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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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From Here to Eternity

By Skip Tate

On March 1, 1991, James E. Hoff, S.J., walked into his office in the former University Center, and the weight of a university in need fell on his shoulders. It was Day One of his tenure as Xavier’s 33rd Jesuit president. 

His office window overlooked campus and offered a clear view of the challenges before him. Ledgewood Drive and Herald Avenue cut through the heart of the University, splitting it into sections. Three of the oldest and most historic buildings were in deplorable condition, not having been updated in 70 years. The endowment that would allow for improvements was dangerously low—just a fraction of the annual budget.

Hoff, however, didn’t see despair. He saw hope. He was able to envision a University few could fathom, and in his inaugural address he went so far as to say he wanted nothing less than “everything” for the University. For nine years, he worked to make everything a reality. And by the time he retired on Dec. 31, 2000, the University was hardly recognizable to those who stood alongside of him back in the spring of 1991.

The changes were widespread and deep:

Physically

Hoff created a unified campus by closing Herald Avenue and Ledgewood Drive, turning them into grass-filled malls where students could play or lounge between classes. He restored the three historic buildings—Schmidt, Edgecliff and Hinkle halls—broke ground on the Gallagher Student Center and recognized the importance of having students live on campus by building Buenger Hall and the Commons apartments.

Academically

The University was always strong in this area, but Hoff wasn’t content with that. He increased academic standards for incoming students—average SAT scores rose more than 150 points and average grade point averages rose from 2.9 to 3.46. He created the University’s first doctoral program, in psychology. He rewrote the core curriculum such that it became recognized by the John Templeton Honor Roll for Character-Building Colleges. He increased freshman retention to 90 percent, earned seven straight rankings in the annual U.S. News & World Report ratings and created the weekend degree program for adult students, keeping with the basis of Jesuit ideals to make education available to everyone.

Financially

When consultants initially estimated that $60 million was the most the University could hope to raise during the Century Campaign, Hoff balked. “Why not $75 million?” he asked. It seemed like a pie-in-the-sky dream. The most the University had ever raised was $30 million, but when it was over, Xavier had raised $125 million. Hoff took a portion of that and applied it to increasing the endowment so the future would be more solid than when he arrived. It began at $24 million and ended at $86 million. That’s still only half of where financial experts say an endowment should be, but it’s strong enough now to allow the University to make financial commitments toward just about anything—purchasing new properties, financial aid, increasing faculty—that it otherwise would not be able to.

Athletically

Hoff knew the benefits of a strong athletic program—a rallying point for students and employees as well as a way to make the University known to a larger audience. During his tenure, the Musketeers moved from the Midwest Collegiate Conference to the more prestigious Atlantic 10 Conference. And, more importantly, they moved back onto campus and into the $46 million Cintas Center. Hoff called the arena/dining hall/conference center the project with the greatest impact on the University.

Spiritually

First and foremost a priest, Hoff made sure ethics and religion courses were at the heart of the undergraduate core curriculum. He created the Brueggeman center for dialogue to help foster peace among the religions and started a division of spiritual development within the University. He started the academic service-learning semesters to help students become men and women for others. And he made sure the Psy.D. program had a required social component in which students must concentrate on helping one of three underserved populations.

Perhaps Hoff’s most important accomplishment as president, though, was leaving the University in a position for further growth. Even after his death, the impact of his decisions is still being measured.

“Jim raised the bar at Xavier and set a tone that pushed the University, and all of us associated with it, to dream big and strive to be better,” says University President Michael J. Graham, S.J. “He set the example, academically, spiritually, athletically, in every way, of how to do things right and we will continue to follow his example.”

University provost Roger Fortin agrees. “I’m about to complete the history of the University,” says Fortin, “and in terms of leadership, he and Paul O’Connor are the two presidents who have done the most during the past 75 years in transforming Xavier into the highly respected academic institution that it is. In my judgment, Jim Hoff’s vision and passionate commitment to the University’s mission and the foundation that he has provided for us may ultimately prove to be the most influential in the history of the University.”

Accomplishments
• Raising the endowment from $24 million to $86 million
• Constructing the Cintas Center
• Constructing the Gallagher Student Center
• Constructing the Clement and Ann Buenger residence hall
• Constructing The Commons apartment building
• Closing of Ledgewood Drive and Herald Avenue and creating the residential and academic malls
• Renovating the West Row buildings: Schmidt, Hinkle and Edgecliff halls
• Raising $125 million during the Century Campaign
• Joining the Atlantic 10 Conference for athletics
• Earning recognition from U.S. News & World Report and the John Templeton Honor Roll for Character-Building Colleges
• Creating the academic service-learning semesters
• Creating the Brueggeman center for dialogue
• Creating the doctoral program in psychology
• Creating the weekend degree program for adult students
• Creating the national alumni association
• Increasing academic standards for incoming freshmen
(SAT scores from 973 to 1134, GPAs from 2.9 to 3.46)

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