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 us...is
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.”