Nun free-falls from the heavens into presidency

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sister Joan Lescinski PhD’81 is far from the stereotypical ruler-wielding Catholic school nun. At the age of 60, she skydives, flies planes, laughs easily and recently became the first female president of St. Ambrose University.

Lescinski moved into her new office in Davenport, Iowa, last October, after serving as president of St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, a small women’s liberal arts school in Indiana.

“She’s quick. She’s bright. She’s extraordinarily intelligent,” said Vicki Kosowsky, chief student development officer at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Lescinski’s colleague since 1998.

Lescinski’s colorful and at times risky lifestyle is no recent development. As a child, she went for rides in her uncle’s private plane, an experience that “engendered a real love of anything that flew,” she said. For her 40th birthday, a friend bought her a ride in a hot air balloon.

When she turned 50, her parents gave her a unique birthday present: an offer to fund any trip or adventure and help their daughter fulfill a lifelong ambition. Lescinski instantly knew what she wanted to try: skydiving.

“It was a spectacular experience and I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.” She now flies small planes in her free time.

But her friends say Lescinski’s fearlessness should not be construed as recklessness. “I don’t think (Lescinski’s pastimes) are necessarily, ‘I have a death wish,’ ” Kosowsky said. She said Lescinski is simply not afraid to try new things, recalling that she once rode a donkey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

“If there’s something of fascination or interest,” Kosowsky said, “she’s going to give it a shot.”

Though passionate about her adventurous hobbies, Lescinski emphasized that academia is her true calling. At Brown, she wrote her dissertation on Jane Austen and Henry James, earning her Ph.D. in English literature. “I loved my years there,” she said. “I think the seriousness with which people take scholarship and research really impressed me and was a model for me in my own work.”

“A really good teacher helps people to discover what they already have inside of themselves,” she said. Lescinski recalled how her professors at Brown pushed her past her comfort zone, a lesson she still uses in her own teaching.

“When you’re around her there’s this kind of energy in the room,” said Christine Bahr, interim vice president for academic affairs at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Katherine Hanley, the associate dean of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, called her “one of the best teachers I’ve ever met.” Hanley was one of the first to encourage Lescinski to enter the field of higher education.

In addition to holding high-level administrative positions at several colleges, Lescinski has taught English since 1974. “I really resisted going into the presidency (at St. Mary-of-the-Woods),” she said, “because I was sure it would forever take me out of the classroom.”

After repeated urging by her colleagues, she finally applied for the position on the condition that she continued to teach – a request she was sure the college would refuse. “I thought, ‘I’d apply, I won’t get it and that would quiet everybody down and I could go on with my business,’ ” she recalled.

She was wrong. In 1998, Lescinski began her nine-year presidency at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, during which she continued to teach. “In the beginning it kind of scared the daylights of me,” she said, “as I think it would any normal person.”

Lescinki’s colleagues praised her for injecting energy into the community, encouraging discussion and balancing the budget – the most daunting task, they said.

But how does running a college compare to free-falling 8,000 feet?

Lescinski laughed. “I think being a college or university president certainly does require some daring,” she said.

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