President Medland Nearing Decade Anniversary
Almost 10 years, but who's counting?
Come July, that’s how long Dr. William J. Medland will have held the office of president and all indications are that his tenure is far from over. In fact, chances are quite good he will be the longest-serving president in the history of Viterbo University. Statewide, only five of the 21 private college presidents exceed his tenure.
At 57, President Medland is confident in the future of Viterbo University and of his role as president, passed down to him by his predecessor, Dr. Robert E. Gibbons, who departed in July 1991 after having served 11 years—the longest on record. Fr. J. Thomas Finucan and Sr. Grace McDonald each served 10 years.
Now that Bill Medland is approaching the watershed mark himself, what are his thoughts and impressions of his time at Viterbo and the future he will continue to shape?
“The challenges that we encounter will require each of us to risk what we are today for what we can become tomorrow.”
—William J. Medland, Inaugural Address
October 4, 1991
Truer words were never spoken. Viterbo University has changed and so has Bill Medland. His time as president of Viterbo has exceeded his original expectations—much to his own surprise. “When I first visited Viterbo and went through the interview process, my initial thoughts were tending toward a five- or six-year tenure. For a president, that’s the norm rather than the exception. Turnover is frequent; I had been at six other colleges and universities for generally five years each and I figured this was going to be my next-to-the-last move.”
While Medland’s prediction about length of stay was wrong, his forecast of change was not. Nationally and regionally, higher education experts were predicting that tight budgets would get even tighter and the pool of college-bound students would continue to shrink. Consequently, in the early ’90s, Viterbo’s then new president put a lot of his personal and professional stock on the line cajoling, promoting, even pushing for changes that he believed were necessary for the long-term vitality of the institution.
Difficult early years
Convincing others was not easy and not all of Medland’s proposed changes were popular. For some, it seemed as if the inauguration ceremony was barely over and already the new president was embarking on a vigorous effort to transform Viterbo.
He proposed reorganizing Viterbo’s academic programs into six schools. He approved measures to have Viterbo assume full responsibility for the growing graduate program which was being operated jointly with a second party. To bolster enrollment, Medland strongly urged the admission office to completely revise its recruitment strategy. And donations to the university were removed from the operational budget at the same time that a first-ever contingency fund and physical plant reserve were created.
Gradually the changes occurred, but not without controversy and a great deal of hard work that involved the president literally placing the prestige of his office on the line. “For those first three years, it was almost an annual decision to stay. I had a year-to-year contract—I could see the university or myself saying it was time to separate.”
Then in his sixth year, the board of directors extended an unprecedented vote of confidence in President Medland by offering him a five-year renewable contract. The agreement was the first five-year contract in the history of the university. It affirmed the president’s leadership decisions and goals, while setting the stage for long-term planning.
That contract extension coincided with the board mandate to develop a formal plan to outline the university’s future for the remaining ’90s and beyond. Vision 2005: A Renaissance for Living and Learning in the Twenty-First Century was the highly successful outcome of that planning process. The document was crafted by Medland from input he received from the board of directors, faculty and staff, his executive cabinet, and research on recent trends in American higher education. Continuing change was now all but a certainty; there would be no turning back.
A changing climate
Taking prudent yet calculated risks created enormous opportunities for Viterbo throughout the decade as President Medland continued to advocate an environment where the university could rapidly respond to new situations. “Whether people liked it or not, much of our success occurred because of his creativity and foresight in knowing where higher education was moving,” admitted Dr. Jack Havertape, academic vice president. “We were pushed in directions we were not ready for, but look where we are now as a result.”
New programs and revised admission strategies paid off. The ’90s saw Viterbo double its enrollment—an unheard of increase during a decade when many other private colleges were struggling with enrollment. The graduate program in education awarded its first 41 master’s degrees in 1990. Today it is the largest Master of Arts in Education program in the U.S., awarding nearly 400 degrees annually.
“Bill Medland had a good sense of where we were going from a recruiting standpoint, although it was not obvious to others at the time,” Havertape said. “Often the internal community fails to fully recognize the value of all of this change until the results come in.”
Financially, Viterbo’s picture was also improving—albeit slowly. “It was only after the first three years that we could begin to focus on some items beyond the immediacy of the moment,” Medland recalled. “Roofs, renovation projects, air conditioning—all took considerable time and budget. But the seeds we planted those early years in areas of enrollment and budget were beginning to bear fruit.”
Endowment grew from $2 to $10 million in 10 years. The overall budget increased from less than $8 million to over $27 million, and skyrocketing enrollment filled Viterbo’s residence halls to the brim. With contingency funds and contributions set aside, the university was poised to make real progress on some longstanding priorities.
Rose Terrace, a student residence complex, was constructed in 1997 and solved the on-campus housing shortage that became so critical that students were living in area motels. Shortly thereafter, Viterbo purchased land for much needed soccer, baseball, and softball fields. Portions of Ninth and Winnebago streets were closed, creating Viterbo and V-Hawk Courts, two beautifully landscaped areas which tie the entire campus together.
The new system of academic schools streamlined the management of Viterbo’s academic programs and created opportunities for new off-campus initiatives targeted at adults, and non-traditional and returning students.
Donors embraced the goals of Vision 2005 and responded with generous gifts. Friends of D.B. Reinhart created an endowment to support an Institute for Ethics in Leadership named in his honor. Viterbo also received a $3 million gift from the Reinhart Foundation and a $2 million anonymous gift, the largest single contributions in the history of the university.
While Medland is quick to credit others--particularly the FSPA, members of the board of directors, donors, and faculty, staff, and administrators--for accepting and bringing about the many changes that have benefited Viterbo, it is a well-known fact in academic circles that it is the role of a president to lead and share a vision that others can support.
Todd Ericson, Vice President of Finance, is pleased with how that vision contributed to an improved financial picture that has benefited the entire campus community.
“During the last 10 years, we have enjoyed significant budget growth,” he said. “We are as strong financially as we have ever been. Bill’s leadership has put us in a good position to recruit students, retain good faculty and prioritize
projects rather than just take care of emergencies.”
Hindsight is 20/20. A review of President Medland’s tenure fits well with the entire history of the institution, revealing Viterbo’s uncanny ability to put forward the right person at the right time. The recent-era presidencies of McDonald, Finucan, Gibbons, and now Medland, faced the incredible challenges of creating a vision for an unknown future. All three expanded programs, built buildings, and remained faithful to the Franciscan mission. And all faced criticism and periods of uncertainty.
Medland candidly recalls the difficult and lonely times a president can face dealing with enormous change. “I remember the many problems and controversies in my initial years. And I recall vividly several instances when difficult and challenging situations required decisive action for change. The most difficult decisions, however, are those affecting people. I try to put myself in another’s place, and treat individuals as I would hope to be treated. That is not always easy or successful. It is negative personnel decisions that are the most difficult. Those are very lonely experiences.”
As a former president, Father J. Thomas Finucan understands what it’s like and offers his assessment of Viterbo’s current president. “Bill Medland has been, and continues to be, an extraordinarily successful president during times of great change and difficulty. He has been faithful to Viterbo’s mission and courageous in sticking to his principles. I admire him greatly.”
As far as Medland is concerned, he remains excited about Viterbo and would like to continue to be a part of its future. On a personal note, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998, had surgery, and has been cancer-free ever since. The board has implemented a presidential assessment to coincide with his contract renewal, which was the procedure followed for the first five-year contract. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “God willing and given good health, I fully expect to be President at least another five or six years.”
However, lest anyone doubt it, he has not lost his fervor for change. “In the community, I believe our reputation is as positive as it has ever been. But we cannot be complacent. The most difficult and most complex challenge we face is to ensure that we, as faculty, staff and administrators, remain flexible. Education will continue evolving and we cannot use the same processes and methods of operation that we have used in the past if we want to take advantage of our opportunities.”
When asked what he enjoys most about his job, Medland indicates he has learned to enjoy the subtleties of the Viterbo community as much as any one activity or event. “My greatest satisfaction? I derive my greatest reward as president from our students, rather than from any program, building project, or landscaped court. I did not get into higher education for any reason other than to serve students—and at Viterbo they are wonderful. They volunteer in Mud Creek and David, Kentucky and locally at Place of Grace Catholic Worker House and for Habitat for Humanity. Their volunteerism is extraordinary and very inspirational. They give us all hope for a better future.”