The first time Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M. stepped foot on DePaul’s campus was in 2004 when he was a candidate for president.
The process — much like the recent process to find his replacement — was an anonymous one. Holtschneider walked around campus, weaving through DePaul’s buildings, getting a feel for the place and taking it all in. The anonymity allowed him to fit into the background and observe the students he would soon be chosen to lead.
“The reason I said yes was because DePaul cares about the things I care about,” Holtschneider said. “I joined the Vincentians because I met them when I was in college, and I loved their commitment to people who were poor, people who didn’t have easy opportunities in life, and I eventually joined them and built my whole life around that commitment. DePaul clearly walked the walk on that, it wasn’t just lip service, but you could see that they stretched their budget to help as many students as they could.”
People at DePaul, he said — from the students, to the faculty, to the staff — were fiercely protective of the openness to all faiths, ethnicities or sexual orientations that the university provided despite its roots in the Catholic faith.
For the past 13 years, Fr. H. has served as the university’s 11th president — transitioning from anonymity to finding his legs as president to becoming an integral piece in the fabric of DePaul.
Some of that comes to an end July 1.
After a lengthy search process, Gabriel Esteban, formerly the president of Seton Hall, will fill the role, and the plush Arts & Letters office that comes with it, and begin to set his vision for DePaul’s future into stone. Holtschneider will be chancellor, a position that is largely shaped by the president, but his stepping down signifies the end of an era that brought national and local acclaim and, at times, scorn.
Holtschneider realizes that. Those he’s worked closest with realize it, too.
When he was chosen as the next president, Holtschneider set about remedying some of the early problems DePaul had.
“When he came, we had some financial issues at the university and he helped us attack them quickly and resolve them,” William Bennett, the outgoing chair of the Board of Trustees, said of Holtschneider’s effect on DePaul as well as his “open and candid” relationship with Holtschneider.
“DePaul’s position in the community and in Chicago is really important and he’s really nurtured that across all aspects of the Chicago community,” Bennett said. “He’s been a strong believer and a promoter of the mission.”
Beyond the mission, Holtschneider has also provided support to the Student Government Association in some of their efforts on campus.
“Fr. H has helped make DePaul a 21st Century University,” Ric Popp, the current SGA president, said. “I don’t think DePaul would have the reputation it has right now without Fr. H.”
Part of his reputation on campus is related to his ability — and the ability of those he worked with — to get people to donate to the school. During his time, Holtschneider proved himself an ardent fundraiser — expanding efforts to include alumni from across DePaul’s history, and doing so well that the bar was raised again, and again exceeding the initial $1 million expectation.
The campaign raised around $333 million by the end of it for a new science building, O’Connell Hall, so that professors could teach in a well-ventilated, well-equipped space. The renovation was the first he oversaw as president.
Over the course of 13 years, he would oversee the expansion of DePaul’s campuses and the acquisition of more space for DePaul’s colleges. The goal, though vision and strategic plans, was to make sure that they each had their own space so that students could learn as much as possible to make them competitive in the job market after their time at DePaul.
The growth of DePaul’s campuses, which includes set buildings for the College of Communication and The Theatre School coincides with the growth of the number of programs offered at the university — the number is now at 178.
“Almost all of (these new developments) were the work of faculty and my job as president was to find the resources and help them get there,” Holtschneider said. “Almost all of the 178 came directly from faculty saying ‘if we had a little support we could do this for the students,’ and it was fun. It was fun to help people build other people’s dreams and try to make sure that that happened. I’m most proud of the fact that we really invented DePaul from the inside out in that way.”
Though DePaul has seen success under his leadership, Holtschneider’s decision to step down followed weeks of turmoil. A provocateur’s presence on campus and his cronies attacks on students of color and LGBTQ identifying students brought the rifts between DePaul’s students and organizations further into the light after a year of microaggressions that many say weren’t addressed.
Holtschneider didn’t step down because of the turmoil. During an interview with The DePaulia in the summer, he said that his decision to step down and the calls for his resignation were unrelated.
In the time since his announcement, he and others at the university have set about revising the speaker guidelines through town hall discussions and debates with students, faculty and staff, planning the opening of new centers and securing resources and funds for undocumented students and students who receive Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants.
Being part of an organization that knows what kind of difference it wants to make, he said, brings many people to DePaul and is one of the things he’ll miss about the university.
“We’re not perfect,” Holtschneider said on why professors and administrators come to DePaul and why they advocate for issues. “We fight, we have differences of opinion, we’re wrestling with all of the issues that the world wrestles with, but that piece is rock solid. That’s why people get up in the morning and come here and I will miss being part of that.”
As his time at DePaul winds down, Holtschneider is once again taking it all in. He’ll be moving to a new job in St. Louis where he’ll be working for Catholic Health Care, advocating for health care reform effective July 1.
Though he’ll be moving around 300 miles away, he won’t be far from the DePaul community — his tenure as chancellor also begins that day.
“This is the longest I’ve ever stayed somewhere in my professional life,” Holtschneider said. “The Vincentian order moved me to many jobs in my earlier years and I’ve come to be part of Chicago.
“I can walk the streets and see people I know and I love that. I feel like I’m part of the community, and I love that I know past students who are now working downtown, it’s 13 years of alumni. I’m going to miss being part of Chicago.”