There was a presidential change at Creighton University this summer, but a Phi Psi is still in charge
All photos courtesy of Creighton University
While the official inauguration for Timothy R. Lannon Creighton '70 as the 24th president of Creighton University took place on Friday, September 30, 2011, the business of running the Midwest's top-ranked institution really began at the start of August. With much less fanfare over the summer, a passing of the torch took place between two great friends. For while Lannon was coming in, heading out was John P. Schlegel Creighton '79. Two men linked by a love of education, the priesthood and the community of Creighton, and also by Phi Kappa Psi....
When asked, it would seem that the audience and setting properly bestows the correct title upon John Schlegel. To his students, he is Father. To contemporaries in the field of education, he is Doctor (PhD in international relations from Oxford in 1977), and to his close friends from Phi Psi, he is Brother. No matter the title, it is evident in any conversation that the man was born to teach, to guide and to lead.
To say that Brother Schlegel is an involved leader would be an understatement. He is truly driven by his experiences and a great respect for public service. After a brief stint in student services at Creighton following his graduation from St. Louis University in 1969, he spent a few years in Europe, furthering his studies. He returned to the U.S. as a member of the faculty at Creighton in 1976, three years after being ordained, and took up residence as a chaplain advisor in one of the school's dormitories. Never shy from responsibility, he also became moderator of the Inter-fraternity Council (IFC). Forging great relationships with a few members of Phi Kappa Psi, the chapter urged him to become their advisor, a volunteer position that requires membership.
"As I was looking at all of the Greek organizations on campus, it was certainly the most solid," Schlegel recalled. "The quality of membership was quite high. I felt it was a pretty good fit for my own values and the type of brotherhood I look for."
Schlegel would leave the campus in 1982 after rising to become the assistant academic vice president. With higher profile stops at Rockhurst College, Marquette University and John Carroll University, he would eventually lead the University of San Francisco from 1991-2000 as its 26th president.
When Creighton came calling again at the beginning of a new millennium, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Now, over a decade later, the impact on the Omaha campus is more than noticeable. Adding over 40 acres and $200 million worth of new construction, Schlegel positioned the university to be a tremendous community resource moving forward, something he remarked about in his open farewell to the Creighton family:
I am proud that 24th and California Streets is a destination campus, a model for University-civic relations, and a partner in the renaissance of downtown Omaha. Within this physical space exists a flourishing academic enterprise, representative of the national demographic, where students, faculty and staff alike thrive and enjoy a national reputation for teaching, research and health care.
Beyond the building of a bigger and more robust campus (with an enrollment of less than 8,000 students, Creighton is home to nine separate colleges and a hospital), the vision of Father Schlegel was to improve the quality of life of the student. While he recognizes his stamp will likely be recognized as that of a builder, the growth of the student experience and the 250-percent increase in minority representation in the student body are lasting impacts he takes with him.
"Creighton has given me a reason to get out of bed in the morning," Schlegel remarked. "I am passionate about the place. It really gives me a focus to where I can apply my energies and creativity."
There is no slowing John Schlegel down. He readily admits to his abundant energy and desire to do more, but there came a time (two decades of leading a Jesuit institution) when it was just right to focus on the next challenge.
"The driving force [to walk away] is the shifting tectonic plates, which is the whole economy of higher education," he said. "It has to be looked at with some fresh eyes and fresh ideas."
Timothy Lannon never envisioned himself as a priest, much less the president of a major institution, growing up a Midwestern kid, son of a Creighton football player and medical school alumnus. But, there was something about the institution he loved so much that changed him forever.
"The thought of being a priest crossed my mind, but I didn't think I was holy enough," said Lannon, who envisioned a similar medical school path as his father, complete with the normal home life of wife and children. "I was very impressed with the Jesuits of Creighton. They were really terrific men who were also priests. Well educated, articulate, but also very engaging and down to earth."
He credits the world experiences that Creighton provided him as a middle-class kid, opening his eyes to the entire world and the change a person could make to help those who were less fortunate. The growth Creighton gave him as a person would lead him to the priesthood (ordained in 1986) and stops at Jesuit high schools, Marquette University and, most recently, as the 26th president of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. But Creighton was where his journey started and a place of great fondness. With a brother who is also an alumnus, Lannon regrets his father not being alive to see him inaugurated, but recognizes the importance of him coming back to lead his alma mater. In the university's 133 years of existence, 23 men have led the school prior to Lannon, and none were alumni.
"When I was elected, I checked with people here to make sure that was the case," he recalls. "That is something that means a lot to me. What it adds to my time here is an even greater passion and love for the place because of what it has done for me." It wasn't just the college experience, but the fraternal experience that had an impact on the life of Creighton's 24th president. While Schlegel was being impressed by the caliber of Phi Kappa Psi members he was advising as resident assistants (RAs) in the 1970's, Lannon had been recruited by them to join just a few years after the chapter was installed. "For me, the Phi Psis were the right fit," Lannon said. "It really helped me mature in my leadership abilities."
Lannon is not alone in utilizing the opportunities of Phi Kappa Psi to advance a career in leadership. With terms as both recording secretary and chapter president, it provided the first real leadership tests for a man who would later lead thousands of students and oversee millions of dollars in development and building projects.
"It is a privilege to be the president of a chapter but it's also a challenge," Lannon said. "You've got all of your buddies there and you're trying to make decisions and get a sense of direction."
Many of those same buddies were some of the first to welcome Brother Lannon back to Omaha this past summer, something he was quick to note would be a lasting memory. With friends in the alumni community and a strong sense of loyalty to his alma mater, he now sets out on carrying the university forward after the well-documented successes of Schlegel.
"I will build upon what John has done," Lannon stated with great strength and admiration. "He has positioned this university in a very stellar way. My hope is when I leave, that I have done the same."
An Uncommon Bond
Both men are very comfortable with identifying their relationship as having a father-son dynamic. Schlegel was a young Jesuit (Mr. Schlegel, as Lannon recalls) working at Creighton the year that Lannon arrived on campus. Elected as the freshman class president, Lannon sought the advice of a young man willing to help. That initial interaction would lead to a great friendship and tremendous mentoring relationship. "He was really influential in my early years here at Creighton," Lannon remembers of his first interactions with Schlegel. "And then through the years, we've always had opportunities to chat about leadership issues."
With both serving as the heads of Jesuit universities since 2003, the opportunity for them to collaborate and learn from each other, while improving the business of higher education, strengthened a great relationship.
"We have common direction and a common sense of purpose," Schlegel said. "And, at a deeper level, Phi Kappa Psi combines all of that as an extension to our connection as Jesuit brothers."
Both will readily admit that while their respect and admiration for each other is great, their leadership skills are different. While Lannon is more of the extrovert, Schlegel is a bit more reserved with his outward approach. It is what makes the transition even more special for both men, the university trustees and the Creighton family as a whole.
"As the institution changes or evolves, there is a need for a particular leadership style," Lannon said.
With the fresh eyes and fresh ideas now in office, does Number 23 have any advice for Number 24?
"Probably none," Schlegel said with a chuckle. "I said to him, 'Be your own person. Go with your gut instincts. Follow your own drummer. Don't try to do what I did, because I didn't try to do what my predecessor did.' I hope he fulfills his deepest desires and aspirations and he finds that reason to jump out of bed every morning like I did." Sounds like a proud father, in every sense of the word.
A Legacy Continued
History will forever connect the two men by the institution they led, but their commitment to Phi Kappa Psi is something that will forever be understated. Brother Schlegel served two terms as the national chaplain of the Fraternity, in addition to being coordinator of faculty advisors. Brother Lannon served as a supervisory committee member to his own chapter when the situation called for more alumni involvement. To both men, the value of Phi Psi in a complex world of higher education was more than evident.
"Relationships are built from a variety of timber," Schlegel said. "The brothers have been truly loyal and faithful to the institution and their own religious dimension. That sense of professionalism and loyalty is what makes the Phi Psi experience special."
"I am so committed to building partnerships and relationships," Lannon said. "I had so much fun with Phi Kappa Psi and those relationships have a lasting impact."
A lasting impact both men will have as leaders of Creighton University.