New president will focus on enrollment and financial support

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Ty.Ueda

It’s history in the making.  Dr. Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw is the 17th president of St. John’s and the first layperson to hold the distinguished role.

Gempesaw’s tenure began July 1 after the Presidential Search Committee conducted a six-month search for the University’s next president.  His investiture as president will take place Oct. 24.

Gempesaw is the first lay president in 144 years of St. John’s history.  “I understand the historical significance of being appointed the first lay president… and fully understand the responsibility,” Gempesaw said.

Born and raised in the Catholic tradition, Gempesaw is familiar with the mission of St. John’s and he said that it was made clear to him during the presidential search that the University is Catholic, Vincentian and Metropolitan.

Besides being the first lay president, Gempesaw is also a first-generation immigrant like many students at St. John’s.  It’s important to him that St. John’s has a rich history involving immigrant students and their families.

“I’m very happy to know that St. John’s was founded to serve the sons and daughters of immigrants,” Gempesaw said.  “The first time I visited St. John’s during the search process, my wife and I visited St. Thomas More Church; it’s a very special building, and from then on we walked towards the library.  Seeing the campus, seeing the students, seeing the faculty, I felt at that time that this was a place that we could belong.”

This is Gempesaw’s first time living in New York, specifically in Queens, and he says that he loves living here.  While he was Dean of the Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware, Gempesaw would take weekend trips to New York to visit alumni, which allowed him to become familiar with the city.

Dr. Gempesaw is the 17th president of St. John's, and the first layperson to hold the distinguished role. Torch Photo: Cheyanne Gonzales
Dr. Gempesaw is the 17th president of St. John’s, and the first layperson to hold the distinguished role.
Torch Photo: Cheyanne Gonzales

After being at St. John’s for several months, Gempesaw says that what he likes most is “the passion and commitment of the faculty and staff.”  He invited several faculty members and administrators to his house over the summer, as well as members of the President’s Society, and he said, “I can clearly see in each one their dedication to the institution.”

Gempesaw comes to St. John’s after spending three decades in academia.  After graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a doctorate degree in agricultural economics, he started at the University of Delaware as an assistant professor and gradually moved up until he was promoted to department chair, a position he held for six years until becoming vice provost in 1999.  In 2004, he became the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and in 2006 became dean of the Lerner College of Business and Economics.  In 2011, he then became provost at Miami University (Ohio), a position he officially held until June 30 before coming to St. John’s.

“It never occurred to me that I would be a university president,” he said.

Gempesaw takes pride in the mission of St. John’s, which includes providing financial support to students that need it.  “The University takes pride in [the fact that] 97% of students receive support, as very few universities could say that that’s part of their special mission.  That’s something that resonates with me very strongly, and how we can provide not only access but also insure the success of our students,” he said.

When asked what challenges St. John’s faces going forward, Gempesaw mentioned enrollment.  The University’s enrollment has decreased in recent years, but Gempesaw said, “I have immediately started to look [at the issue] very closely.”  He is confident he can work with the enrollment management staff, the provost and the deans to come up with a collaborative solution and unique enrollment strategies.  “I am, however, confident that we will be able to find a niche for St. John’s.”

Over the coming months and years, Gempesaw will continue to face the variety of challenges that any university president faces.  However, he has both short-term and medium-term plans that he has already begun to work on.  His medium-term plans revolve around the University’s 150th anniversary in 2020.

In order to plan for the short-term, over the summer Gempesaw held his own ‘listening tour’ involving a two-day President’s retreat, where he met with the top 50 leaders at St. John’s, including department chairs, deans and administrators.  “I asked [the participants] what are the challenges and opportunities that we as a university should look at in the short-term while we prepare for the medium to long term strategic priorities,” he said.  “At this time, I’m also going around and meeting with various faculty councils from the different colleges.”

Gempesaw plans to provide additional details about the outcome of his listening tour during his investiture in October.

“I did not come [to the university] to say I know what we should do, or what the mission should be for St. John’s,” he said. “What I would like to emphasize is this should be a shared mission, this should be a shared ownership, because a shared mission will have a higher chance of being successful.”