Robert Kelly, new president of the University of Portland, gives his inaugural address Sept. 23. (Bob Kerns/University of Portland)
Robert Kelly, new president of the University of Portland, gives his inaugural address Sept. 23. (Bob Kerns/University of Portland)
The new president of the University of Portland wants the Catholic college to be “a beacon on the bluff for the whole world to see.”

Robert Kelly, the first lay president of Oregon’s only Catholic university, brought the crowd to its feet several times during his inaugural address Sept. 23.

“We are here to discern what we are truly hoping for, what our hearts tell us is true, beautiful and good,” Kelly told the assembly gathered in the school’s sports dome. “Then we are here to act, to execute, to do it.”

Kelly has been serving in the post since July 1 and already has helped build a strategic plan. He is the first African American to lead U.P. in its 121-year history.

“What is the world you wish to create?” he asked. “Do you believe with all the obstacles in your way you can do it?”

Kelly, wearing a purple U.P. academic robe, said his hopes are high, nothing less than a community without violence and racism, a place where creation is cared for and people live in harmony. He said the university can test ideas, absorb wisdom and disseminate truth for the good of the world.

“Together we can be the beacon the community needs,” said Kelly, U.P.’s 21st president. “I will do all I can so this light grows stronger and more vibrant.”

At one point, Kelly stood as two former U.P. presidents — Holy Cross Fathers David Tyson and Bill Beauchamp — put their hands on his shoulders in blessing. It was a clear sign that the religious community, which founded U.P. in 1901, is fully supporting the school’s new leader.

Holy Cross Father Bill Lies, superior of the U.S. province of the Congregation of Holy Cross, pledged “deep and abiding fraternal support.” For his part, Kelly several times noted that his job is to advance the Holy Cross mission.

Kelly choked up when he thanked his family, many members of which were in attendance. He is married to Bridget Turner Kelly, a professor at the University of Maryland. The couple have two young adult children.

Turner Kelly described her husband as a person who lives his Catholic faith. “He is operating with an equity lens and a heart for justice,” she said.

Kelly enthusiastically thanked students. “You are hope-filled, energetic, kind and fun,” he said. Emma Fuller, U.P.’s student body president, thanked him back, noting with delight that the new president donned a kilt and marched with a student drum corps to a recent soccer match.

Kelly has been ubiquitous across campus since July, said Tom Arndorfer, chair of U.P.’s board of regents. Arndorfer praised Kelly’s energy, creativity and passion.

Kelly holds a doctorate in philosophy, education policy, planning and administration from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree in arts and political science from Loyola University Maryland. The Pacific

Northwest is already familiar territory for Kelly since he once served as vice president for student development and as adjunct professor of education at Seattle University.

Inauguration day included a Mass with a large banner of an icon of Christ the Teacher. Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith presided.

Franciscan Sister Veronica Schueler gave a greeting, as did officials from Multnomah County and the City of Portland.

Jeff Gauthier, a philosophy professor speaking on behalf of faculty, acknowledged that Kelly has arrived “at a time of challenge and change, not only at the university, but in the whole world.” This fall, U.P. was hit by a surprise enrollment drop and faces a budget crunch.