MORAGA -- Saint Mary's College looked around the world for the 29th president in its 150-year history and found one a few miles away -- James Donahue, the president of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of schools based in Berkeley.

Donahue, a theologian, will be the school's first lay leader. He was introduced to the campus at an outdoor gathering Tuesday in front of the chapel.

"I promise that I will dedicate myself with all that I have to make Saint Mary's College the finest academic institution it can possibly be," he said.

On July 1, Donahue will replace Brother Ronald Gallagher, known as Brother Ron, an Irish literature professor who has led the college since 2005.

James Donahue, president and professor of the ethics at Graduate Theological Union, above the library of the GTU on Friday June 27, 2003 in Berkeley,
James Donahue, president and professor of the ethics at Graduate Theological Union, above the library of the GTU on Friday June 27, 2003 in Berkeley, Calif. (Contra Costa Times/ Gregory Urquiaga) ( GREGORY URQUIAGA )

"He seems like a really cool guy," said Kayla Riley, a sophomore, who said the whole selection process had been "top secret," with rumors swirling about who the new leader would be. The appointment was announced during spring break, so few students heard the news in person.

The Catholic liberal arts college in Moraga is one of the oldest in California. It has 2,800 undergraduate and nearly 1,300 graduate students, and is affiliated with the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order dedicated to teaching.

While the lay appointment is historic for the college, Catholic institutions have long been making such shifts in response to the waning number of people entering religious life. The western United States has just 85 Christian Brothers; their average age is 68, Gallagher said.

"We kind of expected this," said Annalee Lamoreaux, a faculty member. "With (Donahue's) background, he certainly will understand the Catholic traditions of the college that are an important part of who we are. We're embracing the transition."

Donahue, who is married and has two grown children, said he would work closely with the more than 20 brothers at Saint Mary's to keep Lasallian and Catholic values at the center of his decisions.

Donahue taught theology and ethics at Georgetown and later became vice president for student affairs. He has also been on the faculty at Santa Clara University, according to Saint Mary's. He lives in El Cerrito with his wife, Jane Purinton, and has led the Graduate Theological Union since 2000.

A statement posted on the consortium's website by GTU board Chairman Harold T. Leach Jr. described the news as "bittersweet," thanked Donahue for his leadership and friendship, and said the school is developing a transition plan.

Apart from issues of faith and tradition, Donahue said it's important to make sure Saint Mary's attracts strong students and makes college affordable. He also expects to explore such questions as the role of technology and online courses at the liberal arts institution.

"Any school has to think about: How are we going to engage the future?" he said.

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

James donahue: St. Mary's new LEADER
Family life: Married to Jane Purinton. They have two grown sons, Nick and Luke, and their first grandchild is on the way.
Dissertation topic: "Character and the Ethics of Organizations: Toward a Theory of Institutional Moral Agency."
A man of ethics: He has taught nearly a dozen courses on the subject (in addition to projects and workshops), exploring the ethics of media, religion, sex, and leadership, among others.
Teaching award: He was the Georgetown University Teacher of the Year in 1992.
Before academia: He was, for a short time, a probation officer outside of Boston.