Trustee Profile: You Gotta Believe

Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, president of Gannon University, inspires others to achieve great things

The big word on the campus of Gannon University this year is “believe.” The word pops up everywhere, thanks to an aggressive branding and marketing campaign built around the tagline, Believe. Publications and ads urge readers to believe in strong academics, a dynamic faculty, Catholic identity, an empowered community, a student-centered experience, a focus on values and the power to transform.

Slick scripts and powerful images can carry an institution only so far, of course, and danger always lurks that a tagline might dissolve into an empty buzzword that leaves people scratching their heads. It can come down to the ability of one individual to make the critical difference in articulating, and then living out, what it means to “believe.”

Dr. Antoine Garibaldi is that individual at Gannon University – and to see him in action for a couple of days as president is enough to persuade even the most skeptical observer that there is something quite tangible about this “believe” mantra.

And that’s because people believe in Garibaldi.

“He has to be the best president we’ve had,” said Linda Wagner, vice president for finance and administration and a 25-year employee of Gannon, an 82-year-old diocesan Catholic university in downtown Erie. “He does so many things so well. He came in at a challenging time and brought us out of that.”

“He’s very engaging,” said Susan Black-Keim, vice president for university advancement for seven years. “He has very high ratings among donors because of his accessibility and stewardship. He’s in his element when he’s in a crowd. He is so relationshiporiented.”

“He’s never wrinkled,” said Ron Kerman, who joined Gannon earlier this year as its first executive director of marketing. Those around the table laugh at Kerman’s choice of the word “wrinkled,” and he goes on to say he’s not just talking about his boss’ well-pressed suits and impeccable social graces. “He is so calm even in the most frenetic, crisis-driven times. He is a very sharp guy in every sense of the word.”

Students feel the same way, and the affection with which they hold him – and vice versa – is obvious in a campus walk where he greets everybody by name and with a smile. Ryan Carlisle, a physical therapy major, has a more down-toearth assessment.

“Everyone at Gannon loves Dr. G,” said Carlisle, a physical therapy major, as he gave a campus tour one gorgeous late April day. “It seems I see him in a sweatshirt and baseball cap more than a suit. He gets along great with students, and he knows everybody’s name.”

Garibaldi later laughs at the “never wrinkled” and sweatshirt characterizations, perhaps because of their contradictory nature, but he finds both gratifying. Hours earlier, he had chided Carlisle about not participating in a finals-week tradition.

“I missed you at breakfast last night, Ryan,” Garibaldi said.

“I was there,” Carlisle replied. “I really was!”

“Not in my line,” Garibaldi said.

“Oops…” Carlisle said with a sheepish grin.

Garibaldi generates a lot of smiles on the Gannon campus these days. As far away and as different as his hometown of New Orleans is from Erie, he credits his upbringing for having prepared him well for today’s challenges. He was the sixth of nine children of a father who was a Pullman porter, a custodian and a longshoreman and a mother who never worked outside the home “but is the smartest woman I know.”

The Garibaldi children attended St. Joan of Arc, the only all black Catholic school in their area of New Orleans. He never has forgotten the influence of the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Josephite Fathers, who were more than just exceptional teachers.

“The sisters also inculcated and reinforced the importance of values such as honesty, integrity, and service, and they helped each one of us to develop strong self-concepts and self-esteem,” he wrote in Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools. “More than any other goal, they expected all students to achieve to their potential and to be successful in their adult years.”

A religious vocation intrigued Garibaldi, and in 1964 he enrolled as a high school freshman at Epiphany Apostolic College, the Josephites’ minor seminary in Newburgh, N.Y. He spent six years there, a year in a Delaware novitiate and two years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Washington, D.C., where he also took classes at Howard University and Catholic University.

He decided to leave the seminary during his senior year of college, convinced that “I still could make contributions to the black community and society in general without having to be a priest.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Howard in 1973 and the University of Minnesota accepted him into a doctoralprogram in educational psychology. Minnesota appealed to him because two of his sisters were teaching in St. Paul public schools.

Dr. Frank Wilderson, then on the Minnesota faculty, asked Garibaldi to be principal of the St. Paul Urban League Street Academy, an alternative high school for students in trouble. He agreed to run the school, a partnership between the university, the league and St. Paul Public Schools, as long as he could continue his graduate studies and complete his doctorate on time. “He took on kids who were difficult to teach and reach and carried out a program in a controlled environment where there was order and discipline,” said Wilderson, a fellow New Orleansarea native who today serves on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees with Garibaldi. “He had the temperament to be friendly but stern, to be kind but consistent.”

“The Street Academy was the best experience of my life,” Garibaldi said. “It taught me a lot about patience, discipline and how to deal with difficult situations.”

After receiving his doctorate in 1976, he became an educational policy fellow in the Institute for Educational Leadership at George Washington University in Washington. He remained in Washington until 1982 as a policy researcher, first at the National Institute of Education and then at the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

“And then I went home,” he said, to chair the Education Department at Xavier University in New Orleans, the only predominantly black Catholic university in the country. He held two other positions at Xavier – dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and vice president for academic affairs – before returning to Howard in 1996 as provost and chief academic officer. A one year sabbatical as a senior fellow in the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., preceded his appointment as the sixth president of Gannon in 2001.

“I could see myself here,” he said of the presidential selection process. “During the interviews, everyone was throwing so many things at me.”

That fall, Gannon enrolled 3,407 students – 2,463 undergraduate and 944 graduate, and had an endowment of $22.7 million, which is small for a school of its size. Garibaldi’s assessment going into the job was that Gannon “had a strong, committed board … a lot of continuity with faculty and staff … a good curriculum base … and a good academic reputation that might not have been as obvious to many because it was perceived as a local institution.”

Nevertheless, challenges abounded. The budget, while balanced, provided few additional resources to support projects such as faculty research. Academic buildings needed upgrades and faculty also had concerns about Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the papal document on Catholic universities. “In my first month,” Garibaldi said, “I bought 600 copies of Ex Corde and distributed it so people had a better understanding of it.”

He spent his first summer immersing himself in Erie, meeting with business and civic leaders to learn how Gannon could meet their needs. He visited every high school because “I wanted to make sure they understood I was serious – very serious – about recruiting their students.”

Garibaldi began a strategic planning process during his first year and identified seven goals, including advancing academic excellence by creating stronger learning environments, promoting Gannon’s Catholic identity, increasing enrollment and embarking on a capital campaign.

“Our ultimate goal,” he told guests at his 2002 inauguration, “is to produce more leaders for a society that needs more educated youth, more stable families, and more hope in a world that is full of despair and uncertainty.”

Five years later, how does Garibaldi assess Gannon’s progress toward meeting those goals?

He is pleased for the most part, and for reasons like these:

• Enrollment has increased 12 percent to 3,815 last year, the highest total since the mid-1990s, and is expected to hit 3,900 this year.

• Average SAT scores for freshmen and retention percentages for returning students exceed the national average, and U.S. News & World Report has ranked Gannon in the top 10 of its “Great Schools, Great Prices” category for northern tier master’s degree schools the last two years.

• New undergraduate academic programs have been started in biotechnology, bioinformatics, journalism communications, scientific and technical sales, and sports management and marketing. There also is a new master’s degree in embedded software engineering and a new Ph.D. program in organizational learning and leadership, and the master’s program in physical therapy has been upgraded to a doctoral program.

• Gannon launched The Power to Transform campaign and has raised $21 million of the $30 million goal. Priorities include $13 million to enhance the university’s endowment, which has increased 62 percent to $37 million during Garibaldi’s presidency; $9.5 million to renovate the science center; and $7.5 million for the annual fund.

• Gannon received a $4 million state grant to open the Erie Technology Incubator, which will help start-up companies. A five-year federal grant of $1.8 million established the Center for Excellence and Teaching, which helps faculty use technology more effectively in the classroom.

Alumni and trustees also are pleased, said Joe Messina ’63, an Erie attorney and vice chair of the Gannon board. “He’s excellent,” Messina said. “He has exceeded our expectations, and I always was confident he’d do a great job. You rate people 1 to 5, and he’s No. 1.”

Given the competition for students – Erie is at the top of a triangle that includes Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, all within two hours – Garibaldi knows his admissions counselors really have to hustle to recruit students. He tells of how Bishop John Mark Gannon, the university’s namesake, once said that students of the then all-boys school should be able to pay for their education on a paperboy’s route.

While a $21,000 price tag for tuition no longer makes that feasible, “that’s still the case I make in fundraising,” said Garibaldi. “We’re raising money for scholarships to make our education affordable. We have to be very creative. The same holds true for other things we have done to attract students to us andnot a different institution.”

The “Believe” marketing campaign undergirds much of what Gannon is trying to achieve both in raising funds and stature. Garibaldi recalls the university’s former slogan – “Gannon: The Right Place for You” – and how research showed the public felt Gannon was a “good” institution.

“Well, we want to be more than a ‘good’ institution; we want to be a ‘great’ institution,” Garibaldi said. “I see students who come here who are confident. Quietly confident – not cocky, but with a sense that they are in the right place.”

Ultimately, Garibaldi said, the Gannon community feels the word “believe” best describes people’s feelings and aspirations, “not just in a spiritual connotation but in the potential to do something and get somewhere.”

His words six years into his presidency reflect one of the themes he sounded during his inaugural address, when he used that word at more than one juncture to underscore what he insisted would make a Gannon education distinctive from others.

“Our motive,” he said, “is rooted in the inherent harmony between faith and reason – that as we learn more, we can believe more firmly; and as we believe more deeply, we are ready to learn more courageously and reaffirm the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Those words resonate well at Gannon and throughout Erie. Wagner, the business vice president, remembers a trip to the doctor, who told her when he learned where she worked, “My daughter is going to Gannon, and there’s one reason: your president.”

Spoken like another true believer.