Father Michael Graham Reflects on His Xavier Days

As he retires from Xavier University, Father Michael Graham feels he helped the institution find its rightful place in Cincinnati and the world.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

He leans back in his rocking chair, his eyes darting across the ceiling. His right hand goes to his face, then back to the arm of his chair. Then, as if the words he seeks are floating in midair, like a scene out of The Queen’s Gambit, he grabs them and recites them quickly in case they disappear into the ether. “Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name. Each mortal thing does one thing and the same.”

Father Michael Graham goes on, now confident that the youth-ingrained sonnet by 19th century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins remains embedded in his hippocampus. “Christ, for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his. To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Graham is president of Xavier University, for just a little longer. He also is a Ph.D., a community leader, a Jesuit priest, and a mentor to students and faculty alike. Perhaps he’s also a poet at heart.

“When everyone else was binge-watching The Crown, I was making my way through a formidable DVD collection of Shakespeare plays,” he admits. After watching five quarantine-fueled versions of Hamlet in a week and a half, he bought a collection of the Bard’s works. He doesn’t use the word nerdy, but he laughs about his obsession with the art of language. If he’d lived back in ancient Greece, he muses, perhaps he—instead of Homer—would have been the Blind Poet.

Graham stands out in a crowd, and not just because he’s a university president. At 6-foot-3, he’s athletically built and moves with a swift grace, even at age 68. His well-known deep baritone voice can alternate between an enthusiastic shout of “Musketeers!” when addressing students on happy occasions to a golden tone as soothing as a warm bath when the need arises. Students, when they see him strolling around campus, flock to him. He always has time for them, even though he really has no time.

Xavier’s Class of 2021 is Graham’s last. He retires on June 30 after more than 20 years as president—a longer tenure than any of his 33 predecessors. He says it’s a good time to leave, explaining that, like the Jesuit training track, presidential terms can logically be measured in 10-year increments.

He will be succeeded by Colleen Hanycz, who will be the first woman and the first layperson at the helm of the 190-year-old Jesuit institution on Victory Parkway. She will find Graham’s fingerprints wherever she goes.

It would surprise no one that the campus has changed over Graham’s 20 years in charge of Xavier. There are new buildings, notably the four towers of Bishop Fenwick Place—soon to be renamed Justice Hall—which include dorm rooms and the campus dining hall, known simply as “The Caf” by students.

Photograph courtesy Xavier University

Smith Hall houses the Williams College of Business and boasts a small version of a Wall Street trading floor. The Conaton Learning Center serves students with everything from career development to internet connection issues. Gallagher Student Center is the university’s student union. U-Station houses student apartments and retail. The newest structure, the 150,000-square-foot Health United Building, is the university’s recreation, health, and wellness center, built in partnership with TriHealth. Cintas Center, home for Xavier athletics, opened seven weeks before Graham took office.

Graham was instrumental in moving Xavier into the Big East, one of America’s premier basketball conferences. After the conference split in 2012, when the football-playing teams left for other affiliations, the remaining seven members began hunting for replacements. John Kucia, Xavier’s vice president for administration, remembers Graham jumping at the opportunity to upgrade Xavier’s national profile.

Kucia, who at the time included the athletic department in his portfolio, says Graham’s interest in sports and his natural leadership qualities had made him a force in the Atlantic 10 Conference, XU’s athletic home then. But Graham recognized immediately what membership in the rebooted powerhouse Big East would mean to Xavier, both athletically and academically.

Graham aligned with two other university presidents and put together a three-fer that was irresistible to the Big East membership. Xavier from Cincinnati, Butler from Indianapolis, and Creighton from Omaha, Nebraska, would extend the Big East reach from Atlantic Ocean shores to Midwest wheat fields, bringing in a trio of worthy rivals representing excellence on the court and in the classroom. It was a golden ticket for everyone, except maybe the Atlantic 10.

An avid fan who looks like he could take the court himself, Graham has never been shy about plunging into the student section at home basketball games, high-fiving mascot D’Artagnan, or guest conducting the pep band for a few bars. Hanycz, when she came to campus for the first time after being named president, recognized the challenge. “I promise to learn all the cheers,” she pledged.

Graham likely has told her that, while it’s true Musketeer basketball is a wonderful communal experience, it’s actually a donor opportunity for college presidents. Yes, even if you’re a Jesuit priest who’s taken a vow of poverty, there are endowment funds to raise, interest rates to watch, debt service to worry about, and wealthy alumni to stroke. It’s part of the job.

After more than 13 years at Xavier either as an assistant professor or a rising administrator who eventually became Father Jim Hoff’s chief aide, Graham was ready for the big chair. After Hoff retired as president in 2000, the board’s search committee still interviewed Graham, and he dutifully prepared a six-page single-spaced paper on the challenges and opportunities Xavier would face. The job was his to lose, and he didn’t.

Photograph courtesy Xavier University

Graham readily admits, with a laugh, that his “Roman collar didn’t hurt” as he wound his way up the university food chain, taking on important assignments such as directing the University Scholars program and, as vice president for university relations, quarterbacking Xavier’s record-breaking $125 million capital campaign in the late 1990s. Those roles, combined with his previous faculty position, exposed him to all facets of the university and the community.

Graham walked into his new office in Schmidt Hall on January 1, 2001, arguably the most prepared president in Xavier’s history. But nothing had readied him for what came just three months later. “The riots,” he says emphatically and without hesitation, “fundamentally shaped this university by making us ask the question, Just what is our place in the world and especially in our own community?” While it’s a question worthy of Jesuit debate, discernment, and introspection, 20 years later you can tell Graham’s question then—and today—wasn’t theoretical. It was a recognition that, as the ground under Cincinnati had shifted, Xavier needed to examine its place in a changed community.

Timothy Thomas’s fatal shooting by police in April 2001 set off four nights of civil unrest in Cincinnati, exposing the truths of economic inequities, injustice, police-community relations, and racism that had festered for too long. Graham was grateful Xavier students were home for spring break that week, and he prepared for their return to campus by organizing a forum that brought together community leaders and Xavier faculty and staff.

Graham recalls “a couple of searing hours” with emotions running high. There were tough questions about racism in the community, the police, and the university’s commitment to social justice, diversity, and inclusion. The question on everyone’s mind was, Where do we go from here?

Graham is credited by students and faculty alike as being a good listener. He was that night. “I remember going back to my apartment and watching the ice cubes dissolve at the bottom of my scotch glass and thinking, What just happened here? What was that?” he recalls, again looking skyward—suggesting that wrenching evening two decades ago can still extract some lingering pain.

It was clear to Graham that his university, like many, was too comfortable in its own world. As the problems that led to civil unrest festered for years outside campus and in the neighborhoods, students were busy studying, going to the local watering hole, and chilling with their friends. Faculty and staff were busy running the university and, like most people, returning home in the evening to be with their families. The civil unrest was a shock—not just because of the violence, but because few city leaders saw it coming.

Kucia, who has served four Xavier presidents in nearly 40 years at his alma mater, remembers well the first time it occurred to XU administrators that there was a town/gown barrier. It was the mid-1990s, and Hoff was working to secure all of the moving parts needed to build the Cintas Center. A key piece was obtaining permission from Cincinnati City Council to permanently close a portion of a city street.

City officials, Kucia explains, weren’t encouraging at first. “We found out we had a relationship with the community,” he says, laughing, “and that relationship wasn’t good.” Xavier had no chits to spend. Decades of demonstrating little to no engagement in the poverty-laced neighborhoods surrounding the campus had left city leaders cold to the university’s development plans. And you want us to close a street? The request was probably viewed as the Catholic version of chutzpah. Kucia says it was an early warning signal.

Xavier, of course, got its Cintas Center but, Kucia notes, the experience didn’t transform the university’s thinking right away. There was resistance at both the administrative level and with much of the faculty to the idea of actively engaging with surrounding communities like Evanston and Norwood. “The push-back was, We’re an academic institution and not a social service agency,” he recalls. Graham, he says, did not share those concerns. But, Kucia quickly reminds me, Graham wasn’t the decision-maker then.

Perhaps as Graham reflected over his scotch in April 2001, he thought back to that earlier debate. Maybe he simply drew on the Jesuit values that include the command of “women and men for others”—sharing gifts, pursuing justice, and showing concern for the poor and marginalized. Nevertheless, now he was in charge, and he felt the opportunity and responsibility to lead. It was time to get out there.

Graham jumped right in, becoming a central player in the Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) process, chairing the police reform committee. He involved the university in the United Way and the Community Building Institute, established a rapport with Evanston and Norwood civic and business leaders, joined the Green Umbrella environmental sustainability group, and began working with Black leaders in the community. The Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. gave him a private tour of pre-gentrified Over-the-Rhine that shocked him.

His outreach, naturally, took him to education. Graham became the first president of the board of Cincinnati Preschool Promise, steering a collaborative process that led to the master agreement with Cincinnati Public Schools. On campus, he encouraged the development of a number of academic programs that put students out in the community, working for change. The Xavier brand was changing.

When Hoffman Elementary School, one of two public grade schools in Evanston, felt the heat of potentially being closed around 15 years ago, school officials approached Graham with a request for a lifeline. “He didn’t say No, and he rarely does,” notes Liz Blume, who for 10 years has led the Community Building Institute, housed on Xavier’s campus. Graham, she says, mobilized a team to jump in, “but not with a prescriptive approach.” Xavier is a national leader in Montessori education, but, says Blume, that model doesn’t work for every child. Graham and his team listened, she says, and helped community leaders build a curriculum that worked for Hoffman students. That school and another, Parham Elementary, eventually merged and later reformed as Evanston Academy. To this day, Xavier is one of its key partners.

“I think what impressed me most was his personal involvement,” says Sharon Muyaya, who, as Graham began his tenure as Xavier president, served as president of the Evanston Community Council. “He agreed to tutor students after school at our rec center, and he was a man of his word. He never missed coming at least once a week.”

Muyaya also credits Graham with partnering with Evanston in 2004 to obtain a $392,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that helped pay for residential housing upgrades and a revitalization of business facades along the Montgomery Road corridor in Evanston and Norwood. Xavier committed an additional $156,000 in cash, and Graham, Muyaya says, organized XU professors and students alike to contribute sweat equity to the project. “He helped this neighborhood, sure, but he also helped open his students’ eyes to what was going on here,” she says.

At the United Way, former CEO Rob Reifsnyder says he found a friend who embraced a leadership role, even before the 2001 unrest rocked Cincinnati. “I started my job about the same time he did,” Reifsnyder remembers, “and he gave me a tour of the university. I remember him saying, even then, that he wanted Xavier to be in partnership with and in service to the community.”

That was music to the ears of the new leader at United Way. Graham started as cochair of the Vital Neighborhoods Vision Council, which worked toward identifying specific community needs, beginning what Reifsnyder calls “18 years in a row of saying Yes to everything asked of him.” Graham served on the United Way board of directors, chaired the Community Impact Council, was a founding member of the STRIVE Partnership, chaired a committee that raised funds to renovate the United Way headquarters, and, perhaps most importantly, was a driving force behind Preschool Promise.

“And all that time he was running Xavier,” says Reifsnyder, laughing. “I think what makes him stand out as a leader is that basic humanity you see right away when you first meet him. It’s complemented by his focus, an asking of the hard questions, the listening, and a business-like approach to solving a problem.” Sounds like the description of a Procter & Gamble executive, doesn’t it?

In fact, as Graham contemplates the forks in the road that life deals everyone, he says he could have marketed Tide Pods instead of saving souls. He’s friends with former P&G CEO John Pepper, whom he got to know from a variety of public service posts they each held over the years. Graham recalls Pepper offering him a ride back home in the company jet from a wedding they’d attended in northern Michigan, including a conversation at 40,000 feet that ignited a friendship. “I discovered somebody I had wanted to know all my life,” says Graham. “I think if the cards had been dealt differently, I would have loved to work for Procter & Gamble. They do so much good, and John is such a leader I’d follow him through the gates of hell.”

Certain words spring from Graham’s tongue with a degree of regularity: Together. Collaborative. Mutual. We. He believes in hiring good people with impeccable values, giving them the ball, and letting them run. He calls himself an “orchestra leader” who’s in charge of overseeing the big picture. “But not everything has to pass through the eye of this needle,” he says, with props to Matthew 19:24. “And I certainly don’t want to be a clog in that needle.”

That collaborative leadership style was on full display last year when the pandemic hit. Just as in 2001, students were away on spring break when Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order forced Graham to call on every pastoral and administrative skill he’d built up over the years.

“It hit Father Graham very hard,” recalls Jeff Coleman, the university’s vice president for risk management and chair of its COVID task force. “He knew the impact, the shock it was going to have on students. He was especially sad for the seniors.”

Graham quickly organized a multidisciplinary crisis response team, which still meets regularly. He rallied the faculty and staff—many of whom were also away for spring break—and pushed them to create a remote learning experience that would still retain the personal touch students had come to expect at Xavier. It was all hands on deck, led by a captain with a collar whose pursed lips told the story of a priest saddened at the sullen silence around him.

Graham’s seven-minute YouTube message days after the decision to close the university in March 2020 was a masterpiece in communication and can still bring a lump to the throat. As a fireplace roars behind him, Graham speaks softly into the camera about his morning walks around the empty campus, painting a vivid picture of empty parking lots, silent classrooms, singing birds, and the beauty of spring flowers bursting into color with no one there to enjoy them. “Something has been ripped away from us at Xavier, and that something is you,” he says, exposing his melancholy. “Each and every one of you—the gifts you bring, the hopes you have, the good you do, the hearts you share. The way you make us what we are, and better than we are. The campus would weep at the loss of you if it could.”

I can imagine XU students, back in their hometown bedrooms, missing their friends and their independence. The news each day was frightening, and they were feeling uncertain and lost. Graham’s message hit home. Their president was feeling their pain, and, both tonally and substantively, it was a pitch-perfect message delivered at just the right time.

Kucia describes the 10 years of Hoff’s administration followed by Graham’s 20 in charge as Xavier’s “golden years.” Graham doesn’t use the label, but he does say a combination of outside forces such as the 2001 unrest as well as the continuity of leadership has helped transform Xavier and inform its future. “We were the best kept secret six blocks every side of the corner of Dana Avenue and Victory Parkway,” he says, noting that past presidents of Xavier tended to move on to bigger jobs after a few years of presidential training in Evanston, the Jesuit version of Triple A baseball.

With Hanycz moving here after serving as president of La Salle University in Philadelphia, the word is out. Xavier’s presidency is now firmly established as a destination position—a distinction that makes Kucia and Graham smile.

Graham will ride out of office at a gallop, still full of energy and ready for whatever the next chapter will bring. He says he intends to “stay away for a while and give Colleen Hanycz a chance to get established,” but hopes to return eventually and do what he can as president emeritus to help Xavier and its students grow academically and spiritually. When it’s safe to travel, he says, you’ll find him at the airport, bags packed and “ready to go anywhere.”

Graham leans back in his rocking chair and thinks about his inaugural address 20 years ago and the six-page single-spaced “to-do” list he presented to the board. His verdict is right out of The Andy Griffith Show. “Dadgum,” he says, “we’ve pretty much accomplished all of that.” He talks about the challenges he’s facing in the last few months in office—keeping the campus open and safe during a pandemic, dealing with students’ growing calls for social justice, and working with his successor to ensure a smooth transition.

The clock tower chimes will continue to ring. Students will still sprawl in the Adirondack chairs sitting on Xavier Yard to study and text. They’ll be back enjoying a beer on the deck at Dana Gardens. They’ll eventually cram into Cintas Center and cheer on their Muskies.

Life at Xavier will move forward without Father Graham, but he’s content to turn over the reins to someone else. Like his friend John Pepper, he’s leaving on top.

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