Peter K. Kilpatrick, a former dean of the engineering school at the University of Notre Dame who has served as provost at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago for the past four years, has been named the next president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

A chemical engineer who converted to Catholicism while in graduate school and received a pro-life award while at Notre Dame, Kilpatrick, 65, will succeed President John Garvey, a constitutional law scholar who is stepping down after 10 years at the Catholic University of America, effective June 30.

“Serving as president of The Catholic University of America is a dream job for me, bringing together faith and reason in service to the human person and human dignity,” Kilpatrick said in statement released Tuesday. “I look forward to working with the faculty and community to continue moving Catholic University forward as a top tier research institution that also embraces its excellence in theology and the arts.”

Kilpatrick has served as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Illinois Tech since July 30, 2018. With approximately 2,890 undergraduates and 2,141 graduate students, the school is comparable in size to the Catholic University of America, which has 2,929 undergraduates and 2,130 graduate students, according to its website.

Prior to arriving at Illinois Tech, Kilpatrick was the the Matthew H. McCloskey Dean of Engineering at Notre Dame from 2008 to 2018. He previously spent 24 years on the faculty at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. During his final eight years there he chaired the department of chemistry and biomolecular engineering.

A Catholic convert

Originally from Montgomery, Alabama, Kilpatrick earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Occidental College, a private liberal arts school in Los Angeles, graduating summa cum laude in 1978. He earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1983.

A convert to the Catholic faith, Kilpatrick said in a 2017 interview that his wife Nancy, a “cradle Catholic” he met as a student at Occidental, was instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism.

In the interview, he described himself as an agnostic during his undergraduate years, but noted that he had “spiritual moments” where he would sense God’s presence in his life and “would respond to it.”

The couple married after college and during his years in graduate school, when his wife was expecting their first child, he was inspired by a pro-life homily of a priest which he described as a “moment of grace," he said in the interview.

“I just said I want to be a part of that family. I want to be a part of what that guy believes up there. And that was the beginning of, I think, just a wonderful moment of grace where I fell in love with what the Church stands for and what the Church believes and, you know, the Gospel of life,” he said.

Kilpatrick subsequently entered the rite of Christian initiation (RCIA) and entered the Church.

According to Today’s Catholic, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s newspaper, Kilpatrick has taught RCIA and worked to strengthen the Catholic identity at Notre Dame when he was the engineering dean there.

Part of that strengthening, according to Today’s Catholic, included Kilpatrick’s efforts to help implement “a program of daily Eucharistic celebrations and faith sharing” at the engineering college’s Holy Cross Chapel.

Kilpatrick and his wife, Nancy, have four children and three grandchildren.

Views on life, Catholic universities

In 2013, Kilpatrick was awarded Notre Dame’s Magister Vitae Award, which, according to university archives, is an award “granted by Notre Dame Right to Life to an outstanding faculty member at the [university] whose teaching, scholarship, and life exemplify what it means to build a culture of life at Notre Dame and in the world.”

Notre Dame Right to Life is the university’s student-run pro-life club.

At a 2011 summer workshop at Notre Dame on the “Ethical, Philosophical, Legal & Theological Dimensions of Adult & Alternative Stem Cell Research,” Kilpatrick gave a keynote address in which he explored the purpose of a Catholic university and the beginnings of life.

In his address, “Ethical Life Science Research in a Catholic University,” Kilpatrick extensively cited Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in which the pope said that a Catholic University should be “born from the heart of the Church.”

A Catholic university should be an “incomparable center of creativity and dissemination of knowledge for the good of humanity,” Kilpatrick said, still citing the late pope, while adding that “it is also the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”

Speaking of truth later in the same speech, Kilpatrick said: “There was a time when we would take for granted that truth was being and that being was truth. But that's no longer the case. Modern man really doesn't believe that anymore. Modern man believes that truth is what you can make of it. Truth is actually what we can create, rather than being.”

Kilpatrick, again citing Pope John Paul II’s constitution, said that the task of the Catholic university in the present day assumes great importance and urgency amid rapid scientific and technological developments. These developments create “enormous economic and industrial growth,” he noted, while at the same time require the “necessary search for meaning in order to guarantee that the new [discoveries] be used for the authentic good of individuals in human society as a whole.”

When faced with new technological developments and conversations of ethics, Kilpatrick said that “no good is done when we trample on the rights and on the dignity of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.”

“When we trample on the rights of the very young or the very old or those who cannot speak and act for themselves,” he said, “we really do no good. And we really cannot elevate society and humanity as a whole.”

Kilpatrick argued that research based on “embryo destruction” is unacceptable at a Catholic university, while praising Notre Dame’s extensive research with adult stem cells.

“A Catholic university,” he said, “must be committed to, in an unreserved way, to the truth — to the truth about human life; to the truth about ourselves; to the truth about God; to the truth about our relationship between human persons and God.”

He also added that it is “apparent” that conception is the “definitive moment” at which to determine human personhood, while saying that all other arguments are “arbitrary.”

The Catholic University of America is a pontifical university and is the only college or university in the United States to have been founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops. The school was established in 1887.