Changing the face of the University: Part IV



Thomas Celona

As high school seniors and parents flooded campus this past weekend, Jenn Fisher found herself amid the crowd, facing one of the most important decisions of her life. A high school senior from New Hampshire, Fisher received her acceptance to Villanova a few weeks ago, but she came to Candidates’ Day still unsure about where she would be headed in the fall. As she toured campus and listened to speeches from administrators, Fisher had to ask herself, is Villanova for me?

Over the past years, more and more applicants have pondered that question, making the issue of how Villanova is perceived by people across the nation a pressing and important topic.

In speaking with various administrators, they noted a variety of reasons that students are attracted to Villanova.

“Reputationally, we’re strong because we produce good graduates, and the word gets out,” said Dr. John Johannes, vice president for Academic Affairs.

Associate Dean of Enrollment Management George Walter also cited the reputation of Villanova alumni as an important factor in attracting applicants.

“[Our graduates have] positioned Villanova in the minds of many people as a preeminent Catholic university that has produced, as a result of the students that we have educated – leaders and really productive and contributing members of the community,” Walter said. “They go out, and they serve, and they take what they’ve learned at Villanova, and they practice it.”

Additionally, administrators noted the role current students play in spreading the word about Villanova.

“Probably our best salespeople are our current students and their parents,” said Vice President for Student Life Rev. John Stack, O.S.A.

Aside from the message alumni and current students spread about the University, a major reason many applicants look at Villanova is its academic programs.

Fisher noted that this was one of the main aspects that attracted her to Villanova in the first place.

“I was looking for a good school academically that had a reputation,” she said.

Villanova’s academic reputation has grown significantly in the past decade, thanks in part to Villanova’s placement in a variety of academic rankings.

In August of 2007, U.S. News & World Report ranked Villanova as the No. 1 Master’s University in the North, retaining the top ranking the University has maintained for over a decade.

“When you keep coming in No. 1 … that gets more people looking at the school,” Stack said. “They don’t all come – we may not have what they’re looking for – but more good students check us out.”

However, by being in the “Master’s” category, Villanova is not ranked among all universities. Since Villanova does not have a full PhD program, U.S. News & World Report does not place it in the same classification as universities that do.

While many might say that this does not place the school on the same level with PhD universities, Johannes said that this distinction is actually a positive for the educational experience.

“At a place like Villanova … undergraduates get at least as good an education, if not better, because there’s more attention paid to them,” he said. “Generally speaking, if a university is committed to PhD education, the undergraduates don’t get the attention they would at a place like Villanova. The undergraduates are the heart and soul of the University.”

In addition to the overall No. 1 ranking, the University’s individual colleges have also received added attention through national rankings over the past decade.

In the same issue of U.S. News & World Report, the College of Engineering was ranked No. 9 for engineering schools that award primarily bachelor’s degrees for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the College of Nursing was designated as a Center of Excellence by the National League for Nursing last September.

In what has perhaps gained the most attention, the School of Business has climbed the BusinessWeek rankings of undergraduate business schools.

This year, Villanova claimed the No. 13 spot, following its No. 12 placement last year.

“The business rankings were certainly very strategically done,” Johannes said. “It certainly brought a lot of attention.”

According to the School of Business’ Web site, the number of applications has tripled since it entered the top 20 in 2006.

While academics are a major pull for applicants, various administrators noted that the appeal of Villanova extends outside of the classroom.

Walter noted that Villanova attracts applicants because of “the importance we place on academics, but also the importance we place on developing the entire person.”

“People get the impression someone will care about their kid,” said Marie Schauder, assistant director for housing services.

“We want to create the platform for the students to connect their academic careers with their character, connecting their heart and mind,” Executive Director of Campus Ministry Beth Hassel said.

For Hassel, a major part of that connection between heart and mind arises from the University’s Catholic heritage, prompting the question of what distinguishes Villanova from other Catholic universities, especially as many students who consider Villanova also consider schools such as Boston College and Georgetown.

Hassel noted many similarities among American Catholic universities.

“I think we’re similar in the sense that we’re drawing from a very similar group of students, and we’re all very proud to be Catholic,” she said.

However, Hassel marked Villanova’s status as one of only two Augustinian Catholic universities as a point of differentiation.

“I think the uniqueness is why we do service and how we do service,” she said. “Not only [does Villanova have] the largest service program of all universities in America … but the Augustinian piece is that it causes everyone to reflect on the experience.”

Hassel also said that Villanova differs from other Catholic schools in how it offers Catholic worship.

“We have chosen an ecclesiastical model in that we don’t have residence hall chapels; we bring the whole community together in one place,” she said. “Everyone comes together to celebrate our Catholic Augustinian tradition.”

This community was something Fisher noticed when she visited campus.

“Villanova is smaller and has more of a community feeling,” she said.

Additonally, Villanova has attracted a lot of national attention for its basketball program over the past few years.

“In general, I think students just seem to feel better about the institution, about life in general when the basketball team is doing well,” Director of Student Development Tom Mogan said. “I think it adds a spring in everyone’s step around here, and it is very positive for the community as a whole.”

A combination of all these attributes attracts students to Villanova, resulting in the this year’s record number of applications and the mass of potential candidates that flooded campus last weekend.

When Fisher left Candidates Day for the seven-hour car ride home last weekend, her decision had been made; in the fall, she would be a Villanovan.

However, the Villanova she visited last weekend and the Villanova she will graduate from in four years time will be radically different. With its continually expanding academic and extracurricular programs and the potential physical overhaul that lies within the Campus Master Plan, the University is undeniably going through a period of transformation.

Administrators believe that in many ways, despite the changes, the University retains the same character.

“I think at the core, Villanova’s student body has not changed dramatically away from the core values they bring to the institution,” Mogan said.

“The mission [of the University] is what is enduring,” said Dr. Terry Nance, assistant vice president for Multicultural Affairs.

While the mission may persist, Stack recognized the threat growth could present to the University’s character.

“I think that we are a small big school and a big small school, and I think one of the challenges as we move into the future is to not lose sight of the community and to be guarding against depersonalization,” he said.

While many administrators note consistency in Villanova’s character, they all acknowledge the great changes that the University has ushered in over the past decades.

“You can’t be around here and not see all that is new,” Nance said.

Part of that “newness” can be seen in the University’s growing reputation.

“Father Dobbin brought this University to a place where we are nationally known,” Hassel said. “He took that courageous leap to make us a nationally known and not just a regionally known university.”

One consistent area of change noted by administrators was the president’s office.

“In Father Peter we have more than just a charismatic leader; we have one with an educational vision,” Nance said. “He understands because he cares so passionately about all Villanovans. It’s not just him, but it’s all of the changes that are swirling around him that are creating a great deal of excitement.”

While the changes instituted by University President Rev. Peter Donohue, O.S.A., most notably the Campus Master Plan, present questions regarding the future of the University, they have also generated large amount of enthusiasm within the University community.

“It’s an exciting time to be at Villanova,” Director of Engineering and Construction John Cacciola said. “Initiatives such as this master plan only make the future more exciting to look toward because there are a lot of great things ahead of Villanova.”

Through soaring applications, expanding programs, changing facilities and increasing national attention, the University has managed to drastically transform while still maintaining the character and goals present at its founding.

This combination poses an intriguing future of both consistency and change for Fisher and the Villanovans who will follow her as the University continues to aim for excellence in all areas.

“I think we’ve always wanted to be excellent, but now we know how to do it better,” Nance said.