Beacon on the Bluff- Dr. Kelly’s Vision for the University of Portland

Brand Story – The New President’s Plan To Become A Transformative Catholic University

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In July 2022, Dr. Robert D. Kelly took the helm of the University of Portland, the first layperson and African American president in its history.
Equipped with a career in Catholic higher education, a passion for discourse across difference and a new strategic plan, his sights are set on making UP the nation’s transformative Catholic university.

More simply put, Dr. Kelly wants to establish the University of Portland as a place that transforms lives.

“Not all institutions are changing the trajectory of someone’s life or making the world a better place,” he explains. “We want students to ask, ‘How can I transform what is into what could be?’ I am blessed and privileged to get this education, but so what? What will I do with it.’”

To get there, the university recently adopted a six-part strategic plan centered on (1) engaged learning, (2) Holy Cross identity, (3) diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, (4) enrollment, (5) resource expansion, and (6) an anchoring in Portland and the world.

The plan encompasses commitments to convene on critical conversations, respond to marginalized peoples and give students high-impact experiences, to name a few.

KM Presidents Inauguration 20220923 1229Dr. Robert D. Kelly at his inauguration

Dr. Kelly brings new perspective to The Bluff, having previously served at institutions in Baltimore, Chicago, and Seattle, among other locations. His past roles in teaching and administration are diverse, spanning mission and identify building, student experience and fundraising. Not only does he bring an understanding of how universities function, but an understanding of the world and its current realities.

“I’ve been told that I’m the right person at the right time. That means a lot to me… I’m going to lead a different way because of my experiences,” adds Dr. Kelly. “Being the first African American president and given where we are around racial reckoning in this country, this is the place I want to be, shaping the minds of young people in a politically active arena. When I think of all the challenges the world is facing, this is where I feel called to lead.”

The University of Portland offers a Catholic education, but knows that it cannot simply seek to mimic the approach taken by other Catholic institutions. Firmly rooted in Portland and the Pacific Northwest, it wants to be the right institution for the people, faculty and students who are here now—a stance perhaps best exemplified by the hiring of a president unlike any before him.

Dr. Kelly knows the challenges facing higher education across the country, one being the notion that college degrees are unimportant. He believes the academic community can more effectively communicate the value education brings to individuals and communities.

“As a whole, we can do better to get rid of the ivory tower mentality, to open doors and engage in better partnerships with cities and states,” he elaborates. “We can truly be more engaged in the lives of the people who work, play and study around the institution. We can be that beacon on the bluff.” (For those yet to visit, the University of Portland sits on a dramatic bluff overlooking the city and the Willamette River.)

An ability to lead conversation across divides of all kinds remains central to its “beacon on the bluff” ambitions. In order to prepare University of Portland students to change lives and communities, they, along with their teachers, practice cultivating challenging discourse around diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.

“Look at our country. People can’t talk across difference anymore. To change the world, you need to be able to have conversations with people who see the world differently,” Dr. Kelly says. “Grounded in our Catholic heritage, we can help elevate the discourse and lean into our values. We’re preparing students to be able to do that in a world that can be inhumane and challenging. That’s why it’s important that we continue to produce graduates.”

Despite the school’s high 90-95% graduation rate, the administration remains committed to helping more students earn a diploma, specifically individuals who unenroll or never enroll due to a lack of resources.

“We know that outcomes are greater for people who have one. We want to make it available for more,” he says. “Our teachers and alums have touched every area of society: arts, education science…They’re real changemakers.”

Aside from the professional and quality-of-life benefits that a University of Portland experience brings, it also turns students into catalysts within the community. Current students conduct original on-campus research around issues facing the world, such as poverty, the environment and marginalization. As part of its strategic plan, the University will double its efforts to connect student projects with relevant local organizations that can help realize those ideas and benefit Oregon.

NC Presidential Portrait 20220826 129University of Portland  president Dr. Robert D. Kelly on the North Portland campus

The University of Portland, which currently numbers just under 4000 students, continuously evaluates its size-to-resource ratio. Unlike at bigger universities, students do not need to compete for resources, be it a study abroad opportunity, an academic class or a ticket to an event. At the same time, they have access to the world-class opportunities found at larger institution. For example, the university’s Shiley-Marcos Center for Design & Innovation recently broke ground, promising a nation-leading space for multidisciplinary engineering.

Dr. Kelly cannot put a finger on just one facet that sets the University of Portland apart. His pull to the institution, and back to the Pacific Northwest after years away, boils down to a supportive staff and student body, beautiful campus, residential setting, Division I athletics, Catholic character and more.

And while he has big plans to help the University of Portland meet the moment and fulfill its potential as the nation’s transformative Catholic university, he is quick to remind everyone that the fabric of the school is here to stay. “We’re going to look deeply at who we are and what we’re doing,” he concludes. “We’ll lean harder into the things we do well so that we can get ready for what we’re going to do next. Even though the school will look different, it will still be grounded in the same character.”


Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues.  The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.