Thomas Evans, University of Incarnate Word president.
Thomas Evans was chosen to lead the University of the Incarnate Word after Louis Agnese Jr.'s retirement. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In June 2017, Thomas Evans was named the 10th president of the University of the Incarnate Word, following the three-decade run of Louis Agnese Jr., under whose leadership the university grew from about 1,300 students to close to 11,000.

After just under two school years on the job, Evans is now crafting his own vision for San Antonio’s largest private university through a new strategic plan. Still, he must grapple with familiar challenges: a constricted campus footprint, a remaining legal conflict, and questions that all private institutions face related to executive level income.

The priorities identified in the strategic plan include: increasing support to student and faculty through study abroad, research, and mentoring; improving UIW’s reputation; making UIW a premier educator of military personnel; creating a stronger connection with students in UIW associated primary and secondary schools; create more opportunities with other Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word ministries; improving facilities infrastructure, staffing levels, and business processes; and strengthening the school’s Catholic identity.

We didn’t put a number on [the priorities], we didn’t put a year on it because these are actually things that we can continue to do in perpetuity to get better and better at and to be increasingly unique,” Evans said.”

The plan’s most immediate priority aims to double the school’s endowment over the next 10 years.

Enrollment and physical campus growth

Whereas Agnese’s legacy was explosive growth, Evans is unlikely to grow the student body in as significant a way.

“I can see the institution growing and we will in all likelihood grow and continue to grow for a while, while also looking at how we shape each individual class.”

Centered around eight core statements, UIW’s draft strategic plan was created through listening and feedback sessions with campus and community leaders. With no time limit on the majority of the goals, these tenets will likely drive the direction of UIW for the foreseeable future.

As part of the plan, UIW officials began looking at physical infrastructure on campus to see how many students it could actually accommodate.

They took a proposed campus master plan to students and asked for feedback. Students felt strongly that first-year students should remain close to the center of the Broadway campus in their residence halls, but juniors and seniors wanted to move off-campus in university, apartment-style housing, Evans said.

The UIW president describes the campus master planning process as asking the question:  if UIW didn’t gain any new space – and still anticipates some growth – could the university fit in the space it currently has?

The process revealed that UIW had less than 50 percent of the acreage that peer schools have and just 70 percent of parking spaces.

“The answer [to that question] is yes, but it is going to be a little tight, and you’re going to have to [build upward] but it can work,” Evans said. “But given that, you need the flexibility if other space becomes available, you have to seriously consider it.”

University of the Incarnate Word campus. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The University of the Incarnate Word sits on less than half of the acreage that its peer schools have. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Across the street from UIW, the nearly 350,000 square-foot AT&T building has become available for purchase. UIW is “seriously considering it,” Evans said.

Agent Ed Cross, CEO of Cushman & Wakefield San Antonio, said offers can be submitted through April 12.

Describing his experience on the notoriously fast-moving escalators in the building, Evans said it would be an “ideal environment to have a university” and perfect to have “lightning-fast” escalators moving students between floors for classes. Developers have contacted the university with offers to co-develop the space, Evans said.

Doubling the endowment

Currently, the UIW endowment sits at $135 million. By comparison, Our Lady of the Lake University’s endowment is at $27.9 million, Trinity University’s is greater than $1.2 billion, and St. Mary’s University’s endowment is about $183 million, according to 2017 numbers reported to U.S. News and World Report.

Evans’ goal is to double this amount within the next decade, investing some of that money in scholarships for students who need financial support to attend the school.

U.S. News and World Report magazine ranked UIW first on a list of Western United States schools that graduated the class of 2017 with the smallest amount of college debt. Evans said this shows that UIW cares about improving a student’s social mobility and hopes that increasing the endowment can further these efforts.

The university will embark on fundraising to grow the endowment. In Evans’ time at UIW, the school has raised about $15 million.

There was a time in higher ed where a lot of [donors] were interested in capital projects, they really wanted … their name on the building,” Evans said. “There is a shift in that right now and part of that is the cost-value proposition and the questioning of [is higher education worth it]? We want to show that absolutely it is worth it.”

A recent report in the Express-News has the potential to hamper UIW’s ability to raise funds – the newspaper reported in March that UIW paid more than $5 million in a “goodbye payout” to Agnese, who departed UIW after making racist remarks at a student luncheon.

Agnese, who started as UIW’s president in 1986, was placed on medical leave in August 2016 after reports emerged that Agnese had made jokes about black, American Indian, Hispanic, and Mormon students at a student luncheon. The UIW board voted to name Agnese president emeritus and the longtime president announced his retirement in October 2016.

The retirement package did not impact UIW’s operating budget, according to the article. Evans said the news has not impacted fundraising and that it reflects a larger question about pay for top-level executives.

“There is a question about executive compensation in almost every sector whether you are the city manager, the CEO of a fortune 500 company, the CEO of a more regionally based company, and I think it is extended to higher education now,” Evans said. He added that Agnese’s retirement payout appears to be consistent with what is seen at other institutions for “individuals [who] have even shorter tenures.”

Addressing existing challenges

Even though Evans has only been at UIW for a little more than a year and a half, he is in charge of addressing lingering challenges that hover over the university and its operations. One that remains is the wrongful death lawsuit over the 2013 death of Cameron Redus, who was fatally shot by a university police officer.

In March 2018, the 4th Court of Appeals rejected UIW’s argument that, as a governmental unit, it should be immune from litigation. The ruling left the university open to the lawsuit.

Evans told the Rivard Report that he would like “it to be resolved” and has asked the Redus family if they would be willing to meet with him. He said they told him “not yet.”

In the coming months, Evans will continue to illustrate where UIW wants to go by developing the strategic plan further. Teams are meeting to hammer out individual details on each strategic priority and the plan will be taken to the board of trustees in June. By the end of 2019, UIW trustees are expected to approve each implementation plan and start carrying out Evans’ vision for the future.

When addressing the existing challenges of UIW, Evans emphasizes that his focus is “where we are and where we want to go.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.