By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Following a brief formal tour of St. Ambrose University a week ago, Amy Novak, its next president, returned to campus for a self-guided tour to get a sense of the community.
Her effort to “walk the neighborhood” comes from a conviction that “universities need to coexist in, with, and for their communities,” Novak said with passion during a Feb. 8 news conference announcing her appointment. “Universities need to be an active leader, collaborative partner, and an incubator for economic growth, for their community and beyond. Leading and serving at a place that values its role in, with and for, a community, matters.” She described the stories of people she met on her walk as “evidence of a university invested in its community.”
She speaks from experience, as president for the past eight years of Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) in her home state of South Dakota where she had an “extraordinary and far-reaching impact,” said DWU’s board chair, Doug Powers.
The almost-50-year-old wife and mother of eight children will assume her role as the 14th president of St. Ambrose University in August. She succeeds Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, who describes Novak as an experienced leader well prepared to build on St. Ambrose’s 139-year history of empowering students and enriching their lives. “She brings an innovative mind, a compassionate heart, and an innate understanding of this university’s character, capacity, and potential.”
Bishop Thomas Zinkula, chair of the St. Ambrose University Board of Trustees, told The Catholic Messenger that Novak’s energy is contagious. “Innovative, articulate, energetic and compassionate, Amy has the requisite personal gifts and professional experience to shape the future of the university in a substantial manner.”
Furthermore, “She has a passion for supporting students and actively engaging with the community, including business leaders. Her respect for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teachings will be a tremendous asset,” the bishop said. “Amy will be an outstanding leader and she and her family will be a wonderful addition to the Quad-Cities community.”
Novak expressed excitement and gratitude about her new post. St. Ambrose University’s search committee chose her following a nationwide search co-chaired by university alumni John Anderson ’87 and Renee Citera ’81.
Among her accomplishments: DWU has experienced record enrollment growth, surpassed all university fundraising efforts, made significant updates to campus infrastructure, formed regional business partnerships, bolstered spiritual engagement on campus and launched innovative academic programs and initiatives.
Credo, a comprehensive higher education consulting firm and publisher of “Pivot: A Vision for the New University” honored Novak with its Courageous Leadership Award in 2019 for her “progressive leadership and innovative steps toward partnerships, educational outreach and overall growth.” DWU, along with a handful of other U.S. colleges and universities, were profiled in “Pivot,” published in 2019. During the news conference at St. Ambrose University, Novak said that collaboration is her “modus operandi.”
Her commitment to collaboration includes her family. Novak thanked her husband, Ken, who accompanied her at the news conference, “for his abiding and unconditional support.” She also thanked their “eight inspiring children whose lives motivate my personal calling to build the next generation of leaders equipped to address the complexities of our world, rooted in the values of mercy, justice and love.”
She said her 14-year-old son asked her for talking points to share at school after she and her husband announced to their children that the family would be moving because she had accepted the appointment to lead St. Ambrose University.
Six of her eight children are still in school (middle school through college), which has taught her to appreciate that students are learning differently. Two of her children are Black, adopted from South Africa. “I am deeply compelled to build communities that bind diverse individuals and groups together in a sustaining community of faith, service and commitment to the common good,” she said. Words rooted in Catholic social teaching.
Learning, in a rapidly changing world requires moving “from a focus on the philosophy of teaching, to a learner-centric approach, a philosophy of learning that acknowledges how learning happens best. This might invite us to consider how learning happens, when learning happens, and where learning happens.”
She embraces the idea of learning as a lifetime experience. “Like a subscription service, we need to consider how the education of Ambrose may be accessed across a worker’s lifespan, offering degrees, certificates, thought leadership, personal and professional coaching, at any point in someone’s career.”
Novak, who is Catholic, said she feels “deeply called to the faith that permeates the culture of St. Ambrose University. Faith motivates my work. Our Catholic social justice tradition invites us to meet students where they are at.”
“Faith invites us to take risks, to explore the complex, to wrestle with the tension in our world, to discern what is truth, to act with mercy, justice and love. As I walked into the chapel here on campus, I was struck by the art of Fr. Edward Catich, particularly, the Theophora. The black child of Jesus with the Caucasian Madonna speaks boldly of an image of a universal Christ. This image invites us to welcome people of all backgrounds into our community, to work tirelessly to honor the human dignity of all people, to be people of mercy, justice, and love in our world.”
She said she feels honored to “follow Sister Joan as president. I know she will be remembered as a leader who oversaw tremendous growth in academic programs, facilities and endowed scholarships for the benefit of students, now and deep into the future. Her leadership over 14 years at St. Ambrose and across a half century of dedicated service to Catholic higher education is simply inspiring.”
Sister Lescinski will retire in August but remain in Davenport for a year to serve as a resource for the new president. Novak welcomes Sister’s friendship and guidance and is eager to “start making my own contribution to the university and greater community beginning in August.”