My predecessor, Monsignor Robert Sheeran, is a charismatic leader who guided Seton Hall University (NJ) for 15 years, and whom I was privileged to work with in my three years as provost. I became his successor in January 2011 after six months serving as the interim president.
This is my first presidency, and despite my familiarity with Seton Hall, my transition was not without its challenges. As the first lay president since bylaws were changed three decades earlier to restrict the presidency to priests, I was already breaking new ground, and the leadership principles that had served me so well over the course of my career were put to the test on several fronts:
The month before I started as interim president, the university announced its first layoffs in 25 years. That fall, a sophomore was killed and several students were wounded at a shooting at an off-campus party. Add an on-campus sexual assault allegation that later proved to be false and an alleged off-campus armed robbery involving students, and you have a sense of what my first few months on the job were like.
Though the circumstances were tragic and challenging, I was determined not to let them define my tenure. In the first instance, I cast myself as the face of Seton Hall’s response and addressed the press and the university community. Working with university leaders, we rallied our campus through community prayer and a candlelight vigil. We provided grief counselors and other support services. By acting immediately, forthrightly, and with genuine concern for everyone involved, we reinforced our reputation as a caring institution.
The relationships I forged with faculty, administrators, the clergy, and other campus leaders as provost in those crucial first few months positioned us well to execute From Strength to Strength, the strategic plan that today is guiding Seton Hall’s ascent.
The plan calls for us to identify and invest in select academic units, invest in campus infrastructure— including new and renovated facilities—enhance our student profile, strengthen our fiscal health, and reinforce our Catholic mission.
The results have been striking: The average SAT score for entering freshmen improved by more than 70 points from fall 2009 to 2013, while increasing applicant selectivity. In addition, the percentage of first-year students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class jumped by 12 percentage points, and we welcomed three of our largest classes in more than three decades over the same time period.
Our financials are also significantly stronger than they were in 2009. Despite investing nearly $100 million in our infrastructure, our bond rating was recently reaffirmed by both credit agencies with a stable outlook. In addition, we are on track to receive the most gifts, in a non-campaign year, in our history.
Looking back, these challenges and successes of the last three years have both informed and strengthened the principles that guided me here in the first place:
- Be authentic by being who you are. Understanding yourself allows you to be authentic. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses will prove invaluable in building your leadership team.
- Understand, respect, and commit to the organizational mission and culture. Higher education institutions have unique missions and cultures. At Seton Hall, we are entrusted with the responsibility of developing the next generation of servant leaders versant in and committed to Catholic values. This is reflected in our core curriculum and various old and new traditions.
- Listen, communicate, and collaborate with your key constituent groups. Shared governance is at the core of great institutions. It should never be about me or “my” vision for the university. It should be a vision borne out of a collaborative effort by the university community.
- Learn and adapt. Our strategic plan was developed at the onset of the recession under a different set of assumptions and leadership. By being flexible and adjusting to available financial resources, as well as by capitalizing on the strengths of university leadership, we have thrived over the past few years.
Particularly for those succeeding a popular and charismatic president, the most important advice I can give is to know yourself, make the most of your personal strengths, and always act in the best interest of the students and the institution. And although you may not be following in the footsteps of a priest, it would be wise to pray for all the help and wisdom you can get.
A. Gabriel Esteban is president of Seton Hall University.