May 24, 2022


Departing DePaul: What Dr. Esteban will miss as president

Gabriel Esteban became the first lay leader in DePaul University’s 119-year history when he was installed as president in 2017. Over the ensuring five years, he guided the university to the fulfillment of many long-standing strategic goals and deepened its pursuit of its Vincentian mission, including through the trials of Covid-19. As Dr. Esteban concludes his tenure, he joins the DePaul Download podcast to reflect on his experience and what he’ll remember and miss about the university.



DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: That focus on that students, that focus on the mission is our distinctive and competitive advantage. And moving forward, we have to consider that focus, and continue to build on it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download, I’m your host Linda Blakley. Dr. Gabriel Esteban made history at DePaul in 2017 when he was named the university’s 12th president. In the university’s 119-year history, he was its first lay leader. Dr. Esteban arrived on campus with deep leadership experience gained by serving at other universities and with an abiding faith in God. That experience and faith formed the principles that guided him particularly, as the pandemic tested DePaul in new and unexpected ways. As Dr. Esteban prepares to leave DePaul for new life adventures, he joins me today on the podcast to reflect on the past five years. Welcome, Dr. E.

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Hi Linda. Thank you. Thank you for inviting and before I start, I just want to thank everyone – your team, in particular, for being part of this journey.

LINDA BLAKLEY: We talked in our opening episode this season about what you were looking forward to most this year. One event you mentioned was the tree lighting, a new tradition that you encouraged. Dr. Gene Zdziarski, vice president of Student Affairs, said this about the event.

DR. GENE ZDZIARSKI: The tree lighting ceremony has become one of our favorite events here at DePaul University. We had over 1,600 people show up for the tree lighting and it’s an opportunity to bring the campus together, both faculty, staff and students to celebrate the holidays. There’s hot chocolate and cookies, Christmas carols and then we flick the switch on the lights for the tree. And even though it happens in November, it’s a great start to the holiday season, and the whole point of this is to begin that season, but also to remind students that, you know, the lights are burning here and they are going to stay lit until they return to campus in January.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What was it like being at your last tree lighting?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Well, Linda it was just great. I’d have to say that Jo and I got there early because we knew that there was going to be the ugly sweater giveaway. So we were there at like two o’clock in the afternoon. And when we got there the line for the ugly sweater – I thought, never have I seen such a long line for that – we call the ugly sweater. I think there were 1,500-2,000 students who had just lined up. So it was going almost around the block and – it was just this sense of excitement.

Right and we were there – we stayed the whole time and even before the actual tree lighting which had not just – the cookies and everything else but caroling. It was actually fun just to be with the students, faculty and staff. And we did a number of pictures. Jo and I were just doing mic checks on the stage and students thought it was an opportunity to have pictures – we had pictures taken when I was on stage. It was just overwhelming. When we started, I think you know, I took a selfie with the crowd in the back.

But that just – spirit, you knew that the students were waiting for that opportunity to be together again. Because it has been a long – it had been a long year and a half during the pandemic. So it was just a nice way for the community of DePaul to come together as one group. And as Gene pointed out, we made it a point to make sure they knew that the lights were going to be lit when they came back in January.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Why was it important to support new student traditions, as well as academic success programs?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things you realize is that it’s all about, not just recruiting students but retaining, persisting and also making sure that they graduate. My philosophy – and I shared this with the cabinet (and) a number of times in the university community – is if we admit a student to DePaul, it means we believe that they have the academic preparation needed to succeed at DePaul. And it’s up to us to provide the necessary support services, and part of that support has to be in the field of building a sense of community.

That’s why things such as the tree lighting, breakfast at midnight with Gene Zdziarski – I remember talking to him my first summer here and I said, “Gene, what about – do we do something like breakfast at midnight?” And he said, “No, Gabe, but other places do it.” So I said, “How soon can we do it?” So we had it that fall. I mean, so Courtney’s been a great partner. Generational Success for first-generation college-going students, I expanded peer-to-peer mentoring, Future Forward, EDGE, and now we have a pilot with our persistence programs targeting groups which traditionally have very low persistence levels.

So all of those were built so we can retain, make sure our students persist, and they graduate. It’s all about creating a sense of community, affinity and we owe it to our student because they’re our future.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Another of strategic priorities has been expanding DePaul’s offerings in the health sciences. The opening of the new Speech Language Pathology Clinic last fall was an initiative that was important to you. How does that clinic embody DePaul’s mission and what you hope to accomplish with health science education?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: The clinic was a key part of what we were – the message we wanted to send out to the community at large and the nation, in a bigger sense, about what Vincentian education is all about. One of the things that we do unique to the free clinic, is that we provide free clinic – it’s quite – it’s a donation-based clinic for speech therapy. One of the things which surprised me, as we prepared to open, was finding out that we’re the only free speech therapy clinic in the city of Chicago.

And right now we have 65 patients. We met one of the young individuals who is part of that free initiative and, as you know, speech therapy can be very expensive and it takes a period of time. And these are individuals who you want to be part of the larger community, yet because, primarily, lack of insurance or just the expense associated, they can’t afford. These are the individuals who you really want to serve and that’s very Vincentian. We try and make sure that we work with individuals who are at the margins.

The other thing we did, which is unique, is I think we just got approval to have a bilingual certification. And I think we are one of the few – if not one of the first in the country – to have a bilingual certification option in our speech language pathology program. So that’s just part of that whole health sciences push. But if you look back to the roots of the Vincentians in particular, the Daughters of Charity, and the role in setting up hospitals or places of care way back in France, at the beginning. That’s why there was this big influence from my standpoint to get into the health sciences, so we’re doing it in a big way.

Our new Bachelor of Science in nursing program, which is going to start this fall, we have over – about a thousand applications last time I checked for the 32 slots. And we’re admitting, I think, 25-28% to get to the 32 slots, right? And there’s math behind that I’m not – they explained to me the math and I said, “Okay, as long as you know that, well, we want 32 to 40 freshman in this program.” OT is also launching and again, we’re partnering with places like Mount Sinai, who do work with the communities we want to serve.

So we’re doing health care – health sciences with a very Vincentian focus. And we’re going to partner also with AMITA Health, which has its roots in the Daughters of Charity. So that’s doing health education the Vincentian way, and we know we can attract students whose profile match those of the people we want to serve.

LINDA BLAKLEY: In its social mobility ranking, U.S. News and World Report analyzes the number of students enrolled and graduated who received Pell Grants, directed to families whose annual income is less than $50,000. In the most recent rankings, DePaul rose 35 spots, cracking the top 100. What was it like to see that accomplishment?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Well, I get a sense that it confirms what you thought was happening at DePaul. I’ve always viewed higher ed as – being in higher ed allows you to change the trajectory of the people you serve. More so at institutions such as DePaul. We made it a point to make sure that the students we recruited to DePaul is a wide mix of students. We always look at what percentage of our freshmen are eligible for Pell aid, and it’s remained the same despite the growth and the academic preparation and all of the other things.

We look at the percentage of our freshmen who are first in their families to go to college, and it has remained constant through the years. We look at the percentage of our freshmen who are students of color, and that’s increased actually over the past few years. And that mix has actually gotten stronger over the past few years. So it does say that yes, we’re doing our job of fulfilling our mission – our goal is to be among the top five among private national universities in terms of social mobility and that’s obviously very well within reach with our programs.

And a large part of it, also, is the programs we offer. That’s why health sciences is key to what we’re doing because the health sciences is one of the areas where you see a lot of social mobility. Right? You see it also in engineering. That’s why we’re moving and we’re adding – we hope to add two new engineering programs by fall ’23. And that has to go through our internal process, which it’s starting. But that also is a vehicle of social mobility. If you look at schools which are high in social mobility, quite a few of them will have engineering programs.

So it’s all part of this bigger strategic plan, which we developed six years ago now – or well 2018, I think is when we signed off on it, my second year.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The pandemic has defined much of the last two years. What did leading DePaul through COVID-19 teach you about the future of higher education?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things that really impacted, I think, my thinking the most about higher ed was how DePaul responded as a community to the pandemic. If you recall, as we started to make decisions we met every day – sometimes twice a day – and it was a wide group of individuals from all sectors of campus: students, staff, faculty, administrators, people who were experts. And you realize that because of that, because of that coalescing behind a common goal—which was how best to serve the students—we were able to do great things. Right? We made decisions, some very quickly, but we made decisions which were consistent with our mission.

If you recall, one of the first things we did was we said, “Okay, so what’s our guiding principles?” It was keeping the DePaul community safe and healthy. So that guided a lot of our decision makings, and still guides us today. But we coalesced around that, right? So, if you have that dedication to a common cause—students—asking, “How, with the mission, can we best serve the students?” Then you realize you could be flexible, you can adapt, and that was the neat thing about it. And that’s what we need to move forward.

I think one of the dangers right now at this point, is that people are tired of having to deal with it and I understand that, right? It seems that we never really got out of that mode, but I’ve also seen the power of coming together as a group and not being so silent as we tend to be. And thinking of what’s best for the students, and we made that leap. Why? Because we’re forced to, right? But being flexible, being adaptable paid dividends for us. And we were able to get out of it a lot more successfully when I talk to my colleagues across campus.

So that focus on that students, that focus on the mission is our distinctive and competitive advantage. And moving forward, we have to consider that focus, and continue to build on it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to about your sabbatical?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Actually, a large part of it is spending more time with Jo, my wife, and daughter and son-in-law – they obviously had to make sacrifices along the way. I tried to balance both career as well as that – Jo had to make sacrifices. So being able to spend that time – really have no distinct plans. We’re going to do what I call purposeful travel. You know me, Linda, I mean that some of the things we hope to do Camino de Santiago, which is on our bucket list. And we’re using the same tour group that DePaul uses, thanks to Father Christopher for that referral.

We want to be able spend time to reflect and seek guidance from someone above, so to speak, on what’s next, right? We look forward to meeting with some folks we’ve met, I think Annette Wilson, a lot of you will know. And she lives in Columbus – we’re moving to Columbus for a year because our daughter took a job there, so she and her husband are moving there. So we’ll stay there for a year and figure out what we’re called to do next. So, at one time – at the same time it’s liberating, it’s also scary – I talked to Father Memo about visiting the Daughters of Charity in Columbia. Talked to him already about visiting Daughters of Charity and Vincentians in Madrid and some other places.

So very purposeful about the travel – also have to get ready for coming back and teach fall ’23 as part of my sabbatical. But, basically try and find out what the Lord has in store for us.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What makes you hopeful about DePaul’s future?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: The same thing that attracted me to DePaul. It’s the focus on the mission: faculty, our staff, students, leadership – that’s board, our donors, that strong focus on the mission. And that strong focus has allowed us to do great things. We’ve had the three largest freshmen classes in our history, and that’s consecutive years. And with that, not only was it the largest, it’s become the most diverse. Some of the most academically prepared classes in our history, while making sure that Pell eligibility, first-generation remains more or less constant. We hit 25% Latinx freshmen last year, and we’re close to it – 24% this year as well – which are records for us.

Right, it’s those things are great things because we’ve shown that there’s no trade off you have to make in terms of quality of the student, as well as diversity. And we attract this diverse group of students, who also believe that a DePaul education is good because they could get into all the other so-called name schools, so to speak – which will remain unnamed – and get a great education at DePaul, and also find ways to be a better citizen – better serve others. Right, we have all these top-ranked programs – we just got the latest from Animation Career Review which said our animation program – I think its number 18.

Game Design also rated us top 25 so – top 10%, I think it was it Game Design or Animation? A top 10 in the country for graduate programs so – entrepreneurship – all these programs – they can get a great education, and yet meet individuals from diverse backgrounds. I also know that we’ve record – we’ve had record fundraising in the last two and a half years – a part of the Now We Must (campaign) and the year before that. We’ve raised, what, over 200 plus million dollars – or close to 200 million. So we’ve raised more than we have in any time, last year was a record year. And the year before was also a record year for private gifts.

So we’ve done well despite the pandemic or because of the pandemic, because people decided to invest in DePaul and who we are. We’ve benefited from strong leadership and that goes across the board. It’s not just strong leadership at the board level but its strong leadership with our faculty, student government, staff, cabinet, and deans. So all of those have made me optimistic about our future. And we’ve been very conservative fiscally, so that’s obviously helped us moving forward.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Do you have any parting words or thoughts for the DePaul community?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Well, I’d say it’s been an honor and a privilege to have been part of the journey that DePaul’s taken over the past five years. We’ve been blessed to be able to serve – and I say we, Jo and I are immigrants to this country and we came here to seek better opportunities, which is true for our students and our alumni, who have graduated and made a name. And we saw that through higher education, which is who we are as an institution. And Jo and I have been blessed in so many ways and we hope and pray that DePaul and the people who make up our community, continue to remain true to the mission that makes us unique. And with that, I’d like to sign off and say, “Go Blue Demons!”

LINDA BLAKLEY: I could not close our conversation without saying thank you. I’ve witnessed your commitment to diversity up close and personal each week as I joined meetings of a cabinet that is likely among the most diverse in higher ed. Your belief in the transformative power of education was evident in your student-centered approach to leading DePaul. As our first lay leader, you showed us you don’t have to be ordained to be devout. And by your actions, we saw how we could deepen our commitment to the mission.

Whether it was volunteering in a soup kitchen or sleeping outside on the Quad in frigid weather to raise money to fight homelessness, you and Jo walked the talk. The two of you led by example and always with humility and grace. I’m looking forward to hearing about your travels. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Esteban.

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Thank you for having me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m your host Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.