The person most responsible for the explosive decade of change at Xavier had to be sold on the very idea of becoming its president.
“I said no to interviewing for the job three times,” says James E. Hoff, S.J. “But my boss at Creighton told me to at least talk to Xavier. He said there was greater need at Xavier than at Creighton, and that was where I could do greater good. So I met with the search committee in Chicago. They liked me. I liked them. The next week I accepted the job. I had no idea at the time how blessed and fortunate I was to be chosen president of Xavier.”
Hoff, 68, took office on March 1, 1991. He will retire at the end of December 2000, his legacy as a campus catalyst obvious to anyone familiar with the institution. In his nine-plus years here, he has orchestrated an era of growth and change unmatched in the 169-year history of the University.
He strengthened the academic foundation, bolstered the financial resources, rallied greater alumni involvement, sharpened the external image, attracted more and better students, and engineered a building-and-grounds campaign that has effectively turned a ho-hum collection of facilities into an unquestionably more attractive, useful, contemporary and cohesive campus.
“The Xavier I first came to in the ’80s was kind of satisfied to be what it was. There was sort of an, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ attitude,” says Hoff’s successor as president, Michael J. Graham, S.J. “The culture that existed on campus began to shift in the late ’80s and wane altogether in the early days of the Jim Hoff presidency. He came in and just unleashed far higher expectations for the University.”
“He helped us dream dreams that we didn’t think were possible, then he helped us achieve them,” says Ron Slepitza, vice president for student development. “Xavier was always a diamond in the rough. We just needed someone to polish it, and he has.”
“He’s raised the visibility of Xavier and made more people aware of what a great school it is,” says Greg Theisen, a 1972 graduate and vice president of the national alumni association. “And he has done it all without compromising the integrity of a small, Jesuit school. He helped it without changing the personal touch Xavier gives us.”
Xavier’s list of accomplishments under Hoff includes the following:
Academic: Revised and strengthened the core curriculum; created Xavier’s first doctoral program, in psychology; created the ethics, religion & society lecture series; earned seven straight rankings in the annual U.S. News & World Report ratings on colleges and universities; created service-learning semesters in Nicaragua, Nepal and Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district; increased freshman retention to 90 percent; created a weekend degree program.
Buildings and grounds: Closed the campus portion of Ledgewood Avenue; opened Clement and Ann Buenger Residence Hall; opened Cintas Center; restored Hinkle, Schmidt and Alumni (now Edgecliff) halls; renovated academic and residential malls; broke ground on Charles P. Gallagher Student Center and a new student housing complex.
Fiscal strength: Raised the endowment from $24 million to $86 million; more than tripled yearly fund-raising revenue; nearly doubled giving to the annual fund; launched The Century Campaign, which has raised more than three times the total of any previous fund-raising campaign.
Undergraduate admission: Increased applications by 33 percent; increased aggregate grade point average of incoming freshman from 2.87 to 3.49; increased aggregate SAT scores of incoming freshman from 990 to 1140; broadened the geographic range of incoming freshman—in 1990, 56 percent of students grew up more than 35 miles from the University; now, 65 percent do.
Miscellaneous: Created a national alumni association and chartered 47 alumni chapters; moved athletics into the more competitive, better regarded Atlantic 10 Conference; strengthened the University’s Jesuit identity and impact by creating the division of spiritual development; wired all residence hall rooms for Internet access; earned the nation’s No. 1 ranking for student-athlete graduation rate (100 percent) in 1998.
“Father Hoff has raised Xavier to a totally different level, something we never contemplated in the past,” says Jim Duff, a 1962 graduate and member of the board of trustees. “He has raised every area of the University, and only by looking at his combined impact can you truly appreciate what he’s done.”
Most importantly, Hoff has succeeded without compromising the Jesuit, Catholic nature of the institution, says Leo Klein, S.J., vice president for spiritual development. “What Hoff leaves behind, his legacy, is the emphasis on the Jesuit, Catholic tradition. That, to me, is his major accomplishment,” says Klein. “He created a mission to serve students intellectually, spiritually and morally. Then he created the whole division of spiritual development. He put his money where his mouth is. And by doing so, he fulfilled his mission to the students.”
One thing Hoff hasn’t done is take credit for Xavier’s transformation.
“He’s so humble,” says Mike Conaton, a 1955 graduate and chairman of the board of trustees since 1985. “He’ll tell you that others have done much of the work. But he’s the conductor. He’s got the baton in his hand, and he has led tremendously.”