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Building the Universe Dr. Louis Agnese, Jr. Transforms Incarnate Word

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Staying focused on Incarnate Word’s mission to serve South Texas

Some might ask whether advertising is appropriate for an academic institution, particularly a religious one. Incarnate Word not only advertised, but broke new ground. For example, Incarnate Word was the first college in the country to advertise in Spanish. Yet, as Sosa explains, “It was as if the whole community–religious, political, and celebrity–was behind it.” A dazzling list of notables pitched in to help by doing ads for Incarnate Word. Archbishop Patrick Flores did an ad. Roger Staubach, who was a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and had a daughter at Incarnate Word, did several ads. Well-known Baptist pastor Buckner Fanning, whose daughter was also there, did an ad. Even San Antonio’s mayor at the time, Henry Cisneros, did ads.

Dr. Agnese sees the drive to reach out to all South Texans as entirely consistent with Incarnate Word’s mission. As Dr. Agnese explains, “the important thing for that we are here and founded to serve a certain population....the sisters founded Incarnate Word College to serve South Texas.” When Dr. Agnese first arrived, he wanted to transform Incarnate Word into an institution that reflected the local ethnic mix, and he has. Today, Incarnate Word’s student population is around fifty-one percent Hispanic and six percent African-American, which is representative of the South Texas market, according to Dr. Agnese.

In addition, the international component of the student body has grown, also by design. In 1996, Dr. Agnese became concerned that sixty percent of Incarnate Word students hadn’t been out of Bexar County, so they had little experience with other cultures and would be unprepared for competing in a global economy. “We had to change that,” says Dr. Agnese. Now the student body is nine percent international, with many of those students from China and Taiwan. This is almost a nine-fold increase since 1996.

Across all student ethnic groups, Dr. Agnese wanted varied economic strata. Says Dr. Agnese, “There’s an economic mix here, so when you walk the campus, you can’t say, ‘Oh, that student must be the poor student’ because it’s reflected in all ethnicities.” On average, about twenty-five percent of Incarnate Word students come from affluent backgrounds and about twenty-five percent “can’t afford the bus fare to get here,” explains Dr. Agnese. Even the international students are economically diverse. There are students from wealthy families in China and Taiwan and some exchange students from poor Asian families. “So, it’s a mixture that makes this community the beautiful community that it is. And, it’s very, very unique,” says Dr. Agnese.

In addition to diversifying the student population, Dr. Agnese has expanded the physical reach of Incarnate Word beyond the Alamo Heights campus in a variety of ways. Dr. Agnese says, “We’re constantly looking at how we can serve our marketplace.” For example, in 1995 Incarnate Word introduced an adult degree completion program with different sites around San Antonio and one in Corpus Christi. In 2000, Incarnate Word launched its online university, which now has a student population close to six hundred worldwide. Recently, Incarnate Word opened a campus in Mexico City and one in China. Both will offer American-accredited degree programs.

To reach younger students, Incarnate Word offers the education partnership program in connection with the Edgewood and Harlandale high schools. Dr. Agnese says the message to students in the partnership program is “if you stay in school, if you don’t drop out, if you continue down this road, then we’re going to provide the means for you to go to college. And college is for you, and college is attainable.” Sosa also likes Incarnate Word’s tie-in with St. Anthony, an elementary school, and Incarnate Word High School “because it [the program] really is pre-K all the way to graduate school.”

Combining faith and education in a cosmopolitan university

At Incarnate Word, Dr. Agnese sees faith and education working together. Recently, at a breakfast welcoming new faculty, Dr. Agnese explained that although the faculty’s job is to educate and stretch the students academically, “if the student does not grow in their faith while they’re here, we have failed, and we would be better off putting a ‘For Sale’ sign on the property....It’s very important that if a student comes as a Baptist, or comes as a Jew, comes as a Hindu, whatever their faith, or comes as a Catholic, that in their faith, they need to grow through this academic experience that we’re giving them here.”

Alan Dreeben, a successful San Antonio businessman who has been a board member at Incarnate Word for eight years, agrees that the university provides a “value-based education” that gives students “a sense of spirituality without proselytizing.” Dreeben, who is Jewish, sees Incarnate Word as filling a unique educational niche. Because Dreeben is also a member of the board of the Texas State University System, he especially appreciates the different roles of the private and public university. Dreeben explains that because a value-based education is not appropriate for public schools, Incarnate Word is an important alternative. Dreeben says Incarnate Word provides an “education with values, with spirituality, with community–what more can you ask them to teach?”

Managing Incarnate Word

When a corporation is failing, the board of directors will often hire a turnaround specialist to save the business. Typically, a turnaround specialist takes drastic measures, improves the balance sheet, and moves on. The board of directors then hires a manager because few people have the ability to both fix and manage. As with a business, getting a college back on its feet and managing it over the long haul are not equivalent tasks. Is Dr. Agnese a successful turnaround specialist or gifted manager? He’s both.

When Dr. Agnese came to Incarnate Word, his plan was to fix the school and leave, but in 1991, he made a crucial personal decision during a three-month sabbatical. After much soul-searching, Dr. Agnese decided to stay at Incarnate Word so he could “focus, yes, on my career, but also on my family.” In addition, Dr. Agnese wanted to “work on my management skills now to continue to grow and to have this institution to continue to grow and prosper.”

Apparently, Dr. Agnese learned his management skills well. Board member Dreeben explains that at Incarnate Word, Dr. Agnese coordinates the needs of many, including the students, the faculty, and the board “all in concert with the mission and the values and the desires of the sisters.” Plus, “the college is a business,” where Dr. Agnese has balanced these competing needs in a “very sound financial manner.”

As you might expect, Dr. Agnese is a formidable fundraiser. During his eighteen-year tenure at Incarnate Word, he has increased the school’s endowment by six times. Dreeben explains that Dr. Agnese is successful at raising funds because “he is so committed to what he’s doing.” Also, Dreeben says Dr. Agnese “personally goes out and establishes relationships, lives up to his word, and makes it personally gratifying to be associated. He keeps you involved. And, it’s based on relationships.” In addition to increasing the school’s endowment, these relationships have helped double the size of Incarnate Word’s physical plant over the years with such facilities as the new Ann Barshop Natatorium and the Gorman Business and Education Center.

The future of the universe

Does Dr. Agnese intend to rest on his laurels? Hardly. Dreeben says, “There’s still a lot of competition out there [among universities], and he has got a much broader vision of how to make Incarnate Word last–have sustainability in the long term.”

Dr. Agnese is creative about ways to further expand the university, even though the main campus undergraduate population at 2500 is already at an optimal level. The graduate school, which uses the main campus in the evening, is targeted for growth. The online university will also continue to grow, not just locally, but worldwide. ADCaP, the accelerated degree completion program for adults who began college elsewhere, will gain a fifth location when its New Braunfels site opens early next year. By around 2007, Dr. Agnese hopes to increase the international student population to fifteen percent from today’s nine percent.

In Dr. Agnese’s view, “Presidential leadership is about looking for new opportunities and not standing still.”