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Meet the President: An Interview with Father Levesque

By: Beatrice Popovitz, Staff Editor and Ada Seldin, Staff Editor

      In August 2013, St. John’s University welcomed Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., former president of Niagara University, into the community as interim president. Fr. Levesque has an elaborate background in Vincentian leadership and higher education, having taught in various religious institutions such as St. John’s Preparatory School in Brooklyn, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Princeton, NJ, and subsequently Niagara University. Fr. Levesque was a scholar at Mary Immaculate Seminary in Northampton, PA., and was ordained as a Vincentian Priest in 1967. He later earned a doctoral degree from The Catholic University of America and an honorary doctorate degree from Christ the King Seminary, in East Aurora, NY. Fr. Levesque also holds honorary degrees from St. John’s University and Niagara University. He has held many prestigious positions over the course of his career, including Dean and President of Niagara University, Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Community), and Chair of the Boards at both Niagara University and at St. John’s University. 

Fr. Levesque has spent much of his life being a Vincentian leader and during this interview we explore his role as our interim president.

Q: What made you decide to rejoin our St. John’s family?
I was invited to serve as interim president for a short period of time. Father Harrington retired as of August 1st and the school year was right around the corner. I came from Niagara University. My purpose is to give leadership to the University and help in the search for a new president. It’s hard to say how long I will be here. It may be a year or it may be more.

Q: Every 5 years the University has to undergo new strategic planning. This year calls for such new planning. Where do you see the University heading in the next five years?
The provost, dean, and faculty have already started the planning. They’re calling it the “repositioning.” It’s something that is already in place. I will study it; I will work on it with them; and I will try to move it forward. They’re not doing anything so radical that I would object to. They’re really trying to continue to grow St. John’s University. This is a time of difficult enrollment for undergraduates, because there are fewer students entering college. Retention is also sometimes a challenge. There are many different challenges, which the University is going to try to approach. Then they’re going to find new programs that they think will be helpful for new students coming in and students presently here. My role will be to study the plan and decide whether it is promising. In order to make my decision, I will rely upon my own experiences and reasoning, as well as talking to the board members. I mostly work with the Board of Trustees and they’ll be studying this plan as well. But really the heart of the planning comes from the faculty, the deans, and the provost. Hopefully the students have serious input into all of this as well. I am going to try to contribute my best thinking. My goal is not to undermine the people who have been working at St. John’s for years. Instead, I am trying to play my role in a helpful way.

Q: What major goals do you hope to accomplish during your service?
One goal that will be very important is the development of new plans to increase enrollment. For example, do we recruit guidance counselors to look for students? We need to develop concrete plans. It is important to retain the number of students at the University if you want to maintain the staff. If you keep enrolling lower and lower numbers, you will have to start eliminating faculty and deans. That gets problematic. Enrollment is declining in many Universities. We had the same experience at Niagara University. When a lot of children are born at a particular time, then the schools are filled when they get of age. If there are fewer children born, then you have the current challenge we are facing.

I didn’t realize enrollment was declining, because in the College of Pharmacy enrollment is increasing.

Pharmacy has always been a popular major. There is a demand for healthcare professionals in our society, including pharmacists, physical therapists, and physician assistants. It follows that the corresponding programs are filled in schools. However, this is not the case with other fields of study, such as English and Philosophy. In response to these trends, we should ask ourselves, how can we expand or improve the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences?

Q: Do you foresee any challenges in implementing these goals?
Not really. It seems to me that when people come together in the University setting, set definitive goals, collaborate with one another, and contribute their full efforts, the plans are usually successful. However, the key is to have all relevant parties participating and striving towards the end goals. The thing that you can’t predict is whether new students will come as a result of your efforts. Some colleges have had to close due to declining enrollment, but such colleges are usually small, with 1,000 to 2,0000 students. When they get hit, it hurts them much more than a larger school like St. John’s with 21,000 students. Nonetheless, St. John’s is affected by a shrinking student body. I don’t see any challenges that will be so great that we can’t bring our plan forward and be successful.

Q: What did you learn from your experience as President of Niagara University that you will carry over to St. John’s?
There are many different lessons that you can take away being president of a University and it seems to me that eventually you are going to hit all the problems that are out there. The biggest challenges at Niagara University were enrollment and retaining students. Here at St. John’s that is still a major concern. Another concern is finding ways to obtain grants or funding for the University. This year, St. John’s University received its largest number of grants and the largest amount of money ever received through grants (which amounted to $12 million). We also look for ways to maintain a budget. To do so requires cutting back in certain areas. For instance, if we need two professors in an area we may just start off by hiring one full time professor and one adjunct professor to see if the demand is truly necessary. I learned all about these big issues and every day issues throughout the course of a given year being president at Niagara University.

I want to emphasize the things I said before about what makes the plan successful. Collaboration is truly the key. If the administration, faculty, and students work closely together, are really united, and all have the mindset that they want the University to succeed, well nothing wins like that. My style of administration is collaborative and I want to make a contributive effort. I want to hear what the students and the University members are interested in and I want to respond.

Q: How will St. John’s continue to uphold its Vincentian traditions in the changing times?
One of the things I’ve discovered here, as well as at Niagara University, is that everyone I meet at St. John’s University is very knowledgeable and very aware of what it means to be part of a Vincentian University. At the heart of being a Vincentian University is learning how important it is to serve others. Hopefully you will come out of St. John’s University and have a great career; hopefully you’ll have all your dreams fulfilled. Whatever those dreams are and whatever that goal is, we are helping you to accomplish them. I think people remember that St. John’s University is part of their roots and they want to bring a part of the St. John’s Vincentian mission into their lives. I think it is so wonderful that so many of our faculty and students make serving others part of their lives. I see this fact and I hear it. Nearly all the students that I speak to say, “we know what it means to serve. We do this midnight run in Manhattan, we given people food, we visit the sick in the hospital, etc…” I just want to keep encouraging people at the University to keep on doing what they are doing. I see a very strong spirit here of what it means to be Vincentian, and the St. John’s community knows that it encompasses being sensitive to others who don’t have what they have.

Q: What did your role as Chairman of the Board of Trustees entail?
What the Board of Trustees does is work with administrators of the University to oversee everything including student life, academic life, financial aspects, etc… The board is comprised of experts in their own field and it is the chairman’s job to organize them, and if necessary, make decisions or encourage ideas and motions that steer the University in a certain direction. From a structural standpoint, it is very important to have a board. If you ever read an article about a Board of Trustees, it will tell you that its most important job is to hire or fire a president. However, for a University, replacing a president is not a common event. The Board of Trustees also has a fiduciary responsibility, to make sure that this University is not being harmed in any significant way, and the board members commit themselves to that. I was a board member for a numbers of years and my experience helped me in my role as president of Niagara University and it certainly has helped me now at St. John’s University.

Q: You have an impressive biography. In your opinion, what is the “key” to success?
To do each thing as well as you can do and just see where it will take you. For me, I started out as a teacher and it eventually led me down the path of becoming a dean. I worked as a dean for 8 years and I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun, but it was very difficult work, so I stepped away. Eventually I became a board member here at St. John’s University. It is also important to try new things. When I was young and was studying to become a priest I was actually asked to teach. I never thought I wanted to teach, but I tried something new and I liked it. I was also motivated to be a good teacher since I had many bad teachers. Not only did I want to be a good teacher, but I wanted to be the best teacher possible. You pursue excellence in what you do, you work hard at what you do, and other people recognize that, and it brings you to new levels and to new opportunities and jobs.

So when people say what’s your key to success? I always start with God. God blessed me, God gave me the gifts to use, and I worked at using them. I was afraid to enter the classroom. I didn’t want to be a teacher. Now I’ve been the president of two universities! How did that happen? It didn’t happen overnight.

I’m 75 years old, it took me a long time. But the key I think is you do your very best, and you are allowed to move forward, and you become desirable to more people. As I was leaving Niagara, I said to a group of people who are leaders, at Leadership Niagara; “one of the important things for being a leader, is to always be able to say ‘Yes’, when someone asks you to do something for them”. The point is to make yourself available, and if people recognize you have a talent with which God has blessed you, just use that talent well.

The Rho Chi Post would like to thank Fr. Levesque for his time and expertise and welcome him in rejoining the St. John’s family.

Published by Rho Chi Post
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