As Thom Chesney was learning about Clarke University in Dubuque, he was drawn to the school's core values: freedom, education, charity and justice.

Those are the kinds of values that are needed to move the country forward, Chesney told the students, faculty and community members packed into the R.C. and Celeste Wahlert Atrium on campus today.

Chesney, who currently leads a Texas community college, was introduced today as Clarke's 16th president. He will be the first man to hold the position since 1977. 

"I can't tell you how hard it has been for the last month or so, not to go out on my Twitter and like something and retweet something and comment on something from Clarke," he said during an introductory press conference. He added, "I am just so thrilled to be here."

Chesney is president of Brookhaven College, a school with more than 13,000 students that is part of the Dallas County (Texas) Community College District. He has been in the role since 2011.

He will take over at Clarke on July 15 and fill a vacancy that will be created when Sister Joanne Burrows retires at the end of the school year. Burrows has served as the university’s president since July 2006.

Building community

While introducing himself to the campus community, Chesney said he values relationships and building community, instructing everyone to call him by his first name.

"The university is a thriving place, already, in Dubuque," he said. "Community is at the heart of what I do -- building community, being a connector, being a convener -- and I so look forward to sustaining and building on that with you."

Robert Wahlert, chairman of Clarke's Board of Trustees, told attendees Chesney has a track record of cultivating academic excellence, expanding educational access and strengthening diversity and inclusion.

"During his time at Brookhaven, Thom has proven himself to be an innovator, a teacher, a mentor and a passionate spokesperson for the life-changing nature of higher education," Wahlert said.

Clarke officials in a press release touted Chesney's work to increase student retention, enrollment and graduation rates and his efforts in the areas of public/private partnerships, international engagement and faculty and staff development.

'Where they need us most'

Chesney comes to Clarke at a time when private colleges statewide have experienced declining enrollments.

The size of Clarke's student body decreased 18 percent from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2018, though the school's freshman class increased in size this fall.

Chesney said he believes the Clarke experience should be carried forward to students and places "where Clarke may be unexpected."

That could include going into cities and areas similar to Dubuque where people might want an experience like the one offered at Clarke, as well as drawing in students from other states or through transfers, adult-learning programs and distance-learning options, he said.

"One of the things I work on is being part of a college that finds people when and where they need us most," Chesney said.

Wahlert likewise said he hopes Chesney can help the school further grow beyond traditional students.

"Traditional students and enrollment is the lifeblood of Clarke," he said, adding, "(We want) to appeal not only to traditional students but a broader base of regional students, of adult or nontraditional students and to international students."

Student impressions

Students who attended the introductory event said they left with a good first impression of Chesney.

"I think they did a really good job," said senior Elizabeth McKinstry. "I think he's very warm and friendly. I'm very confident that he'll be a good president."

She said she appreciated that Chesney's wife, Noelle, has a strong arts background, including holding a Doctor of Musical Arts in Vocal Performance and serving as founding artistic director of the nonprofit Brick Road Theatre in the Dallas area.

Clarke University officials announced late last year that they were dropping six majors, including drama and musical theatre, citing declining enrollment in the programs and a need to use resources effectively.

"It's very reassuring because they obviously made a point (about Noelle Chesney's background) because it has been a huge concern," McKinstry said.

Freshman Paige Hahn said she appreciated that Thom Chesney told students to use his first name.

"He already presented himself in a very, very good way and like someone that belongs here," she said.

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