Monday, January 01, 2001

Hoff era comes to a close at Xavier

Departing president bids farewell

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rev. Hoff
        The Rev. James E. Hoff knew Xavier University was looking for a new president in 1990, but he was content as a vice president and medical ethics professor at another Jesuit school, Creighton University.

        At least go for an interview, his Jesuit superior at the Omaha, Neb., school urged.

        Something clicked, and the priest who knew no one but a cousin in Cincinnati became XU's 33rd president on April 21, 1991.

        The Hoff Era ends with the millennium. Today, another Jesuit, the Rev. Michael Graham, succeeds his 68-year-old mentor and inherits a renovated and expanded campus, full residence halls and classes, and a national reputation as a “hot” school.

        During Father Hoff's decade, XU grew physically and intellectually, and received international recognition as a campus that builds character. However, those same years saw renewed Vatican fears about secularization of all Catholic universities and new efforts to assure that Catholic identity.

        Recently, Father Hoff spoke with the Enquirer.

        Question: What makes an education Catholic or Jesuit?

THE HOFF YEARS 1990-91 1999-2000
Undergraduate enrollment 4,000* 4,000*
Applicants for admission 2,760 3,223
Freshman class size 646 774
Grade-point average of applicants 2.9 (B-) 3.4 (B+)
National merit scholars among freshmen 3 7
Full-time faculty 213 244
Percent of faculty with highest degrees 70% 80%
Endowment $24 million $86 million
Annual budget 47 million $100 million
        Father Hoff: Jesuits got into higher education during the life of our father, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the middle of the 16th century. At first they were educating their own and other people wanted to be part of the education they were offering.

        Our father saw the opportunity to educate the whole person, to educate people intellectually but also morally and spiritually and, as he would put it, to be good citizens. We talk today about working for the betterment of society, being men and women for others, not just working for yourselves.

        Q: What is Catholic about that?

        A: The spiritual is Catholic. I don't want to be more specific than that regarding Xavier because 35 percent of our students are not Catholic, but they're spiritual.

        We're interested that they develop their understanding of God's revelation to them; who He is and how we should live together. We're interested in giving them a chance as well to deepen their relationship with God both inside and outside the classroom.

        Q: How is that communicated in the classroom?

        A: Value questions which are part of that tradition would be brought up and dealt with. In a course in economics, they may take practical problems that have to do with health care. Part of that Catholic tradition would be the right of people to have health care. How far does that extend? How are we spending our dollars?

        In our country you've got a fourth or fifth of our population who aren't covered by health care. What does that say? Is that a moral issue that's worth thinking about?

        The conscious attempt to get at value questions across the curriculum is part of our tradition.

        Q: Does this fit into Ex corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Vatican plan for assuring and reinforcing the Catholic identity of Catholic universities and colleges?

        A: Precisely. Ex corde Ecclesiae's definition of a university is a forum for the exchange between the Gospel and culture.

        Q: In that context, do you have any anxiety over the relationship between Xavier and whoever succeeds Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk?

        A: Archbishop Pilarczyk understands higher education. He's been through it. He has a master's degree from Xavier. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. He is a Catholic intellectual and he understands universities and how they function.

        Not every archbishop or bishop has had that opportunity to learn that. He's a dear friend, and he's an alumnus, and he's a great man.

        Q: Yes, but is there anything happening at Xavier that could put it at odds with Ex corde?

        A: Not really. By and large, the discussions that the faculty have are within the parameters of the Catholic tradition. Their dialogue with that — as well as with the culture — is proper for a university. Xavier will be just fine.

        Q: Any advice or warnings for your successor?

        A: Michael Graham is a very talented, good Jesuit. He understands higher education. He's been a faculty member. He's been an administrator. This university is in very good hands. No advice and no warnings. He'll do fine.

        Q: What about the faculty?

        A: They care. They care about each other. They care about the university. They care about the students. They help them sort out their goals. They help them reach their potential. It's the atmosphere they create of personal care for the individual student that is one of the things that makes a difference at Xavier University.

        It's one reason we have five applicants for every place in the freshman class.

        Q: Is that different from when you arrived?

        A: That ethos has always been there but I'd hope it had gotten even better in the past 10 years. I found it when I came here. We've had more applicants for faculty positions than we used to have. We're hot right now, not only for students but for faculty. ... We have an opportunity to be very selective. The people we are hiring are very, very competent and they buy into our mission.

        Q: Why is XU hot?

        A: We were scrambling for students when I came. Our reputation has certainly gotten stronger. Xavier has always had a reputation for academic excellence. As a Jesuit university it always has had that.

        Perhaps we have been more visible in the past 10 years and perhaps the physical improvements on our campus have made us more welcoming. There is the increased visibility from being ranked by U.S. News & World Report, by Money Magazine, by any number of magazines, being profiled in the John Templeton Honor Roll for Character Building Colleges, all those kinds of things.

        Certainly basketball, not just basketball; women's soccer. The graduation rate certainly helps. We have a culture of recruiting people and we tell them when they come that we expect them to be here and to graduate. We tell their parents that. If they're not interested in that, they probably won't bother coming.

        Q: What are you going to do next?

        A: I'm on a sabbatical, so for while I'm going to specialize in leisure and I'm going to go where it's warm. I'm going to do that for a better part of a year, and then I hope to come back here.

        I'm retiring from the presidency, but I'll be back at work in a year or so. I certainly have thought about teaching. I may get back into hospice work. I think Father Graham will put me to work as an ambassador of the university. I certainly will be active in retreat work.


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