Presidential perspectives: The CN’s exclusive interview with Niehoff

April 26th, 2012

The Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J. didn’t know a lot about Cleveland before John Carroll University came calling. He wasn’t interested in moving from his job as associate provost and vice president for planning and budget at the University of San Francisco, nor was he very familiar with JCU.

“I had already been through other presidential searches where boards are tempted essentially to make a selection, and then to try to make it appear as if there’s a choice,” Niehoff said in an interview with The Carroll News last Wednesday.

Despite receiving three calls from members of the University’s presidential search committee during the 2004-2005 school year, when the search took place, Niehoff believed “this search wanted me as window dressing, and I wasn’t going to do that again.”

Finally, after yet another call from someone on the search committee, Niehoff agreed to fly to Cleveland. “My intention was to come out and say, ‘You’re really not serious about this so why are you bothering?’” he said.

But Niehoff was impressed by the quality of JCU alumni on the search committee, which convinced him the position was worth looking into.

“Both of us, both the search committee and I, were intrigued about each other at that stage, and so we continued to have conversation,” he said. “I got more excited, as they did, [the more] we got to know each other.”

Niehoff was tabbed as JCU’s 24th president on April 7, 2005 and officially inaugurated on October 11 of that same year. He replaced the Rev. Edward Glynn, S.J., who retired after serving as president since 1998. When Niehoff arrived, the University’s board of directors gave him the task of getting alumni to be more supportive.

“That means I have to be with alumni, many of whom are not here, on a regular basis,” he said. And that means he travels frequently.

Niehoff explained that he has done this, along with giving JCU a greater presence among the 27 other Jesuit universities and in the national conversation around higher education. All of these things take time, he said.

“Every million dollars that we raise probably takes about a week’s worth of work away from here,” Niehoff said. “[The time is spent traveling and meeting with alumni] because you don’t ask someone for a million dollars the first time you meet them, probably not even the second time.”

Half of Niehoff’s time, he estimated, is spent on campus planning with senior University officials or doing work in his office, while the other half is on the road meeting with alumni, presidents of other universities and boards to which he belongs. Niehoff admitted that from the other boards he sits on, they “actually give me great ideas about what John Carroll can be doing.”

“So I’m doing those things instead of, unfortunately, hanging out with our students, which would be more fun,” he said. “I’m not around our faculty or staff, either.”

Niehoff described his schedule during a recent week. On the afternoon of April 11, he greeted Beth Mooney, the chairman and CEO of KeyCorp, before she spoke as part of the Boler School of Business’s Spring 2012 Mellen Series.

He couldn’t stay for the talk, however, as he had to travel to Detroit for the inauguration of the new president at University of Detroit Mercy, Antoine Garibaldi. Niehoff said he felt the need to go because he knows Garibaldi and not many other presidents of Jesuit universities were going. He then returned to attend a Sunday morning event for 25-year employees of JCU.

“I think of the theory of being more visible on campus, but I don’t know how a person does it. And I was confident that what John Carroll needed of this president was that national visibility, [making connections with] the alumni and the fundraising, and that’s what we’ve been successful at,” Niehoff said. “So I was telling someone what that means is, there are lots of things that go on on this campus that I would love to do, be a part of or go listen to, but I can’t. I appreciate the concerns. I understand why I’m not personally known to many students, but I’m doing the work that they need me to do.”

Editor’s Note: To check out Part II of The Carroll News’ exclusive interview with Niehoff, click here.