MANITOWOC — Dr. Robert B. Callahan’s path to the president’s office at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family can be traced to an invitation from a Catholic elementary school.
While working at his alma mater — Thomas College in Waterville, Maine — Callahan was asked to join the board of directors at the school his children, Jonathan and Katelyn, attended.
“That’s where the flame became really bright for me,” he said. “I remember coming home from one of the board meetings and telling Carolyn (his wife), ‘I know we have a great thing going.’ Thomas (College) was growing considerably. My position was wonderful. I loved what I did, ‘but if we ever leave, it will be for a Catholic institution.’”
Three weeks later, Callahan received a call from a national search firm, starting in motion a move to Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he served nearly six years as vice president for administrative, enrollment and student services.
Callahan continued in Catholic higher education when he joined Silver Lake College of the Holy Family on Jan. 30 of this year. On Oct. 5, he was inaugurated as the college’s 11th president. He is the third lay president at the college since its inception in 1935. Callahan brought a wide range of experience.
“I’ve done just about everything you can do at a college,” he said. “I have been a professor in the classroom, both in person and online at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I always did that on a part-time basis. My full-time higher ed work was in admissions and student services. I was a head women’s basketball coach for a Division 3 institution a long time ago. I then got into administration. I was a dean of admissions and became a vice president.”
Callahan felt called to serve as a college president. Silver Lake College of the Holy Family was the first institution to bring him to campus for an interview.
“I just fell in love with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity from the moment I met Sr. Natalie (Binversie, community director) at the hotel near the Green Bay airport, and from all the sisters I met,” he said. “I learned about the great work they’ve done all over the world for a long time.
“The Franciscan values really resonated with both Carolyn and me,” added Callahan. “Community, compassion, peacemaking and care for creation, those were things we hope to put into the DNA of our children as we help them become great Christian people when they grow their wings and go out into the world.”
One of Callahan’s short-term goals is to strengthen the Catholic and Franciscan identity of the college. He wants Catholic families, parishes and schools throughout the Diocese of Green Bay and the Midwest to be aware of what the college offers.
“We want people to know this is a great faith-based institution,” he said. “It is a good Catholic college. The Franciscan values here are embedded in everything we do. We want to make sure we are leading with faith in all that we do and people know that.”
Fr. Dave Beaudry was recently appointed full-time chaplain, so Mass is now celebrated each day at the college. Students have more interaction with the sisters, including tours of the motherhouse and blessings of college dorm rooms. The college also offers afternoon prayer, weekly confession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and hopes for more faith-based activities at the Generose Enrichment Center.
“Our Franciscan values are lived every day,” said Callahan. “We want our students to prepare for a good career. All institutions do that. We also want to prepare them for a purposeful life. We want to help them deepen their relationship with God. We believe that this is really important in today’s world.”
Callahan led initiatives that grew enrollment to record levels at Mount Mercy. He wants to do the same at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family.
‘We can talk about God’
“We have an advantage over other institutions, we can talk about God in the classroom,” he said. “I think that’s a strategic advantage. What I learned a great deal about is how to grow enrollment pipelines.”
Callahan, a Detroit native, compares the pipelines to “legs of the academic stool.” The college currently has just under 450 students. The goal is to increase that number to 3,000 — 1,000 from the traditional high school student pipeline, 1,000 nontraditional students who are working and go to school on nights and weekends and 1,000 graduate students.
The college has demonstrated solid success in the second leg,” he added.
“We were one of the first in the region to develop accelerated coursework where we had great programs designed for working adults,” he said. “You do your courses in eight-week chunks, much shorter than the traditional 15 or 16-week semester. We had not emphasized that mission.”
Two-year action plan
A two-year action plan was introduced to jump start the long-term vision. The comprehensive strategic planning process will include the sisters, alumni, students, faculty, staff, trustees and community members.
“What I have shared with our board is that it’s going to take us awhile,” said Callahan. “I’m calling it our 15-year plan. I would love to get there faster, but it takes time.”
Music and athletics are ways to boost enrollment, he added.
“I’ve had success in what I call music athlete ensembles — co-curricular programs, wind ensembles, choirs, show choirs, jazz bands, pep bands — as a way to attract students to the institution and help them get to graduation,” he said. “People are very passionate about playing their instruments, about singing, almost like student athletes. I’ve done it at places that didn’t have a beautiful Franciscan music center (Franciscan Center for Music Education and Performance) like we have. We have some internationally acclaimed faculty in the music arena.”
New sports to be added
New sports will be added to the college to spur growth. The first will be men’s and women’s bowling teams.
“We are going to lead with faith, including in athletics,” said Callahan. “We will pray at practice; we will pray before and after games. Athletics is a great way to help you along your journey with God. We hope to have 300 student-athletes.”
Art and theology are other areas of study with opportunities for growth, added Callahan. To grow the number of graduate students and nontraditional students seeking degree completion, he hopes to develop partnerships with the diocese, Catholic school systems, Catholic and public schools, businesses and organizations.
Liberal arts foundation
While growth is sought, the college cannot lose its liberal arts foundation, said Callahan, who earned his Doctor of Philosophy in business administration with a specialization in management from Northcentral University in Prescott, Ariz.
“A liberal arts education is the best way to help people be their own critical thinker, to learn how to ask your own questions, how to write well, how to work with other people well, how to listen well,” he said. “Liberal arts colleges do a great job helping people learn how to share their ideas, but also respectfully debate things with people with other ideas.”
The new college president has enjoyed getting to know students, including through miniature golf, ping pong, roller skating and billiards events.
“That’s the best part of our job, connecting with students and watching them grow,” he said.
Away from campus, Callahan enjoys family time. Jonathan, a first-year student at Roncalli High School, is involved in band and Boy Scouts, and is a New England Patriots fan. Katelyn, a seventh-grader at St. Francis of Assisi School, participates in athletics and is a fan of the Green Bay Packers. Their father is a Dallas Cowboys fan after admiring Tom Landry and Roger Staubach during his youth.
They are happy to be in Manitowoc.
“When Carolyn and I came to campus, there was a feeling,” said Callahan. “There was a feeling that God was calling us to come here. We think it’s a calling and we hope to be here a long, long time.”