Saint Vincent's new leader emphasizes cooperation

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Brother Norman Hipps may have taken a vow of poverty, but after he raised millions of dollars for Saint Vincent College in the middle of a recession, the school made him its president.

Now 66, he will succeed James Towey on July 1.

He was born William Hipps in the mining town of Carrollton, Cambria County. His father, a printer and newspaper editor, died when young Bill was 6.

He looked up to an uncle who was a priest and history professor at Saint Vincent. His brother, eight years his senior, entered the now-defunct Saint Vincent Preparatory School, with the intention of becoming a priest.

So, "in fifth or sixth grade, I announced I was going to Saint Vincent to be a priest," Brother Norman recalled.

His brother later decided he wasn't called to the priesthood. He married and became a chemist. Bill arrived as a high school freshman in 1957 and left only to earn his doctorate in mathematics at Northwestern University.

The monks taught him to seek God's will.

"So I've been in a continuous questioning," he said. "But it has been, over the years, consistently answered with a yes. Yes, this is the place for me. Yes, I will take vows. Yes, I will do what the abbot asks of me."

He entered the novitiate in 1963, as the church began to sort out the meaning of Vatican II and wider society was rocked by movements from civil rights to feminism.

The monastery had many unordained brothers who worked at menial tasks and did not have any vote in the community. But St. Benedict's sixth-century rule for monks didn't envision a community of priests and forbade priests any special privileges if they joined, Brother Norman said.

Wanting to be faithful to the Rule of St. Benedict and to achieve justice for the lay brothers, he said, "After a lot of reflection and questioning, I decided that yes, I want to stay at the monastery, but I won't be ordained a priest."

The lay brothers have long had the right to vote at Saint Vincent -- and now one has been named president of the college.

In the late 1960s with several other young monks, including the future Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, he co-founded a program to bring inner-city high school students to campus to help them make the leap to higher education.

After he got state funding for a later version of the program in 1976, Brother Norman was made its part-time director. In 1980, when the college president had a heart attack and the academic dean took his place, he became acting academic dean. "I've been in full-time administration ever since," he said.

He is now dean of the Boyer School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computing and executive vice president of the college. His major project has been to build the Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion, which will house the steadily expanding science, math and computing programs that are now crammed into a 30-year-old complex of separate buildings.

The new facility will add space and is designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. The first phase is expected to open in the fall.

During the worst recession since the Great Depression, Brother Norman has helped to raise $32 million of the $39 million budget. Multimillion-dollar gifts came from Mr. Dupre -- a Saint Vincent alumnus and ski resort owner who invented snow-making technology -- and from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

But a groundswell of smaller gifts also has been received, especially in memory of the late Frank Luparello, a Saint Vincent alumnus who trained thousands of medical residents at UPMC Mercy and for whom a lecture hall will be named.

Brother Norman's favorite part of administration is getting people to work together. When he became dean, he gave all of the department chairmen copies of the book "Sync," about how order emerges from chaos.

In recent years, the campus has been roiled with complaints that the administration sometimes acts without proper consultation or due process. Brother Norman said his goal is to re-create a sense of community.

"We need to work together," he said. "We need to realize that we've grown, become a better place. We're a better place in terms of the physical plant, financial resources and the faculty and staff that we've added in the last five to 10 years.

"Having people engaged in a common effort is going to make all the difference."

Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416. First Published February 4, 2010 5:00 AM


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