Remarks delivered by A. Gabriel Esteban, Ph.D, at his presidential inauguration
Nov. 19, 2017
Good Afternoon. I would like to acknowledge His Eminence, Cardinal Blase Cupich; Chair of the Board, Jim Ryan; Members of the Board and the Corporation; the Rev. Ray Van Dorpe; our Vincentian community, and other members of the clergy.
To our distinguished guests, including my fellow Vincentian presidents, the Rev. James Maher of Niagara University and Bobby Gempesaw of St. John’s University - now two of the three Vincentian presidents are from the Philippines. Colleagues and representatives from higher education institutions across the country, including my previous institution, Seton Hall University. You honor DePaul by your presence.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank my predecessors who are here this afternoon, Chancellor Emeritus the Rev. John Richardson and Chancellor the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider. My late father, a lifetime academic used to say: “Bricks and mortar do not make great universities but rather the people who inhabit them.” As DePaul University’s 12th president, I hope to live up to the high bar you set. Your tenures at DePaul were marked by a firm commitment to our mission, academic excellence, strategic growth, and significant investments in our infrastructure.
To our family and in-laws who came in from all around the country and the Philippines, thank you. To both our moms who live in the Philippines and could not travel – thank you.
To our favorite and only child, Ysabella and son-in-law Matthew, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives as medical residents to join us. To my wife of 32 years and best friend for 38 years, Jo. When we started our journey, over 8,400 miles away, I know neither of us could even dare to dream this day could happen. We have been blessed in more ways than we can thank the Lord.
Over the past few months, I have had the privilege and opportunity to meet business, civic, education, and religious leaders throughout Chicago. Invariably I am asked two questions –first, Cubs or White Sox? And the second question, why DePaul? To the first question I just smile. To the second, I smile and simply say it was and is the Catholic Vincentian mission.
During my interview, I recall meeting with groups of faculty, staff, students, trustees, and the search committee. I was struck by the consistency with which they described the mission of DePaul and what it meant to them. I remember asking the search consultant if everyone was being coached to say the same thing.
So what is the mission of DePaul? St. Vincent de Paul wrote that:
“We must love our neighbor as being made in the image of God and as an object of His love”
DePaul University, as a Vincentian higher education institution, makes a conscious choice to love and serve our neighbors; the poor, marginalized, first generation, and immigrant communities. We choose to serve them because we know we can make a difference in the trajectory of their lives; we choose to serve them because we know that society is better off if we can provide the opportunities for our students to succeed. We choose to serve these communities because we simply believe it must be done. This is what it means to be a Catholic university.
This commitment to our mission manifests itself in our community in a number of different and meaningful ways.
As an example, this past spring, 85 percent of our students voted to increase their student fees. Why? To provide scholarships for undocumented students. When I heard this, I remember telling Jo, two things – the first was: how often do we hear of students voting to increase their fees to help their peers? The second was this: we are going to the right place.
However, this should not have come as a surprise because our students provide hundreds of thousands of service hours to Chicago area charities and nonprofits. This drive to serve others and commitment to acts of charity towards others is one of our great strengths.
Our efforts to serve these communities have resulted in countless success stories over the years. It is consistent with the charge given by Saint John Paul II to the Vincentians in 1986 when he asked them to “search out more than ever, with boldness, humility and skill the causes of poverty and encourage short and long term solutions; acceptable and effective concrete solutions. By doing so, you will work for the credibility of the gospel and the Church.”
Take recent graduate Stephanie Berryhill for example.
A native of Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood, Stephanie attended Chicago Public Schools. She was the first in her family to graduate high school and college. Service work was a very important part of her DePaul experience and she volunteered in Englewood High School.
She remembers all the students in the classroom had their heads on their desks. When she asked why, the teacher told her that even though they were seniors in high school, they couldn’t read. She approached the students after class and asked what they wanted to do after high school. She asked, do you want to go to college? One student said, “No, people like us can’t go to college.” Stephanie had grown up in a similar situation and told them: if I can do it, you can do it.
Stephanie’s experiences led her toward a career dedicated to helping and teaching others. She earned a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from DePaul and was the student speaker at her commencement ceremony. Today, Stephanie teaches in the Hiawatha Elementary School in Berwyn.
The success of our students comes as no surprise to us.
DePaul enrolls more lower-income students than 92 percent of all colleges and universities in this country. We not only graduate our Pell-eligible students at a rate that is 17 percentage points higher than the national average, but it’s 10 percentage points higher than the graduation rate for all students.
When our students graduate, about 93 percent find a job within six months.
Our alumni lead Fortune 500 corporations throughout the country. They include political leaders, civic leaders, jurists, educators, artists, clergy and athletes. During their time at DePaul they also fell in love with Chicago. In fact, more than 116,000 of our alumni call Chicagoland home. Jo and I have yet to go to an event where we did not meet multiple individuals with ties to DePaul.
Our young alumni are also successful in ways that make a difference to society.
Every year, the MacArthur Foundation awards “Genius” grants. These are given to 30 or 40 outstanding individuals in select fields. DePaul is one of the few institutions in the world that can count two alumni who received Genius awards in the last five-years.
DePaul alumni not only excel professionally, they also continue to live the Vincentian mission well after graduation.
Sue Lee is one example.
Sue attended DePaul’s College of Law to prepare for a second career in public interest law. Her first career was in the ministry, both working in a local church and later, at a Christian college. However, she wanted to be more involved.
She enrolled at DePaul and was immediately drawn to the Center for Public Interest Law. In between classes and assignments, she volunteered for a number of public interest legal organizations.
In her words, “So many people, even after they’ve served their time in prison or completed their community service, and after their case is closed, are still suffering the consequences of having a criminal record for many years. Somehow, an employer lawfully or unlawfully gets a hold of one’s record, and that person may face barriers to employment, housing, or public benefits. It’s all affected, and certain people are unable to move on in their lives, and I feel that that is an injustice.”
Upon graduation, Sue began a two-year fellowship as a full-time staff lawyer for Cabrini Green Legal Aid, determined and excited to bring justice to those in need.
As an industry, however, higher education and DePaul, is not without its challenges. The great recession along with the decline in state and federal support of higher education exposed the financial frailty of our sister institutions that enroll some of the most underserved populations in this country. Tuition assistance programs such as the Monetary Assistance Program, known as MAP in Illinois, or Pell can significantly affect the ability of our underserved populations to access a high-quality education.
The younger population in the Midwest, including Illinois, is also shrinking. This shift in demographics will result in a projected 19 percent decline in the number of high school graduates in Illinois alone over the next two decades.
In addition, some leaders have questioned the value of not only a strong liberal arts education but also any type of education that does not lead to a positive return on investment. Families have begun to ask, “Is it worth it?”
These factors have resulted in the mergers or closures of some of our sister institutions. Should this concern us?
Is society better served by the closure of the smaller or maybe even some mid-sized institutions? After all, is this not just the market taking care of inefficient players?
I beg to disagree. We are part of a larger and somewhat hierarchical ecosystem comprised of highly selective to open-access higher education institutions: large and small, rural and urban, public and private colleges and universities serving unique and sometimes niche populations.
DePaul University fills one such niche. We serve students who want and need access to nationally ranked academic programs taught by distinguished faculty who bring real-world experience to the classroom. We serve students who want an education that will prepare them not only for successful and fulfilling careers, but also for a lifetime of service to the common good. We serve students who believe a life well-lived means seeking out justice and charity for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
While I am well aware of the challenges that lie ahead, I know DePaul will continue to thrive and prevail for the next 120 years and beyond.
Our faculty are innovators, and they continue to develop new academic programs to meet changing needs. In fact, 25 percent of our students are pursuing degrees in programs developed over the last 10 years.
I know DePaul will continue to flourish because of our partnerships with the Chicago business and nonprofit communities. Our unique partnership with Cinespace, for example, allows our film students to work on actual soundstages alongside professionals producing top-rated shows like Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago PD and Empire. For some reason there’s Chicago in all of these. Our collaboration with 1871, Chicago’s prestigious entrepreneurial technology hub, gives students, faculty members, and alumni access to tools that are vital to launching a business, including mentoring and legal support.
I believe in DePaul because our faculty and staff are committed to providing excellent academic opportunities not otherwise available to the students we serve.
As a result, our academic programs continue to garner national attention. From video game design to acting to entrepreneurship, DePaul’s programs are routinely ranked among the top 25 in the country.
Beyond rankings, the commitment of DePaul’s faculty and staff is visible every single day at DePaul. You see it in the faculty member who helps students get an interview for a prestigious internship; or when a staff member collects gift cards for students who cannot afford food or basic necessities.
In the few short months that we have been part of the DePaul community, we have been impressed and energized by the dedication of our faculty and staff and their commitment to our mission. This was demonstrated at last week’s annual 25 Year Club luncheon. The luncheon celebrates faculty and staff who have worked at DePaul for 25 years and this year, we inducted 38 new members into the club – the largest group of faculty and staff in our history.
DePaul’s faculty and staff are the bedrock of our institution. Today’s ceremony may center on the president, but a university does not. I am but one of the many asked to serve; and I am honored and humbled by your faith in me. The faculty and staff are the true heart and soul of DePaul.
As we develop a shared vision of our future, our Catholic Vincentian mission will serve as our guiding principle. We will set forth a bold vision for what could be. We will set goals that appear to be beyond our reach. In the words of the late John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” To which I add, we will set lofty goals because we are DePaul and it must be done.
Together, we will make strategic investments that provide the access and tools our students need to succeed. Together, we will continue to strengthen our many nationally ranked programs and identify new ones for the future. Together, we will bring in new partners and friends who will support our mission and the dreams of our students. Their dreams are big, as they should be.
Jo and I feel blessed to work alongside you in the years ahead. Thank you for your love of DePaul. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve this extraordinary institution. Finally, I would like to thank all those who made today possible.
We are DePaul.