Kiersten Riedford

President-elect Robert Manuel speaks to student media during a press conference in May.

‘The only thing that is stopping us is a failure of the imagination’: Robert Manuel looks to bring a fresh vision to DePaul

May 11, 2022

Robert Manuel was comfortable at the University of Indianapolis. He already spent a decade serving as its president and never applied for another job during his time at the university. 

But, when DePaul announced that President A. Gabriel Esteban would be stepping down after the conclusion of the 2021-22 academic year, Manuel became interested with what DePaul could offer as an institution and what he could bring to the table. 

Manuel eventually was nominated for the job by a friend who works at Georgetown. 

“I feel like I’m at my best at institutions that have faith based connections,” Manuel said in an interview with DePaul student media on Tuesday. “When you are at good institutions –like the University of Indianapolis, and you are doing well in those institutions — you are not applying for lots of jobs.”

Manuel ended up applying for DePaul’s presidency vacancy, went through the entire search process and was officially announced as the university’s 13th president Tuesday morning.

“There is unlimited possibility in what could happen here,” Manuel said. “When I went through the kind of search process and I looked at everything, the only thing that is stopping us is a failure of the imagination. 

The Board of Trustees “unanimously” voted to approve Manuel as DePaul’s next president on April 21, according to a press release. 

Esteban will continue to serve in his position as president until July 31, with Manuel officially taking over a day later. 

“I looked at it and said, ‘this is the place that could redefine quality coming out of this moment,’” Manuel said. “I started meeting with faculty, staff, students and the board and I thought there’s really no better place in the country to begin to redefine the future of higher education.”

At the University of Indianapolis, Manuel was known for engaging with the student body and was commonly referred to as “President Rob.” As he now starts to transition to DePaul, he said he wants to get to know the campus and talk to different governing bodies on what their vision is for the university.

President-elect Robert Manuel meets people from DePaul during a reception Tuesday afternoon. (Kiersten Riedford)

“It’s kind of presumptuous for me to come to an institution that I don’t know the culture of, I don’t know the aspirations of the faculty and staff and say, ‘here’s what the president wants to accomplish,’” he said. 

During his time at the University of Indianapolis, Manuel helped usher in three new residential halls, developed the 150,000-square-foot University Health Pavilion, and redeveloped a local industrial building into the new home of the R.B. Annis School of Engineering. 

He also implemented a five-year plan that resulted in a boost in enrollment and increases in fundraising and the engagement of alumni.

“All the successes I’ve had at [New York University], Georgetown, University of Indianapolis have come from conversations with the owners of the mission, the owners of the curriculum, the owners of the institution, and then my job is to find out how to get rid of the obstacles, or raise money for the aspirations they have,” Manuel said. 

Manuel, 54, and his wife, Wilmara, have three daughters. Prior to becoming president of the University of Indianapolis in 2012, Manuel spent six years as associate provost and dean at Georgetown. 

“Throughout his distinguished career, President-elect Manuel has shown a deep respect for the power of education and the transformational opportunities it creates for students,” said Judy Greffin, chair of the Presidential Search Committee and vice chair for the Board of Trustees.

Manuel said that some of his goals in the early parts of his presidency is to meet with students, faculty and staff to learn more about DePaul and what he can do to remove any obstacles that are hindering the growth of the university.

“If a president doesn’t engage with those groups in meaningful ways — meaning more than showing up and offering a speech and then leaving, or really ask asking the questions about what the hopes and dreams are of those groups — then they can’t, I can’t engage in the development of of those aspirations into plans,” he said. 

DePaul has had issues with enrollment over the course of Esteban’s tenure, with the university only recording an increase in undergraduate enrollment this past academic year. DePaul is also raising tuition by 2-3 percent for the upcoming school year.

Manuel pointed to his history of being able to fundraise money as an area of strength he can bring to DePaul and help provide more scholarship money for students. 

“The fact that we serve a lot of first-generation students, that we have a diverse student population, that we are about having access to a world class education seems to be and should be the first thing in our minds,” Manuel said. 

Engaging with the community is important for Manuel, he said on Tuesday. At the University of Indianapolis, Manuel said he attended any sporting, theater, lecture, event that he could on campus. 

In addition, Manuel said he held four major town hall meetings every semester where anybody was invited to come and ask him questions. 

“The faculty are eager to partner with the president-elect in advancing DePaul’s reputation as a premier institution of higher education in providing students with a world-class educational experience,” said Sonia Soltero, president of DePaul’s Faculty Council, professor and chair of the Department of Leadership, Language and Curriculum in the College of Education.

Manuel will be making a step up from UIndy to DePaul in terms of the size of the student body. At his previous university, it was a private school with about 5,600 students. DePaul, however, has over 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

He is also making a step up to a university that is in the Big East  — one of the largest basketball conferences in the country — and is home to a men’s basketball program that, albeit one that is currently struggling, had major national success a couple of decades ago. 

“I need to talk to [athletic director] DeWayne [Peevy] and see what his vision is for that program,” Manuel said. “I am also a very big college athletic fan. I went to Syracuse as a master’s, I worked at Georgetown. I’m a Big East fan. And now I have a new favorite set of teams.”

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