EDITORIAL: As President Esteban is departing, DePaul needs stronger leadership


Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia

President Esteban speaking at 2019’s State of the University address.

The clock is ticking. Time is winding down. In two months, A. Gabriel Esteban will officially step down from his position as DePaul’s president after serving in this role for five years.

With Esteban’s departure fast approaching, DePaul made a promise in March to the university community that it plans to hire his successor by the end of April — according to Judy Greffin, the chair of the presidential search committee.

That date, too, is fast approaching. 

But before DePaul decides who the next university president will be, The DePaulia wanted to reflect on the Esteban years. 

Before running this editorial, our initial plan was to talk to university officials and Faculty Council leadership about how they viewed Esteban’s tenure and turn the discussion into a news story.

Nobody opted to share their feelings.

This week, The DePaulia planned to publish a story evaluating Esteban’s tenure with a broad scope. We wanted to ask the questions, “What did he do well? What could he have done better?” We reached out to 10 members of faculty and staff councils by email to hear their thoughts. 

We didn’t ask faculty to criticize or take shots at Esteban but share their honest assessment of his tenure. To us, it’s telling that none of the faculty we contacted had anything they wanted to say on the record, with one replying, “I do not see much upside in criticizing someone when they are leaving.”

Well, The DePaulia believes there is a point in evaluating a president who presided over this university since 2017 and implemented drastic change during his tenure. 

When Esteban was hired in 2017, he laid out a six-year plan — Grounded in Mission — with specific goals and targets that he wanted DePaul to achieve by 2024. These goals are categorized by mission, diversity, student success, access, excellence, and fiscal strength. 

By our count, DePaul is only on track to achieve six of the 23 goals laid out in Esteban’s Grounded in Mission plan by 2024, according to the most recent report; three of those six pertaining specifically to finances. In some cases — for example, student success — DePaul is below the baseline percentage that it has set in its plan.

​​“From day one of my presidency, my primary focus has been the mission – serving the marginalized and helping students of all backgrounds reach their full potential,” Esteban said in a statement to The DePaulia two weeks ago. “That strong focus allowed us to do great things.”

The first-year student retention rate declined in the first two years below the 86 percent baseline rate that DePaul has set on its website. The four-year graduation rate has also declined from the 60 percent baseline rate to 58 percent in the last three years. 

DePaul also set a final target of 85 percent for students participating in internships, but the university currently sits at 58 percent — 2 percent lower than the baseline. 

In an interview with The DePaulia in 2018, Esteban said one of his goals for the university was to increase enrollment. From 2017-2020, DePaul saw a decrease in undergraduate enrollment, with the university recording just a 1.1 percent increase in 2021.

All of that has transpired while DePaul’s endowment and revenue has grown under Esteban. Recently, DePaul’s endowment reached over $1 billion, according to Esteban. The university is also raising tuition by 2-3 percent for the next academic year.

“The endowment recently hit $1 billion, which represents a more than 100% increase since 2017,” Esteban said in a statement. “Over the last two years, donors committed more than $153 million – an unprecedented record for DePaul, which enables us to support even more students with scholarships.”

It seems like the university — with Esteban’s leadership — has prioritized more the health of its finances than the student experience.    

For starters, DePaul left its counseling services severely understaffed in the beginning of the year when students returned to campus for the first time in 18 months.

DePaul failed to provide remote learning accommodations to disabled students when in-person classes resumed in January and Covid-19 cases were still high during the Omicron surge. 

Throughout the pandemic, DePaul has been inconsistent with its Covid precautions during varying levels of risk to the community. In December, the university made a decision to go virtual classes for the first two weeks of winter quarter, but did not require proof of the booster shot until March — well after the peak of Omicron subsided. 

But when cases were trending downwards and Covid vaccines were more readily available to the public in the spring of 2021, DePaul did not host an in-person graduation ceremony, while nearby universities pivoted away from the virtual setting for commencement. 

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, it was understandable that graduation was held virtually. 

In 2021, DePaul and Esteban should have made more of an effort to hold an in-person graduation ceremony and invite back the 2020 graduates — which schools like the University of Illinois were able to do. 

Faculty and staff both expressed burnout and fading morale during Esteban’s last State of the University address in the fall, which coincided with Esteban implementing a hiring freeze for tenure-track faculty in 2020.

Esteban did keep one promise: He told The DePaulia in 2018 that big changes won’t happen overnight to the men’s basketball program. Esteban — unfortunately — was right.

It took former athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto retiring in the summer of 2020 to enable the necessary changes in the athletic department and within the men’s team — in particular, the firing of the head coach. As Esteban concludes his fifth year at DePaul, the men’s basketball team has never finished above 10th in the Big East. 

With a new athletics director in place — DeWayne Peevy — the athletic department has been transparent with its fans and the media. Peevy has done a good job of engaging with fans on social media — even when it is not positive around the men’s basketball team — which is a far contrast from Esteban’s administration. 

DePaul also faced a wave of racial discrimination lawsuits in 2020 and 2021 from former and current faculty members. The university has made it a theme of not commenting on pending lawsuits, but that has also resulted in less transparency around other university issues.

Failing to comment has been the theme of the Esteban administration. When faced with issues that impact students and faculty, Esteban has deferred to his spokespeople to respond to pressing questions.

Over the last year, it has become even harder for The DePaulia to receive a response — or even an interview — from Esteban directly. Furthermore, DePaul has kept its presidential search mostly under wraps, besides several statements from Greffin over the course of the year. 

In January, The DePaulia wanted to talk to Esteban about DePaul’s Covid-19 response, but a spokesperson said he was unavailable until the end of March.

Students have also felt the lack of Esteban’s presence on campus this year.

In a DePaulia story earlier this year, one student said that the only time she had seen Esteban was in a pre-recorded video during her freshman orientation. Other students interviewed for the story echoed this notion as well.

For a university that describes itself as a “tuition-dependent institution,” the President has a duty to be more visible to the community and do a better job of engaging in student life.  

For complete transparency, the university has granted The DePaulia a 30-minute, in-person interview with Esteban on May 3. But that comes after multiple attempts to interview Esteban were declined, and one 30-minute interview is not enough to address all of these underlying concerns felt by the DePaul community.

In the time since 2020, the DePaul community needed strong leadership more than ever. Instead, faculty, staff and students felt overworked, undervalued and alone. They couldn’t rely on executive leadership to provide them with the support they needed and university morale has suffered as a result. 

With a new president comes the hope that the university will finally feel that sense of community again. Hopefully they won’t let us down like Esteban has.