The Catholic University of America

Q: In a short while, we're going to be welcoming more than 900 freshmen to campus. This will be our third consecutive year of record freshman enrollment. What explains this phenomenon - is it merely favorable demographic trends or has CUA been more effective in the recruitment of students? Or is it because of a stronger brand identity for Catholic University?

I would be less than honest if I didn't recognize favorable demographic trends. At the same time, I believe our recruitment efforts have become much more professional because of better leadership in that area. CUA I think has also become much more visible on the national level in recent years. Our strategic efforts to strengthen and promote our Catholic identity and our uniqueness among Catholic peer institutions have been contributing factors, as well.


Q: Do we get to a point eventually that you think we will need to cap enrollment growth?

On the graduate level, I would say no. On the undergraduate level, however, the issue is determined by our residential capacity and really our ability to service students well. We are building new residence halls, which will help, but we also need to provide adequate classroom space and other services to those students. Those would have to be factored in to any decision.


Q: September 1 marks 10 years since you assumed the presidency of The Catholic University of America. How has the university changed in the 10 years since you took over?

That's an interesting question and an important question and in my own reflection on the past 10 years, I think the answer is a bit complex. Obviously there have been evident physical improvements to the campus: new facilities, renovated buildings, enhanced academic space. We've made improvements to the library, we have the acquisition of 50 acres of new land, campus beautification and landscaping, these are all chief among the changes. But there also I think has been a greater recognition of the importance of the spiritual - a more widespread recognition of the role that commitment to faith and Catholic identity play in our life as a university. I would also say that we have become more focused on undergraduate education, without diminishing our historic, graduate character.


Q: How has being president of this institution for a decade changed you?

I have aged! There is a level of stress that takes its toll on you and I can feel it now in ways that I haven't felt it before. But I think, more seriously, I have come to appreciate the importance of the role of president more, the ways in which leadership has an impact on institutional life. I have realized the level of responsibility involved in leadership as president. I think my view of higher education has become more realistic, I mean in terms of my expectations of what actually can be accomplished. Here at Catholic, I have become even more convinced of the critical importance of presenting a very clear and authentic Catholic institutional identity and mission.


Q: Is it safe to say that the highlight of your tenure here thus far was the visit in April 2008 of Pope Benedict XVI when he came here to address Catholic educators?

I think that would be safe to say. How often does a Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States have the opportunity to host the Pope? For us at Catholic University, we've had that occasion twice, and for Xavier University in New Orleans, I think once. I think the impact short and long term will be for us to unpack the Pope's address and its implications for us.


Q: What kind of impact do you think the pope's speech had and may continue to have on Catholic educators here in the United States? What do you think CUA might do to help foster the Holy Father's message to educators in the years to come?

I think really the answer to that depends on the institutions themselves. All of them are different and emphasize different things in the work that they do. For our part, Catholic University needs to continue to be faithful to its identity and mission and to stand up and be counted, really give example of witness to its fidelity, as well as its commitment to academic excellence. The unity of reason, faith and service must be very evident here.


Q: You had a few private moments with the Holy Father during his visit here. Are you at liberty to share any of your conversation with him? And did you get a sense that he is well acquainted with Catholic University?

Well, I had met Cardinal Ratzinger a number of times, so we were not strangers to each other. In fact, I had invited him to campus in 2003, prior to his election as Pope but he couldn't come at that time. I was deeply moved by his warm and affectionate greeting. It was very clear that he remembered our past meetings and appointments together. He made some very personal comments about my service here and the contributions that I have been able to make to Catholic University. I really will cherish them for the rest of my life.


Q: In addition to the papal visit, what are some of the other memorable highlights of your presidency?

One, perhaps one of the most important, I think, has been the growth of Campus Ministry and its involvement with students.

I think our ability to refocus institutional attention and resources on undergraduate education and stabilizing undergraduate enrollment growth.

The support that we've given to the nurturing of vocations here, vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Over 80 young men and 30 young women have gone on to religious life or to the priesthood, seminary or convent.

I think another thing is the first-class conferences and symposia. I've been very impressed by what the faculty has been able to do.

The strengthening of our faculties throughout the university.

And institutional visibility and recognition.

I think those are very important highlights.


Q: Are there any "lowlights" of your tenure? Is there anything you would do over if you had the chance?

As the song says, "there are too few to mention." If I could do anything over, it would probably be to have more direct interaction with the faculty, although I know most of them by name. I would say, I wish that I could have been more patient with the slow pace of change within educational institutions and not to give in to disappointment.


Q: In an interview that was conducted a couple of years ago, you indicated that fundraising was a top priority for you and you observed that CUA did not have the financial reserves to help the institution move forward dramatically - to "leap forward" were the words that you used then. Has that changed in the past two years?

Our endowment has increased significantly, not only in the last two years but in the last 10. The university's Annual Fund has reached its highest levels ever. The National Collection throughout the dioceses in the United States is at its highest level ever. The past year in fact has been the most successful fundraising year in university history. As we professionalize our development operations and as I have an opportunity to visit with more alumni and donors, I think this trend will continue.


Q: Over the years the face of campus has changed rather dramatically: two new residence halls, a third nearing completion, a new university center, a new health and fitness center, and even a refurbished building in the middle of campus that is reopening after being vacant for more than a dozen years. Is it your sense that these bricks and mortar changes are somewhat typical of universities nowadays, or are they part of a specific vision that you've had for CUA?

Can it be a "both/and" rather than an "either/or?" When I was interviewed for the position of president, some 11 years ago, I told the Board of Trustees that the university really needed work. Their laughter at my response suggested to me that they had the same sense. Coming in as an outsider, although I am a graduate of the university, I could see at my arrival what really needed improvement on campus, perhaps more easily than those who had become accustomed to things over the years. There is, however, throughout the whole country more of an emphasis on the quality of facilities and the availability of amenities to students. Institutions in fact are now competing with one other in these areas - perhaps more so than they do for academic excellence and the availability of academic programs.


Q: Let's turn for a moment from university facilities to human capital. Approximately 60 percent of the university's budget goes to faculty and staff salaries, so human capital is a crucial investment for our university. Given that fact, what is your philosophy in managing this all-important investment?

I think my philosophy is simple: you strive for the best … the best in their fields and the best in faith. This university after all is about reason and faith and service. If personnel - whether they're faculty or staff - are not committed to all three - to reason, faith and service - I would have some real doubts or hesitation about employing them.


Q: In May you announced that Catholic University has signed an agreement with Abdo Development to develop the nearly 9 acres that constitute South Campus for mixed retail-residential use. The Washington Post said "the project is expected to dramatically alter the landscape." How do you think this development will affect CUA?

I think the development of our South Campus will have far-reaching, positive effects upon our neighborhood first and foremost, and upon the university community that lives here. I think what will develop as a result of this initiative is the opportunity for our students and others in the university community to find closer to home the services and amenities that they have to seek elsewhere now: stores and shops, entertainment, restaurants, even alternatives to the housing we provide. And with the proximity of Metro, they can enjoy all these things while still enjoying all the rest that Washington has to offer.


Q: In December 2006 the Board of Trustees adopted a new strategic plan for the university. Are you satisfied with the implementation of the plan thus far and in which areas do you think we've been most successful?

Honestly, I'd have to say yes and no. I am satisfied with the plan, I think it is a good plan - it's strategic as the name suggests - but I'm not as satisfied with the familiarity of the broader campus with the goals of that plan or even their awareness of the plan. I did more preparation and consultation for this plan than I did for the first strategic plan that we developed and I believe this plan is more realistic. I think we've made great strides in undergraduate education, great strides in facilities improvement, we've developed new graduate programs that I think are very attractive, and we've made some advances in human resource management, in the structure of our human resource program. We've also increased our national and international visibility. But the plan and its implementation always will be a work in progress.


Q: As Shakespeare famously said, the past is prologue. What do you think the past 10 years at Catholic University are a prologue to for the university? And what are your plans for CUA for the next 10 years?

I think the answer is simple: it's momentum. It's often been said, I've heard it said that CUA is a well kept secret, that people are not aware of all that we have to offer. But that has changed. I think we've built a momentum in so many areas that I think we can expect great things in the future. My plan at this point is simply to capture the momentum and to continue building on it. To dream the dream of our founders but to do it in ways that they never imagined. To live up to the name and the reality behind it, The Catholic University of America.

Thank you, Father O'Connell.