October 15, 2021


A bold, visionary leader celebrates 20 years

Last month, Marian University in Indianapolis celebrated the 20th anniversary of Daniel J. Elsener’s service as president. Anyone familiar with the history of Catholic higher education in Indiana and the United States can testify to the near-miraculous changes that have taken place on Cold Spring Road on the west side of Indianapolis since 2001.

From a small Catholic liberal arts college that was struggling financially to a major Catholic university with a medical school, a business school, a school of engineering, an educators’ college and much more, Marian has grown significantly while maintaining its essential Franciscan and Catholic identity.

Elsener is the bold, visionary leader who has been the driving force behind Marian’s growth. A man dedicated to his large family, his Catholic faith and his adopted home in central Indiana, he refuses to settle for “good enough.”

After every accomplishment—from athletic championships to academic honors to nationally recognized programs in the formation of leaders for Church ministry, elementary and secondary education, business and the professions—Elsener immediately begins working on the next challenge with no sign of ever settling for the status quo.

Although Elsener has clearly been the catalyst for Marian University’s growth, many board members, faculty, administrators, students and benefactors deserve credit for Marian’s success. Especially in an era when many small colleges have closed, we should applaud the commitment of the Oldenburg Sisters of St. Francis, Marian’s board of trustees, the school’s alumni and the many people whose generous stewardship of time, talent and treasure have built Marian University during the past 80-plus years into the great Catholic university that it is today.

Elsener believes that educating leaders for the Church and society begins with building character. We need women and men who are virtuous to lead us in politics, business, education, medicine, religion, social services and every other walk of life. Yes, intelligence and professional skills are critically important, but unless the people who lead us are trustworthy, honest and compassionate, the competence they display in their respective fields is suspect.

Who wants engineers who cut corners? Or nurses who have no compassion? Or teachers who neglect their students’ best interests? Or religious leaders who lack discipline? Or business leaders who have no sense of ethics?

Quality Catholic higher education is deeply rooted in the teaching of the Church. At a great Catholic university, the ancient disciplines of philosophy and theology, which probe the meaning of existence and the spiritual truths of humanity, must be integral to the school’s curriculum and its programming. In addition, the university’s mission must come to life in its ministries—the way the liturgy and sacraments are celebrated, the opportunities for social ministries that are available to students, and the way people of diverse faith traditions are welcomed and incorporated into the school’s community.

Elsener insists on the university’s Franciscan values. He also refuses to diminish Marian’s Catholic identity. But precisely because Marian is an educational institution, openness to differing points of view and life experiences take priority over a closed, insular approach to teaching and learning. As Pope Francis admonishes us: “Every moment of being closed tends to keep us at a distance from those who do not think like we do, and this—as we know—is the root of so many evils in history: of the absolutism that has often generated dictatorships and so much violence toward those who are different.”

A truly Catholic university, like Marian, maintains a clear sense of mission and identity without ever using its Catholic identity as a club. All are welcome and respected. All have something valuable to contribute to the common good.

Twenty years of Elsener’s leadership have demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit working with us to build up the Body of Christ in central Indiana. His unshakable faith in the mission of Catholic higher education, combined with his ability to recruit outstanding leadership teams and his skill as a fundraiser, have made the Marian miracle a reality.

Elsener quotes the late Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, the legendary president of the University of Notre Dame in northern Indiana, as telling him, “You can raise a lot more money for one big idea than for many small ideas.” Taking this advice to heart, Elsener’s vision for Marian University continues to expand and grow—with no small ideas.

“The Marian miracle” is something all Catholics in Indiana and beyond should be proud of. Let’s congratulate Elsener and the entire Marian University community for its exceptional service to our Church and our society.

—Daniel Conway

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