BY this summer, Chicago’s DePaul University will welcome its new president, Dr. Amado Gabriel Esteban. The Filipino academic leader will become the first non-ordained president in DePaul’s 119-year history — considered the largest Catholic university in the United States — when he assumes office on July 1.
The new post shouldn’t be too much of a leap for Esteban, who has held the same position at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey since 2011, where he has overseen the development of new schools, ensured that the institution has stayed financially robust, and promoted its academic profile.
In a recent interview with the Asian Journal since his appointment was announced, Esteban shared his vision and goals for DePaul and why learning is a lifelong pursuit.
Journey to higher education
Esteban, who was born and raised in Quezon City, Philippines, never intended to pursue a career in higher education.
Growing up — and it’s a familiar scenario for many Filipinos — he thought he would follow his father’s footsteps as a doctor. The draw to teaching must have come from seeing the elder Esteban spend the latter part of his life as a professor at University of the Philippines (UP) School of Medicine.
Esteban went on to earn a bachelor of science in mathematics and an MBA from UP, where he met Josephine King, who would become his wife. He was the first Philippine recipient of the Fujitsu Asian Scholarship, which brought him to Chaminade University in Hawaii for a master’s degree in Japanese business studies.
He returned to the Philippines for a few years to work in the private sector at a bank and then in consumer goods at San Miguel Corp.
“When you grow up in the Philippines, everyone at some point hopes that they’re given an opportunity to study overseas, whether it be in Japan, the UK, or the U.S.,” he told the Asian Journal, adding that scholarships and fellowships helped him and his wife study abroad.
The Estebans migrated to the United States, where Josephine obtained her MBA from the University of California, Riverside, while he was working toward a doctorate in business administration at the University of California, Irvine.
“We’ve been blessed, being at the right place at the right time, having people who mentored us throughout my academic career who made sure I gave 150 percent effort in everything I do,” he said. “It paid off in the long haul.”
After completing his doctorate program, Esteban was hired as a marketing professor at the University of Houston-Victoria in Texas.
He planned to work in academe for five years at most before returning to the private sector.
However, opportunities at various institutions across the country arose.
The Esteban family then moved to Arkansas, where he was a professor and associate vice president of academic affairs at Arkansas Tech. Eventually, he transferred to the University of Central Arkansas, also as a professor, before being named the dean of the College of Business.
“When I was asked to become an administrator was when I thought that maybe this was the career path that’s being unveiled to me, so to speak,” he said, adding “so that’s the path I ended up taking.”
President of Seton Hall University
He was once again uprooted and settled in New Jersey in 2007 when he became a provost at Seton Hall University, the oldest Roman Catholic diocesan university in the country and one of the largest. He was appointed interim president in late 2010, a capacity he served for six months before being formally named president.
He became the first lay person to lead the Catholic university — which has a population of 10,000 students, over 900 faculty members and 1,800 employees — after its board of trustees created an exception that presidents must be priests.
Esteban reflected on Seton Hall’s growth over the past seven years, as well as the changes he’s seen in himself as a leader and educator.
A lot of his time as president, he said, was spent listening to the voices on campus, whether they’re students, faculty or staff administrators in order to create a “vision for [what] the institution could look like in 10-15 years.”
As for accomplishments under his tenure that he’s particularly proud of, Esteban listed a few, yet humbly acknowledged that they were not solely his own doing.
“In terms of contributions, it’s actually a group effort so it’s hard to point to one thing because we’ve accomplished a lot as a university. For example, if you look at the academic profile of our students, since I was asked to oversee enrollment management in 2009, our SAT scores have gone up over 100 points and 35 percent of our freshmen are in the top 10 percent of their [graduating] class,” he boasted, adding that the student population has become more diverse in terms of ethnicity and also admission to first-generation students.
In 2015, Seton Hall unveiled the new College of Communication and the Arts. It also developed a new health and medical sciences campus, which was done in partnership with Hackensack Meridian Health, that will house the School of Medicine and the College of Nursing and School of Health and Medical Sciences. In 2018, the university will welcome the first class at the medical school.
Further, the university invested nearly $150 million in campus infrastructure in the last five years, resulting in “zero deferred maintenance,” he said. (The deferred maintenance had reached $36 million in his first few years with the university.)
In a recent release, it boasted that fundraising has reached all-time highs, with $40 million raised in the last year and a half alone.
“There are a lot of those tangible things, but to me, the biggest change has been in the culture on campus and the perception outside the university. Seton Hall has always been a great national university and now more people are hearing about that story and internally, I think there’s been a shift in the culture because we’ve been able to do a lot of things in the midst of the recession,” Esteban said.
Selected to lead
The search to find the 12th president for DePaul was a five-month, international process, following the resignation of Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider last summer, who had been head of the university since 2004.
In early February of this year, the university’s board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of the 55-year-old Filipino, regarding him as someone who aligns with the core principles of the Catholic institution. He was formally announced as the next president on February 16.
“What appealed to me were Saint Vincent [DePaul], the saint of charity, and the university’s mission to help the poor, marginalized and immigrant populations, which are some things very near and dear to our hearts,” Esteban shared.
Part of the motivation of moving to the Windy City is to be closer to his only child, Ysabella, an alumna of Seton Hall who is a medical resident at the University of Chicago.
“It’s very a humbling experience that I’ve been selected. My wife and I were just overwhelmed by the reception we received at DePaul when we were introduced,” Esteban shared, referring to a special welcoming ceremony on the Chicago campus he attended last week. “But, there’s a tinge of sadness because Seton Hall has been home for 10 years.”
He said he hopes to be remembered at Seton Hall as a “collaborative decision maker” who listened and considered all sides.
“To me, what is fascinating is the number of individuals I’ve met, like alumni of Seton Hall for example, who start off by saying ‘If not for Seton Hall, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college.’ That shows you the power of education — how higher ed can transform the lives of individuals,” he said.
As with starting any other job, “it’s about setting priorities” and getting a feel of the culture of the unfamiliar environment through listening and talking to the different members of the university. He intends to bring that type of leadership and way of handling academic affairs to DePaul.
“Every place I’ve been to, I’ve told people to learn to set their priorities. I tell students to find out what theirs are — whether it’s family, friends, Church or your faith, try to live by them. It also means finding your passion. That would make your life a whole lot easier. As a leader, one thing you’ll find about me is that I will listen, I will ask questions and encourage people to give me feedback,” he said.
“But at the end of the day, someone has to make a decision. If that’s me who has to make a decision, then I’ll explain why. I also understand that as you move up the hierarchy, at some point, it’s going to be me that has to make the final call and the willingness to do that is important.”
As of this writing, Esteban’s replacement at Seton Hall has yet to be named, but he notes that the university has been on a roll in terms of achieving its some of the goals he outlined early in the presidency. He intends to close out this current school year with helping the transition process and making sure the pending projects are on course for completion.
Diversity in higher education
Esteban is currently one of three Filipinos serving as a president of an American higher education institution, alongside Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw of St. John’s University in New York and Lori Adrian of Coastline Community College, which has campuses in Orange County, California.
A 2013 study by the American Council on Education found that Asian Americans comprised only 1.4 percent of presidents at four-year institutions and 2.2 percent of other senior-level administrators.
He has been a champion for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in education, through his work as founding board member and vice chairman of the AAPI Association of Colleges and Universities — which advocates on behalf of minority-serving institutions that have a significant population of AAPI students — and a board member of the AAPI Research in Education Commission and the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education.
Though Esteban said he would like to see more Filipinos and Filipino Americans ascend the ranks of academia, he reminded that they must possess the passion to take on such leadership roles.
“As you move up in higher education,” he said, “one realizes that these are 24/7 jobs. You have to have a willingness to serve. You basically put everyone else ahead of yourself. But it can also be very rewarding to be able to have the impact on the lives of the people you serve.”
Even if Esteban never saw himself in higher education before, he now says that this is the field he will continue to be in until he retires.
“If at some point it’s time for me to move on, then I’ll just go back and teach full-time, which would be a great way to complete by academic career,” he said.
With debates surrounding the rising costs of higher education and billions of dollars in student debt here, he said that affordability must be a goal governments and academic institution must work toward.
“There are individual benefits of a college education, but I think those are outweighed by the benefits to society as a whole,” he said. “I think governments — state and federal — have to step up to the plate. In higher ed, we have to do our fair share of making sure that the costs incurred are consistent with what we’re trying to achieve.”
However, even if pursuing higher education is not for everyone, Esteban emphasized that the spark for learning must be kept burning.
“For our entire lives, we should spend learning, whether it’s formal or informal. We have to try continually to enrich ourselves through learning different and new things,” he said. “The world is becoming more and more competitive and I think it’s up to us to make sure that we continue to be competitive in our work. I know it can be difficult at times, but it’s something we should do.”