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David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009-2012, says he plans to stay true to the principles and mission of the Basilian Fathers who co-founded what became St. Michael’s College.Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

After a career in the secular world, David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, will be returning to the community of faith that shaped his life when he becomes president of the University of St. Michael's College this summer.

"I come to it with a great deal of humility, but with a lot of excitement, because it's an institution that in one way or another I've been connected to all of my life," said Mr. Mulroney, whose book Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, on how Canada should calibrate its engagement with China, came out in March.

A graduate of St. Michael's, with a bachelor of arts in English, Mr. Mulroney (no relation to the former prime minister) says he plans to stay true to the principles and mission of the Basilian Fathers who co-founded what became St. Michael's College. The college at the University of Toronto now has approximately 4,400 students.

While he is only the second layman president, Mr. Mulroney says he wants the university's spiritual voice to be heard nationally and internationally.

"My great memory as an undergrad was that it was a happy place, a place that I felt I was coming home. People here respect one another, they care for one another and they share a common sense of optimism about who we are and what we are destined to be. That is something that I am being asked to continue to foster and protect," he said.

This means connecting with Catholic high schools to make sure their students know St. Michael's is committed to making a university education accessible to them. And it means connecting with international students in Asia, where the Catholic Church is growing, encouraged by Pope Francis who made a visit to South Korea last summer.

Already, 25 per cent of the enrolment in the school of theology are international students.

International expansion "is an interesting challenge and opportunity because St. Mike's is part of the Catholic Church. It's part of the first, great global institution, and we need to explore that and make full use of the global reach of this larger institution that we're part of," Mr. Mulroney said.

It's also an area that the ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012 knows very well. In his book and in interviews this spring, Mr. Mulroney, 60, said Canada needs to cultivate a more cautious stand toward China, one that does not assume the interests of the two countries naturally coincide.

That nuanced position can start at universities, which must help students become "Asia competent," as a study Mr. Mulroney co-authored while a fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre put it.

"We need to think of the long-term implications of what's happening, and universities are places where we do that. You are aware of trends and opinion polls, but you are also thinking through to first causes, to where [a situation] is likely to lead us," he said.

St. Michael's must also be involved in national ethical debates, such as on assisted suicide. The Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, for example, with which the college is affiliated, is supporting the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada in its bid to allow doctors to refuse referrals for patients who seek assisted suicide or abortion.

Engaging in these types of conversations is a "tremendously important" part of the university's mission, Mr. Mulroney said.

"One of the roles [of St. Michael's] is to ensure that in a time of rapid social change, we're doing the hard thinking that we need to do before we make decisions that will ultimately change the nature of how we relate to one another and how we view the nature of human life."

Editor's note: This story corrects Mr. Mulroney's age.