September 01, 2016
The presidency of Rev. William Paul Haas, O.P. ’48
In many ways, the Providence College of today came to be during the six-year presidency of Rev. William Paul Haas, O.P. ’48, a New Jersey-born priest, philosopher, and artist who was the youngest president in PC history, appointed at the age of 37.
His presidential tenure, 1965-1971, coincided with a period of tumultuous change in American society and, not coincidentally, in Catholic higher education. While he oversaw a period of important building construction and physical plant improvement, Father Haas also led the community and curricular transformation that brought women to Providence College as students and full-time faculty members; initiated the Development of Western Civilization Program; integrated lay persons into the upper administration and theology and philosophy faculties; increased the role of faculty in College governance; and formalized study abroad programs.
The students of PC during the Haas era – like students at virtually all colleges and universities of that time – made their feelings known about important societal issues and the College’s response to those issues. Protests related to the war in Vietnam, the shootings at Kent State University, and other serious issues of the day were managed by a president whose success was due, in part, to a strong, generally positive relationship with the students.
Their good feelings about Father Haas are represented on the front page of the March 17, 1965, edition of The Cowl, which reported the announcement of his hire. A sidebar story reported the reactions of several students who had lived alongside Father Haas in Joseph Hall two years prior, when he had served as a philosophy professor.
“Many students marveled at his ‘open door’ policy,” wrote Paul F. Ferguson ’65 for The Cowl. “Several students spent hours in his room discussing such varied topics as art, politics, philosophy, folk music, and even good cigars.”
Father Haas’ bona fides with respect to art were well established, as The Cowl also reported that his paintings had been exhibited “in New England and in the Midwest,” and that publication of his poetry was anticipated shortly. When it came to music, his interests were varied, ranging “from Joan Baez through Dave Brubeck to Beethoven.” His scholarly record was impressive to say the least, including the publication of two books, along with several journal articles.
Given Father Haas’ wide-ranging interests and his willingness to engage with students, it is perhaps unsurprising that they spoke of him in glowing terms.
“(He treated) us as individuals and adults rather than in loco parentis,” one student (interestingly, unnamed) told The Cowl. “We respected him and he respected us.”
Some would say that new construction and infrastructure improvements are a reflection of a college’s progress during a president’s tenure. On that score, Father Haas had a major impact, highlighted by the additions of Phillips Memorial Library, Slavin Center, and McVinney Hall, three buildings that remain at the core of the student experience nearly a half-century later.
Other changes, such as the abolition of the dress code and the conversion of diplomas from Latin to English, signaled a turn toward a more contemporary approach. Fostering such change, some of which was met with vocal opposition, fell on the shoulders of this strong and committed leader whose impact has continued through the ensuing generations of Providence College students, faculty, staff members, and alumni.
As the College begins its centennial celebration, Haas, who resigned from the priesthood in the early 1970s, is the only living former PC president. He resides in Newport, R.I.
Much of the material used in this story was drawn from “The Origins and Early History of Providence College Through 1947,” the dissertation of the late Dr. Donna T. McCaffrey ’73G, ’83 Ph.D., and ’87G, former PC associate professor of history, which was published in 1985.