This article can be found in the Spring 2020 edition of the Alumni Magazine.
May 15, 2020
Fewer than 1,000 students were enrolled at Saint Francis College when Sister M. Elise Kriss took over as president. She aimed to change that. To say she succeeded is a vast understatement.
Enrollment at the University of Saint Francis exceeded 2,200 students in the fall of 2019, reflective of nearly three decades plus of growth under Sister Elise’s leadership. She led a period of unprecedented growth in enrollment, facilities, programs, athletics and reach of the university, which is now worldwide via virtual classrooms.
The changes directed by Sister Elise—including a transition from college to university—can be seen vividly in three areas: campus growth, academic impact and athletics.
As she prepares to retire on June 30, 2020, her leadership is evident in all three areas.
1 – A BOOMING CAMPUS
When Leanne Mensing was a student at Saint Francis College, classes were held in the Bass Mansion, now known as Brookside. The beautiful, sprawling campus of 2020 was a dream, if that. “I started here in 1956 and we had three buildings,” Mensing said. “Much has happened since, but the greatest part happened when Sister Elise came. She saw the need and she acted on it. I don’t know if this is a word, but she’s a ‘happener.’ She sees something and goes after it.”
After 10 years on campus, serving as undergraduate dean, academic vice president and interim vice president of administration, Sister Elise became president in 1993. “We needed that super change agent, and they sent us Sister Elise,” Mensing said.
By 1998, Sister Elise hit her stride with three moves that would propel the university forward: changing the name from Saint Francis College to the University of Saint Francis, acquiring the Lutheran College of Health Professions (with 600 additional students) and starting a football program. Those moves served as catalysts for everything that followed. The results are clear in black-and-white: Endowment increased from $2.2 million in 1993 to $34 million in 2018, property and equipment increased from $10.4 million in 1993 to $105.4 million in 2018 and net assets increased from $6.8 million in 1993 to $97.9 million in 2018.
Numbers are impressive, but visuals also tell the story. A tour of the campus reveals incredible growth under Sister Elise’s leadership.
Sister Elise also spearheaded the restoration and beautification of Brookside, which remains a focal point of the campus.
“If we grew programs, we had to have new or renovated facilities,” Sister Elise said.
With expansion of land and buildings, and the doubling of student enrollment, Sister Elise directed USF in establishing a visible presence in Fort Wayne that went far beyond its origins.
The recent expansion and renovation of Achatz Hall of Science and John and Toni Murray Research Center captures Sister Elise’s vision for making sure students have access to the best possible university experience. Achatz is equipped with the latest technology and world-class laboratories, and allows students to have hands-on experience with the tools and instruments they
will be using in their work careers. Fort Wayne Metals runs a working lab inside Achatz.
“Since we’re in the medical industry, it really draws us to Saint Francis,” said Scott Glaze, Chairman & CEO of Fort Wayne Metals. “We have tried to find ways to work with the university on lab services and things like that. With the new labs being built, we saw that as a great opportunity to partner with the university. It helps our people and allows us to interact with students we’ll hire in the future who can work in our testing labs.”
As she always emphasizes the Catholic and Franciscan traditions of the university, Sister Elise was pleased to see one of the final physical transformations on campus in the free-standing St. Francis Chapel. “It’s a visual symbol of how faith and reason come together,” Sister Elise said.
If there’s one word to encapsulate Sister Elise’s impact on campus, it’s growth.
“It’s not just the infrastructure and the buildings, but also the programming,” said Board of Trustees member Kathy Callen.
“Sister’s legacy can be seen very visually on campus through its expansion. Everything from the library, its first wings under Sister’s presidency, to most recently the Chapel, are reflective of who we are and what we stand for.”
Bill Niezer, Chair of the USF Board of Trustees
2 – AN ACADEMIC EXPLOSION
In the pivotal year of 1998, Sister Elise led the way to USF acquiring Lutheran College of Health Professions, a prescient decision anticipating the growing demand for nursing and other health-related fields of study.
Sister Elise’s wisdom in anticipating academic needs proved to be another essential accelerant of the university’s growth.
“One of Sister Elise’s biggest legacies will be her contribution to health science and nursing,” said Dr. Dave Johnson, professor of nursing. “Sister Elise was the champion for nursing. We had the first Bachelor of Science in Nursing, the first Master of Science in Nursing. I’m sure others will see her greatest legacy in leadership and all sorts of things. From my perspective, nursing and health sciences will be her greatest legacy.”
Sister Elise spent time in the first few years of her presidency assembling the right team—filled with innovative leaders—and looking for ways to grow the university. She believed the health sciences were going to be a boom industry and she was right.
“We had our eye on growing the health sciences and we had been watching Lutheran College of Health Professions, which grew out of the school of nursing,” Sister Elise said. “We thought that was a developing program that would be good to have here. As it happened, we were providentially able to bring that program to the University of Saint Francis.”
The addition of 600 health sciences students paved the way for the growth of the program, including the construction of the Doermer Family Center for Health Science Education. Most importantly, it established USF as a top university for quality health sciences education.
As part of the growth of the program, Sister Elise and other USF leaders worked to establish strong connections with the largest healthcare institutions in Fort Wayne, Parkview Health and Lutheran Health.
“Our Chief Nursing Officer, Judy Boerger, will tell you the people we get from Saint Francis, they’re in it for more than just the job,” said Mike Packnett, President & CEO of Parkview Health. “They bring so much more to the health system. Healthcare is a calling for them. We certainly have appreciated the partnership we’ve had with Sister and especially the school of nursing for more than 15 years.”
The continued demand for nurses and healthcare professionals has proved Sister Elise’s instincts correct in emphasizing the programs at USF.
“We’re in a community with great healthcare opportunities, with two big systems,” she said. “If we had a couple hundred more nurses, they would be hired. That’s what’s great about those health sciences programs. There’s no question about the quality of those graduating.”
“One of Sister Elise’s biggest legacies will be her contribution to health science and nursing. Sister Elise was the champion for nursing. We had the first Bachelor of Science in Nursing, the first Master of Science in Nursing.”
Dr. Dave Johnson, Professor of Nursing
Growth in the health sciences was a leading factor in the academic growth under Sister Elise, but it was hardly alone. In addition to 11 degrees in health sciences, USF offers 10 degrees in creative arts, 10 degrees in business, nine degrees in behavioral and social sciences, and highly sought-after degrees in biology, pre-professional sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, computer sciences, education, English, kinesiology, nutrition, Theology and more.
“The art program had grown and developed, and we built the Mimi and Ian Rolland Center around the same time as Doermer,” Sister Elise said. “Liberal arts and sciences grew, which had the humanities, science, philosophy and theology, and the school of business grew into our facilities downtown.”
The decision to purchase downtown facilities for the USF Business Center and the Music Technology Center was another move anticipating areas of growth.
As downtown Fort Wayne blossomed over the past decade, Sister Elise made sure USF was part of the mix. The result is a place in the heart of the business world, with great access and connections for internships and other partnerships within the business community. Growing fields, such as risk management and insurance, and solid traditional fields, such as accounting, are in place to meet student needs.
“She was always asking us what we wanted: ‘What are you looking for in the students you hire? What do you want in the quality of the candidates you’re going to hire?’” said Jim Marcuccilli, Chairman & CEO of STAR Bank. “Most universities, it’s the reverse: ‘What can you do for us?’ She’s always taken the approach of ‘What do you expect out of our students?’”
USF Downtown also features the Music Technology Center, where students can pursue a variety of career paths.
“What I love about Sister Elise is she’s such a forward-thinking person and has such vision,” said Chuck Surack, Founder and CEO of Sweetwater. “We got together many, many years ago and she had the idea to take the best of Saint Francis and the best of Sweetwater and start a new program together, the META program. I would never have had the vision she had to take over the old Scottish Rite building downtown and turn it into an amazing school. I love she had the forethought to be so helpful for students in the future, and now it’s one of the greatest programs in the whole United States.”
“I was on the board when she came to us with the crazy idea of having a football team. I knew how expensive a football team would be. She said it would help Saint Francis grow and be a marketing tool for the university. I did not think it was the right move and voted against it. Fortunately, I was in the minority. It showed Sister had the ability to see into the future and see this was a sport that was very popular in Fort Wayne. I don’t like to admit failure very often, but that was one time I was wrong.”
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry (BA’76, MS ’81)
3 – A SPORTS VICTORY
Along with the advances in facilities and academics, Sister Elise took what appeared to be a big risk—starting a football program—and enhanced the athletic landscape at USF.
The idea of football took a while for Sister Elise to feel comfortable pursuing. After all, it would be an enormous investment for a stadium, equipment, coaching staff and more. Yet it would also prove unique in Fort Wayne, as USF became the only local college or university with a football program. She sought input and reaction from the board of trustees, faculty and others. It wasn’t unanimous.
“I was on the board when she came to us with the crazy idea of having a football team,” Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said. “I knew how expensive a football team would be. She said it would help Saint Francis grow and be a marketing tool for the university. I did not think it was the right move and voted against it. Fortunately, I was in the minority. It showed Sister had the ability to see into the future and see this was a sport that was very popular in Fort Wayne. I don’t like to admit failure very often, but that was one time I was wrong.”
Sister Elise and USF brought in Kevin Donley to start the program and the rest is history. The Cougars have had only one losing season (the first) and have been to the NAIA national championship game five times, winning the title in 2016 and 2017. Donley ranks seventh on the all-time win list for college coaches at any level and the most of any active coach.
“With the football program, she was able to build a bridge in Fort Wayne to the sports-minded community,” Donley said. “Indiana’s a basketball state but Fort Wayne is a football town. Alumni and friends connected with the university and became a big part of the family. She had the wisdom to see it wasn’t only about male enrollment but in establishing relationships with people who might not have been interested in being part of it before that.”
Sister Elise’s enthusiasm for football is evident as she attends the games and encourages the players. She even enjoyed having a bobblehead doll created in her likeness.
“We’ve been pretty competitive from Year 2 on and she’s had a lot to do with that,” Donley said. “She always felt this was hers and did it under a lot of scrutiny and concern when it started. We wanted to start a program of character, not a group of characters. We wanted to have a program that represented the university in a first-class manner and overall we’ve been able to do that.”
Football has not been the only sport with success in raising the profile of the university. Men’s basketball won a national championship title in 2010 and women’s basketball won a national championship in 2014. Other athletic teams and individuals have excelled, too.
“The community rallies around them,” Sister Elise said. “Athletics have been a good addition and good for the students. You see how hard they work to accomplish what they accomplish. A lot of work goes into it.”
Most work accomplished on the USF campus can trace some roots to the seeds of work, planning and innovation set by its leader of the last 27 years.
“Some colleges have met their demise because they haven’t stayed current,” Mayor Henry said. “Sister Elise has the quality to see what is going to happen in the future and adjust accordingly. That’s one of the reasons she’s been here 27 years. She has the ability to lead the university in ways of continued success.”