A Great View

A Great View

by Rick Davis, BA’88

While Timothy R. Lannon, S.J., leaves the office of the president at Creighton University after only three short years due to health concerns, the alumnus-turned-president sees continued success on the horizon for his alma mater.

Billy Bluejay presents Fr. Lannon with a No. 24 jersey (for the 24th president) during the Creighton men’s basketball game against Saint Mary’s on Dec. 13.

The view of downtown Omaha on this cold, bright January afternoon is breathtakingly clear and expansive. Timothy R. Lannon, S.J., has invited me to step outside onto the patio of his apartment on the top floor of Heider Hall, in what may be one of his final tours of the stately residence.

“I’m going to miss this place,” Fr. Lannon says fondly.

He’s talking about the apartment — and reminiscing about quiet summer evenings on the terrace — but he could easily be talking about Creighton University, itself.

Fr. Lannon is retiring after three-and-a-half busy years as president of Creighton at the age of 64. He loves the place — and the people. He is the first alumnus to serve as president, having graduated from Creighton in 1973.

There’s no doubt Creighton holds a special place in his heart.

But his heart needed a break from the stress and demands of the job. Fr. Lannon became ill while celebrating Mass at St. John’s Church on Thanksgiving Day 2013, and in December of that year, he underwent a procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat.

After taking two months off following his weeklong hospital stay, Fr. Lannon announced, in February 2014, plans to step down as president in June 2015. He wanted to give the Creighton Board of Trustees time to find a quality successor.

In the interim, Fr. Lannon thought he could reduce his hectic schedule. But his self-described “pedal to the medal” approach soon had him working 12-hour days again.

“Constitutionally, I’m unable to slow down, and this position, as it should be and is expected to be, is a very demanding position. It requires full throttle.”

So this past November — after prayer, reflection and consultation with physicians and friends — he announced that he was moving up his retirement date to Jan. 20.

J. Chris Bradberry, Pharm.D., dean of the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, is currently serving as interim president. And Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., will take over as Fr. Lannon’s successor beginning July 1.

While health issues prompted Fr. Lannon’s retirement, he wants people to know he’s feeling fine.

“I just saw my primary physician the other day,” Fr. Lannon says, sitting down for an interview a week before his final day as president. “And I’m feeling great.”

Indeed, he looks relaxed and vibrant. He’s dressed in jeans, a dress shirt and a blue sweater vest with Creighton’s athletic logo. He had just recently returned from a trip to Australia and New Zealand.

He expresses no second thoughts about stepping down. For him, the decision was as clear as the view outside his window. Some tragic signs, he says, confirmed his choice.

One was the death of his sister Jean (Lannon) Bird in August at the age of 61, after suffering a stroke. Another was the sudden cardiac death of Creighton theology professor William Harmless, S.J., in October.

“I thought, ‘If those aren’t enough signs, along with my own cardiac incident in 2013, what more do I need to see?’” He adds, candidly: “And honestly, after I got sick, the fire in my belly was diminished.”

That “fire in the belly” propelled Fr. Lannon to tackle some major initiatives during his three-plus years in office. Notable accomplishments include:

  • A groundbreaking partnership with area health care provider Alegent Creighton Health (now CHI Health) in July 2012, which provided Creighton health sciences students with expanded primary clinical teaching sites. It was later announced that trauma and inpatient care would be relocated to CHI Health Bergan Mercy Medical Center and a new medical center campus would be constructed at 24th and Cuming streets, meeting a community need for primary care and medical specialties.
  • An increase in undergraduate applications, which have doubled in the last two years, and a total enrollment for this academic year that hit an all-time high of 8,236 students.
  • Introduction of a new provost model of administration for the University, with the goal of furthering Creighton’s academic excellence and bridging the missions of its nine schools and colleges. Ed O’Connor, Ph.D., joined Creighton on July 1, 2013, in this “chief academic officer” position.
  • The largest renovation of academic space in Creighton’s history, affecting more than 100,000 square feet of campus space, initiated in 2012 as part of the Ignite the Greatness campaign, which raised more than $100 million in gifts and pledges.
  • The establishment of Creighton’s first named college — the Heider College of Business — in October 2013. A transformational gift to the Ignite the Greatness campaign by 1949 business graduate Charles Heider and his wife, Mary, provided momentum to grow and relocate the business college.
  • An invitation to join the BIG EAST Conference, which came in 2013 and marked a new era for intercollegiate athletics at the University. It also opened the door to expanded media exposure and student recruitment in under-tapped markets, especially on the East Coast.

Joining the BIG EAST

Of all the accomplishments, receiving an invitation to join the BIG EAST Conference was probably the most visible.

“That was fun … well, I can say that now,” Fr. Lannon says with a laugh, recalling the process. “At the time, it was like a roller coaster.”

Fr. Lannon jokes that he and Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, to whom he gives much of the credit for Creighton’s acceptance, used to play a little game called “What are the odds?” — playing out various scenarios and Creighton’s chances of receiving an invite.

“At the beginning, I don’t think Bruce would go beyond 10 or 15 percent,” Fr. Lannon says.

As things started falling into place, Fr. Lannon remembers receiving a precisely worded call from a lawyer representing the BIG EAST schools. “He said to me, ‘This is not an offer; let me be very clear about this.’” He asked that Fr. Lannon sign a confidentiality agreement, after which, the lawyer continued, “I will share with you an agreement if we decided to invite Creighton.”

“Basically he was telling me if you were invited, this is what an agreement would look like,” Fr. Lannon says.

Fr. Lannon was in a regular meeting with his leadership cabinet, when a familiar name popped up on his cell phone.

“I normally don’t take calls during a meeting, but this time I excused myself.”

It was from his friend Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, a BIG EAST school. “It’s with great pleasure, and I’ve been delegated by the seven presidents, to call you to invite Creighton to join the BIG EAST,” Fr. Holtschneider said.

“I told him, ‘This is a great honor. We’re very excited,’” Fr. Lannon recalls.

The partnership was announced on March 20, 2013, in New York on Fox Sports, with Fr. Lannon and the other BIG EAST presidents in attendance, and Creighton officially became a member at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, 2013 — joining other newcomers Butler and Xavier in the league with DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova.

Great Things Ahead for Creighton

Fr. Lannon says the challenges facing higher education today are enormous — escalating tuition costs, changing student demographics, increased emphasis on student outcomes, demand for interdisciplinary programs and many more.

But he believes through its strategic planning, Creighton University is well positioned for the future.

“The plan that we have for Creighton, I believe, has put us at a better competitive advantage,” he says.

Fr. Lannon says the Creighton difference begins with its Jesuit, Catholic mission. It’s an education, he says, predicated on preparing students not only to excel in their chosen professions but also to make a better world.

He says Creighton also benefits from having nine schools and colleges, and the opportunities that offers for interdisciplinary education, which can set students apart in today’s competitive job market.

“I think there’s always going to be enormous interest and desire for health professional positions,” Fr. Lannon says. “I think we’re uniquely positioned in that area, combined with a commitment to liberal arts education.”

Fr. Lannon also believes students today want more than an education. He says they are seeking a sense of community, a place where people care about their success and development.

“A very important part of success for a person is having a sense of hope for himself or herself,” Fr. Lannon says, citing studies by Gallup. “And that sense of hope, for students, is deeply influenced by their relationships with faculty members and staff. And we do that extremely well.”

Welcoming Fr. Hendrickson

Fr. Lannon met his successor Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., for the first time when the Fremont, Neb., native was applying to become a Jesuit in 1994. Fr. Lannon was one of a small group of Jesuits, called “examiners,” to interview Hendrickson.

“I had not met him until that particular day, when we had an appointment to see each other,” Fr. Lannon recalls. “And I thought, ‘This guy is really outstanding.’

“Daniel is bright, engaging and personable. From my perspective, he’s got all the right attributes for being a successful president. I’m happy for him and happy for Creighton.”

Fr. Lannon admits the job can be challenging. He has offered his full support to the new president. He is leaving him a copy of The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, a book he found helpful when beginning as president at Saint Joseph’s University in 2003.

“I’m committed to help him in any way in regards to the transition because, like everyone else, I want him to be successful and for Creighton to thrive,” Fr. Lannon says. “And I’m very confident that will be the case.”

Any one piece of advice he would give the incoming president?

“Despite the challenges, enjoy the job. It’s a privilege to be president of Creighton University.”

The Legacy

Fr. Lannon says he hasn’t thought too much about his legacy as president.

While he’s spearheaded major initiatives, there have also been smaller moments that have touched his heart.

Take, for instance, the small group of fraternity brothers who invited Fr. Lannon to one of the meetings they hold regularly to share their life experiences.

“I was absolutely amazed by their openness with each other, especially with me in the room,” Fr. Lannon says. “They talked about their successes and setbacks and their relationship with Christ. That is, and will be, a lasting impression for me.”

His 2011 inaugural theme was “The Spirit of Creighton.” He believes that theme has taken root across campus over the past three years.

“I think there is now this greater sense that we are one university. You see that in our planning process. You see these (academic) bridges being built, and new programs being offered through interdisciplinary activity. I think people are even more proud of Creighton.”

His view of Creighton as he departs is breathtakingly clear and expansive — derived from his 45 years as a student, alumnus and president.

“If there’s any legacy for me, I hope it’s that I played a part in our students leaving here prepared to change the world, while valuing others, God and themselves.

“If a student can leave here as a graduate loving himself or herself more fully, that’s better than any building or athletic conference.”

What’s Next for Fr. Lannon?

On Jan. 26, Fr. Lannon started the Ministry to Ministers program at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. It’s a four-month intensive spiritual and theological sabbatical experience designed for religious men and women who have been in ministry for a number of years.

In the summer, Fr. Lannon plans to travel, read and relax, with trips to museums nationwide and a trip to Italy.

And then, in the fall, he will serve as the president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, collaborating on a semester-long course in the Higher Education Program.

“Judith Block McLaughlin (program director) will be responsible for the class. She will be talking about theory,and I’ll be addressing the practicalities.”

Fr. Lannon also plans to spend more time with friend and family. “My sister Kay said it will be nice to have her brother back.”