‘We have really good students.’

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He is, for lack of a better term, "The Man" at Marquette. The visible face on the academic and administrative side of the university, the Rev. Robert A. Wild — the 22nd president of Marquette and leader since 1996 — is given credit when the university does well and takes the blame when something goes wrong. He sat down with Tribune campus news editor Tim Horneman to discuss Marquette in the public eye. Excerpts:

Q: Have we reached our goal of being one of the top three or four Catholic universities in the United States?

A: Interestingly, in one of the new college surveys, this one from the Washington Monthly, we finished 49th (overall) and fourth among all Catholic schools. So if you just took that measurement, you could say there we are.

But on the other hand, I think the criteria that we set up is a stricter one, so we're doing all the right things, I think. We're increasing academic quality, working to build financial strength, and I think we're doing a number of things that are going to pay dividends downstream. … And so the short answer is not yet, but we're making, I think, solid progress. We gotta keep working at it.

Q: What is helping us get to that goal?

A: I think it's great people. We have really good students. We've increased the academic ability in the student body and it's showing up in the classrooms. We also draw students who are very committed, very generous. The amount of community involvement in community service is nationally impressive. Another (element) is the great team of people we have working at the university — a very impressive faculty — and I can tell you I am helped enormously by the quality of our senior administration.

Q: What aspects of the university do we most need to improve?

A: There's a number of things that we're working on. No. 1 is fiscal strength. That involves an increase of revenue and judicious cost cutting where we can, increasing the margin of surplus that we generate. … Now there's diversity of students and faculty alike. … I think we're beginning to show real improvement. Our freshman class looks like the incoming group of students of color will be about 18 percent, which is a several percentage point increase. But we have to keep working on that. I'm anxious to increase our international involvement in different ways, and have more students get an opportunity for international involvement.

Q: You mentioned in a speech (in February) that you'd like to have the university's endowment exceed $1 billion in the next campaign. Can we do that over seven years (the length of the next campaign), and how do we do that?

A: Well, I think you do it really two ways. One is managing the endowment well. We get returns like we had this year, which is about 12.2 percent.

Q:Which isn't bad.

A: Yeah. That will help. I don't anticipate that every year we will do that well, but if we were to average 10 percent a year, you'd make real progress from that side. … But the second thing is that fundraising will focus definitely in this next campaign on endowment…Can we achieve a billion in this segment? I don't think we can quite reach that. That's a long reach. If we get lucky, we will. … A lot can depend on economic conditions and our ability to motivate.

Q: Can you explain how the endowment benefits students?

A: People have to see it's not this sort of pot of money that sits there; it's actually a fund that enables goals to be accomplished year after year. For example, the universities that are blessed with large amounts of endowment funds for scholarships are able even to say to any student who qualifies to be admitted, that they can take care of their financial needs, whether they're great or they're small. It'll also help if a person is interested in (advancing) the work of a given college, like Engineering, we have an endowment fund for the dean, $5 million. That will provide to whoever's dean about 5 percent of the fund — whatever the fund is — at a given point in time, therefore growing each year if it's managed right, a flow of money that the dean can then use for the purposes of the college.

Q: Why do we currently pay out 5 percent a year from the endowment, and not a higher amount?

A: Well, because that's what you do if you're paying, let's say, 20 percent this year, and the endowment has only earned 12 and a half percent.

Q: Then you're losing.

A: Yeah, that's the simple fact of it. Normally, if you can possibly avoid doing that, we would need the trustees' authorization for at least a segment of the endowment funds to do that, and the trustees would be unhappy to learn that any of this sort of thing was going on, in anything more than a very temporary way.

Q: You mentioned in a forum over summer break that one day, the university might be headed by a layperson. One reason I remember this is that Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan was caught by surprise.

A: He was, and you're right, and it came up as a question at a gathering that we had on lay leadership in higher education. And so the question was empowering of laypeople for the mission. … And you got to empower people who want to do that. …We do work away at that, and laypeople obviously, even in the administrative levels are very key, and have been for a century or more.

Q: Do you think your successor might be a layperson?

A: I personally think it's more likely that my successor will be another Jesuit. … We have in our bylaws a provision that the president should be a Jesuit. Trustees can change that any time they want, but have not shown any desire to do so.

Q: Does that change the nature of the school to have a layperson or a non-Jesuit as the head of the school?

A: I think there will be an adjustment for the alumni and various constituents, but I don't think it has to change the nature of the school. Quite honestly, Jack DeGioia at Georgetown has been in for several years; (he) is if anything more concerned with Catholic, Jesuit identity at Georgetown than his Jesuit predecessor. So much depends on who you bring in.

Q: It's been a little over a year since the Golden Eagles/Warriors/Gold/who really knows debate has finally been laid to rest.

(Laughter)

Q: Do you think we, as a university, have moved on from that? Do you get that idea from the alumni that they're ready to accept that Warriors, much more likely than not, is not coming back?

A: There are probably some diehards out there, and that's understandable. … The university obviously made the decision that we should (not go back to Warriors), I think, somewhat to our surprise; because actually the whole thing started when we thought we'd get the Warriors name back. We had a plan to do that, but the plan finally in the end didn't convince us it was workable — and it certainly provoked from some key groups some serious opposition. So we decided we're not going to do that. I don't know that there'll be another effort to (bring the nickname back), but I never say never. It won't happen on my watch. I can assure you, one nickname discussion is enough.

Q: We have coming up this fall some contentious issues on the ballot. There's the state's proposed amendment banning gay marriage. There have been debates about embryonic stem cell research. What role does a Catholic university have on those issues?

A: We give some moral guidance (from) various sorts of professors, I suspect, because these are hot topics. But universities are a place where topics such as these and a host of others are going to be discussed. I always think of the university as a privileged square, where topics of all sorts can be discussed and explored. There will be differences of opinion on the more controversial topics without fail.

The university rarely takes a position on a public issue, because it isn't really the function (of the university). We do sometimes, in terms of the university's policy, make a stand on one thing or another, but that would be more in reference to the work that we do.

Q: Do you miss teaching?

A: I like teaching a great deal. I didn't realize when I first came here in 1975, working with undergrads and graduate students, how much I would like it. … It's an interactive thing, you learn from students.

Q: After you finish as president, would you go back to teaching?

A: You know, I've thought about that. I don't know; I wouldn't be closed at all to it. … When that day comes, which I don't plan on happening soon, it'd be nice to get a good sabbatical, step away and then kind of think about those things.

Q: Get out your crystal ball: How will the basketball team do this year?

A: You need a bit of a crystal ball, but what I hear is that there's a lot of excitement. And I'm pretty excited. The freshmen look good, the sophomores, of course — a dynamite group of sophomores. … And it's just, you know, a good morale, good energy, lots of talent, we'll see. It'll be a challenging season.

Q: Do you keep tabs with Dwyane Wade, Travis Diener, or Steve Novak?

A: I'd like to say I talk to them regularly; that wouldn't be true. I did chat with Dwyane by phone after we did those ads congratulating him on his MVP. He was very pleased about that; he was very excited and I was pleased for him. …

I remember writing him at one point when he was saying yes to just about everything, if you have to say no, please do, because we don't want to lose you, and he's one of the good people on the face of the earth.

purposes of the college.

Q: Why do we currently pay out 5 percent a year from the endowment, and not a higher amount?

A: Well, because that's what you do if you're paying, let's say, 20 percent this year, and the endowment has only earned 12 and a half percent.

Q: Then you're losing.

A: Yeah, that's the simple fact of it. Normally, if you can possibly avoid doing that, we would need the trustees' authorization for at least a segment of the endowment funds to do that, and the trustees would be unhappy to learn that any of this sort of thing was going on, in anything more than a very temporary way.

Q: You mentioned in a forum over summer break that one day, the university might be headed by a layperson. One reason I remember this is that Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan was caught by surprise.

A: He was, and you're right, and it came up as a question at a gathering that we had on lay leadership in higher education. And so the question was empowering of laypeople for the mission. … And you got to empower people who want to do that. …We do work away at that, and laypeople obviously, even in the administrative levels are very key, and have been for a century or more.

Q: Do you think your successor might be a layperson?

A: I personally think it's more likely that my successor will be another Jesuit. … We have in our bylaws a provision that the president should be a Jesuit. Trustees can change that any time they want, but have not shown any desire to do so.

Q: Does that change the nature of the school to have a layperson or a non-Jesuit as the head of the school?

A: I think there will be an adjustment for the alumni and various constituents, but I don't think it has to change the nature of the school. Quite honestly, Jack DeGioia at Georgetown has been in for several years; (he) is if anything more concerned with Catholic, Jesuit identity at Georgetown than his Jesuit predecessor. So much depends on who you bring in.

Q: It's been a little over a year since the Golden Eagles/Warriors/Gold/who really knows debate has finally been laid to rest.

(Laughter)

Q: Do you think we, as a university, have moved on from that? Do you get that idea from the alumni that they're ready to accept that Warriors, much more likely than not, is not coming back?

A: There are probably some diehards out there, and that's understandable. … The university obviously made the decision that we should (not go back to Warriors), I think, somewhat to our surprise; because actually the whole thing started when we thought we'd get the Warriors name back. We had a plan to do that, but the plan finally in the end didn't convince us it was workable — and it certainly provoked from some key groups some serious opposition. So we decided we're not going to do that. I don't know that there'll be another effort to (bring the nickname back), but I never say never. It won't happen on my watch. I can assure you, one nickname discussion is enough.

Q: We have coming up this fall some contentious issues on the ballot. There's the state's proposed amendment banning gay marriage. There have been debates about embryonic stem cell research. What role does a Catholic university have on those issues?

A: We give some moral guidance (from) various sorts of professors, I suspect, because these are hot topics. But universities are a place where topics such as these and a host of others are going to be discussed. I always think of the university as a privileged square, where topics of all sorts can be discussed and explored. There will be differences of opinion on the more controversial topics without fail.

The university rarely takes a position on a public issue, because it isn't really the function (of the university). We do sometimes, in terms of the university's policy, make a stand on one thing or another, but that would be more in reference to the work that we do.

Q: Do you miss teaching?

A: I like teaching a great deal. I didn't realize when I first came here in 1975, working with undergrads and graduate students, how much I would like it. … It's an interactive thing, you learn from students.

Q: After you finish as president, would you go back to teaching?

A: You know, I've thought about that. I don't know; I wouldn't be closed at all to it. … When that day comes, which I don't plan on happening soon, it'd be nice to get a good sabbatical, step away and then kind of think about those things.

Q: Get out your crystal ball: How will the basketball team do this year?

A: You need a bit of a crystal ball, but what I hear is that there's a lot of excitement. And I'm pretty excited. The freshmen look good, the sophomores, of course — a dynamite group of sophomores. … And it's just, you know, a good morale, good energy, lots of talent, we'll see. It'll be a challenging season.

Q: Do you keep tabs with Dwyane Wade, Travis Diener, or Steve Novak?

A: I'd like to say I talk to them regularly; that wouldn't be true. I did chat with Dwyane by phone after we did those ads congratulating him on his MVP. He was very pleased about that; he was very excited and I was pleased for him. …

I remember writing him at one point when he was saying yes to just about everything, if you have to say no, please do, because we don't want to lose you, and he's one of the good people on the face of the earth.

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