NU President Marks 10th Anniversary
Has it been that long?
This month, Niagara University President the Rev. Joseph Levesque, C.M., will celebrate his 10th anniversary as Niagara University’s president.
Levesque will be recognized at the NU President’s dinner on Nov. 13 at the Seneca Niagara Casino Hotel Event Center.
Former NU president the Rev. Paul L. Golden, C.M., was Levesque’s predecessor. During Golden’s time at NU, some improvements were made to the athletics department and Dwyer Arena was birthed.
Since Levesque became president, St. Vincent’s Hall has been renovated, the academic complex and the apartments have popped up, and now a new science building is on its way.
During his 10-year presidency, tens of millions have been invested into renovating NU’s campus. The Bisgrove academic complex cost $18.65 million alone.
Both undergraduate and graduate enrollment have increased. NU has broadened its outreach to its surrounding communities.
Clearly, Levesque has had much success as president. How did he get to this point? What does he think of all this? I decided to sit down with him and get to know how he made it all happen.
Q: Did you plan on being president for 10 years?
A: No. When I was asked to be president they simply said that they wanted me to be president. They elected me, but they did not give a term. There was no term given, so I just served. They describe it as “serve at the will of the board” and actually they had no indication of a time period. So I just served and it has been 10 years. Time flies when you’re having fun, you know.
Q: Are you surprised at the level of success that you’ve had here as president?
A: Yes and no. Yes in so far as when you start as president you know you have your goals, your vision, some of the things that you think you can accomplish and then you undertake them. But then when you look back like now, 10 years, there are so many people in the administration – not only the vice presidents, but the deans, the faculty, students – everyone has cooperated so well that if you would summarize it by saying it has been very successful, that doesn’t surprise me because there are so many people – qualified people, quality people – that really have contributed to this, so that’s the part that doesn’t surprise me.
The fact that you have goals and then you work hard to achieve them, that does surprise you because you can’t be sure that you are going to be able to do all the things that you want to do. So, it’s a yes and a no.
Q: What changes surprised you when you came back to NU in 2000 after your departure in 1986?
A: Nothing came as a surprise, because in 1990 I became a member of the board and I was also chairman of the board from 1990 to 2000, or 1999 really. So, I was a part of all those things that were changing and moving; so I wouldn’t describe it as a surprise when I came in 2000. I really was away for like four years. In one sense it was something that I was a part of – trying to accomplish changes even in the ’90s when I physically was living in Philadelphia – even though I was on the board. The chairman of the board works closely with the president to make sure that things are moving in a certain direction and so a lot of those changes that occurred didn’t surprise me. I was a part of the decision making.
Q: So you were always involved with NU in some way?
A: Yes, just not physically, except for the meetings.
Q: Why do you think you were chosen for Niagara’s president?
A: The board at that time really was very interested to try to have a Vincentian be the president. That was their conviction. When you do a search, you search for the best person, but sometimes you can do that and you also might say you would like to narrow it down. … In one sense that was probably why I was chosen. Namely, I had been here for a number of years as a teacher and as an administrator, so I was known. I knew the university, the university knew me and then I was in leadership by being on the board, so I got to know the university from that perspective.
Then the board said if we can we would like to have a Vincentian as the leader and the board did study the availability and the possibility of a Vincentian beyond me. They didn’t just look at me. They did look at a number of others and invited others to apply and that just didn’t work out, but it did work out for me. It wasn’t something that was surprising in the sense of they knew me and I knew me. It was sort of a logical thing. Now, I was not looking for this job, so that was a surprise to me. … I was happy doing what I was doing and I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing, but I can always work with my community and we would decide what I would do next, but it just so happened they offered me this position and I said “Yes.”
Q: What was attractive about the job?
A: What was attractive was that I knew the university so well from so many different perspectives, now they were offering me the possibility of giving the CEO leadership. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted it and then thinking about it I said, “Yes, I think I could do that” – with others, of course.
Then I thought, “I think I would like that because then you have the possibility of doing things that you think are really good for the university.” That possibility was attractive to be.
Q: How would say that NU has changed over the past 10 years that you have been here? What are some trends or some obvious things you’ve noticed?
A: I think certainly in a number of areas – the area that we look at and maybe you can see more immediately would be the physical changes. But that’s because you’re modifying, renovating buildings, making them look better, cleaning them up and modernizing them and then building new structures – the apartments that were never there and then we had Perboyre right across the street and that was renovated, so those changes are things that you can easily see and are significant for the campus. But I think also we hired in that period of time a wonderful, large number of faculty and then recruited our students and wanted to keep on raising the level of qualification. We look for their ranking in their classes in high school and their SAT scores, etc. We kept on trying to raise the bar on that all the time so that we would have a high quality of student and new programs occurred as a result of just progress. You say, “Maybe we need a new program here? and it gets started.”
The College of Hospitality was not always the College of Hospitality. It was known as a program, as an institute and that grew tremendously. It was such a high quality performing college that it grew an international recognition very quickly.
Really the changes were physical, but they were also strong educational changes and then what accompanies all that is a spirit of pride. Pride on the part of the students, pride on the part of the administration, pride on the part of the faculty. … Those are the ways in which I think the university’s changed – really multiple ways.
Q: Can you tell me about how you expanded the university? Maybe some of the projects you have accomplished and how you went about doing that?
A: I had my own ideas on what we should do. … So, you have your vision and you know the university has its vision and you work together with them and it was clear that we needed new and better space for the students in terms of classrooms. It was clear we needed the apartments. It’s a very different style. Most of our housing is simply dormitory style, one style – 30 rooms on a floor and a couple of bathrooms in the middle and no lounge or a lounge way down on the first floor, and we wanted to change some of that. We still have a lot of change like that, that we want to do for student life. …
You can build a strong campus with the buildings that you either destroy, or build up or renovate and the same thing with people – the faculty, the type of student you have, the new kind of programs you have, so all of those things I think happened.
There probably would be no one thing that I would say I especially wanted to accomplish accept that when I came to the university in 2000 as president, I thought there was need for a lot of encouragement to the university community and I needed to be someone who would listen to everyone and not be just moving forward, doing things that I wanted in my way, etc. I think I needed to be more of a strong listener and someone who would bring a lot of healing to the community. You take the community through years and years and years and a lot of different things happened and at the time I came it seemed to me a lot of the members of the university community were looking for that – recognition – someone who would help them feel important and that their opinions were important and that everyone was important. They needed more of a sense of being together as a community.
Those are some of the things that I heard when I listened to people and the things that I try to accomplish. Those are the more important things, because that’s contact with people and people are the heart of the university. The buildings are important, but they’re not more important than the people.
Q: You mentioned building a community in NU and I know you that you’ve done things for the surrounding community. What are some roles that you have now and what have you spearheaded in the university to span out to those communities?
A: Well, I guess the way to start is to say that when I was here as a faculty member and as a dean, I got involved in the local community. I joined a group of people that wanted to do certain things, so I became a member of the boards of various groups and they were organizations that were there to help the people of the community. I liked that very much. I became known as someone who liked to do that, so when I came back as president, I wanted to continue that. I was very available to join various boards once again, and helping mostly this community – what we would call the Niagara Falls/Buffalo community, this Western New York area – and I wanted to continue to do that.
I became a member of the board of the local Catholic high school, the seminary that’s out in Buffalo.
I became a part of an organization; they’re called a National Federation for Just Communities to pursue justice and try to overcome racism and bigotry, etc. All those things became important to me. Then I even came to the university and pleaded with the university community and said, “I want to form a community for the revitalization for Niagara Falls. Who wants to join me?”
About twenty or thirty people volunteered and we started doing different things …we did it on like a shoe string. I didn’t set up a budget, I didn’t say here’s $10 000. I said we don’t have a budget. Let’s just go and see what we can do and if we need certain pieces of money, we’ll go look for it we’ll try and take it from the university. That has bloomed and blossomed into such a great outreach to the community.
Question: What are your goals for the future?
I think, right now, my biggest goal - there’s only about a year left to accomplish this goal – is that we have a major campaign for $80 million. I would like to finish that goal of raising $80 million. Now a big piece of that campaign goal is the new science building. I want to see that built and finished and then to make sure that we get all of the $80 million because it’s especially for the science building, but to be able to do a lot of other things with that remaining money, all the different things that we had set out as our master plan.
That would include a whole new entrance way into the university community, the warehouse – that big white building – that’s almost across from the apartments – and some people don’t even know what it is, but it’s a warehouse and the power authority is going to turn that over to us in 2012. How will we use it for the university and things like that. That’s all part of the plan, which ends in about a year and then the campaign. Right now, that’s as far as I’m looking.
Is there anything that I have as a plan beyond that? … Probably, if I can accomplish these things by the end of 2011, then I probably will sit with other and say “OK, What’s our new plan?” and then start all over again and develop a strategic plan for the future. The important thing too right now because of the economy that had it’s long term effect is to make sure that we maintain the number of students that we want. That become very important – the gaining of and the keeping of a certain level and number of students.
Question: So you would say you are looking forward to a lot more time here as President?
Yes, because no one is saying that I have to step away. Yes, as long as my health is good and the board says they want me to stay, I’ll stay. I don’t know how long that is.
You do, you know you want to graduate in exactly four years. You’re goals is a lot clearer than mine. No, but I’m open to continuing to serve, if that’s what the community wants, if that’s what the university wants.