On a pleasant September afternoon we sat down with Dr. Louis Agnese Jr. to talk with him as he begins his 25th year as president of the University of the Incarnate Word. He is the longest-serving president of any four-year university in Texas, and only 3.2 percent of college presidents have served at least 25 years. We wanted to get his thoughts on his years with the university and his goals for the future. Here’s what he had to say.
You may also view the videos of the interview.
Interview by Ashley Festa
Dr. Agnese, I understand you had a mentor who guided you into becoming a university president. Tell me a little about that relationship and the most important thing you learned from him.
When I was vice president for student affairs at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, the president was a man by the name of Charles Bensman. Charles was a very good mentor; he was a fine president, with great character. He was a deacon in the Catholic Church and from Day 1, we hit it off. That’s why I went there from Erie, Penn. Charlie mentored me all four years while I was there. Actually, in my third year, he set up mock interviews for me at another college where a friend of his was president. I would go up, and they would put me through a process of interviewing for the presidency. And then they would critique it and send it back to Charlie, and
Charlie would go over it with me. And tell me all the thousand mistakes I made [laughing]. So it was a great relationship. When I was inaugurated president here, he came down and was a deacon at the inaugural Mass. Just a fine, fine man.
Speaking of when you came here, what were your goals when you first became president?
They really haven’t changed, actually. My goal when I first became president was to enhance the image of Incarnate Word College and make it a well-known brand in San Antonio. You know, back in those days, people knew certain things about Incarnate Word. It was a girls’ school, or it was a nursing school, or it had a good art department. But people didn’t have a comprehensive idea of what Incarnate Word was. We were the college opposite Earl Abel’s. Now we’re still here and Earl Abel’s is gone. So the goal was to begin to build the image of Incarnate Word College, and that’s still a goal today. The goal today is to build the brand, the Incarnate Word brand statewide and nationally. And internationally. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go.
Which goals didn’t work out?
Over the years? Many. We set objectives every year. The name of the planning commission has changed. But we work together as a community and set objectives for ourselves. One of the things in recent history that didn’t pan out was the objective of having the campus in Arizona. We invested a lot of time and money into that program. We started the planning of that back in 2006 and were implementing, and then the economy in Arizona went to hell in a handbasket. And so that is one objective that didn’t pan out. So if you have enough objectives, some of them are going to be successful and some of them are not. We hopefully will always have more that are than are not.
I read recently that most university presidents stay an average of 8.6 years at any particular school. Now, you’ve been here much, much longer than that. Twenty-five years. What keeps you here?
Well, you know, to make impact on an institution in three or four years, or 10 years, is very difficult. Incarnate Word has been very good to me and to my family. The congregation has been very supportive; we’ve worked well together all through the 25 years. We’ve never been in conflict. The Board of Trustees has been super to work with, and that’s who I work closest with. And I’ve been able to hire very good people across the board. If you look at the longevity of the executive committee of the university, if you look at the vice presidents and deans, we don’t have many shooting stars. Most people come here and make their career here. That’s been good. It’s not always perfect. My goal in life hasn’t changed. My goal in life is to have positive impact on people. And my role here as president of Incarnate Word has given me the ability to continue to make a positive impact on that goal.
How long do you plan to serve as president?
’Til they fire me? [laughing] I’m 59 years old. For a president of a major comprehensive university, that’s in the top 2 percent of youth. So I’m still a youthful president in that sense. And so I will stay as long as my health is good and as long as the board and the congregation feel that I’m having the kind of impact that is appropriate.
And I know you have plans for those continued years here.
Can you tell me about some of them?
We try to always stay out five years in the planning process. So we’re looking at that now from today in 2010 to 2015. We have a group that we put together we call the Futuring Group that’s looking out 10 years, to 2020. Our major goal continues to be building the brand, building the University of the Incarnate Word brand statewide. In Texas, there are, I would say, five universities, some would say even six universities, that really stand out on the page. You have, of course, UT Austin, you have Texas A&M, two fine public universities, tier one universities. Then in the private sector, you have Baylor, SMU, TCU and Rice. They are kind of the brands in Texas. We are building that brand to be at the same level as those that I mentioned. That will happen sooner than later. This year we’re the fourth largest private university in Texas. We project by 2015 we’ll be the largest private university in Texas. But what makes us so unique is that we’re the face of Texas today and the face of Texas tomorrow where many of the other institutions can’t make that claim. If you look at their (student) demographics compared to our demographics, it’s night and day. So we’re very proud of that. So we will continue to build on that. We implement new programs every year, more professional programs, more athletics programs. Again, building the brand. The other thing that’s very important is that we have all the components that are necessary to be successful in this era that we’re in. We have a very comprehensive online component that is growing. We have a comprehensive adult evening program that is very competitive with all the for-profit stuff that’s out there to provide good quality education. We are developing our professional schools. We have 19 sports program, the most of any private institution in Texas. So we continue to build the brand.
Can you tell me a little bit specifically about the upcoming project for the Fine Arts building?
Well, the next major construction that will occur on campus will occur at the intersection of Hildebrand and Broadway. That’s the oldest corner and one that will be dramatically enhanced within the next couple of years. Between the Administration Building and the Fine Arts Auditorium, we will build a new music building. It will be a three-story building that will be very comprehensive in nature and will house our growing music department. It will be about a 65,000-square-foot facility. Attached to it is the auditorium. The auditorium will be brought back to its glamour when it was first built in the ’50s, and the façade will be redone. We’ll be bringing the original façade back. That will become a beautiful hall that will shrink in size, but will be enhanced to be a concert hall and also lecture hall. It will seat around 600 in that new facility. That will be brand new when it’s renovated, like we’ve done with the science building or the library. And then attached to that is the present music and fine arts building. That building will be completely gutted and redone. And that will be totally for art. So basically we’re doubling the size of our capacity in art and music and really beautifying that corner of Broadway and Hildebrand. It’ll be about a $15 million project, which we will start the fundraising on in October when the Board approves the plans that have been designed.
OK, something a little more fun. What’s your favorite UIW tradition and why?
From Day 1, I would say it’s the feast of the Incarnate Word, March 25. That’s a very important day for the congregation. It’s their feast day, and therefore it’s a very important day for the university. I chose to have my inauguration on that day. Prior to my coming, it was a very private day for the congregation. And so I wanted to make it more of a public day for the congregation and the university. The ceremony that takes place on that day is very, very important to me, personally and professionally and to my family and to many of the congregational members who have been so good to me over the years. I have so many fond memories when we’ve celebrated it every year. So it’s the one.
What’s the best piece of advice you received during your presidency?
I would say it’s a piece of advice that I give often as well. People will ask me, “Dr. Agnese, what truly makes a successful person?” I say often the same thing. You know, being successful means that you do a little bit more than what’s expected on a consistent basis. And that advice I received years ago. Consistent with that, there was a very special Sister in my life here, Sr. Antoninus Buckley. She was registrar here for over 50 years. I remember the first week or so I was on campus, Toni and I, we used to call her Toni, Toni and I were chatting, and she said, “Lou, remember, the more you give, the more you get.” And that’s some of the best advice I ever received.
I guess you listened to it, too.
I do. I still do.
Whenever you do leave, what do you hope for this school?
I hope, and it ties to my wish for the congregation as well, because both are intertwined, that the university continues to be a beacon of light in this community. That the university continues to take young people of diverse backgrounds and really be value-added so that they are better persons when they leave here. That we continue to make a difference in Texas, so we can make a difference in the world community. So it’s my hope that when I leave that that vision, that development that occurs here will be continued.
What do you feel like is your biggest personal achievement?
Biggest personal achievement would be I have two fantastic children that are adults. My son, Louis, is an international lawyer and has done very, very well. Melissa, his wife, is a beautiful woman, also a lawyer. And they have given me my first grandson, which is wonderful. My daughter, Nancy, is a very successful veterinarian. Her husband, Brian, is an electrical engineer, and they have a great marriage. So they’re both happy, both children are happy and successful, and that all was due to my wife, Mickey, and I can take no credit for it [laughing].
What’s your biggest on-the-job achievement?
I would say the conversion from Incarnate Word College in 1996 to the University of the Incarnate Word and the impact that’s had on its growth and impact it’s making in the community. You know, we went through a lot of difficult times over the years and every year is full of achievements. The good news is in 25 years, we only had one year where we didn’t grow and were just stable. So the college and the university has continued to change and innovate, and change can be difficult at times. One of the things I feel best about this year, I would say, is when we were voted one of the 10 best colleges to work at in the United States in our category. I thought that was a wonderful achievement because that means that we have team members here who are happy to be here, and that translates to happy students. So I feel very good about that, about our leadership team and what we’ve been able to do.
Opposite of that, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the past 25 years?
That challenge is ongoing, and I face it every day. It’s being able to raise the kind of resources that we need to be able to provide quality education, quality facilities for our students. You know, we change lives here, very effectively. It takes money, it takes resources. And we’re not a (financially) well endowed institution. We have to rely on the business community and all of our friends that we’re able to make to help make things happen. That’s a challenge every day.
What do we do best here?
We change lives. This year, when we graduated the first class in the Feik School of Pharmacy, A&M Kingsville graduated their first class as well. The combination of those two first classes changed the percentage of minorities in pharmacy in the country. That’s big stuff. More importantly, we have young men and young ladies who would have not had that opportunity if we didn’t exist. We kind of fill that void. We do great things.
What’s the biggest change in you over these past 25 years?
The biggest change is that I can’t jog like I used to because of my hip [laughing]. I jogged too much in the past, but other than that, I think I’ve matured. I’m always as you would say, aggressive or assertive in what I do, but I’ve mellowed over the years, and I don’t try to get everything done today. I can take two days to do it as opposed to one day, but I like seeing things get done. And I enjoy the job more today than maybe I did 20 years ago. There’s more satisfaction in it. I think the other thing that’s nice about it today is that when you’ve been consistent for a number of years like I have, there’s a trust factor that builds and people realize that you’re not here for the short-term. What you’re doing is for the betterment long-term, not short term so there’s more faith in what you do. So that makes it easier sometimes and at the same time it makes it easier for me in that I don’t have to be constantly trying to re-convince on the same issues.
What would you like to be doing in 10 years?
Well, I’d like to still be looking at the grass from this position, most importantly [laughing]. Again, a lot of questions like that really relate to health. I’m in, at the present time, excellent health. If my health is as good 10 years from now as it is right now, or relatively good, I’d like to be doing what I’m doing right now. I could see myself still here working in some capacity. Maybe not as president. Maybe in some other capacity. But I love Incarnate Word. I wouldn’t want to be any place else.
What advice would you leave for the future leaders of UIW?
Know the past. So much of what I did in the first five years I was here as president came from knowledge of Incarnate Word’s past, of its past leadership. The beauty of Incarnate Word has been that that we’ve had strong leadership that’s been consistent over time. Mother Columkille (Colbert) was president for 37 years. And then she was chair of the board for 13 more years. I mean, 50 years of her life! Great leadership. Sr. Margaret Patrice (Slattery) was president here for 13 years. Wonderful president, strong president. And then myself, so you put that consistency at the top and that’s why Incarnate Word is where it is today.
That’s really great advice, and I really appreciate you sitting down with me to answer a few questions.