When the Golden Eagles are on the court, shouts of “We Are Marquette” ring through the Bradley Center.
Thanks to the 15-year presidency of Jesuit Fr. Robert A. Wild, the university has a more distinct identity, making that cheer a virtual rallying cry campus-wide.
Reflecting on his retirement during an interview with your Catholic Herald in mid-July, just before his retirement effective July 31, Fr. Wild said “addressing our Jesuit, Catholic identity in a more explicit way” was one of his most important accomplishments at Marquette.
Fr. Wild served as a provincial in the 1980s, and when he met with other provincials “we spent more time on the issue of Jesuit higher education than anything else,” he said.
“When I became president of Marquette (in 1996), I said we’d better walk the walk here,” Fr. Wild said.
An important step, Fr. Wild said, was the crafting of a mission statement in 2000, summarized by four words: excellence, faith, leadership and service.
“We worked to put flesh on those bones,” he added, noting the work of “two A-Team players,” Stephanie Russell and Jesuit Fr. Douglas Leonhardt in Marquette’s Office of Mission and Ministry.
Faculty and administrators were given more background on Catholic and Jesuit spirituality. With input from then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, a semester-long seminar was developed for new hires, Fr. Wild said.
“It gives people an understanding of what’s at stake in Catholic education,” he explained.
Another key player was the late Howard Eisenberg, dean of the law school, who described himself as a “conservadox Jew,” according to Fr. Wild.
“He would say, ‘I’m not Catholic, but I really value this mission, so I’m not going to be shy about talking about it,’” Fr. Wild recalled. “It moved us into areas like pro bono service to the poor and a variety of things that were important.”
Fr. Wild said his other two major goals in the job were continuing to strengthen academic quality, and getting the university more fiscally sound.
The numbers tell the story of his success.
Just three years after Fr. Wild became president, students applying for admission had the highest ACT and SAT scores and highest average class rank up to that time, leading to the first-ever waiting lists. Applications have ballooned from about 5,400 in 1997 to more than 22,000 this year. About 2,100 applicants were accepted for the upcoming semester – some 20 to 25 percent of them minorities.
Marquette’s enrollment stands at about 8,100 undergraduates and 3,700 graduate students.
“At the undergrad level, I don’t think we want to get any bigger,” he said. “That’s the kind of question the board and the president have to wrestle with.”
On the financial front, Marquette raised some $800 million while Fr. Wild was president. Its endowment grew from nearly $160 million in 1996 to more than $366 million as of December 2010.
Want brick and mortar? During Fr. Wild’s term, Marquette invested $375 million in new construction and campus renovations, including the Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J. Library, the Al McGuire Center, the School of Dentistry, Eckstein Hall, Zilber Hall and the first phase of a new College of Engineering complex.
“We have a better dental school, a better law school and we’ll have a better College of Engineering for a lot of reasons,” Fr. Wild said, “but partly it’s because the new facilities enable good faculty and good students to do a lot more than they ever imagined they could do with what we had before.”
All that could hardly have been in mind when Fr. Wild, a native of Chicago, entered the Society of Jesus in 1957 at age 17; he was ordained to the priesthood in 1970. He holds a doctorate in New Testament and Christian origins from Harvard University, a master’s degree in classical languages, a bachelor’s degree in Latin from Loyola University of Chicago, and a licentiate in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago.
Fr. Wild’s career was celebrated at a send-off at the Bradley Center in June. Nearly 800 people attended. In a video tribute, friends, colleagues and community leaders hailed his “Legacy of Leadership.”
Fr. Wild was “the right man at the right time at the right place,” said Wayne Sanders, past chair and emeritus member of Marquette’s board of trustees.
Mary J. Meehan, president of Alverno College, called Fr. Wild “the total authentic leader.”
“Marquette has been a huge asset for the City of Milwaukee,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “At a time when it could have turned its back to this community, it did not do so. In fact, it opened its arms to this city, and I will always be grateful to Fr. Wild for his leadership in doing just that.”
Capping the festivities was the announcement that more than 2,300 individuals had contributed to endowed scholarships in honor of Fr. Wild. The goal of the fundraising drive was $30 million, but the total was nearly $44 million.
“I was amazed,” said Fr. Wild. “People really stepped up.”
The contributions will provide – in perpetuity – more than $2 million of annual financial assistance to Marquette students, according to Julie Tolan, vice president of university advancement. More than 90 percent of Marquette undergraduates receive financial aid.
“People have been great about it. Those with resources are willing to share with those with lesser resources,” said Fr. Wild. “Especially with first-generation college kids, those families can be significantly changed. (A college degree) is still the No. 1 predictor of household income.”
Fr. Wild said serving as Marquette’s president had enhanced his own faith life.
“I’ve felt this as I celebrate Masses. In some ways, the president is the pastor of this quite large community. Praying for the community and the people in it, having that sense of asking the Lord to bless its endeavors, became quite important to me,” he said.
“You have to keep in mind – and it’s easy to forget – all this stuff happens, and at the end of the day, for we who are believers, it is the Lord who finally enables good things to happen. So, expressing gratitude and doing that in both public and private circumstances, liturgically, has certainly been important to me.”
In retirement, Fr. Wild, 71, will watch the university’s progress from the Jesuit residence.
“The first semester is pretty much what I joke about as unscheduled joy, mostly at home in the Jesuit community, but keeping a low profile,” he said. “We need only one president at a time.”
Next spring, he hopes to attend a “ministry to ministers” program in San Antonio. Eventually, he and his provincial, Jesuit Fr. Tim Kesicki, will discuss what opportunities exist for Fr. Wild’s future service to the Jesuits before deciding on his next assignment, possibly in administrative or fundraising work.
Jesuit Fr. Scott Pilarz became Marquette’s 23rd president on Aug. 1. He previously was president of the University of Scranton.
“We’ll have a younger president coming in with fresh eyes,” said Fr. Wild. “Everybody gets a fresh look, and it can be energizing for an institution. … He’s been a good fundraiser, and he certainly will push doing some things that will march our academic quality forward. I think he’s going to do a great job.”