July 29, 2011

'Building a great Catholic university'

Bold moves, commitment to goals mark president Daniel Elsener’s 10 years at Marian University

Daniel Elsener, president of Marian University in Indianapolis, stands in front of an architectural rendering of the university’s Center for Health and Healing Arts, which is scheduled to open in 2013. The new building will house the college of osteopathic medicine, and the university’s school of nursing. Marian will be the first Catholic university in the United States to have a college of osteopathic medicine. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Daniel Elsener, president of Marian University in Indianapolis, stands in front of an architectural rendering of the university’s Center for Health and Healing Arts, which is scheduled to open in 2013. The new building will house the college of osteopathic medicine, and the university’s school of nursing. Marian will be the first Catholic university in the United States to have a college of osteopathic medicine. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

He has a touch of the showman—a trait that came through when he rode a horse through campus to celebrate the new football stadium at Marian University in Indianapolis.

He has a penchant for bold moves, including the decision to open a new medical school at Marian in 2013.

And while he doesn’t shy from the spotlight, he maintains a humble reverence for everything that marks his Catholic faith. He asks the Holy Spirit for guidance as he makes decisions. He prays the rosary as he walks through campus. He speaks glowingly of the Sisters of St. Francis who started the college.

All those qualities—plus his approach of total commitment to a task or a goal—offer a revealing look at Daniel Elsener, who will mark his 10th anniversary as the president of Marian University on Aug. 1.

It’s been 10 years in which the school’s enrollment has nearly doubled, its fundraising has skyrocketed and the perception of “a very sleepy little college that was struggling”—as a board member once described the school—has changed.

The Criterion recently interviewed Elsener about his tenure at Marian University. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. Marian’s total enrollment in the fall of 2000 was 1,282. In the fall of 2010, it was 2,365—nearly double from 10 years earlier. What are the main factors that have contributed to that dramatic increase?

A. “When you think about it, that’s hard to do for an education community—in any situation. We had some makeup to do in terms of capital, fundraising, image and mission. Fundamentally, it was a lot of prayer, a lot of reconnecting with mission. Add some leadership, way beyond the president, by the way. Board leadership. Academic leadership. Student life leadership. Leadership among the students. Then add resources. When you can connect those four dots—calling and mission, need, leadership and resources—things just seem to grow. They take off.”

Q. When you started as president, you thought that Marian had consciously downplayed its Catholic identity so as not to put off certain potential students and donors. Why was it important to you to stress Marian’s Catholic identity?

A. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have been called to do this if Marian wasn’t Catholic. I was formed as a youngster and certainly as an adult by Catholic schools. Higher education is a fertile ground to explore ideas, possibilities, your calling, your gifts and what you’re supposed to do with them. Can you imagine doing that wholly and well without the light of faith?

“Fundamentally, as we talked about it in the beginning, our faith isn’t a limiting factor. It’s a tremendous influence. If you think about educating the whole person, there’s no doubt that in a Catholic environment—and generally speaking in a faith-based environment—you can offer a much better education, not only for your career but for life.”

Q. What are some of the tangible ways that Marian University has stressed its Catholic identity in the past 10 years?

A. “In the first year, we looked around and noticed that a lot of the rooms on campus didn’t have crucifixes in them. One Sunday at Mass, we invited a bunch of students, and we had a bunch of crosses, nails and hammers. After Mass, we asked them to find a room without a cross and put one up.

“We worked with the archbishop [Daniel M. Buechlein] to start a seminary [Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary]. And we have 100 and some San Damiano Scholars on campus—people who want to integrate faith with their calling and profession. Another really specific way is when we hire people. Even if they’re not Catholic, we ask them how they will contribute to the Catholic and Franciscan dimensions of our mission.

“We’re going to build a beautiful shrine to the Blessed Mother here on campus, too. So you see our Catholic identity in everything we do and in every discussion of what’s important to us. Our tagline is, ‘Building a great Catholic university.’ ”

Q. Marian University is scheduled to open a new medical school in 2013—the first Catholic university in the United States to have a college of osteopathic medicine. Of all the changes that have occurred at Marian in the past 10 years, where does the planning of a medical school fit, and what’s the impact that you hope it will have?

A. “It’s dramatic. We often talk about ‘the courage to venture’ here, to respond to God’s call. The medical school will be a locomotive for pulling the train toward becoming a great Catholic university. We were doing well with our capital campaign. When we made the announcement about the medical school, it just shot forward. We’re closing in on $150 million raised in a three- or four-year period. We’ll invest $100 million or so in facilities in the next three years alone. That’s just an enormous explosion.”

Q. One of the main ways that your 10 years as president will be celebrated is with a party on August 27, as part of the first home football game of the season. In 2005, Marian University was just starting a football program, and a new stadium wouldn’t be built until 2009. Why did you see football as an important part of Marian’s growth? And what impact has the football program had on the university?

A. “You could make the case that the flame that’s burning here was started by [the plan to play] football. On paper, the reason I did it was to build male enrollment, to give the campus life and to get us some attention in the press. But it was also [the feeling of] ‘I think we need confidence.’

“The idea made a lot of people nervous. I remember a faculty member saying, ‘We can’t do this! We’ll be embarrassed! We won’t win a game! It will be pathetic!’ I walked away remembering we need confidence. Building a football program is big, but it’s not that big! Part of it was I just felt we needed to do something that seemed so out of character for us—big and outlandish.

“In our fourth season, we got two games into the national playoffs. There are

120-140 colleges who play NAIA [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] football across the country, and we ended up in the top six or seven. I’ve literally seen alums with tears in their eyes when they see two-, three- and four-thousand people on campus with the grills going and music playing. It’s a very visible sign we did something big, and we did it very well.”

Q. Before you arrived as president, Marian had a capital campaign that ended in 2000, raising $8 million. The university’s most recent capital campaign, scheduled to end in 2012, set a goal of $70 million. About $150 million has been raised so far. What is your approach to fundraising, and why do you think donors have responded to it?

A. “I take a different approach. To me, it’s an investment. It’s not about the money. And it’s not about schmoozing people or giving them expensive wine. You have to have a clear sense of your vision and purpose in the world. For me, it’s about being committed.

“The other thing is, if you went to a fundraising school, they typically tell you to ask someone for a certain amount of money. I don’t ever do that. I talk to them about stewardship—what God has given you—and ask you to personally reflect on what God has called you to do. And whatever you come to a conclusion on, I’ll gratefully receive it, and I’ll make sure we’re good stewards of it. It’s amazing how much more money you can raise that way instead of asking someone for $100 or $100,000 or $100 million.

“I knew people were good, and I knew people were generous, but I was shocked at how much I underestimated that. People want to be generous, and they want to do something big. Big ideas raise more money than small ideas. If you do it with passion and joy and talk about human possibility, it’s very easy for someone to say, ‘You know, I can do with less.’ Most of fundraising is about ideas and possibilities and what we can do together and what God is calling us to do.”

Q. Two years ago, the name of the school changed from Marian College to Marian University. Has the name change changed the perception of the school?

A. “When I first came here, there was a big push to change the name because that would be a sign of a new day. I said, ‘People will see right through that in a minute.’ We had to make substantive changes. We decided to ask, ‘How can we become of better service?’ You have to know where you’re at, and what your needs are.

“Whether you’re going to be moving forward in roles in business or accounting or the Church or health care or education, you better set yourself up so you can move into graduate education. So we spent three or four years designing a system of schools. We had 10 graduate students in 2001. Now we have 225-250. With the med school, we’ll be interacting in a whole other way with teaching and learning and pastoring. So the change in our name was more a reflection of what we’re becoming.”

Q. What are the challenges that remain for Marian University?

A. “In my next 10 years of service, I’m going to make a big push to make sure the academic achievement culture here becomes much more profound and pronounced. We’re also putting a lot of effort into tracking talent that’s tied to our mission. If you want to be a great Catholic university, you have to have great resources. We have to continually pray, reflect and work very hard day to day.

“I want to make sure we’re connected to humanity. What are the greatest needs of the day? If we always pay attention to our calling, the greatest needs of the day and we hire excellent people with the whole package, we will almost surely get the resources we need. The next 10 years we’ll do that at a hyper level.”

Q. What do you enjoy most about being the president of Marian University?

A. “There’s a thing that God put in me that likes to do something. I love to see people grow. I know all the kids. I make calls a lot of times for seniors to help them get jobs. I’ll call a principal and say, ‘I’ve been watching this kid the whole time he’s been here, and you ought to hire him.’ I call businesses, and they’ll say, ‘What’s your position?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’m the president.’ I write a lot of letters for kids, too.

“I tell the kids, ‘I’ll take the time to do this, but you have one requirement. You better do a hell of a job because the next time I call the CEO or the human resource guy, I want him to believe me. If you mess up, they won’t believe me the next time.’

“I like all the work culminating to the benefit of the student. To be a part of that is a tremendous privilege.”

(To learn more about Marian University, log on to www.marian.edu.)

More about Daniel Elsener

  • Position: President of Marian University in Indianapolis.
  • Age: 57.
  • Family: wife, Beth, nine children and 13 grandchildren.
  • Parish: St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis.
  • Previous jobs: Served the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as the executive director of Catholic education and the executive director of stewardship and development. †

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