DE PERE — When Brian Bruess finished graduate studies at Ohio University in 1995, he knew that he wanted to work in Catholic education. He never imagined that his path would take him back to one of his alma maters.
Bruess will be inaugurated as the eighth president of St. Norbert College on Oct. 11. He is a 1990 graduate of St. Norbert and only the second alum to hold the position of president, joining Norbertine Fr. Dennis Burke.
“It sure is good to be at a place that I know pretty well and has impacted me so much,” said Bruess in an interview with The Compass. “To see it striving is really exciting.
“We are in a position of strength,” he continued. “The last nine years have been a tremendous success under the leadership of Tom Kunkel. What we are doing is essentially amplifying, extending, deepening, strengthening that progress for our vision. Our vision is simple and powerful in that we want to be an exemplar Catholic college that offers a holistic education for students so they flourish and for the common good. We want to focus on the student experience to make that more vibrant and engaging, making sure it continually differentiates itself, locally, regionally, nationally.”
Prior to St. Norbert, Bruess served in various leadership roles during his 21 years at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., including as executive vice president and chief operating officer for the last three years. His experience at “St. Kate’s,” a women’s university, influenced his leadership style, said Bruess.
“My approach is very relationship-centered, a listen and learn approach,” he said. “You will hear me talking a lot about the entire student experience. Everything emanates from the mission. It is important in leadership to be really clear (about) who we are. The fact that we are Catholic, liberal arts and Norbertine drives everything we do.”
The importance of visibility for Bruess was evident in his recent participation in a Saturday evening camping outing with students in the campus quad.
“It’s an example of being present to the students to know that you are accessible. They know you are paying attention to their experiences,” he said. “It’s a constant challenge to balance your time, but in my leadership approach, I believe that you need to be present with the students, faculty and staff.”
Visibility extends beyond campus into the community, he added.
“De Pere, Green Bay, the northeast region of Wisconsin, we need to be heavily involved in each of those sectors,” explained Bruess. “We will continue to look for ways to carry our mission into those spaces. There are mutually beneficial interests. We believe that we make a contribution to the community and the community obviously makes a contribution to us.”
Bruess subscribes to the guidance of St. John Paul II’s teachings regarding Catholic colleges and universities in his document Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Dialogue is the basis of the relationship between the college president and the bishop, the local ordinary, said St. John Paul II.
Bruess met Bishop David Ricken on the eve of his introduction as the new St. Norbert president.
“I was at the Kress (Inn) with Carol (his wife, also a 1990 graduate of St. Norbert) and the kids (Tony, a senior at Stanford University, and Gracie, a senior in high school) on Dec. 11 before the announcement,” he explained. “The 7 p.m. Mass on campus is the Mass we attended as students, so I said, ‘Let’s sneak over and slip in, it will be very sentimental.’ We slipped in and there is Bishop Ricken presiding, flanked by a bunch of Norbertines I know and a former faculty member in the congregation. I thought, ‘This is not working. They all see me.’ I met the bishop there and in June, the Catholic college presidents met with the bishops of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I recently had a one-on-one with Bishop Ricken. We have a shared ministry. There are a lot of ways we will be able to collaborate.”
Some speakers at St. Norbert have elicited opposition over the years. Bruess said that it is important to provide a space that balances different ideas, ideologies and thoughts.
“As a Catholic college, as a liberal arts college, as a Norbertine college, our responsibility is to create opportunities for students to bump into things they don’t know, they don’t understand or disagree with.”
Bruess has selected Fiat Lux (Let there be Light) as the theme for his inauguration. The theme can apply to addressing social issues on campus, he said.
“Our call is to search for truth,” he said. “That requires us to pull the darkness, the evil, the ills of society, right into the light to examine them and search for understanding. Too much of society sets a false expectation that learning is simple, it’s easy, it’s neat and it’s tidy. It’s complex and it requires engagement in lots of different ways.”
The inauguration will be celebrated during Heritage Week on campus. St. Norbert marks 119 years this fall. “The awesome responsibility of the presidency sits in that tradition,” said Bruess.
“It begins with the saga of this place,” he said. “This saga, this heritage, this tradition, is completely relevant today. Never has society and the community needed more of what do than now. It’s contemporary; it’s relevant.”