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Dr. Robert Kelly named first African-American president at University of Portland

A historic Holy Cross school in Oregon has named its first-ever lay and first African-American president in its 121-year history.

(University of Portland)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Dr. Robert Kelly has been named the 21st president of the University of Portland, the school announced late last month. He is the first layperson and first African-American to head the school.

Kelly currently serves as the vice president of Loyola University Maryland, a Jesuit school in Baltimore, and will assume the role at UP on July 1st. His appointment was announced at a ceremony held in Portland on April 26th.

“We pursued with great passion and conviction the very best possible leader, and we are confident that we have found that person—a devout Catholic who will embrace and promote our Catholic identity and Holy Cross charism,” said UP board chair Thomas Arndorfer.

“It is an honor and privilege to welcome Dr. Kelly, his accomplished wife, Dr. Bridget Turner Kelly, and their two children to our community.”

Throughout its 121-year history, the university has been headed by members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which founded the school in 1901. It now joins a host of US Catholic institutions of higher education transitioning away from presidencies held exclusively by members of a founding religious community.

Kelly will become one of just a handful of Black presidents at Catholic universities in the US, including several appointed within the past year-plus at Canisius College, Carlow University, St Elizabeth University, and the College of the Holy Cross.

The most recent president at UP, Fr Mark Poorman, CSC, stepped down last year to return to teaching at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Herbert Medina, the school’s provost, was named acting president in July.

Fr William Lies, CSC, the Holy Cross superior for its US province, spoke highly of the move to appoint Kelly.

“We are proud to welcome Dr. Kelly now as our first lay president, and commit to working closely with him for the continuing success of this wonderful institution,” he said

“May God bless him, his family, and his tenure at University of Portland.”

Kelly himself also expressed thanks during his speech to the UP community during the event on campus last week.

“I am humbled by this distinction and I recognize the historic nature of my selection. I come to this position after much discernment and prayer, and I do not take this responsibility lightly,” he told the assembled crowd.

“I pledge to the Congregation, and to all who call UP home, my commitment to ensuring that our Catholic, Holy Cross mission endures and thrives.”

Kelly, a 1994 graduate of LUM, holds a doctorate in education from the University Maryland has over 25 years of experience in higher education and previously served in administrative posts at Colgate University; the University of Vermont, where he received a master’s in education administration in 1996; Seattle University; Loyola University Chicago, and Union College.

He began his position as a special assistant to the president of LUM in 2017, and has overseen initiatives at the school related to mission integration, campus ministry, social justice, and DEI.

His historic appointment at UP was also not the only Black Catholic news out of the university in recent weeks, coming just days before the school’s 2022 commencement exercises—which featured the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Gloria Purvis, a nationally-known media personality and the inaugural pastoral fellow in the Office of Life and Human Dignity at the University of Notre Dame.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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