After a 20-year career at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, James Loftus became president of Cardinal Stritch University. The Illinois native began his term July 1. He sat down with Catholic Herald reporter Willy Thorn on Friday, Sept. 9 to discuss his plans for the university.
Rumor has it you were already riding around town in parades….
You heard right. My wife and I paraded in Whitefish Bay’s and Shorewood’s parades July 4. It was an introduction, a way to say hello, and an opportunity to meet the larger Milwaukee community. We were pleased to do that, with our mascot Wolfie. (Sister of St. Francis of Assisi) Camille Kliebhan – the university’s chancellor and former president also joined us. It was fun.
What are you up to these days?
Though I was appointed in December 2010, I started July 1. So the parade route was actually my third day on the job.
The school year is, of course, under way.
We just (got done hosting) one stop on the Department of Education’s bus tour of Milwaukee. Stritch hosted a roundtable discussion on ways to enhance education locally, with a focus on national education as well. Arnie Duncan, the (U.S.) Secretary of Education, attended. We were very privileged.
There’ve been transition meetings and moving in. I’m thankful for the intention of the previous presidents. Particularly, the interim president Kent Bergemann; masterful at allowing me to understand our challenges and issues, and underscore the real successes going on here. He is great. I should mention Sr. Camille (Kliebhan) and (Sister of St. Francis of Assisi) Mary Lea Schneider. Both served as president for upwards of 17 years. They were the leaders and visionaries.
Initial impressions of Milwaukee and Cardinal Stritch?
Both very positive. Milwaukee’s a great town. The people are great. The opportunities – cultural, social, spiritual – are just numerous. It’s a fun town, with lots to do. The people have been very inviting to us.
My initial impression of Cardinal Stritch was not dissimilar. It’s kind of this gem on the North Shore. It’s an excellent place to discover yourself and serve the world around you.
Where do you come from?
I grew up in suburban Chicago, in St. Charles, Ill., as the fifth of sixth children. I graduated from Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, Ill. I got a degree from the University of Notre Dame in psychology, and also earned an MBA from there, too. I also have a Ph.D. in planning, policy and leadership studies from the University of Iowa. I came to Cardinal Stritch after 20 years at St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa, where I held down various administrative posts, most recently VP for enrollment and student services.
Why Cardinal Stritch?
It was our sense of discernment. My wife and I prayed, thought and discussed it through. How can we make the greatest contribution of consequence given the talent and skills that we have? How can we best serve? That’s what we kept asking ourselves.
It was an opportunity to be a part of a community that has some challenges, and also said: “You would be a good fit.” So in that sense, it was a combination. I had some aspirations to lead a midsize Catholic university and they had a need for some new leadership. So it was also a good match and good timing, too.
What do you bring to Cardinal Stritch, and vice versa?
Cardinal Stritch brings a lot to me, namely a wonderful community of people who are dedicated to transforming the lives of our students and one another as we share our gifts, and push each other to excel. Stritch also brings a terrific legacy of Franciscan heritage. We’ll celebrate our 75th year of existence in 2012. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that, to carry the torch the sisters have in their vision.
From my side, I hope to bring a sense of continuing to move forward. To tell our story – not in arrogance, but by reaching out, and letting others know this is a great place to live, to learn, to play and to pray. I feel I have the energy and discipline to take on the challenge of a college presidency. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for some time. Like I said, I think it’s a good match.
How do you see the role of Cardinal Stritch in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin?
Our role is to educate and serve. Stritch serves the underserved, and that’s very Franciscan. That’s Catholic. At the same time, we serve those who are gifted as well, and are here for the programs, chances for leadership, and opportunities to perform and play.
Specifically, we’re serving the church through our St. Clare Center for Catholic Life. It’s supported by benefactors and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It encompasses graduate degrees, certificate programs and annual symposia, notably. It’s really an effort to enhance our Catholic life, primarily in the archdiocese. We also have a center for calling and engagement and a vocational discernment program. We work with Catholic schools and parishes.
Locally, we’re training leaders for southeastern Wisconsin. We’re serving the Milwaukee public schools quite significantly. I’m suggesting we can be known for business, nursing and the liberal arts as well – all in service to the region.
Ultimately, we serve by giving of ourselves, and our talents and asking people to share our passion for educating and serving.
Secondary education is exploding across America. How does Stritch fit into that boom?
Clearly, there’s a place for us. There are more than 18 million Americans in college or university right now, at this moment. So there are clearly a great many people who want and value an education. Many want the type of education we offer – which is values based and challenges them immediately, with high expectations, academic quality, rigor in the classroom, rigor in co-curricular activities and opportunities to be themselves and share themselves with others. I’m hopeful we’ll cut a path in the Catholic higher ed marketplace – not only locally, but regionally, nationally and globally as well.
You’ve mentioned the Franciscan roots, and the call to serve the underprivileged. But you’re located in one of the richest parts of the state. How do you reconcile that?
(I don’t know) how we landed here. I will say that a couple years ago we were voted “the safest campus in the country.” I would argue that our primary goal is teaching and learning. This location helps us create the best possible environment for that.
We have our leadership center downtown (in the old Pabst complex) and that’s a wonderful facility, serving a multitude of constituencies. We’ve got partnerships with American Indian tribes that are unfolding. It’s exciting. We have partnership with the greater Milwaukee Hispanic community. There’s a program for southeastern Wisconsin teachers and mentors. At the same time, we also have many programs that reach out – to the school system, and local churches, as I mentioned – and I feel that’s already one of our strengths. We work with people where they are. So even though we may be off the beaten track at our main campus, we are in and of the community.
What do you see as the greatest challenges?
We need to tell our story a little more. We’ve got a great thing going here – because of the sisters and their vision – we just need to continue the momentum, continue to invite and embrace collaboration, and to enhance the things we’re already doing.
I’d also like to increase vocations. We have priests on staff and faculty. We have 10 sisters here in various capacities; a combination of administration and faculty, probably five or six in the classroom – depending on the course offerings. They’re all examples to young Catholics. We already do produce some vocations. But I’d like to do more.
Another immediate challenge: schools of our size are often resource challenged. We’re always looking for revenues to reinvest to attract the best faculty and students who fit the mission and vision.
At the same time, it’s a balancing act. We want to provide opportunities and an extraordinary experience – in faculty, in facilities, in co-curriculars – and yet make it affordable. Our tuition is pretty low, not the lowest, but of the 20-plus private schools in Wisconsin, we’re in the lower third. And sometimes those are in conflict. Affordability is definitely a challenge. Cost structures are a challenge.
That’s where we seek support from people who share our passion. Thankfully, there are many – alums, donors, residents, corporations and communities. My challenge is to connect.
Any closing thoughts?
I’d just like to say that Cardinal Stritch is a wonderful, Catholic, Franciscan university. Those who’ve experienced it can tell you it’s an extraordinary place. My family is privileged and excited to be a part of it. Obviously we hope it will be a long and productive relationship.
How do you feel about the Packers?
That’ll take a while – seeing as how I grew up in Chicago. I guess the good news for the Packers is that (Bears coach) Lovie Smith just got an extension….