when the board of trustees selected me to be the sixth president of the University of Mary, they made a ‘clerical error,’ because it was almost verging on the criminal, how vastly unqualified I was for the work that I was being asked to do. However, what I clearly did have was a deep love for education.”

Did you know?

The University of Mary has had a location in Fargo, North Dakota, for over 20 years now. The Fargo Butler Center is geared toward working adults and has a wide range of both graduate and undergraduate degrees available.

University of Mary Fargo Campus

Even if he was underqualified at the time of accepting the position, with over a decade under his belt running the institution, Shea is clearly fit for the job.

“The things that I’ve had to learn, you can’t learn in a book,” said Shea. “I’ve had to learn all kinds of things about faculty governance, budgets, capital investment, and fundraising.”

“Business is the art of people,” said Shea. “If you like people genuinely, and if you truly desire to understand what motivates them, only then are you ready to attend to the dynamics of technical training, having to do with marketing, having to do with what resonates with the consumer, having to do with customer attraction and retention, all of those things.”


Gary Tharaldson School of Business

How do you see the school model shifting and evolving?

Some people may say that ‘the old model of face-to-face classes needs to go away in favor of more virtual learning.’ I think that’s an interesting insight, but it’s a little bit pedantic and even a touch passe. We need to innovate for sure, but we also have to think beyond the technical question of how education is delivered. 

I believe, like many educators, that we need to break down barriers and make sure that people of all kinds of different means and backgrounds have access to the great transformative power of education, especially at the university level. I think that a lot of students, probably millions of students in the United States, had a really poor experience with online learning in late March.

However, there are some topics that can be learned better in an online setting, where the materials of the learning can be transmitted more effectively. There are certain fields of study that lend themselves to that modality, but we still have to be very intentional about how community can be built for learning. Human beings are not robots. You don’t just feed us a formula, we internalize it and then we’re able to execute. Learning for human beings is an organic process, a communal endeavor.

For instance, our curriculum in the Gary Tharaldson School of Business–and I’ve been insistent upon this–is structured such that our students are not just equipped with skills so that they can pass the CPA exam or have the technical expertise for business administration, but we strive to give them the capacity to be able to operationalize and to enact those skills in an ethical and humane way.

What are some tips that you think you could give business owners?

You have to lead according to principle. In other words, there have to be some fixed principles that are non-negotiables in your manner of caring for people. These have to be deeply true, and you need to be able to believe them no matter how things are going. For instance, at the University of Mary we have been focusing on servant leadership long before it became a mantra. If you’re not bringing out the best in yourself by bringing out the best in others, then you’re not really leading. To lead is to serve. Whatever they are, it’s crucial that you stick to your principles, especially when the wind is blowing and everybody around you wants to cast them aside and just respond to what’s happening in the moment. 

Another thing that is important for us is to have a clear understanding of who you’re really caring for, and to care for them. As I was saying before, business is a people business. It’s not all about data. The catchphrase for our time is ‘data-driven decisions.’ I think that’s really important, for sure, and if you’re making decisions just based on intuition or emotion, that’s a good way to steer your ship right into the sandbar. However, if you’re only making decisions based on data, and you’re not carefully considering the genuine needs of people to grow, to feel safe, to feel protected, to feel cared for, and all of the other needs of the people under your care, you’re probably in the wrong business.

What ultimately made you apply for the position? 

Well, at first I said ‘no.’ The board of the university saw that I was teaching up a storm at the secondary schools where I was teaching in Bismarck, and then later in Dickinson. Because of that, I think that somewhere along the line, somebody thought that I could make a contribution here. So, I was approached about the possibility of being president of the university. It was so flabbergasting and it was so out of the realm of possibility, given my qualifications, that I more or less dismissed the idea. I was living in Killdeer, North Dakota, at the time, where I had two small parishes. I was living the dream as a parish priest, and I would drive every day down to Dickinson to teach high school. It was a beautiful life for me. 

At a certain point, my bishop called me and said, “The Sisters (of Annunciation Monastery) came to see me, and I think you ought to go talk to them.” I went and had a conversation with the Sisters, the founders and sponsors of the University of Mary, and they were very compelling and persuasive, in the way that only religious sisters can be! After that conversation, I called the bishop and said that I’d be open to being a candidate. It was all an enormous surprise.

How did you end up getting called to the church?

When I was a little kid, my parents took questions of faith seriously. My mom and dad took us to church and we prayed as a family. There were priests in our little parish in Hazleton who had come from all over the world. They were very happy men. They were fun and kind, and they were good to us kids. I wanted to be like them because I thought they had a beautiful outlook on life. So, I felt called when I was pretty young. 

Then, I forgot all about it in high school and didn’t think about it much at all until I got to college. I had a younger brother who was killed in a farm accident when I was a freshman in college. I’m the oldest of eight and he was number seven and the youngest at that time. When that happened, I had to ask some pretty serious questions about what my life was going to be all about. Of course, it threw my family into chaos and sorrow. It was a very difficult heart-wrenching situation. The Church was there for us. I think eight priests came to my brother’s funeral and the bishop himself drove down to comfort my family. That was so beautiful to me. I thought, if that’s what the Church does, you should sign me up. That’s an amazing way to spend a life.

Tell me about the fundraising effort that brought in $100 million for the university. 

A few years ago, we launched a capital campaign called Vision 2030. The goal for the first phase of the capital campaign was to raise $96 million. In three and a half years, we raised $101 million. That was an amazing accomplishment, because that level of a capital campaign had never been completed in western North Dakota before. Nobody had ever raised that level of money in our region, especially in so short a time.

What’s it like raising that kind of capital? 

That level of fundraising really hinges upon relationships. In other words, you need to be able to build strong relationships with people, and they need to be able to trust you.  After all, those who have the ability to give at that level put a lot of ingenuity and sacrifice into earning their wealth, and they expect their philanthropy to make a true difference in the world. They have a right to expect that!

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.