Forward thinker: President Esteban talks enrollment, endowment and hope for athletics

April 9, 2018

For the first time in its 119-year history, DePaul University has a president who is not a Vincentian priest. President A. Gabriel Esteban, 55, brings a fresh vision to the university after the resignation of Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M. last fall.

Esteban represents a shifting focus for the university, transitioning from a traditionally faith-based ethos in the wake of concerns about the university’s long-term viability and competitiveness.

The DePaulia’s Editorial Board sat down with Esteban in his Loop offices on Wednesday, March 30 to talk about his plans for the future of the university.

Esteban is a quiet, soft-spoken man. He moves slowly but deliberately and chooses his words carefully.

Being the first lay president has presented some unique challenges, but overall, he says he’s adjusting well. Of the 9 Catholic universities in Illinois, none of them are led by members of the clergy.

In the early days of his time at DePaul, he says he’s caught people starting to address him as “Father.”

“To some degree, there’s a bigger campus-wide transition that has to occur,” he said. “They’re used to seeing a priest, a Vincentian.”

He lives near the Lincoln Park campus with his wife, Josephine, where he has relocated from New Jersey. He said he and his wife used to vacation in Chicago, so the transition has been easy.

In the summer, he and Josephine stroll the Sheffield Neighbors neighborhood in the evenings.

President Esteban enjoys his office but says it is one of the only buildings in DePaul’s loop campus that the university doesn’t own.
(Josh Leff | The DePaulia)

President Esteban enjoys his office but says it is one of the only buildings in DePaul’s loop campus that the university doesn’t own.

“But not as late as some of you (students). By 9 o’clock it’s bedtime for me,” he said.

With a recent uptick in crime in the Lincoln Park area, specifically armed robberies and carjackings, he says the university is looking at trying to find new ways to make students safer. He said there is a possibility that they will look at increasing Public Safety foot patrols, or possibly increasing the numbers of cameras on campus. “The only thing about cameras: they are only there after the fact.”

Esteban assumed power in September 2017, at a time when DePaul is at an existential crossroads. Enrollment has been declining while tuition costs continue to rise. But he says he is determined to correct the path that the university is currently set on.

Esteban, formerly the president of Big East competitor Seton Hall University for six years (he was also the first lay president there in the 25 years preceding him), he helped the university overcome a lot of problems not unlike the ones that DePaul is currently facing. At Seton Hall, he helped the men’s basketball team become March Madness regulars, as well as growing enrollment and endowment numbers.

Growing up in the Philippines, he developed an affinity for comic books and superheroes. Comic books were pricey there, so Esteban and his friends used to have to hang out near U.S. air bases so they could try and trade with the kids who lived there.

In keeping with his roots as a fan of pop culture, his desk in Lincoln Park houses a collection of action figures Alongside his obligatory Dibs bobblehead, he has Superman, Flash, Thor, and one of his all-time favorites, Captain America.

But given the opportunity, he said he wouldn’t want a superpower for himself. Maybe, he said, he would want something like “super-wisdom.”

“That way I wouldn’t make any mistakes.”

Esteban grew up under the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. After a terrorist bombing that killed 9 and injured almost 100 people at a political rally for the Philippines Liberal Party, Marcos tamped down. Historians agree that the bombing was perpetrated by Marcos as a pretext for him to declare martial law, which he did in 1972.

“As a college student, I grew up under martial law, under a dictatorship where there was no such thing as free speech,” Esteban said. “(You could) disappear because you protested.”

Students at DePaul have had a starkly different college experience. The Milo Yiannopoulos incident in 2016 saw student protestors effectively shut down the unpopular speaker with no backlash. Earlier this year, students opposed to Charles Murray’s speaking invitation from the DePaul College Republicans protested in the rain outside Courtelyou Commons with police standing nearby.

Esteban still says that “universities are supposed to be a place where we listen to things which may be contrary to our beliefs,” but says there has to be a line drawn somewhere. For him, that line only exists when the safety of students cannot be guaranteed.

“The number one thing to me is (…), ‘Is the safety of the community at risk?’ If at any time I get recommendations from Public Safety or CPD saying they can’t guarantee the safety, then (we won’t allow the speaker to speak),” Esteban said.

After Yiannopoulos, DePaul formed a speaker review committee that approves or denies student groups’ funding for guest speakers. Esteban promised not to interfere in the process.  “If my role is to circumvent the process, then I might as well make all the decisions,” he said.

Part of President Esteban’s duties involve staying connected with alumni. He often writes personal letters of congratulations to graduates.

Part of President Esteban’s duties involve staying connected with alumni. He often writes personal letters of congratulations to graduates.
(Josh Leff | The DePaulia)

As the president of Seton Hall, he led the effort to reintroduce a medical school to the university. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that healthcare related employment will rise 26 percent by 2022, and DePaul is missing out on those students who are going elsewhere for their medical degrees.

“It’s difficult to see a future of DePaul that did not include an expanded presence in the health and medical science field,” Esteban said. “What shape, form or format that takes, that’s to be decided.”

DePaul would have some tough competition from the competitive and popular medical programs at Northwestern and University of Chicago, which rank 20 and 18 nationally, according to U.S. News & World Report.

After DePaul spent $82.5 million on the new Wintrust Arena, there was hope that a brand-new stadium would attract alumni, more students and better basketball prospects.

But that isn’t what happened during Wintrust’s inaugural year.

Attendance was underwhelming and disappointing. The men’s basketball program is watching players walk out the door.

Still, Esteban remains optimistic. He insists that big changes to the men’s program won’t happen overnight, but says he sees brighter prospects in the near future.

Seton Hall finished construction on a new arena of their own shortly after Esteban’s arrival too. Six years after it opened, they made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years.

Esteban is hoping that it won’t take six years for Wintrust to start attracting solid basketball prospects.

In the wake of numerous controversies within the Athletic Department, he praised the good work of DePaul’s student athletes, saying that they are “student athletes,” and not “athlete students.”

“Last year our student athletes had a 3.45 cumulative GPA. Can you think of any other group of students who have that GPA?,” he said. “I understand the desire for our men’s basketball program to be good. But it’s not just about men’s basketball. The more we push men’s basketball, the more we also diminish the success of all the other sports.”

Esteban has set some ambitious goals for the university. Growing DePaul’s endowment to $1 billion by 2024, expanding university programs, increasing enrollment and creating a more attractive athletics program are among them. But seeing what Esteban did at Seton Hall, the DePaul community is hoping he will be the shepherd that DePaul needs to navigate the coming years.

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  • G

    GSHApr 29, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Wonder how many Seton Hall donors were Pirates men’s basketball fans. I’d imagine a strong majority. Even the ones who might not have been, undoubtedly became fans after having made that investment in the future of the university. And chances are, the only team that they’ll follow and hear talked about is Men’s BB, as with every other team in tbe Big East. They’ll want to attend the Big East tournament at MSG annually, etc. DePaul has NO FANS at MSG for the tournament. Literally something like <20, I’ve seen it. The area bars are packed with alum from tbe other schools, meeting up, networking and helping the Big East and NYC economy. I remember being the lone DePaul fan in a nearby watering hole, looking enviably at all these fans from the other schools enjoying the commeradrie. This was at the beginning of Jean Lenti-Ponsetto’s tenure as AD and it’s only gotten WORSE in all these years. There is absolutely no excuse for this. None.

  • S

    Stephanie TApr 9, 2018 at 8:50 pm

    I hope Dr. E stops listening to poisonous Jeff Bethke. We should never have coronated this poster boy for the Peter principle.

  • G

    GSHApr 9, 2018 at 6:57 pm

    Hate everything about what Esteban says except for the medical school/health care vision.

    Did DePaul use the same “Executive Search Firm” that recommended Dave Leitao? Sure seems like it.

  • C

    ChangeatdpuApr 9, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    “Gullible Gabe” Esteban just bowing down to “Queen Jean” Lenti Ponsetto. What planet is this guy living on? I’m done donating money to the University, donating time to the Alumni Sharing Knowldege (ASK) program and am not renewing my tickets. What a shame. #EmptyWintrust #FireJLP

  • D

    DON E DYBALAApr 9, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    I had season tickets last year for the games at Wintrust Arena. I thought the men basketball team would do well and play competitive basketball. An 11-20 record is not compeitive. Until the university shows a commitment to the men basketball program and JLP fixes the program I will no longer buy tickets or donate money. 14 years since our last NCAA appearance and 11 years since we have been competitive is too long. Some players our looking to transfer and we are not able to replace/bring in the appropriate players to be competitive. JLP and Dr. Esteban need to do what is appropriate to straighten out the men basketball program.

  • V

    Victor Class of 2006Apr 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    I have been a season ticket holder since I graduated and donated money every year. This has been exhausting and I cannot do it anymore until changes are made. Unfortunately, this school’s leadership is lost and arrogant and doesn’t warrant any more of my time.

  • M

    Michael Class '13Apr 9, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    I’m not renewing my alumni tickets until a change is made. I enjoyed my time at DePaul and made some great friends, however once I walked off the stage at graduation DePaul has been an embarrassment. I’ll gladly spend my money to watch a Loyola or Northwestern game instead of supporting this administration next year. Its quite impressive how DePaul has been able to alienate every single alum that I have met or know. Good luck preaching patience year after year!

  • C

    Concerned Alumni; Class of 1995Apr 9, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    This school is lost. Sexual assaults, clueless administrators, pathetic excuses, NCAA investigations, empty arena . . .

    Pathetic. Grow up and realize you’ve lost your Alumni.

  • S

    Stu GottsApr 9, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    First of all I applauded Dr. Esteban in the direction he is looking to take the University to. However what is troubling is his statement “the desire for men’s basketball to be good” What do you mean good? It’s been far too long the men’s basketball program wasn’t merely close to being considered good in the state of college basketball. What is it going to take for the administration to change this culture at DePaul of “let’s just be average” to let’s strive to be great in all areas of education, community services and yes, athletics and yes even in men’s basketball. Where has the pride in DePaul men’s basketball have gone? I am hard pressed to think comments as to the culture of men’s basketball are to be just good, is going to attack the necessary talent to transform this program. Talent builds a program, not a shiny new arena as to what we just witnessed this past season as well as post season with the number of departures.

    This isn’t the culture that attracted me to attend this university. He also mentioned “big prospects coming in the men’s program” – where? Is this just another form of rhetoric spin being passed down from administration to the student & alumina base? It’s about time for the administration to understand what candor is. Candor builds trust and trust is the foundation of a meaningful relationship with its student and alumni “base”. Attempts by the administration to control and limit the extent of information passed down to their base in the hope of shaping their opinions and influencing their actions is just wrong! It’s just a manipulative spin and betrays the commitment to the purpose of higher education for which this institution was founded on. If we can’t trust our base to take a set of facts, analyze them and make sound judgements, we have a far bigger problem than trying to rely on our base to reach our endowment goals.
    Dr. Esteban, let me introduce you the Flutie effect, Boston College’s 6 second “Hail-Mary” marketing campaign in 1984. In a two year period, applications to Boston College grew by nearly 30% and experts report when college programs grow from mediocre to great, applications increase by 18%. Furthermore, marketing experts and university administrations have acknowledged the powerful effect of transforming a successful collegiate athletic program into a hot ticket as noted with Georgetown University applications multiplied by 45% between 1983 and 1986 following a surge of basketball success. Northwestern University applications advanced 21% after winning the Big Ten Championship in football.

    Although an increase in applications is a good starting point for revenue generation, but when will DePaul begin to leverage their men’s basketball program and prosper from ticket and merchandise sales, alumni donations and TV contracts which often accompany successful athletic programs, I,e, capitalize on the effects of winning on the court to revenues instead of relying on their based for donations.

  • D

    DON E DYBALAApr 9, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    I would like to know from Dr. Esteban how pushing men basketball diminishes the other sports ? The opposite is true in my opinion, if the men basketball team is successful that will increase enrollment and help the other sports be able to recruit better athletes. Men basketball is the flagship sport of the university and having success in men basketball will attract more students.

    • G

      GSHApr 9, 2018 at 7:03 pm


  • S

    SteveApr 9, 2018 at 11:39 am

    It’s ironic that the article goes into detail with dictatorship ruling his past life. Obviously, he doesn’t understand free speech and its effect on organizations with his view of ignoring his constituents (alumni and students).

    He screams to be just another president just collecting a paycheck while trying to escape through the cracks. We’ve seen this time and time again. No change.

    Also, the $1B endowment is laughable. The school can get there is just investment returns alone with no real donor-ship.

    DePaul deserves better.

    • G

      GSHApr 9, 2018 at 6:54 pm

      Thought the same thing about dictatorship and this guy and JLP. Free speech my ass. I actually think that Esteban SHOULD man up and be involved with speaker review committee. Show some balls, principles and……wisdom. When did DePaul become less tolerant than Berkeley? Half of this started because DPU stood down in the face of controversy, chosing the side of least resistance—which you can tell this guy is all about. Who better to be a First Amendment supporter than a guy who lived under Marcos?

      But not this puss. When he was a boy he got lost in Marvel comics, not John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight…or Ray Meyer.

      We wish you had Super Power wisdom too, Dr. E. We need it real bad.

  • M

    Michael WedevenApr 9, 2018 at 11:27 am

    “I understand the desire for our men’s basketball program to be good. But it’s not just about men’s basketball. The more we push men’s basketball, the more we also diminish the success of all the other sports.” This speaks volumes. I AM DONE WITH THIS UNIVERSITY!!!! Never will I give another freakin dime…hell….penny to this clueless bastion of idiocy. YOU have made it damn clear that YOU do not care about men’s basketball….so yeah, I get it now….NEITHER DO I!!!! Thank you Mr. go along to get along President….you have made it much easier to just RIP THE BAND AID OFF and NOT deal with this crap any longer. Thanks for the memories DPU……don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out of my life!!!

  • J

    JosephApr 9, 2018 at 11:09 am

    I have been a Depaul basketball fan since I was five years old. Became somewhat of a family tradition and because of that I always wanted to go to Depaul for school. It was probably the reason I ultimately chose to attend. My friends and I all got season tickets when we graduated, and to us, there is nothing better than watching our team and having a few beers and some laughs. However, we are all considering dropping our season tickets regardless of our tradition of going to every game. It is that worth to pay five times the amount that we spent at the Allstate arena to support the program that have shown they do that care about winning. The excuse that we look to recruit players who will stay for four years and be good students, and fielding a competitive team this way is difficult. If that is what the athletic department cares about, that’s great, but the idea that you can’t do both of those things is an outright lie. All you have to do is look at Villanova to see that you can keep players around for four years, and have them get a degree and not only have a competitive basketball team, but a team that has dominated the Big East conference over the last five years. If we don’t care about winning we might as well be a Division II basketball team.. If nothing changes I will be watching the games from home as well.

  • R

    RobertApr 9, 2018 at 11:09 am

    “Seton Hall finished construction on a new arena of their own shortly after Esteban’s arrival too. Six years after it opened, they made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years.” this a complete and utter falsehood. The Prudential Center was built by the city of Newark and state of New Jersey to keep the NHL Devils from leaving the area. The thought was originally to keep the NBA NETS as well but when they were purchased by a new owner he had different plans to move the team to Brooklyn and build the Barclays Center. Seton Hall is a tenant but did not build the arena and after much though process decided to become a tenant. Know the fact it is not comparable to DePaul and Wintrust Arena where DePaul paid and invested $80 million into the facility. Seton Hall did not invest they are a tenant, period

  • M

    MikeApr 9, 2018 at 9:51 am

    How does the success of men’s basketball diminish the other programs? Wouldn’t that bring in more revenue to the university which directly and positively impacts other programs? Wouldn’t enhancing the reputation for the one sport that brings in revenue help recruiting for other programs?

    Wintrust is going to be a ghost town this year. Its just amazing how they continue to push loyal fans further away.

    We dropped our season tickets after hearing Esteban’s quotes and I know several others who have as well.

    I will watch the games from my couch.

    • G

      GSHApr 9, 2018 at 6:41 pm

      Agree with every word of this response. Preposterous. Imagine a recruit who’s seen Midnight Madness or a sold out stadium from a competitor then going to Wintrust?! There’s no there there, man.