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Fifteen Years With President Dr. Louis Agnese, Jr.

by Vincent Rodriguez

Catholic universities in the United States share a common heritage borne out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This provides them with a faith-grounded history of serving diverse populations unfamiliar with the college experience.

Dr. Agnese, his wife Mickey, and their children Louis III and Nancy at Dr. Agnese's inauguration as Incarnate Word president in 1986.

Dr. Agnese, his wife Mickey, and their children Louis III and Nancy at Dr. Agnese's inauguration as Incarnate Word president in 1986.

When he was inaugurated president of Incarnate Word in 1986, Dr. Lou Agnese had a vision to transform the venerable San Antonio institution into a world-class center of learning that would reflect the city's ethnic mix while remaining grounded to its Catholic heritage. He began by developing a multi-pronged plan that would involve everyone from faculty and students to business and political leaders to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the congregation that founded the University in 1881 and continues to sponsor it today.

"The position of university president has become a complex one due to the demands placed on it by various constituencies," Dr. Agnese explains. "A successful president of a Catholic institution must blend academic expertise with business acumen while anchoring both in strong spiritual beliefs.”

"It is critical, then, that presidents have the ability and willingness to work with a wide cross-section of people in their communities."

San Antonio reminds Dr. Agnese of his native New York City in two important aspects - both are gateways to America with large numbers of Hispanics. San Antonio contains a Catholic population eager to reach for the American dream, but often lacking the educational and financial means to do so. This makes the presence of a Catholic institution such as Incarnate Word even more critical. It is the educational and spiritual conduit for the dreams of these recent immigrants, as well as other groups that value a Catholic-based education.

"One of the proudest moments of my life," Dr. Agnese recounts, "occurred when I was selected as the national Hispanic Educator of the Year in 1996, even though I'm Italian-American."

Dr. Agnese has been involved with Catholic schools as a student or an employee since before kindergarten; the sole exception was the time he spent at the University of Pittsburgh completing his doctoral degree in counselor education. The reason for his life-long involvement is simple. To paraphrase Incarnate Word's Mission Statement, a Catholic institution fosters educational excellence in a context of faith.

"The University of the Incarnate Word is recognized as a leader in the educational field spreading from San Antonio, across the United States and internationally," says Jack Jordan, Superintendent of the Harlandale Independent School District.

"Dr. Agnese's vision and commitment is synonymous with Incarnate Word's Mission."

The commitment to academic excellence is an important component of Mission, which has to be a comprehensive endeavor. A program’s size is not always indicative of its quality. Occasionally the smaller and more esoteric programs have to be uncovered and brought to the forefront so they can be duly recognized.

"The bottomline is this - I feel that there are no weak academic programs," Dr. Agnese says. " A so-called 'weak' program is simply an unidentified strength."

Unleashing that program’s potential, however, is a collaborative effort that needs the cooperation of the entire university community. For instance, institutional planning in the development of endowed professorial teaching chairs, because the strength of a program is tied directly to the strengths of the faculty.

Academic excellence also implies having the vision to develop new initiatives that will enhance the university; in other words, providing the leadership to see what's ahead and then bringing it to reality. Incarnate Word, for example, became an IBM ThinkPad University last year. Under this program, all students and faculty will receive one of these powerful laptops, a project that will revolutionize the classroom experience. In order to maximize this technological opportunity, Incarnate Word is transforming itself into a wireless campus, both indoors and outdoors.

These technological initiatives will be academically advantageous to the students, particularly because Incarnate Word is a Hispanic Serving Institution that serves many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that had never before owned a computer.

"These initiatives are especially meaningful because they provide tangible optimism to people with limited financial resources," Dr. Agnese says.

Today Incarnate Word is strikingly different than what it was in 1986, although the spiritual foundation remains the same. The endowment fund has grown nearly sevenfold. The physical facilities have more than doubled. Overall enrollment has tripled, while minority enrollment has quadrupled; the latter is a crucial figure in a city that is 60 percent minority. Scholarship assistance has increased by over 1000 percent. Several endowed professorial teaching chairs have been established. Capital improvements have grown by more than $40 million.

Additionally, there now exists a strong alumni association that has become a vital part of the extended UIW community. The University has developed a strong tradition in both men's and women's athletics without sacrificing the ideal of the student-athlete. And due to the media partnerships that began over a decade ago, billboards advertising Incarnate Word and its programs have remained a constant fixture throughout the city, while ads appear regularly in the newspaper as well as on television and radio stations.

Dr. Agnese attends the dedication of the China Incarnate Word Education Center last fall in Guangzhou, China.

"Presidential leadership is about looking for new opportunities and not standing still," Dr. Agnese observes.

Thus the University is expanding its on-line academic offerings. The globalization of the campus continues. Just five years ago, international students represented less than 1 percent of the student body. Students from more than two dozen countries currently make up 8 percent of the student body. And it is the University's goal to double that figure within the next five years. UIW also has "sister school" agreements for reciprocal education with more than 60 institutions in over 20 countries, most of them in Asia and Latin America, geographic areas that represent the future of world commerce.

In recognition of Latin America's importance to UIW initiatives, and to also honor Incarnate Word's 120th anniversary and Dr. Agnese's 15th since he was inaugurated president, the University in March hosted its first-ever Latin American scholarship celebration, "Unidos por la Educacion."

The celebration drew more than 300 individuals, including such dignitaries as former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, to help raise funds for the newly established Dr. Louis Agnese Jr. Latin American Endowed Scholarship Fund. The fund will help give eligible UIW students the opportunity to study in Latin America, and for Latin American students to study at UIW.

"The impact (Dr. Agnese has) had on the young people of our region is immense," says Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "Those lives, and the lives of many who will follow, will be improved through the doors that have been opened by their education at Incarnate Word."

Last fall the University reached an important milestone on the international front with the opening of the China Incarnate Word Education Center near Guangzhou, a city that is a two-hour drive from Hong Kong. Incarnate Word became the first American university sanctioned by the Chinese government to operate a branch in China that offers accredited American degrees that students can earn without leaving the country.

"Lou Agnese has done more to rejuvenate his university and put it on the national map than any other college president I can think of," Mr. Cisneros says.

Today the University's endowment fund is at its highest level in history. The composition of the student body reflects San Antonio's racial and ethnic diversity. The new natatorium, featuring a pool complex, provides the University with another outstanding athletic facility. And the recent acquisition of Alumni Park next to SBC gives the University additional green areas along the San Antonio River.

"A university president needs to be known in the community in order to accomplish his or her goals. Otherwise those goals will simply remain goals," Dr. Agnese says. "Universities should provide leadership for their communities because they are the centers of creative thinking. And the presidents are the physical and ideological manifestations of that leadership."

Through continued collaboration and innovative leadership, the University of the Incarnate Word will continue developing a vision that is both suitable for the 21st century, and gives meaning to past accomplishments.

"In every respect, Incarnate Word is a better place because of his leadership," Mr. Cisneros says, "from its physical plant and appearance, to its academic programs and extracurricular activities."

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