A former altar boy at St. Mary’s Church in Denville, Matthew Whelan never pursued the priesthood or a non-secular career.
A successful entry into higher education put him on a different path. But starting last year, Whelan applied his faith and talents as the first lay man to serve as president of Caldwell Catholic University.
Hired three weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic, Whelan took office and a new speech at Caldwell in July 2020. He was officially installed as president in a campus ceremony on October 22.
âThe people here are amazing,â Whelan said of his new assignment. “Our students are amazing young people who are absolutely determined to improve their lives. Many of them are determined to give back and serve others. This is part of the Dominican tradition that I hope to build on.”
The Sisters of St. Dominic founded Caldwell College for Women in 1939. The school began accepting male students in 1986 and was granted university status in 2014.
Whelan grew up with seven siblings in Denville, where he graduated from Morris Catholic High School in 1982. He continued his education at Mercyhurst College, another small Catholic institution run by nuns who, like Caldwell, is now a university.
“I may not have been the best student in my entire life, but [the Sisters of Mercy] were able to do a really good academic job for me, âhe said,â I think because I had people who were willing to hang out with me and tell me I was capable. “
He studied criminal justice and was admitted to law school, but his college debts led him to take a year off to work at the Mercyhurst admissions office.
“This one-year decision turned into a 35-year career,” said Whelan, who has worked his way up to dean of enrollment at universities such as Hofstra, St. John’s and Stony Brook, where he spent 14 years before accepting the position at Caldwell.
Whelan said he was aware during the job search that he might be the school’s first male lay president, but did not directly explain why the school turned to lay leadership, starting with her predecessor, Nancy Blattner.
âI know from looking at presidential research in other places, I think unfortunately young people are moving away from religious communities,â Whelan said. âThe seminars are not as full as they used to be. The convents are not as full as before.
He took office with a total commitment to his Catholic faith and the mission of the school, which promises âintellectual, spiritual and aesthetic growth to a diverse population and welcomes all religious cultures and traditionsâ.
âAs society moves more and more towards a secular approach to the world, I think it’s very important to have this religious tradition to hold onto,â he said. “The values ââwe embrace are not uniquely reserved for the Catholic faith. We welcome people of many different faiths.”
The majority of current students are the first in their families to graduate from college, administrators said. Caldwell is designated as an Institution Serving Hispanics by the US Department of Education, Office of Post-Secondary Education, and 99% of its students receive financial aid.
The annual undergraduate tuition fee at Caldwell is $ 34,900.
Blattner, who served from 2009 to 2020, passed a traditional mass of leadership and authority to Whelan during the installation ceremony. The Archdiocese of Newark, Bishop Manuel Cruz, was the main celebrant of a morning mass preceding the installation.
Speaking of the Sisters of Saint Dominic, Cruz said to Whelan: âYou will stand on the shoulders of great giants. And they are there.
âDr. Whelan is showing himself to be a true leader,â said Sister Luella Ramm, Prioress of the Sisters of St. Dominic. “The sisters are confident in her ability to further the rich heritage of Caldwell University and the mission of the sisters.”
With around 1,631 undergraduates and 467 graduate students, Whelan said, he heard the 70-acre Caldwell campus described as a “best-kept secret.”
“It’s not a good thing,” he said.
Like many small private universities, a significant post-COVID challenge that Whelan and Caldwell face is financial health. A financial analysis of the NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY network placed Caldwell at the bottom of the financial score scale among 14 New Jersey universities.
Scores were calculated for each school using a series of formulas jointly developed by KPMG and Prager, Sealy & Co, Attain LLC participating in the most recent edition.
âEvery school, Catholics included, faces a tsunami of change,â said Whelan. âThere are questions about the value of small private Catholic education. These questions discussed by the experts do not see a problem: we are doing what a lot of people across the country are only talking about doing. We welcome a very diverse student population. Some of them our students are very good academically and intellectually, but they wouldn’t survive in the big institutions, where your first chemistry class might have 500 students. “
Part of the solution, he says, is to break away from that âbest-kept secretâ label.
âWe absolutely have to push the boundaries to get the name out there,â said Whelan. “My background is in enlistment. So we’ll make sure to visit people statewide and go to our border states as needed to get them to New Jersey.”
Whelan added that he anticipated new college programs were on the way, but could not announce them yet.
“We hope to get them approved by January,” he said.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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