Inside the Family, Faith and Foundations of President Vincent Rougeau

Holy Cross President Vincent Rougeau. Photo by Avanell Chang

From his deep Catholic roots to his new role as the College’s 33rd president, Rougeau brings his lifelong mission of balancing human rights with community responsibility to the education of future generations

Throughout his career in law and higher education, Vincent D. "Vince" Rougeau has worked across the United States and abroad, yet regardless of where he is or what his title may be, the theme has been the same: working to promote human rights, human dignity and a community that fosters both.

From a Catholic family with deep roots in Louisiana, including parents who walked the walk during the Civil Rights Movement, to the high poverty boroughs of East London, where he teamed law students with residents to solve problems together, Rougeau has focused on building communities that concentrate on a clear instruction found throughout the Old and New Testaments: Be a people who look out and care for the poor, the marginalized and the defenseless. Balancing basic human rights and dignity with a community's responsibility to promote such is at the heart of a doctrine known as Catholic social teaching, a tradition Rougeau has spent his career studying, putting into practice and teaching to generations of law students.

This fall, Rougeau finds himself in a new city and a new role as he prepares for his October inauguration as the 33rd president of the College of the Holy Cross. He will be the Jesuit institution's first lay leader in its 178-year history, yet in examining Rougeau's career and scholarship and hearing from his family and colleagues, one thing is clear: His lifelong mission dovetails perfectly with the charism of the Society of Jesus.

A Family of Faith

Rougeau's roots in southwest Louisiana stretch back eight generations, including his grandparents, who founded a Catholic parish for the Black community in the city of Lake Charles.

"We come from a long line of Catholic families," says Weldon Rougeau, Vincent's father. "Vince was always very good about getting involved in the church."

His mother, Shirley Small-Rougeau, adds that in addition to being a cantor, her son was a lector at Mass, a capacity in which he still serves today. "The basis of most African American lives, since I've been around, has been their faith, and we took faith very seriously," Small-Rougeau says. "Most Catholic people go through their First Communion and Confirmation and then it's over, 'I'm done with CCD,' but Vince went through the entire period up until he graduated from high school."

Rougeau recalls that, at the time, he didn't quite realize that the basis for his lifelong commitment to and study of Catholic social teaching was planted in those early years of parish life.

"My grandparents need to get a lot of the credit for being the rocks of our understanding of who we were as a family of faith, what our traditions were and where they came from, and how they were to be maintained," Rougeau says. "They were deeply spiritual, deeply faithful people, very modest and simple in their desires, but wealthy in their love of neighbor and community and their desire to live out their faith in a way that emphasizes the things that are important: family, communities, caring for the poor and those in need. With that kind of foundation, the older I got, I started to realize these things that are important to my family, social justice and civil rights, have a lot to do with our faith."

Rougeau is the oldest of three siblings, with a younger sister, Dominique ("Niki"), and younger brother, John, and their parents were active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

"As they grew, we explained to them and educated them on the injustices that existed in society," Small-Rougeau says. "So our participation in marches, sit-ins, protests, all those things, was something they understood the purpose of and we always involved them in whatever we were doing when they became a little older."

Weldon Rougeau coordinated the train transportation from Miami to Washington, D.C., for the 1963 March on Washington, site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech. His son, Vincent, was just 2 months old.

"Vince and I were at the station to see him off, sitting on a bench, and as babies do, Vince raised his little hand in the air. I'm told it was pictured in the Miami Herald with a headline that said, 'And I Want Freedom, Too,'" says Small-Rougeau, a dietician who worked in schools, public housing and with people experiencing homelessness. "From that day forward, he has always, always been a part of the social justice movement. He'd never been exposed to anything else and that's where he got his dedication to social justice."

Weldon Rougeau became involved with the NAACP in his hometown the year before he left for college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he joined CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

"Being from the rural South and having been born into a society segregated by race, I felt that I needed to do something," Weldon Rougeau says. "I'm old enough to remember when I was a child, there were places where the water fountains were White and Colored, the restrooms were White and Colored, and if you got on any type of public transport, whether it was a city bus or a Greyhound, you had to sit in the back of the bus."

"I really had to think about what mattered to me and succeeding generations," he continues, "and if I could do anything to help dismantle racial segregation, especially the most obvious forms in public accommodations, public transportation and voting — that would be a very good act to perform and, hopefully, it would result in something very positive happening to American society and particularly the community that I came from."

In 1961, he was arrested and jailed for three weeks for protesting a segregated lunch counter and the lack of Black employees at a Baton Rouge department store. His second protest earned him 58 days in solitary confinement — and a quick expulsion from Southern University. As a state school, Southern had to listen to the state board of education, which wanted "troublemakers" like Weldon Rougeau off campus. Vincent was young when Weldon headed to Loyola University Chicago to complete his undergraduate education, after which he enrolled in and graduated from Harvard Law School.

"Throughout the early part of my childhood, my father was also trying to finish his education — the consequences of being expelled," Rougeau says. "That was very life-changing for all of us and also laid a foundation that put education very much at the forefront of our family's life and my parents' commitments. They were very committed to ensuring that we, their children, had access to the best possible educational opportunities and also providing opportunities for others."

When it was time for Vincent Rougeau to pursue college, he studied international relations at Brown University, graduating magna cum laude, and followed in his father's footsteps, attending and graduating from Harvard Law.

"What my parents were trying to do in the Civil Rights Movement was to allow this country to gain the full advantage of all of its people in a meaningful and dignified way," Rougeau says. "And so, in ways large and small during our childhood, they tried to make sure that we always saw the dignity in others."


Emphasizing the Dignity of Each Person

After law school, Rougeau spent some time working in corporate law, focused on banking deregulation. When he made the transition to academia, he decided to focus on the humans on the other side of those corporate decisions.

"It became clear to me that the law often did not consider peoples' obligations as members of communities and families as an important part of how they made economic decisions. The law tended to follow the market, which rewarded those who focused on their personal autonomy and self-interest," he says. "Catholic social teaching is oriented toward very different priorities. It sees individuals as incomplete when they are not situated in community with others and views rights as balanced by responsibilities."

Rougeau taught at Loyola University Chicago School of Law before the University of Notre Dame, where he was the associate dean for academic affairs from 1999-2002. He then served as the dean of Boston College Law School for a decade, during which he became the inaugural director of the Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America. His expertise lies at the intersection of law and religion, with a particular emphasis on Catholic social teaching. In 2008, he authored the book "Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order."

"For me, what's engaged and inspired me about the law was what it could do to improve people's lives and create social structures that are more fair, recognizing the ways that society doesn't always work as it should and trying to correct that," he says.

Alongside Rev. Angus Ritchie, the director of the Centre for Theology and Community in London, Rougeau put his scholarship into practice by creating the Just Communities Project, a faith-based, service-learning program that brings Notre Dame law students studying in London into contact with the city's multicultural, working-class neighborhoods through community organizing.

Rougeau and Rev. Ritchie first met at a conference in England and connected again in 2005, when Rougeau spent the academic year teaching at the London campus of Notre Dame's law school. The Rougeau family — his wife, Robin Kornegay-Rougeau, M.D., and three sons, Christian, Alex and Vincent Jr. ("V.J.") — spent the year living in the British capital. The law students who worked with Just Communities were able to experience London as a global city, Rougeau says.

"This city is pulsating with people from every corner of the globe, and London's whole identity is being shaped by this global, cosmopolitan mix of people. [The law students] are integrating into life in the city, and the work we were doing was to try to make people, particularly the poorest among them and the more recent immigrants, have a meaningful sense of belonging in British society," he says.

The students partnered with churches and religious groups of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths to advocate for issues that resonated with the community in East London, from controlling knife crime to improving local schools and advocating for fair wages. Through this work, all the groups focused on their common interests, rather than perceived division.

"The ability to join in community gave them power and they were able to see things change from time to time," Rougeau says. "Not always, but for the law students to actually see how a grassroots, ground-up process can engage the legal and political system was really powerful."

Rougeau continues to work with Rev. Ritchie and the Center for Theology and Community, most recently organizing a conference to discuss Pope Francis' latest book, "Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future."

"Human dignity requires every citizen to have a voice and play a part in the shaping of our common life," Rev. Ritchie says. "A real joy of working with Vince is to see how he lives this out in his treatment of people, in his engagement with community organizing and in his interviews and papers."

Now that Rougeau is at Holy Cross, he has high hopes of engaging in similar efforts in the College's hometown of Worcester, the second-largest city in New England and one whose overall population grew by 14% over the past decade, and whose multicultural population increased by 276%, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Rougeau sees the city as far more than just the sprawling urban area below the College on The Hill.

"I want to see Worcester be a place where our students can engage that vibrancy and diversity on the campus and off the campus, and to feel that they are at a college that is woven into the fabric of a community," Rougeau says. "You're not just on The Hill all the time, you're at Holy Cross in the city of Worcester, and what can that do for your learning? What kinds of experiences will you have in the community, what kinds of relationships will that allow you to build, how will that help you grow personally, intellectually and spiritually?"

I want to see Worcester be a place where our students can engage that vibrancy and diversity on the campus and off the campus, and to feel that they are at a college that is woven into the fabric of a community. 

Vincent D. Rougeau

A Collaborative Leader

In a room of more than 200 law school deans, Judith Areen remembers Rougeau standing out. Areen, who was dean at Georgetown Law Center for 15 years and now works as the executive director and CEO of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS), met Rougeau at a law school deans conference.

"They're not a shy group, and they're all very articulate and used to speaking in public, but even in that crowd, he was just a standout. He was speaking on a program with two other deans and showed not just judgement, but 'wisdom' is the word that comes to mind," Areen says. "And he didn't have to show off; he didn't have to argue intensely for his position. He just articulated what he felt was the right thing to do on a particular matter."

Today, Areen and Rougeau are working together more frequently now that he serves as president of the AALS. Areen says she was pleased he was nominated because of the insight he would bring to the role, and called him — true to their shared Jesuit influence — a contemplative in action. When controversy arose about the use of the term "critical race theory" in summer 2021, Rougeau led the board in releasing a statement about the history of the legal body of scholarship.

"The board felt we had an obligation to say something about it because critical race theory came from legal scholars," Areen says. "What mattered in the process was when Vince said, 'We need to support this statement.' I can't underscore enough, it's not just my sense of his ethics and being a man for others, but everybody on the board, whether they are Catholic or not, has such respect for him."

With Rougeau's support of the statement, it received unanimous approval from the board. It stated, in part, that critical race theorists "explain and illustrate how structural racism produces racial inequity within our social, economic, political, legal and educational systems," and that these concepts should not be removed from the education system in the U.S. Like his parents before, Rougeau continues to fight for the equitable treatment of every member of American society.

Cathleen Kaveny, who first worked alongside Rougeau at Notre Dame Law School, and later at Boston College Law School as a professor of law and theology, shares Areen's opinion of her colleague and friend as a stalwart leader, calling him a rare combination of an intellectual and a gifted administrator. "He is truly an intellectual, but not in a pretentious way," she says. "What I saw at both Notre Dame and BC is that he embodies Catholic social teaching in his framework for administration."

"He sees people as having dignity [individually] and us as a community, all of whom work together with our own unique capacities and gifts to further the common good. He finds ways to say, 'What would you like to do and how can I help you do it?' He is very collaborative."

Now, after a career at universities, Rougeau brings that collaboration and his mission to a new field of study: the liberal arts. It's an academic setting not unfamiliar to Rougeau, notes Kaveny, harkening back to their time at Notre Dame: "There was a community that gathered at the old Morris Inn, at Murph's [Bar]. Some of the philosophers, some English professors, a math professor, and we'd make our way over after a day of teaching and just have this fantastic conversation. It was warm and cozy. Vince was a key part of the interdisciplinary conversation. He's somebody who doesn't believe in walling off disciplines from one another."

"Holy Cross is the only Jesuit, liberal arts college. And having taught law students for 30 years, I know that a liberal arts education is a wonderful foundation, certainly for law, but for all kinds of things," Rougeau says. "It is really important to me to think about how we maintain, grow and strengthen the work that Holy Cross does by being a Jesuit, Catholic liberal arts college and carving out a special space amongst all the liberal arts colleges around the country. It's that extra piece that we can do here. We provide a rigorous, top-notch education, but also, in these times, there is such a hunger for meaning and deeper engagement with our spiritual selves."

Written by Maura Sullivan Hill for the Fall 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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