Highlights of the DePaul presidency of A. Gabriel Esteban, PhD
By Marilyn Ferdinand and Craig Keller
On June 14, 2021, A. Gabriel Esteban shared his intention to step down from his position as president of DePaul University at the end of the current academic year. Since he joined DePaul in 2017, Dr. Esteban has brought new perspectives, new programs and new traditions that have enriched our institution, more closely knit our DePaul family together and set the university up for continued growth and success. The actions Dr. Esteban and his wife, Josephine, have taken on behalf of DePaul demonstrate their deep love and commitment to our Vincentian, Catholic and urban mission. Join us now as we celebrate the Estebans and their contributions to our community.
Dr. and Mrs. Esteban have immersed themselves in building community and affinity at DePaul by establishing new traditions that support students, faculty and staff.
State of the University Address
A primary tenet of Dr. Esteban’s leadership has been transparency and inclusive communication. In 2017–18, he delivered the first State of the University address to share updates on university operations and priorities with faculty and staff, who welcomed the opportunity to connect with leadership on issues guiding DePaul’s future. That first address set in motion the process that shaped DePaul’s strategic plan, “Grounded in Mission: The Plan for DePaul 2024.”
In his address the following year, Dr. Esteban formally outlined the plan, emphasizing a diverse community of learners and transformative education grounded in Catholic and Vincentian values. Updates on finances, enrollment, and initiatives for student success and academic excellence have continued to form key parts of the addresses.
New Student Traditions
“Dr. Esteban has been visible and accessible to students and engaged in the campus community from day one,” says Gene Zdziarski, vice president for student affairs. “He wanted to be sure there were cornerstone events and opportunities for him to engage directly with students.”
The Blue Demon Welcome is one example. DePaul hosted its first convocation for new undergraduates, including first-year and transfer students, at Wintrust Arena at McCormick Square in 2019. Dr. Esteban, Provost Salma Ghanem, college deans and members of the president’s cabinet, all dressed in full academic regalia, welcomed the incoming class. The intention was to deepen their sense of belonging by celebrating the beginning of their college journey.
The Midnight Breakfast and Tree Lighting Ceremony, started in 2017 and 2018, respectively, also bring university leadership and students together in uplifting, communal rituals.
The former takes place during fall quarter finals to help give students encouragement during a stressful time. Zdziarski says that while similar events at other universities are often staffed by volunteers, having Dr. and Mrs. Esteban serve them breakfast lets students know they’re supported from the very top of the DePaul family.
At the Tree Lighting Ceremony, held in St. Vincent’s Circle on the Lincoln Park Campus each November, a giant light switch is flipped to illuminate a recently planted evergreen. Dr. and Mrs. Esteban, students, community guests and DIBS join carolers and servers who are dispensing cocoa and cookies. The ceremony gives attendees an opportunity to hear about the importance of traditions and the university’s Vincentian mission.
The tree lighting event was Dr. Esteban’s idea from the get-go, says Zdziarski. “He envisioned it as a shining light for students that guides them on their way home for the winter quarter.”
Farther south, on the Loop Campus, faculty and students in DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts partnered with the Division of Mission and Ministry to create another illuminated holiday tradition in 2019. Throughout the season, a window display at the corner of State Street and Jackson Boulevard features a Christmas-themed animated video that shares DePaul’s Vincentian mission with the community.
Dr. Esteban strengthened such nationally recognized programs as entrepreneurship, psychology, cybersecurity, film and television, and game design. He also helped establish health programs that address community needs, launch a school that re-envisions diplomacy, modernize adult learning, and drive innovative faculty research.
College of Science and Health
The College of Science and Health (CSH), celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2021, continued the expansion of its health and medical science programs, a priority during Dr. Esteban’s presidency.
In September 2021, CSH launched a Master of Science in Speech Language Pathology, inaugurated with the opening of the DePaul Speech and Language Clinic, a state-of-the-art facility that gives students opportunities to work with clients of all ages from the community by providing screenings, comprehensive evaluations and therapy. The college is also initiating occupational therapy and Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs in 2022 and an engineering program in 2023.
CSH Dean Stephanie Dance-Barnes reflects that partnerships with Sinai Health System and Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science provide new avenues for research and clinical placements that address social and health equity challenges. “We’re preparing students not just to be competitive,” she says, “but to have a culturally relevant experience so they can go out and serve a diverse population.”
Grace School of Applied Diplomacy
Thanks to a generous gift of $20 million from anonymous donors, the Grace School of Applied Diplomacy, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (LAS), opened its doors in fall 2019. It is the first school of its kind to focus its curriculum on the emerging concept of “transprofessional diplomacy,” which expands the borders of diplomatic practice beyond the work of official government representatives. Its programs redefine and broaden the practice of diplomacy to encompass diverse fields including, but not limited to, international law, faith-based work and environmental science.
“We realized there was a significant amount of literature and scholarship on the importance of diplomacy to all professions,” says LAS Dean Guillermo Vásquez de Velasco. “Whether you are a religious leader, business professional or doctor, we all need that skill set.”
School of Continuing and Professional Studies
On July 1, 2019, DePaul launched its School of Continuing and Professional Studies, building upon the work of its predecessors, the School for New Learning and Office of Continuing and Professional Education.
The reorganization positions DePaul to be more successful and sustainable in expanding access for diverse adult learners to a range of lifelong learning opportunities available online, on campus and at educational, civic and corporate partner locations.
Under Dr. Esteban, DePaul’s Academic Growth and Innovation Fund was established in 2018 with an annual budget of $2 million. The fund is designed to encourage and support innovative academic ideas that are expected to have a positive impact on DePaul’s revenues. Grants have been awarded to faculty for projects that include new academic and certification programs, co-curricular enhancements, and research and initiatives that support technological advancements and marginalized populations.
The Presidential Fellows program, launched in 2018, provides an opportunity for faculty to work with DePaul’s leadership to research and develop innovative activities and practices related to diversity and inclusion. The Faculty Recruitment Incentive Program focuses on the recruitment, retention and success of diverse faculty.
“The issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, under Dr. Esteban, have become much more elevated at DePaul and are top of mind in everything we do,” says Provost Salma Ghanem.
Mission in Motion
Maintaining the university’s service to students and the larger community has been challenging in the last two years, but under Dr. Esteban’s leadership, the university has persevered and made gains in significant ways.
Safety During the Pandemic
Dr. Esteban’s strong commitment to students came sharply into focus when COVID-19 threatened the health and well-being of the DePaul community. While a shutdown of unprecedented proportions was unavoidable, Dr. Esteban rallied faculty and staff to find innovative ways to keep teaching and serving students. In only two weeks, online options for everything from coursework to support services went live, and contributions to emergency assistance funds poured in from alumni, faculty, staff and friends.
Updated Mission Statement
DePaul remains steadfast in its Vincentian, Catholic and urban mission—a mission that remains relevant through updates to reflect changing social conditions. Dr. Esteban helped lead a revision to DePaul’s 35-year-old mission statement, a process that garnered direct feedback from more than 600 community members over a 10-month period. The revised DePaul University mission statement and its supporting document, “Distinguishing Characteristics, Core Values and Commitments,” were approved unanimously by the Board of Trustees on March 4, 2021.
In introducing the new statement, Rev. Guillermo “Memo” Campuzano, C.M., vice president for mission and ministry, said that “great care was given to revising the statement, down to negotiating the meaning and inclusion of individual words.” Examples of this care are including “environmental” justice and using “with special attention to” as a means of strongly emphasizing outreach to underserved and underrepresented communities that suffer from structural inequities.
Dr. Esteban championed social justice in his native country, the Philippines, and shares a strong affinity with immigrants facing challenges in the United States. He issued statements supporting landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that protect LGBTQ+ employees and job applicants and uphold the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which directly affects many DePaul students.
When the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 triggered a massive exodus from the country, the refugees included a large group of women originally bound for the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. Through the generous support of donors, Dr. Esteban ensured that DePaul provided a home for 10 Afghan students from that group. They will remain at DePaul until they complete undergraduate degrees of their choice.
In the wake of social unrest brought on by the deaths of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans and people of color, Dr. Esteban pledged on behalf of the DePaul community to work for change, seek reform and hold one another accountable in the face of injustice. In 2020, DePaul created the Emmett Till Scholarship, which is available to students with majors or minors in African and Black diaspora studies or applied diplomacy. The scholarship is part of the university’s commitment to “create a scholarship program with expanded resource opportunities that remembers all Black lives taken by acts of racial violence.”
George and Tanya Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness
During Dr. Esteban’s tenure, the cause of ending street homelessness got a major boost. DePaul Life Trustee George Ruff (BUS ’74) and his wife, Tanya, committed $21 million to scholarships and the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH) at DePaul. The organization was renamed the George and Tanya Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness in their honor. The IGH works to draw connections between global successes, scale best practices among practitioners, and accelerate progress in reducing and ending street homelessness in ways that counter racism and inequities in the sector.
Access and Social Mobility
DePaul’s long-standing commitment to providing students from all backgrounds access to a high-quality education has been a major focus of Dr. Esteban’s presidency.
“Dr. Esteban’s efforts tie back to why DePaul was created—to provide access for people who could not go to school elsewhere,” says Provost Ghanem.
In 2018, DePaul strengthened its commitment to young people with two new scholarship programs for graduates of Chicago Public Schools and Catholic high schools in Illinois. The Chicago Promise Scholarship and Catholic Heritage Scholarship each provide a $20,000 scholarship to full-time, first-year students with a high school grade point average of 3.7 or higher. The scholarships are in keeping with DePaul’s dedication to serving the local community.
In 2020, at a time when many families were under financial pressure due to the pandemic, DePaul launched its State Scholar Plus scholarship program for high-achieving high school graduates entering college for the first time in fall 2021. The program provides qualifying students up to $100,000 in scholarship funds over four years of undergraduate studies.
In 2021, Education Reform Now ranked DePaul third in social mobility for Pell-eligible students among private universities in the United States. This national think tank and advocacy organization supporting public education transformation that serves all students, particularly from marginalized populations, cited programs like Generation Success and Future Forward in making its ranking.
Generation Success, launched in 2019, supports first-generation college students. Program participants take a Discover Chicago class together, are paired with a peer mentor, and engage with staff and faculty mentors who were also first-generation college students.
The program “creates a safe space where we celebrate this first-gen milestone and normalize the questions and feelings first-gen students experience,” says Vanessa Martinez, postcollege success coordinator in DePaul’s Office of Multicultural Student Success. “Students then see themselves as trailblazers in their families and communities.”
In 2020, DePaul introduced Future Forward, an innovative career-exploration and readiness incubator. Students in the yearlong, co-curricular program complete self-guided, interactive modules that include resume- and network-building, professionalism, and internships. The students connect with each other on a gamelike social media platform that helps build affinity for the DePaul community. They also complete a hands-on career experience such as job shadowing.
“Our cohort members are expert consumers of media, so we make sure our content has a different tone from what they experience elsewhere,” says Hilarie Longnecker, associate director of career curriculum and early engagement in DePaul’s Career Center. “This sets them up for a successful career journey during their time at DePaul.”
Student recruitment efforts are an important part of Dr. Esteban’s legacy.
Dr. Esteban focused on improvements in student recruitment from the very beginning of his tenure at DePaul. His deep, hands-on knowledge and practitioner’s empathy in enrollment management and marketing ensured a comprehensive approach to revitalizing enrollment.
Dr. Esteban helped support the successful launch and expansion of DePaul’s Here, We Do brand campaign with University Marketing and Communications that continues to generate above-average brand recognition and recall, which is a significant influencing factor in new student recruitment.
He also focused on new, national-level market and recruitment territory development at the undergraduate level, funding additional, regional recruitment staff positions in California, Texas and the Northeast. Through sustained effort from Enrollment Management, California has now become one of the largest out-of-state markets for DePaul.
Dr. Esteban’s keen knowledge of admissions processes has resulted in many efficiencies, such as the inclusion of admitted first-year students and families to local and regional alumni events hosted by the Division of Advancement and External Relations and the President’s Office. One could always find Dr. Esteban having in-depth, personal conversations with families at these events.
Dr. Esteban also helped strategize strong financial footing.
Dr. Esteban’s strategy to grow the endowment has taken a multipronged approach, recognizing the importance of developing a perpetual financial foundation for DePaul to serve future generations of students and faculty. This strategy was formalized in DePaul’s “Grounded in Mission: The Plan for DePaul 2024.”
Aided by a strong market, this approach has involved reinvesting operating surpluses, fundraising, and developing investment strategies that produce sufficient returns to meet the university’s distribution objective and help provide real growth in the market value of the endowment. Dr. Esteban and the Board of Trustees established a six-person Trustee Investment Committee charged with employing a consistent investment policy to meet both the short-term needs and the long-term goals of the institution while respecting the appropriate level of risk for the university. In fiscal year 2021, under the leadership of this committee, DePaul achieved a 27.5% rate of return, net of fees.
Overall, under Dr. Esteban’s leadership, the endowment has nearly doubled in just four years, from $492.3 million on July 1, 2017, to $951.3 million on June 30, 2021, the end of DePaul’s last fiscal year.
Dr. Esteban’s priority has always been students. From a fundraising perspective, that focus has meant bringing attention to the needs of our students and emphasizing fundraising strategies aimed at meeting those needs, particularly for scholarships and increased financial aid. The president spent considerable time traveling to meet with donors to encourage them to make gifts for direct student aid, especially by contributing to or creating endowed scholarships.
The success of this approach has become exceedingly clear in the last few years of Dr. Esteban’s presidency. For example, alumni, parents and friends of DePaul created 99 new endowed scholarships through the Hay Endowed Scholarship Challenge, which used matching funds from the estate of the late William E. Hay (MBA ’66, DHL ’06) to encourage donors’ generosity on behalf of students.
Now We Must: The Campaign for DePaul’s Students also provided students with the resources they needed to continue their education amid the uncertainty and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign, which took place from fall 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021, raised nearly $125 million from the DePaul community. More than $55 million was raised for direct scholarship support, including for the 125 new scholarships created during that period. This success followed a total of $60.6 million raised in 2019–20, another stellar year for philanthropic support.
Students, academics, athletics and other areas of the university also benefited from the remarkable growth and success of the Blue Demon Challenge, an annual, 24-hour fundraising event. Donors from all 50 U.S. states and 15 countries gave a record-breaking $6,121,528 in 2022, an increase of $4 million from the previous year’s event, which also set a record.