When Tom Kunkel arrived in De Pere in the summer of 2008 to assume the role of president at St. Norbert College, a former athletic director and assistant football coach invited him on a tour of the college’s sports facilities.
“He grabbed me from behind and said, ‘Do you have a few minutes?’” Kunkel recalls. “And he drove me over to the old Minahan Stadium. We stood under the stands and it was one of the most terrifying things — this thing was literally about to fall down.”
Academic buildings, student housing and many other facilities were also sorely in need of upgrades. Master plans for a new library, residence hall and other projects were in the works before Kunkel arrived, but it would be up to him to lead the charge to raise millions of dollars if they were to be realized.
Fast forward to today, and nearly $140 million in construction has been completed under his watch — and the college is nearly debt-free. A master of liberal arts program, MBA program and Center for Exceptional Leadership have been launched, the Medical College of Wisconsin chose the campus for its regional headquarters, and in May, a new fitness center will open.
“Most people would say that it wouldn’t have happened without Tom,” says Phil Flynn, CEO and president of Associated Bank and member of the college’s board of trustees. “He’s managed to oversee tremendous investment into the college, and he will be leaving the college in a really sound financial position.”
Kunkel will retire at the end of May. His leadership was key to realizing several large gifts from donors in the community, says Mike Van Asten, 1975 alum, chair of the St. Norbert Board of Trustees and owner of Liberty Hall in Kimberly.
“I would say if we’re lucky, all of us meet two or three individuals in our lifetime that are truly beyond inspirational — and certainly in my life, Tom is one of those rare individuals,” Van Asten says.
‘O Captain, my captain’
As a former journalist who began working in newspapers at 16 in his native Evansville, Ind., publisher of six books and former staff member at several large daily newspapers nationwide, including the Miami Herald and New York Times, Kunkel is eloquent and erudite. He has shown up at business ethics classes to share his personal experience, in one anecdote as a cub reporter, grappling with doing the right thing in a compromising situation.
Yet, he’s never been afraid to loosen his tie for a bit of mischief — taking a pie in the face for charity, wrestling with the college mascot and jumping into the Fox River in scuba gear for a birthday video. You could say that, a la Robin Williams as the inspiring English professor in “The Dead Poets Society” he has left a fond impression on nine years of graduates who have endearingly called him “T-Kunks” and “Uncle Kunkel.”
When controversy arises — such as visits from such polarizing figures as Gloria Steinem and Donald Trump — he has addressed them head-on with thoughtful emails to students, says Student Government President Danny Wilson.
“My most memorable time was, when I was a freshman, there was some hate speech about Muslims,” Wilson recalls. “He sent out a very good email about how to handle those conversations. And when Trump came to speak last year — some people were shocked that he was coming — he said it was very important that we give him a chance to speak, to respect everybody’s opinions and listen with an open mind.”
In today’s world of political divisiveness, a liberal arts education creates well-rounded citizens and contributes to a more productive society, Kunkel says.
“We are creating students who can think critically, who work well with others, who can articulate and communicate and think strategically because they may have three or four different careers, 10 or 12 different jobs in their lifetimes. To have that adaptability, to have that capacity to learn new things — those are all vitally important, probably more than ever.”
Attracting bright young students with big ambitions is important to St. Norbert as it continues to move up in national rankings, Kunkel says. As the only Norbertine, Catholic liberal arts college in the world, St. Norbert ranks as one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges in nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Of course, competitive students look for colleges with the best resources. Kunkel is proud the St. Norbert campus and its academic offerings have improved in recent years, and he credits “transformational” gifts for making that happen.
The first of such notable gifts realized under Kunkel’s tenure was $11 million from Miriam and Jim Mulva to build the new library, which opened in 2009. Both De Pere natives, Miriam was a 1969 graduate of St. Norbert and Jim, whose mother worked at the college library, recently retired as chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips.
“When the Mulvas committed to that, it was huge,” Kunkel recalls. Before it was built, the college’s library was housed in a multiuse building, Todd Wehr Hall, originally built as a women’s dorm. “It had a lot of shortcomings, and it’s important for a college to have a serious library,” Kunkel says. “If you think about a college as an intellectual enterprise, the library is the central nervous system of the campus.”
Their gift was the first of many notable donations from the Mulvas and others.
“It helped change the definition of what transformational gifts look like at SNC, so it paved the way for projects like the science building, converting the old cafeteria into Michels Commons and the Mulva Family Fitness & Sports Center,” Kunkel says.
“Here’s a good example: We’re a liberal arts college, and we had a 50-year-old science building that was really tired and showing its age. We were either going to build a state-of-the-art science center, or we weren’t — and if we weren’t, we were going to be sending a message to prospective students that we weren’t serious about science — and that would have been foreclosing our future.”
It didn’t take much for the assistant football coach who gave him a tour that fateful summer day, Don Maslinski, to convince him it was time for a new football stadium, either. “Football is a huge enrollment issue for us; we’ll recruit 50 to 60 young men a year to play football, and we were borrowing space from local high schools,” Kunkel says.
Van Asten, who chaired the initial $90 million fundraising campaign shortly after Kunkel began, credits the president for inspiring individuals to make large donations.
“People don’t give to buildings, people give to people,” Van Asten says. “Tom’s leadership made donors excited and made them willing to make pretty miraculous things happen.”
On April 11, Kunkel will address the St. Norbert CEO Breakfast & Strategy Series on the topic of college affordability. And he will deliver the commencement address when the class of 2017 graduates May 14.
After that, he and his wife, Deb, will return to their native Evansville, where both still have family, including his parents. They hope to travel and spend time with their daughters and their families (three who live on the East Coast and one in Missouri) including, by June, four grandchildren.
Kunkel’s “next chapter, no pun intended,” will keep him busy writing, starting with a book on the life of St. Norbert of Xanten, patron founder of St. Norbert College, who lived 900 years ago in Germany.
“Saints are usually much more interesting than we give them credit for, and with Norbert, that certainly was the case,” Kunkel says. “He was a very conflicted individual, very passionate but he also pushed a lot of people’s buttons. I think he’s going to be an interesting character study so I’m looking forward to that.”
Given the topic, he expects he will make frequent visits to St. Norbert.
“The book is another way for me to stay connected to the college and the Norbertines,” he says.
Highlights at St. Norbert College since 2008
Under the leadership of President Tom Kunkel, the past nine years have been momentous ones for St. Norbert, with greater changes than at any time in the history of the college.
Nearly $140 million invested in facilities:
• The new Mulva Family Fitness & Sports Center, formerly the Schuldes Sports Center, is undergoing a $26 million expansion and renovation and will open in May. The 129,400-square-foot facility includes a full collegiate basketball court, indoor track, four volleyball courts and four intramural basketball courts. It has a seating capacity of 2,500 for major sporting events and up to 5,000 for other events.
Anchoring the new center will be a competition-grade swimming pool and diving area overlooking the Fox River. The pool — the first in the history of the college — will allow St. Norbert to resurrect its NCAA Division III swimming program.
The facility includes an expansive fitness center overlooking the pool with views of the Fox River. All of the college’s health and wellness-related activities, including counseling services, will be housed in the new center.
• The Gehl-Mulva Science Center was dedicated in 2015. The $40 million project transformed the former science facility, with a complete renovation of the main building and construction of additions at the east and west ends. The multilevel expansion increased the size of the building to 160,000 square feet.
The center houses the physics, math, psychology, geology, biology and chemistry disciplines. It has 45 teaching/research labs, 10 classrooms, one large lecture hall, 15 student study lounges and offices for 38 faculty. The center also serves as the primary home of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Green Bay campus.
• The Mel Nicks Sports Complex, new home to the baseball and softball teams, opened on Lost Dauphin Road in 2015.
• The Cassandra Voss Center opened in 2013 in the former St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Grant Street and now houses the Joan P. Schaupp Women’s Center, the Men’s Initiative and the women’s and gender studies program.
• Dudley Birder Hall was opened as a new performing arts center in 2013, converted from the former St. Boniface Church at the corner of Grand and Fourth streets.
• Michels Commons was dedicated in 2012.
• The Ariens Family Welcome Center opened in 2011 to provide a new “front door” to the college.
• Todd Wehr Hall, which formerly housed the library and before that was a dormitory, was renovated and reopened in 2010 to house student services and offices.
• Schneider Stadium, home to the campus NCAA Division III college football games, opened in De Pere’s near west side in 2010. It replaced the pre-World War II-era Dr. John R. Minahan Stadium near St. Norbert Abbey. The 2,454-seat facility houses the Green Knights in football, men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s outdoor track and field.
• The Miriam B. and James J. Mulva Library opened in 2009, and was later enhanced with a state-of-the-art, high-tech collaborative studio.
• Gries Hall opened in 2009, providing apartment living for 144 upperclassmen.
Academic programs also expanded, including:
• The Center for Exceptional Leadership, housed at the Schneider School of Business and Economics, was launched in 2016. The CEL offers individualized assessment, planning, development, coaching and mentorship for current and emerging leaders in the region.
• Partnering with Marquette Law School, St. Norbert in 2016 announced the establishment of a 3-plus-3 academic program that enables qualifying St. Norbert undergraduates to enroll at Marquette after completing three years of education at St. Norbert. Students will be able to complete a law degree in a total of six years, eliminating a full year from the traditional path.
• The Medical College of Wisconsin established its Green Bay-area campus at St. Norbert’s Gehl-Mulva Science Center in 2015. MCW partners with St. Norbert, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Bellin College to create medical-school pipeline programs for qualified undergraduate students. The program was created in response to projections of a significant physician shortage in the state over the next 20 years. Nearly 2,200 applied for 25 spots open in the first class.
• The Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics was established in 2014 with a gift of $7 million from Pat Schneider, wife of the late Don Schneider, an SNC alumnus who was president, CEO and chairman of Schneider National.
The school provides new resources for undergraduate students and enabled the creation of an MBA program designed for working professionals in Northeast Wisconsin’s business community.
• A Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program was launched in 2009.