Pillars of leadership

Pillars of leadership

James Danko ’79, MBA

President, Butler University in Indianapolis since 2011
Education: bachelor’s degree in religious studies and MBA
Hometown: Parma, Ohio

“I’ve definitely taken the road less traveled,” says the graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland.

At 15, Danko started working at a medical equipment company, sweeping floors and making deliveries. Four years later, as a freshman at JCU, he started his own medical- and fitness-equipment company. For the next 17 years, he ran the company, which was then the largest fitness-equipment company in the state. He went to night school at Carroll to earn his bachelor’s degree in religious studies in 1979. Danko sold his company in 1990 and attended the University of Michigan to earn his MBA. There, he was hired part time and got a peek at what it takes to run a university.

“There was a lot of room for improvement on the administrative side,” he says.

Years later, Danko became dean of the business school at Villanova University in Philadelphia. During his tenure, the school rose from a No. 105 ranking by Businessweek to No. 7.

Alumni college presidents address changes in higher education

By Sue Valerian

The job of a university president demands a rich diverse set of attributes: visionary leader, team builder, proficient fundraiser, innovator, and one who clearly sees how higher education advances a 21st century society. A president faces many challenges – various constituencies, the competition for talented students, and controlling costs without sacrificing academic quality are a few. Five John Carroll alumni serve as university presidents, guiding their institutions, big and small, through challenges while staying true to each university’s mission. That elite group is:

• James Danko ’79, president of Butler University in Indianapolis;
• Andrew Roth ’68, Ph.D., Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio;
• John Peters ’67, Ph.D., Northern Illinois University in DeKalb;
• Fred Pestello ’74, Ph.D., Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.; and
• Michael Kearns ’76, D.D.S., Mohave Community College in Colorado City, Ariz.

Before taking the helm of Butler, Danko earned a reputation for driving change successfully, most recently as dean of Villanova University’s school of business. To encourage innovative thinking at Butler, Danko, a former owner of a medical- and health-equipment business, started an innovation fund to help foster an environment in which thoughtful change is embraced. The goal of the $5-million fund, which Danko envisions will operate much like a venture-capital fund, is to help fast-track new initiatives.

“We want to encourage people to get moving on ideas, not sit back and just think about them,” says Danko, who credits JCU for helping him become an effective leader by developing a broad-minded perspective and discern between varying interests and opinions.

Andy Roth ’68, Ph.D.

President, Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, since 2003
Education: bachelor’s degree in English and history, master’s degree in English language and literature, MBA, and doctorate in public policy and higher education finance
Hometown: Canton, Ohio

“I got into higher education because of my love of reading. At a certain time, my practical side of organizing led me to become involved in administration,” says Roth, who was the first person in his family to go to college.

Running a college satisfies his practical and philosophical sides.

“When I was in the world outside of higher education, people found me too philosophical,” he says. “Higher-ed administration is a place where I can get the mind food I cherish, yet it’s a place where the practical side of my personality, that likes to organize and get things done, also can find satisfaction.”

All hail technology
All five college presidents laud technology for improving education and access to it. But they also say keeping up with technology and harnessing its power is challenging.

“Things that seemed fanciful with technology a year ago are becoming real, and that’s exciting,” says Roth, who views himself as a servant-leader responsible for the preservation of the institution’s mission. “Faculty and administrators who resist technology are going to be swept away by the young people – digital natives – who are coming to college.”

For example, Roth – who says JCU provided him with a holistic education that opened his mind to a broader view of the world through knowledge – recently took a course about online teaching, which allowed him to experience an online learning community through social media and other online tools for himself. Additionally, the higher education community is studying the concept of digital badges as one way to educate and evaluate students. Instead of focusing on major requirements and grades in standard college courses, a badge system is based on a program’s core competencies designed to reflect formal and informal learning from within traditional higher education and outside it.

“You can never stop the onslaught of technology; you can only work with it,” says Peters, who will retire at the end of this semester after 13 years as NIU’s president. “It’s so rapid, it’s mind-boggling.”

Peters cites the explosion of online learning as a force that’s changing the higher education landscape, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as those offered through edX, the online course platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Peters will retire at the end of this semester after 13 years as NIU’s president. He’ll be remembered for implemented change with a balanced approach. For example, he championed the importance of being student centered while simultaneously bringing the highest possible Carnegie ranking for research universities. But he’ll likely be remembered and praised most for how he handled the campus shooting that drew national attention in 2008.

Fred Pestello ’74, Ph.D.

President, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., since 2008
Education: bachelor’s degree in sociology, master’s degree in sociology, doctorate in sociology
Hometown: Shaker Heights, Ohio

“I began as a chemistry major with a pretty narrow, black-and-white view of things,” Pestello says. “John Carroll expanded my intellectual horizon.”

Pestello switched his major to sociology and became a different person. His undergraduate experience fostered a love for lifelong learning. He started as a faculty member at the University of Dayton and never thought he’d go into administration. But he became a department chair, liked it, and rose through the administrative ranks.

Managing the balance sheet
Although their campuses and makeup of their student bodies are different, the presidents face similar difficulties amid the sluggish economy. One of the most pressing is maintaining the cost of higher education amid plummeting government aid. They all feel the pinch.

“Raising and managing money is critical,” Roth says about attracting students, donors, and keeping pace with competition while keeping costs in line. “You can only raise tuition so high,” says Peters, who has found serving an institution of higher learning a valuable and personally rewarding experience. “That’s why you have to get into private and corporate fundraising.”

Peters and his counterparts have focused on private fundraising more than ever, often in aggressive, innovative ways. Peters, for example, shepherded his public university’s first capital campaign several years ago that resulted in $162 million that supported the construction of three new buildings on campus.

Pestello received a transformational gift in 2008 when the largest shareholder of IBM stock gave Le Moyne, one of the 28 Jesuit college and universities in the U.S., $50 million, which effectively doubled the size of the college’s endowment. The donor, Robert McDevitt, isn’t even a graduate of the college, but he was influenced by his cousin, the late Rev. Edward L. McDevitt, S.J., who was a Jesuit physicist and faculty member at the school. When Robert McDevitt died, he left the college 20 percent of his estate.

“This will help us ensure we remain an excellent value for students,” Pestello says, adding the money helped pay for new business school facilities and fund academic programs.

Pestello credits his Carroll education for giving him a love of learning, a broad base of knowledge, critical-thinking skills, confidence to tackle any subject, and a comfort with public speaking – all required to be a successful president.

Michael Kearns ’76, D.D.S.

President, Mohave Community College in Colorado City, Ariz., since 2007
Education: bachelor’s degree in chemistry, MBA, and doctor of dental surgery
Hometown: Cleveland

“You’re not going to believe this, but I was a dentist for 25 years,” Kearns says. “I had back and neck problems to where it was becoming too painful to continue in that profession.”

About that time, Kearns earned an MBA from Cleveland State University and started teaching at Lorain Community College in Ohio. He liked teaching so much he decided to pursue higher education as his new career. He’s made a rapid ascent at Mohave – professor in 2004, then, during the next three years, he was campus dean, vice president of instruction, and president.

A more educated society
For Kearns, financial issues are important, but access to education – especially in rural areas of Arizona – is a key issue for Mohave.

“The price of higher education is ‘on sale’ here compared to other places in the country, but it’s also one of the most undereducated areas in the country,” he says.

Mohave’s campuses are spread out – one is a five-hour drive from Kearns’ office – and serve remote areas that include the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Many area residents are poor and homebound.

“Students here are at high risk of dropping out because there’s not much of a support system behind them,” Kearns says, explaining they often become derailed because of problems such as lack of child care, unemployment, or having to take care of sick family members.

As many as 70 to 80 percent of Mohave students come to school in need of remedial classes in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics, which makes their educational journey more difficult yet inspirational and life changing. To help combat the obstacle of distance, Kearns – who says JCU is where he developed his time management and organization skills – has helped expand online courses to allow more students to learn from home.

“About 40 percent of our students take distance education courses,” he says. “Eight years ago, that number was only 5 percent.”

John Peters ’67, Ph.D.

President, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb since 2000
Education: bachelor’s degree in political science, master’s degree in government, and doctorate in political science
Hometown: Strongsville, Ohio

“I owe a lot to John Carroll,” Peters says. “I’m a Polish, Bohemian kid raised on a farm in Strongsville. I’m the first generation to go to college.”

Peters always wanted to be a lawyer, but a political science professor and an adviser at JCU had a significant impact on him, so he decided to pursue academia. He loved teaching and research. The administration part wasn’t planned.

“I’m an accidental administrator,” he says. “That was never in my thinking. The accident came when we had an emergency, and I had to fill in as an interim administrator and found out I liked it.”

New ways of teaching
In tandem with technological changes, the presidents agree about changes in teaching. Roth, in fact, considers this a historic time.

“We have the profound opportunity to revolutionize pedagogy for the first time since the printing press,” says Roth, who was taught to think critically and solve problems through a calm, logical analysis while at Carroll.

Students from kindergarten through high school are learning on iPads and through new forms of multimedia, a trend that’s making its way to higher education along with online learning. As a result, sources of content are springing up everywhere. So in some ways, colleges and universities increasingly will become facilitators of education in addition to being significant sources of teaching and research.

“You might go into a classroom where content isn’t being delivered by your professor but by another professor, say, at Stanford,” Danko says. “Many institutions are going to evolve into facilitators of knowledge.”

Peters has turned into a social media advocate, something he couldn’t have anticipated 13 years ago when he took the president’s job.

“We’ve switched all our media buys from billboards and radio spots to social media, including Pandora,” he says. “Incoming students don’t want long emails, they prefer text blasts; and this is a challenge for all of us.”

Roth – who credits his undergraduate education in literature, history, theology, and philosophy to enable him to ground any issue in context, identify key variables, and think methodically through solutions – is awed by the potential that lies ahead.

“We’ve just scratched the barest of surfaces of what you can do with teaching,” he says. JCU

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