Vinciguerra: Keeping it Franciscan – and urban
By Bob Okon email@example.com May 14, 2013 7:10PM
Outgoing University of St. Francis President Michael Vinciguerra talks about his time at the school while in his office in Joliet, IL on Tuesday May 8, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 16, 2013 6:40AM
Michael Vinciguerra might have seemed an unusual fit for the University of St. Francis when he arrived as its president in 2002.
He was a kid from the Bronx who walked past Yankee Stadium every day going to high school and spent his entire educational career in state schools in the New York metropolitan area before taking the job at the small Catholic college in the Midwest.
Now that he’s retiring at the end of May, Vinciguerra not only looks like he was a natural for the job, but he is credited with securing the university’s tradition and place as a Joliet institution.
“He reintegrated St. Francis back into the community,” said Pat Sullivan, retired coach and athletic director who has a building named after him at USF. “He made St. Francis an integral part of a great community.”
Before Vinciguerra arrived, USF leadership was considering relocating the land-locked campus away from its spot in the heart of Joliet to open space on the far west end where the city’s new suburban-style subdivisions were being built. Vinciguerra not only has kept USF where it is, he has made it a mission to expand the university’s influence deeper into the city’s older neighborhoods where he thinks it can do some good for Joliet’s less privileged residents.
“We are Joliet’s urban university,” Vinciguerra declared once again last week during an interview in his office, repeating a phrase he has used often in his time at USF.
The campus, which dates back to the 19th Century, is just west of downtown Joliet and in the city’s Cathedral Area — so named for the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus, just a block away from USF, and the location of some of the most magnificent and historic houses in town.
Instead of expanding to the open spaces out west, USF has been rebuilding its Joliet campus and establishing a foothold downtown, where Vinciguerra says the university and its students can reach young people who might otherwise not be exposed to higher education.
USF moved its fine arts classes into the Rialto Square Theatre office building downtown. An art gallery recently opened, and it will be used next year for an exhibit by Joliet Central High School students. The university will move more programs downtown in the old Mode Theater building, which was donated to the school by BMO Harris Bank, and plans to make space available for community use. USF has been the major sponsor of the city’s annual Christmas parade and festival downtown. The university, which includes a college of nursing, also started a medical clinic downtown, which has since been taken over by Aunt Martha’s.
“If we are true to our Franciscan ideals, then we will be serving people downtown,” Vinciguerra said. “We will be a better institution, true to our path, and close to the people we should be involved with, which is the community,”
At USF, the word “Franciscan” is used often and not lightly.
Of course, it is the University of St. Francis. It was founded by the Joliet-based order of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate. But administrators and faculty use the word Franciscan often enough that a visitor recognizes that it’s more than lip service.”
“I think that’s what we appreciate most about Michael,” said Sister Mary Jo Young, a Franciscan nun on the board of trustees at USF. “He really has carried on the Franciscan spirit.”
Young and Sullivan were interviewed after a mass and reception held Thursday in Vinciguerra’s honor.
“He is so deeply entrenched into Franciscanism,” Sullivan said of Vinciguerra. Asked exactly what he meant, Sullivan referred back to Vinciguerra’s mission of making USF a bigger part of the Joliet community.
“He recognized everybody in the community,” Sullivan said. “A lot of colleges deal only with people of wealth. He reached out to everybody. And that is Franciscan.”
Just the day before, Vinciguerra told a reporter what he wanted to be remembered for most. He referred to Mother M. Thomasine Fryweska, who was the university’s first president when it opened in 1926.
“Sister Thomasine wrote, ‘May it always remain Franciscan,’” Vinciguerra said. “I would like to have carried that through. At the end of my term, my statement would be, ‘May it always remain Franciscan.’ She hit the nail on the head. That’s our mission.”
Vinciguerra, too, was asked what it meant to be Franciscan.
“We live to serve,” he answered. “It’s all about living the Gospel. Franciscan is being able to live like Jesus lived.”
USF also made some practical progress under Vinciguerra’s leadership.
Traditional undergraduate enrollment has grown 21 percent and was at 1,425 in fall 2012, according to the university.
The university created a quad — something that actually did not exist previously in the compact campus but which Vinciguerra thought was essential for the future of the campus and the student body.
“It was the right thing to do for the university to allow us to flourish,” Vinciguerra said, pointing to a 30 percent growth rate in the numbers of resident undergraduates. “We’re building that undergraduate base. We’ve been very fortunate because in these times around the country a number of colleges have not met their undergraduate goals.”
Michael Hansen, a Joliet corporate attorney who was on the USF board of trustees that hired Vinciguerra, said a degree from USF has gained value in the last 11 years. Hansen said USF has become a more important resource for the business community and working adults who take classes for advanced degrees and training.
“He took the university to a new level,” Hansen said. “To go to school here has really changed. People want to go to school here because they can get jobs coming out of this university. That is very important today.”
The university started a logistics program aimed at the growing warehouse and distribution industry in the area. It also has a “USF Solutions” program, which makes the university’s business and management faculty available to assist local businesses and nonprofits.
While the university has been changing, it also has been preserving. Even as USF made the commitment to stay in the heart of Joliet, another decision had to be made about the Motherhouse. The landmark building that is the face of the university, since if fronts heavily travelled U.S. 30, marks the origins of the campus before the University of St. Francis existed. The Motherhouse was built in 1881 as the home for Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate — 45 years before the order would found the university.
But the Motherhouse was aging, and demolition was being considered. Instead it was remodeled, dubbed the Welcome Center, and put to use for additional office space, an auditorium, and community resource rooms.
The building no longer is home to the Franciscan nuns. But they do come back.
Sister Young said keeping the Motherhouse preserved the identity of the university.
“The building has been a place for young people since it opened,” Young said “That’s where I got my training to be a sister.”
Vinciguerra seems to have had a good sense of place in Joliet for a New Yorker. Now that he’s retiring, he’s staying.
“My wife (Grace) and I have decided we’re going to stay here in our retirement,” he said. “I love New York. There’s not a city in the world that has more energy. But the people here have the values that are our values. The people are forthright. You don’t have to worry about hidden agendas.”
Vinciguerra said he will be back to campus occasionally for basketball games or other events but does not plan to return often.
“There can only be one president of a university,” he said. And, he will leave that role to incoming President Arvic C. Johnson.
Still, Vinciguerra leaves no doubt how he feels about the place and his 11 years as president of the University of St. Francis: “This is God’s best gift to me in my life.”