“It’s Been A Great Year” President Fr. Levesque
Rev. Joseph Levesque, C.M., took over as university president last August after Rev. Harrington’s resignation. Fr. Levesque has served as the University’s interim president for this past school year, but will leave office when Dr. Conrado Gempesaw takes over as president July 1.
The Torch sat down with Fr. Levesque to discuss his year in office as well as Gempesaw and his future time as president.
The Torch: How do you feel about your year as president? How did you handle being thrown into the job sort of suddenly?
Fr. Levesque: I thoroughly enjoyed this past year, the university is well known to me, and I’ve been a part of the University’s board for many years. But coming to be the president, I met all the leaders of the University. I met as many of the faculty and staff and administrators as possible. I met a lot of students in a lot of different ways, and everyone really made my stay a happy one. I thought it was a good year, I certainly have had the experience of being a president of a university, I just finished my term at Niagara as president and came here, so the very same challenges that you find in higher education today, I was able to meet those. You always work in a team with people, so I worked with the team, it’s called the cabinet, a number of vice presidents sit there and we deliberate important questions challenging us. The other side of it, of course, is just trying to let the university grow, so we talk about the strategic plan for the future. It’s been a great year. My transition was easy.
TT: Tell me about what you do on a daily basis as president, as well as on a more general level.
FL: Well, the business of a president is different every day. There are set meetings that are predetermined. It might be meeting with deans, it might be meeting with faculty, it might be meeting with faculty and chairpeople of the departments, so the days are set up very differently. But, by and large, the business of the university is dealing with all of those people, administrators, staff, the students.
I meet with Student Government a couple times a year. I meet with meet with young Catholic scholars and President Society people, so I meet with as many people as possible. Most of my day is that: meeting with people. Sometimes with individual people who want an appointment, like alumni or faculty. I have an open-door policy and I’m always willing to sit and talk with anyone who wishes to meet me. So the days become very full.
TT: What was your first impression of Dr. Gempesaw, and how do you think he will do as president? Do you think he will be a good fit?
FL: As you might expect, I knew Dr. Gempesaw mostly because of the search we did, and he applied for the position so I met him through his statement, his letter of desire to become the president of St. John’s and then actually researching his resume, et cetera. And I got to meet him on two, three occasions. One was as a member of the search committee, one was with the Board of Trustees and another was on his first formal visit here with his wife; I got a chance to speak with him again. He’s a wonderful person, he’s very happy. You know, that picture you put of him on the Torch was a great picture. He’s smiling, he looks happy; that’s who he is, you meet him that way. He’s a very calm person, very sure of his position and he very much looks forward to being president here.
He’s got a very strong academic background, and that was something that everybody in the university community really wanted to make sure that he had, and he does. His field, his PhD is in agricultural economics, and he’s published and spoken about that. So he’s someone that I have a lot of confidence in as the new president, and so does the board, and I think really the university community.
TT: Is there any advice you’d give him for his new role as president?
FL: Yes. I would tell him to bring to the leadership of this university the same talents that he has used in his positions in the past. He certainly was a dean, and most recently he’s been provost at Miami University of Ohio. Namely, to be always open to looking toward the future with colleagues, which means everyone, including students, faculty, leaders, and then giving leadership to the University, the best ideas that he has moving forward. We always like to talk about having a strategic plan. A strategic plan tells us where we’re going, why we’re going, how we’re going to get to our goals, and that is what he will have to build. But he’s no stranger to that. In a university community, you’re always looking at: this is the plan we have, are we following it well, are there any things happening in the world that are making us change this plan. One of the challenges that St. John’s has, which is not unique to St. John’s at all, is enrollment because there are fewer young people out in the world today, and so the numbers are changing and universities have to adapt to that, that their enrollment may get lower rather than higher. Although, you keep on trying to make sure that the numbers are very good. That’s a big one because it impacts on the budget, and therefore can you successfully go through an academic year well. He knows that, and he’s been a part of building Miami University very strongly. They’ve been doing very well, so he has a good track record in something that is becoming one of the great challenges for universities all over the country right now.
TT: Are there any goals you’ve been working on that you’d like to see him continue with?
FL: Well, probably the best way to say that is that we always talk about the University as being a Catholic university, a Vincentian university, and a metropolitan university. Those are our guides as to how we want the University to be. He certainly knows that of course; and the board, everyone challenged him on that, ‘are you ready to assume that leadership and making sure that you stay faithful to the mission of the University’ and he very enthusiastically responded ‘yes, I know what your mission is, I love your mission, and I will fulfill that mission with the help of everybody here at the University.’ He’s very aware of who we are, he’s studied us carefully, and he’s ready to commit to it. I think the big things are: what’s the mission of this University? What is your plan for growth, what’s your strategic plan, things like that. Those are the things we talked to him about when we were interviewing him.
TT: What goals do you think he should set or strive for for St. John’s in the future?
FL: I think he should try to continue enhancing all of the strengths that we presently have, and then looking at the challenges we have. Those challenges are enrollment, making sure that we always have a high quality education that we’re offering, and then doing things that adapt to the times, so that some majors that students are extremely interested in, [and] that would be something that we could offer to students, consider those in addition to the ones we already have. It’s always keeping an eye on things that are in place: the mission, the strategic plan and fulfilling that and always opening yourself up to something that’s new. You know, what are the trends? Are we keeping up with the most recent trends? What’s going to be the best thing for the student of today and tomorrow? What are your interests?
We know that the student of today is more technologically connected to the world, and so we have to make sure that we offer our students the best technology and what they have in the ways in which they study and the ways in which they do research.
TT: You’ve probably dealt with your fair share of criticisms and the whole problem of transparency between administration and other departments. Do you think Dr. Gempesaw will be prepared to handle the situation as well as any of the criticisms that may be thrown at him?
FL: I think so. I think he considers himself a very transparent person, and therefore that’s the way he will operate. It’s what I know was expected of me when I came for this year, and I’ve always tried to be extremely transparent with dealing with all members of the university community. He knows that, and he is that kind of person. So, as he sits with people he will listen carefully. He will offer his own ideas, but he’s very willing to listen. If there are problems that are very consistent that he will meet, I know he will listen to those carefully, and try to find ways to meet those problems. The transparency issue is sometimes [something] seen as an obstacle. I think it’s a great challenge for the contemporary president. I think every president knows the need to be transparent with everyone in the University. The University doesn’t belong to the president, it belongs to students, faculty, administration, all the people who invest their life here and spend their life here; so it has to be a collaboration, it has to be a sharing of thoughts, ideas, questions with one another. He is very aware of that and very open to that.
TT: What do you think your lasting impact will be and is there anything you want to do in your last three months here?
FL: My impact has simply been that I came as a Vincentian president in the long tradition of Vincentian presidents, and I tried to be what was needed. Someone who was very transparent, someone who would keep things moving very well that are going well in the University and make them stronger, and that I look for and have become an important part of preparing for the new leader. So that was the presidential search which we completed. I think the person we found, Dr. Gempesaw, is the ideal. He is foreign born, he’s a Filipino. As you know, I think, we have such a diverse student population here on this campus, so he himself is part of that diversity coming to this country from the Philippines and establishing himself and basing himself here, making this his new home. He’s a great academic; he’s very devoted to his background in economics, and he’s given that to the University, plus his great thinking.
These last few months, I hope to work with everyone to insure that the University is in the best condition that it can be as I ‘pass the baton’ on to the new president. Saying, ‘We have our plans, that we’ve been fulfilling them, these are our plans Dr. Gempesaw, I wish you well, there are some changes that we think might have to be made, and here are some of the areas that you have to be sensitive to,’ that type of thing, that’s how I wish to spend the end of my time. Also just saying thank you to the people who have helped me this past year.
TT: How or will you remain a part of the St. John’s community?
FL: I don’t know. I think maybe I will pray for St. John’s, the community. At a distance, I’m always available if they need my help, I can help the University by always being available.
My only plan now is two things. I’ve had a need for a long time for knee surgery, so I’m going to do the knee surgery, that will be the first thing when I leave. I’ll do that in the New York City area, so I’ll be available if people need me to consult on issues. I’ll return to Niagara University where I’ve lived for many years, and continue to be president emeritus there and continue to serve that community as well. But I’m always available to St. John’s if they need me.
TT: How do you feel about Dr. Gempesaw being the first layperson and also the first Asian-American president, and what effect do you think it will have on St. John’s?
FL: I feel very good about Dr. Gempesaw coming on campus. Our history, which you know, we had to break from that history, for the past 150 years it has been a Vincentian priest who’s been president of the University. The signs of the times are that there are fewer priests available in the world today, and then the second piece of that is not all of those priests necessarily want to be a president. So the pool of candidates to be university president at St. John’s are slimmer. The pool is smaller. So, we knew that we might only be able to have a layperson come on board, and we were quite happy with that as long as that person knows who we are; that we are a certain type of university, a Catholic and Vincentian university, and Dr. Gempesaw really applied here because he knew who we were and he thought he could fulfill our expectations of him. He looks forward to coming here. He himself is Catholic in background and I think we all have to pitch in and teach him more and more about the Vincentian nature of the University, but he’s very open to that. He already knows about it, but now he’s got to live it and he’s very willing to do it. The University and the Board of Trustees feels very good about bringing him on. If we had had a priest that we had available and ready to come and take over, and had great qualities like Dr. Gempesaw, we would’ve chosen that person.