Looking Back: The First Year

Looking Back: The First Year

The Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, S.J., Ph.D., took office as president one year ago. The year included high points, such as the formation of the new Creighton Global Initiative, as well as lows, such as the tragic deaths of three students and a former student in a car accident, and the passing of Creighton’s 23rd president, the Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J.

Before coming to Creighton in 2015, Fr. Hendrickson had been affiliated with the University formerly as a student, faculty member, and trustee. He holds undergraduate and advanced degrees from Marquette University, Fordham University, the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, and Columbia University.

He has placed a special focus on global experiences in his life, having lived in or traveled to some 35 countries. Prior to Creighton, he held a variety of teaching and administrative posts, including most recently at Marquette University.

Fr. Hendrickson recently shared his thoughts about the past year and a wide range of topics with Creighton University Magazine.

Goals for the First Year

One of my primary goals was to be accessible, visible, and approachable. I want to be a president who is well rooted in the work and the activities in the daily life of our University. I have enjoyed visiting various offices and departments to connect with faculty and staff, and conversing with students anywhere on campus.

I also see my role as speaking to Creighton’s vision, and to the values, ideals, and objectives of Jesuit higher learning. It is so necessary to continually animate important parts of our mission and identity, such as expressions of faith, actions of service, and dimensions of justice, but to also be mindful of what and how we study. Core curricular disciplines are fundament of Catholic and Jesuit higher education, and the humanities in particular cultivate ethical regard, critical thinking, cultural appreciation, empathy, eloquence, and so on. The humanities also trigger existential questions in the lives of students, asking the kinds of questions that demand self-awareness and an awareness of others. Creighton students in any of our nine schools and colleges cannot not ask questions about the meaning of life.

Creighton Students

Interacting with Creighton students is the best part of being president. I always enjoy seeing familiar faces and meeting new ones on campus — out on the mall, and at Starbucks, for instance, but also at lectures, service sites, and sporting events. I have hosted numerous lunches with students this year, and I hope to do so more routinely as I continue settling into my presidency. For those of us in higher education, students are why we’re here. They are the focus of all we do. It is a great joy watching the work of formation evolving in their lives, and more so prompting it with questions and encouragements.

The students are notably generous and respectful, and they tend to speak about two things that they like about the University. The first is a sense of our community — it takes little effort to be known and connected here at Creighton. On this campus it is easy to make friends and find mentors, and to get involved in extracurricular programs. The other is the quality of the faculty. Our professors are friendly, available, and approachable, and also challenging, and they invite the students into their worlds of enquiry. The passion of the faculty in their areas of expertise is contagious.

The Biggest Issues Facing Higher Education

The need for resources, particularly for scholarships and research, is prescient. As tuition costs continue to rise, finding funding to support our academic mission is essential and urgent. We need to be continually looking for ways to help students come to Creighton — students who can and should be here, but simply can’t afford to be. Resources that support the research passions of our faculty not only sharpen expertise, but translate into the teaching and mentoring of students.

Highlights of the Year

A major highlight of the year has been the process of working with the Creighton Global Initiative. For one, Dr. René Padilla (executive director of Creighton’s Global Engagement Office) could not have been a better organizer of a tremendous University-wide initiative. The faculty, staff, and students who served on the CGI committee were diligent, collaborative, and thoughtful, and I could not be more pleased with the awarding of $1.5 million for 30 initial projects. The CGI impels creativity and innovation as it animates and enriches our global focus.

Another highlight has been two discussion groups I participated in, one with faculty and another with students. My faculty book club met three times to discuss good literature and to relate it to our work on campus. We read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz; and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam. Each of the books was informative about current issues, but also instructive and encouraging about the work we do in Jesuit higher learning.

The student group, which met with me for dinner a few times, was less focused on literature, but we did read essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, including “Circles” and “Self-Reliance.” As I have enjoyed lunches with different groups of students throughout the year, this book club afforded me the opportunity to meet more routinely with the same group — hearing about the progression of the year, reviewing struggles, celebrating successes, and such. I like sharing a poem at the end of the dinner conversation, and discussing its meaning. Their interpretations reflect so much about their lives.

At our last dinner meeting of the semester, at their own initiative, each of the students wrote a poem of their own, and they took turns sharing them with the group. Some of the poems were evaluative about the year, and others parodied what they’re studying or how they’re living as college students. It was a good mix of solemn and silly.

Importance of Global Experiences

Why a global focus? The right kind of experience can be so transformative for any of us. It can be instructive about language, history, art, geography, and culture. Going global teaches us a lot about where we come from, too. And I believe that global experiences — particularly those focused on service, immersion, and relationships, more often than not inspire local engagement when returning home. When we leave the United States, especially if we go to places with fewer material resources and less wealth — the gritty realities that (former Jesuit Superior General) Peter-Hans Kolvenbach speaks of — we have a better sense of our priorities. We often rearrange them, and name new ones.

From a faraway place, we can gain a perspective of the kinds of things our own culture and society value, some of which aren’t all that good. Monetary wealth, possessions, professional success, time, and relationships can be put in context, or reframed, by interacting with people who live more simply. The goal of going global isn’t to leave home, but to better understand where and how we live our lives, and how we are part of a worldwide community.

And as members of a global community, we need to be conversant about global issues, and Creighton can and should be ever current. In so many ways, we are, and Creighton’s presence on the global stage is already impressive. But I am inviting us to take another step, and to be particularly intentional about global perspective.  

At Creighton, we can do so in academic disciplines and areas of expertise, and more so, with so many schools and colleges and programs on campus, we can enjoy interdisciplinary exchange. The intersections of business, law, the health sciences, and the arts and sciences are a point of pride at a comprehensive university like ours, and they can let us be more informed more quickly.

Past Experiences with Creighton

Being a student, faculty member, and trustee certainly allowed for meaningful intersections with the University community at different parts of my life, and each taught me something special about Creighton. I well remember artful teaching and genuine mentoring during my time as a student in the Jesuit Humanities Program, and that was only the length of a single academic year. Teaching philosophy here for three years let me engage students on some of life’s best questions, and after more than 15 years, I remain in touch with many of them. Too, being a member of the faculty let me work collaboratively with a number of faculty and staff who are still here on campus, and I have enjoyed renewing those relationships. As a trustee, I gained a sense of governance of the University, and it also allowed me to get to know a group of people who are very generous with their time and talent on behalf of Creighton.

The Year’s Tragedies

We have had sad moments this academic year, and more than our fair share. On that Sunday night in October, at a late evening service for the four women who were killed in the car crash (three students and one former student), students, staff, and faculty filled the church. I remember them carrying chairs and setting up, ushering people to seats, caring for each other. In fact, I was initially surprised at the outpouring of support, but then very quickly remembered that the Creighton community mobilizes swiftly. I was here during 9/11, and in the face of such tragedy, Creighton came together. With our young women this year, we were very Creighton. Late on a Sunday evening, the young women’s professors were sitting there in the church, as were their friends, classmates, and others who didn’t really know them but just wanted to be there.

We said goodbye to a lot of friends this year, and it was important to me to just keep showing up and stepping into the pain. I’m not always concerned with trying to say the right thing in difficult moments, but just having something to say and being supportive is important.

Faith and a Personal Relationship with God

From Heider Hall where I live in student housing, I have seen a lot of sunrises this year. I tend to wake early, and if I am too quick to email and other tasks, the sunrise slows me down. And, for a year that has been so full and engaging, the Jesuit Examen has been important. It lets me ask where and how God is present in my life, and it reminds me to recognize God’s presence in the lives of others.

At a place like Creighton, where we have so many people engaged with faith and service, it really is quite easy to find the work of God in the world around us. I like adapting the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem we used for the inaugural theme, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame,” substituting the word Creighton: “ … for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, through the features of Creighton faces.”

Role of Poetry in His Life

I can’t really remember how or where I first stumbled into poetry, but I vigorously embraced it when working on my first graduate degree in philosophy. I quite like philosophy, but the intensity of it, and its headiness, propelled me in a counter direction. It was refreshing, and grounding, to read words of a very different nature. E.E. Cummings was a favorite in those years, such as, “i am a little church(no great cathedral).” Another is “i thank You God for most this amazing.” In fact, I recently shared this one with a junior student who was reflecting with me about his year.

Hopkins has always enticed me. Rainer Maria Rilke is a favorite, and during my first trip to India back in 1998, to Calcutta, I fell in love with Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali.” I just recommended Tagore to a group of Creighton faculty and students who were preparing for a trip to Calcutta.

Best Preparation

I have wisdom figures in my life — former professors and Jesuits and just good friends who are always honest, insightful, and inspiring in their own ways.

Numerous years on different boards of trustees have been instructive about issues of governance and decisions related to the mission and identity of Jesuit institutions.

Three intensive years at Marquette University, which were a combination of administrative work and teaching, were helpful in two ways: being in the orbit of senior leadership and the decisions being made on a daily basis was great exposure; and working with students and teaching rooted me in the educational mission of the institution. I also co-directed an impressive service-oriented scholarship program, which allowed me to work with some of the brightest students on campus, as well as let me help them integrate their studies and service work.

On Recharging His Batteries

Riding my bike is a great way to clear my head. I have a couple of colleagues I ride with routinely. Also, it has been great being joined by people on campus. Students will stop me on the mall or contact me in the office to schedule rides. And it has been pretty easy, actually, to just send out a message and get people on campus together for a ride.

The Toughest Part of the Job

The toughest part is not much different from one of the best parts. I have enjoyed meeting so many different people, and getting connected with the work and the experience of Creighton University; at the same time, the real challenge is maintaining the schedule necessary to be able to make and maintain those connections. A job like this will always require good time management and a sense of balance, having enough desk time, and keeping up with regular meetings and those that pop up, and getting out of the office and around campus. It’s important to me to find time to pray and exercise and reflect enough in my life — that’s what helps keep me thoughtful and focused.

The Special Role of Jesuit Education

Jesuit education reminds us that higher learning is not just about what we do, and the careers we can enjoy, but it is also about the kinds of people we are and who we can become. Careers and professions are important, and at Creighton we create pathways of professional accomplishment and success. But we also ask our students how they feel, what they believe, and who they care about. We ask them what’s important in life, and we talk about suffering, joy, and beauty. Other places train professionals, say, a businesswoman, a teacher, or a dentist. But with substance and soul, we form Creighton businesswomen, Creighton teachers, and Creighton dentists.

Creighton’s Future

To use simple analogies, I feel the University is like a racehorse, ready to break out in a new sprint, or we’re like an engine that’s revved up, ready to be released. The talent and expertise of our faculty, the dedication of our staff, the potential of our students, our focus on mission — we’re poised. My sense is that we’re ready to hit new strides as we continue to showcase Creighton as a university that is both prestigious and extraordinary; as a place that is Catholic and Jesuit, and comprehensive of nine colleges and schools, we are distinctive of other options in higher learning as we form women and men who are attentive, circumspect, collaborative, leading, professionally equipped, and globally engaged.