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The Pursuit of Excellence, Made Real

Under the remarkable leadership of President Tom Kunkel, it has been all smiles at St. Norbert College. The institution, reaching for excellence as one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges in the nation, has more than flourished. It has been an extraordinary nine years. Read on for:

The Pursuit of Excellence, Made Real

It was the eve of his inauguration, and the soon-to-be seventh president of St. Norbert College was in quiet communion with the very first holder of that office. The scene was the burial place of college founder, Abbot Bernard Pennings, in the crypt of St. Norbert Abbey.

“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” says President Tom Kunkel.

“But for me it was sort of the equivalent of a Norbertine ‘centering’ prayer – I just felt that, as I was getting ready to officially take on responsibilities that all redound back to him, it would be a healthy place to come and meditate a bit on that.”

In the years since that courteous local pilgrimage, Kunkel has occasionally had the chance, also, to consult with his (living) peers at other institutions, and to ask how long they were in the job before they actually felt as if they were the president of a college: “And it’s usually three, four years,” Kunkel says. “It takes a certain amount of time before you’ve lived through enough cycles, and owned enough crises, and dealt with enough issues and controversies … a certain amount of time before you wake up one day and realize, okay, I own it. I am, you know, I am the president of this college.”

It’s a period of induction, says Kunkel, that happily coincides with the undergraduate careers of the first cohort of students who come in under his or her watch. “Three or four years later, they’re marching across the stage and you’re handing them a diploma. You watch that transformation in them; in many, many cases, in a very real sense, you literally have watched them grow up and evolve. 

“You can’t not be affected and moved by the constant transformation of all of these young people. That deep sense of gratification is transforming in and of itself. One of the great privileges of having a job like this is, you are in a position to see up close what a college experience means to individual lives. You can’t not be moved by that and, I think, not be transformed yourself.”

Once you’ve fully grown into the role of institutional leader, Kunkel says, the goal is to make sure that you’re doing everything you can in that role – everything you can to utilize the capability that is placed in your hands. For Kunkel, that meant positioning the college to be as strong as it possibly could be, in every conceivable way, to thrive no matter what the economic or higher education environment. 

His own inauguration was almost immediately followed by a major crisis: the 2008 recession. “Three months after I got here the global economy went over the waterfall, and part of our checking account was basically frozen by the Common Fund” he says. “Right off the bat, we were kind of in uncharted territory.”

So he went straight to work, his guiding principle being the inauguration theme he selected: “The Pursuit of Excellence.” More than a one-day motif, it became the hallmark of his presidency and a promise on which he has delivered mightily. Despite the fact that, when he took office, the nation was mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, through Kunkel’s tenure he has expertly led the college through an unprecedented building blitz, supported innovative programming and positioned the institution for excellence as one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges in the country. 

Kunkel is the first to note that, if St. Norbert College is flourishing, it is thanks to the thousands who helped provide him with everything from tangible resources to emotional support. He marvels at everything that has been accomplished over the last decade, despite the sluggish economy. “You were hearing reports from all over the country about how colleges were just at a standstill or going backwards, and nobody was able to raise money. And we just had so much support for the projects we were undertaking. Not for a second did we ever feel constricted. It was amazing.”

Since that first evening in the abbey crypt, our founder’s rest has continued undisturbed. But Kunkel’s days have gotten busier. His has been a 24/7 commitment and, in the nine years since, he has encountered not just a new class of students every year, but countless friends of the college and community members. He has discovered that visitors – not just prospective students and parents, but the people from all walks of life who stop by – are routinely struck by the strong sense of mission found on campus.

It’s not only the things they see and feel, Kunkel says, but the way in which the college’s values are openly discussed and the fact that its students are articulate on the subject: “I think strong, faith-based institutions are maybe best positioned to thrive in some way. Colleges that have a strong sense of mission – and many of those are grounded in religious tradition – are tending to do very well because students, whether they know it or not, are gravitating toward that. It’s a spiritual anchoring for them: And colleges that had that once upon a time, and got away from [their founding mission], are either trying to get it back, or just flat-out regret that it ever got away.

“Today we need St. Norbert College as much as anything. The world needs to be reminded of the importance of higher education, the importance of the liberal arts, the importance of the development of personal and community values, and the role that character has got to play in pulling us through difficult times.”

Kunkel, a first-generation college student himself, did not begin his career in higher education but in the media. It was kind of weird, he remembers, transitioning from a newsroom environment where nothing mattered besides tomorrow’s newspaper, via a deanship at the University of Maryland, to an environment – St. Norbert College – where the only thing that mattered was the continued growth and sustenance of a now-118-year-old institution. That is the work of years, decades, generations.

He says: “One of the things I appreciate the most about my predecessors at St. Norbert College is that, for all of the changes that have happened to America over the last 60, 70 years – and in higher education – the mission of St. Norbert College never got lost. It never got ambiguous.”

And how is Kunkel’s own inner compass faring as his nine-year presidency draws to its conclusion?

He says, “I hope I’m more patient, I hope I’m more thoughtful, I hope I’m more expansive in my outlook, I hope I take a longer view on things than I did. I think I have probably been transformed. I don’t know whether it’s the sort of transformation that would look very apparent on the outside, but certainly on the inside.

“People have been so kind, and people have said the nicest things about what I’ve meant to the college, or what I did for the college. I do appreciate that, and I know that they’re sincere. But it’s really important for people to understand that Deb and I have gotten way more out of it than we’ve probably put in.

“The fact of the matter is, that it’s a real privilege to be given the opportunity to lead a place like this. I mean, quite aside from the impact you have on the direction of thousands and thousands of lives, and all that means – which is a very sobering and serious responsibility … . Just to be asked to lead an institution of this venerability, and one that’s so special to so many people, that’s special to the community – it’s just been a real gift for us. We have made so many friends and emotional attachments and memories.”

Kunkel ends his tenure May 31, passing the baton to President-elect Brian Bruess ’90. Kunkel’s next project will keep SNC much on his mind, though: He will be writing a biography of the college’s namesake saint, Norbert of Xanten. Through a presidency that has continually honored the charisms of this extraordinary 12th-century hero, Kunkel has not only left his own indelible stamp on a venerable and valued institution: He has done it with an eye to mission and history – and to the intentions of another extraordinary leader, one who also walked in Norbert’s footsteps.

“I think if Abbot Pennings walked back on campus,” Kunkel says, “and looked around for a while, and dropped in on the classes and the programs and the extracurricular activities – I think he would feel pretty good about what he saw. I think he would feel pretty good that everything is still grounded in the values and tradition he brought to the place in the first place. I hope I’m not being delusional about that, I really do.” 

10 Things You Never Knew About Tom KunkelTom and Deb Kunkel

1. He married the girl next door. “Deb moved in next door to me when we were five years old. We ignored each other for the next 10 years, but about at the age of 15, you know, we did start paying attention to one another. We got married at 20, so we go back a long way.” (A marital side note: Deb has not allowed Tom to use power tools since he accidentally cut the cord of a chainsaw he was using.)

He loves Dr. Pepper, bacon and Whoppers malted milk balls. The weirdest thing in his office is an oversized Whoppers box made for him by Brian Pirman (Art). 

3. He used to sing soprano in the church choir. As an altar boy, he just squeaked in before Vatican II: “Every response that you gave, every prayer, everything about the Mass was in Latin. And that was no small thing for a seven-, eight-year old; so what an incredible accomplishment … and then the next year it all went to English and I was crushed. Crushed! Because this special thing you had done, this thing that elevated you just this side of the angels, you know, and all of a sudden it was just like … pfftt. (In retrospect, I do think it was kind of a good idea that we go to the vernacular.)”

4. He swears – a lot. A habit from his old newsroom days that no amount of Norbertine influence has been able to eradicate.

5. He is ready with a “yes” to any good suggestion, especially if it means having fun. In the name of communio, he has been pied for charity, danced the tango, arm-wrestled with the college mascot, taken the ice-bucket challenge … . He has been seen at work in outfits ranging from footie pajamas (for reading bell hooks stories to a young audience at the Cassandra Voss Center); to full Elvis garb (Christmas party joke); to scuba gear (for a dive into the Fox River, a stunt for one of the birthday videos he tapes every year to send out to employees).

6. Among books authored by Kunkel is “Enormous Prayers,” a series of compassionate interviews with Catholic priests: “After centuries of veneration as a kind of superman in black, the priest today is off the pedestal. … The sober truth is that, in modern times, it has never been more difficult to be a priest.”

7. He has a Super Bowl ring – a legitimate trophy from the Green Bay Packers 2011 win, earned through his role as a member of the board of directors of the local franchise.

8. He was declared CEO of the Year by unanimous vote in the 2015 Council for Advancement & Support of Education’s District V Chief Executive Leadership Award program. The association represents 383 Midwestern colleges and universities.

9. He learned on the job. (Kunkel only took one management course in college, and got a D. “It’s the only thing less than a B I ever got, ever.”) Nevertheless, Kunkel became the youngest managing editor in the history of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain when he took on the role at the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer at the age of 29.

10. To the students, he is known as TKunks, or Uncle Kunkel.

Tom KunkelTom’s Top Tips for Being a College President

Stay humble "Have great humility, because the minute you think you know all of the answers, you’re going to find out in a hard way that you do not. You almost certainly are not as smart as you may think you are. But, also, you have no idea what’s going to come flying in on any given day. Come in just like a good athlete and be ready for whatever bounds your way.”

Treat people well “Being a leader is about people. It’s about trying to understand them. It’s about how you interact with them. It’s about how you set a vision, yes; but when you genuinely work with others to try and realize that vision, that’s got to be a collaboration. So I think how you treat people is important. Really important.”

Delight in other’s talents “You can only be effective if you realize you can take your gratification in the work of other people. Every symphony needs a conductor. I can’t play the oboe for you, I can’t play the violin, I can’t play the cello. You’re going to have to do that!” 

Listen “I believed in collegial management decades before I ever started working at a college. People don't necessarily expect you to agree with everything that they say, but they have a reasonable expectation to be heard and considered.”

Be the boss “People expect you to be a good boss; a fair boss, an empathetic boss. They certainly like it if you don’t take yourself too seriously, but they do expect you to be the boss. That means you have to have the vision. It’s got to be the right vision. You have to articulate it. And then, you’ve got to move heaven and earth to make sure that together you can realize this collective vision. If they believe; if they believe in you and they believe in your vision, they’ll do anything for you; and if they don’t, there’s no hope.”

March 17, 2017