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Kunkel Begins Last Chapters of a High Impact Presidency

Associate editor Jill Wiesman reports on the president’s decision to conclude his storied term after serving for two more academic years.

When President Tom Kunkel spoke to a full house of St. Norbert faculty and staff in the Walter Theatre on the afternoon of Sept. 3, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone understood, but no one wanted to believe Kunkel, when he shared that he would be retiring from the college in May 2017.

In the Q-and-A that followed Kunkel’s announcement, Karlyn Crowley (Women’s and Gender Studies) attempted to decline his resignation – a tongue-in-cheek move that brought an eruption of applause. And, at the end of the president’s address, a moving and sustained standing ovation let Kunkel know that the college community respects and supports his decision, and looks forward to its remaining time under his leadership.

The setting
For Kunkel and his wife, Deb, the decision to step away was driven partly by family considerations and partly by the desire to pursue additional life goals.

“Deb and I have two grandchildren and another on the way in January,” says Kunkel. “Then, on the other end of the family spectrum, my parents back in southern Indiana are in their 80s. So we find ourselves seeking more and more family time.” 

In addition to his career in higher education, Kunkel – a former journalist – is the author or editor of six books, and he has a strong desire to write more. In fact, he intends for his first retirement project to be an “easily consumable” biography of the college’s namesake and patron, St. Norbert of Xanten. 

“Tom has and will continue to have a lasting impact on St. Norbert College. We are positioned well for the future,” says Jay Williams, chairman of the college’s board of trustees. Williams will lead a national search to replace Kunkel: “Our goal will be to secure a president who can continue to move the college forward, while fully supporting the mission and commitment to our Norbertine heritage, academic excellence and financial stability. Because the college is in such a strong position, we anticipate that this presidency will be attractive to high-quality candidates.” 

Spoiler alert: the plot
But before that, Kunkel emphasizes, there is a great deal yet to accomplish at the college in his remaining two years.

“This is a great institution and it is a privilege to serve as its seventh president,” Kunkel says. “It is great fun, too, as we have been fortunate to advance the institution on many fronts. We still have much to do, and I look forward to using my remaining time here working on what is still a pretty long ‘to do’ list. This is certainly a time to ramp up and continue to make exciting things happen.”

Kunkel says that list includes developing more endowed academic programs; raising additional scholarships for students; building more partnerships with other colleges, universities and K-12 schools; and continuing to advance both the Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics and the college’s collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin. A major capital priority is the renovation and expansion of the college’s Schuldes Sports Center.

Table of contents
During his tenure at St. Norbert College, Kunkel has overseen the construction and renovation of more than $100 million in campus facilities and infrastructure, including the Gehl-Mulva Science Center and its South Teaching Wing; Michels Commons; Schneider Stadium; the Mulva Library; Gries Hall; the Ariens Family Welcome Center; Todd Wehr Hall; Dudley Birder Hall; and the Cassandra Voss Center. 

The college’s enrollments have reached record levels on his watch, as has the academic profile of its student body. And this fall’s first-year class is the most diverse in school history. Beyond that, St. Norbert has climbed steadily in national rankings of liberal arts colleges.

Among the credits
Kunkel has been very gratified by the responses he’s received since making the announcement: “Everyone on campus, as well as in the wider community, has been tremendously generous and understanding about the decision Deb and I have made to stop in May 2017. While they would like us to keep going, they absolutely understand the strong pull of family as well as my desire to continue writing. But they also appreciate that we still have a lot of time ahead of us here – and a lot of work to do before we’re finished!”

Oct. 6, 2015