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Cover Story

15 years with Father


by Joni Moths Mueller

Some big questions follow Father Robert Wild as he prepares to retire and hand over the keys to the Office of the President to Marquette’s next Jesuit leader. Top among them — at least the most often asked — is what’s next? Even if Father Wild were of a mind to slide gracefully into a life of retired bliss punctuated by pleasantly tranquil scholarship interrupted by lovely interludes of bird watching, that is rarely the ideal envisioned by the Society of Jesus. So although Father Wild expects a nice yearlong sabbatical and an extended visit with his sister in Washington, D.C. — after that, he is keeping his options open.

After that question comes another, and this one connects to what gets hearts pounding in alumni worldwide — the Golden Eagles. People want to know what will happen to Father Wild’s gold vest, the garment that has become signature apparel in the stands of the Bradley Center at a time when sweater vests have essentially disappeared from high couture. Fans can relax. The original gold vest will be boxed and offered to University Archives, another priceless artifact of university history. Although he is willing to relinquish the vest to posterity, Father Wild plans to hold tight the memories, experiences and lessons learned since he joined Marquette as the university’s 22nd Jesuit president in 1996.

  • 1996

    "I pledge that I will spare no effort in keeping Marquette on a strong and clear path into the future."President Robert A. Wild, S.J., at his 1996 inauguration

  • 1997

    Marquette gains momentum with a growing freshman class and a shout-out from U.S. News & World Report as a "Best Buy." 

  • 1998

    Marquette publishes a new mission statement. "Why does a mission statement matter? Because our mission matters. Because we are not simply another private university striving for excellence in scholarship, research, teaching and service," Father Wild says at the time.

  • 1999

    A top-notch pool of applicants — with the highest ACT and SAT scores and highest average class rank to date — leads to college wait lists for the first time. Plans get under way for the Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J., Library. The Gender Equity Task Force meets for the first time.

  • 2000

    After a $17 million renovation, the once-mothballed residential portion of East Hall reopens to accommodate rising enrollment. The building is renamed David A. Straz, Jr., Tower.

  • 2001

    The Ethnic Alumni Association is sanctioned as a chapter of the Marquette University Alumni Association, reconnecting generations of alumni who once felt marginalized.

  • 2002

    In 2002, a newly revised University Core of Common Studies is unveiled to ensure that every student receives a well-rounded education grounded in the liberal arts, a treasured component of Jesuit education.

  • 2003

    In 2003, the men's basketball team makes it to the NCAA Final Four. Ecstatic alumni and fans donate $4 million in three weeks to build the Al McGuire athletics facility. And in 2005 Marquette joins the Big East Conference.

  • 2004

    The Magis Campaign reaches $250 million, including an $18 million gift from Helen Way Klingler, the single-largest gift to date in Marquette history.

  • 2005

    More than 57,000 donors give nearly $357 million to the Magis Campaign, including a $28 million gift from Bill and Mary Diederich to transform the College of Communication. The college is renamed in their honor.

  • 2006

    Marquette administers the $1 million Opus Prize to three people who do extraordinary faith-based work to fight the world's ills and announces the Urban Scholars Program, part of a wide-ranging scholarship effort that continues today.



    Father Wild picks up the phone on his 67th birthday to receive news of a startling gift: $51 million from Ray and Kay Eckstein to build a new Law School building and law library.

  • 2008

    Marquette begins construction of Zilber Hall, a new one-stop shop for student services made possible by a gift from alumnus Joseph Zilber.

  • 2009

    The university celebrates the Centennial of Women. Marquette and former Golden Eagle and NBA great Dwyane Wade collaborate in establishing a scholarship partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

  • 2010

    The Little Rock Nine receive the Pθre Marquette Discovery Award, conferred only five times in Marquette history.

  • 2011

    Father Wild prepares to retire and hand over the Office of the President to Rev. Scott Pilarz, S.J., who will become Marquette's 23rd Jesuit leader on Aug. 1, 2011.

When the Board of Trustees began looking for a successor to Rev. Albert DiUlio, S.J., who served as president from 1990 to 1996, they found their man seated right there in the boardroom. “They, of course, wanted a Jesuit, and I knew some eyeballs were turned in my direction,” Father Wild remembers. “But I was minding my own business, running Weston School of Theology out in Cambridge, Mass. And I guess my main concern was I’d only had experience running a school of 300 students and Marquette had about 11,500 students.” The Board was persuasive, and there was the added benefit that Jesuits, as St. Ignatius asked, always keep one foot raised and go where they are needed. As soon as new leadership was identified for Weston, Father Wild joined Marquette. Here, he reflects on his years as president.


“I was anxious that first year but not because of any problems. I was just innocent of the depth of running an institution of this size and impact. We jumped in with a commitment to do our best, and as you get good people around you, and as you begin to see some success, your confidence builds. And that really began to happen rather quickly once we worked our way through the initially tough financial status of the university.

“When I started I had no idea that we were going to do so much building, but one thing led to another. We did have some serious problems with certain facilities, the dental school probably being the most obvious. But also the resources for our basketball program and the women’s volleyball practice facilities, and we were crammed like sardines in the Law School. We also had to do something about our campus identity because people driving along Wisconsin Avenue had no idea where Marquette was. This became the Campus Beautification Project, and it was an important first step for us. Our alumni and donors joined us in ways that stun me to this day because they said over and over, ‘Yes, this we want to get behind.’ And their gifts to Marquette in dollars and enthusiasm amped every one of our efforts. But, truthfully, I didn’t foresee and never could’ve guessed how much we’d be able to build up our campus over the course of 15 years.

“In those early days, our mission as a Catholic, Jesuit university was a key issue on my mind. I was looking for a way to talk about who we are — and although we had a sort of generic mission statement, it had never been formally approved and adopted. We rewrote it and presented it to various groups for comment so that everyone could get an oar in the water. We knew it was rather long and the challenge was, ‘How do we walk the walk with this?’ Someone suggested organizing it beneath the four key values singled out within the statement — Excellence, Faith, Leadership and Service — and suddenly we had a wonderful way to talk to the university community and tell our friends what we are about. When I heard a faculty member or a student question, ‘Is this academic program or event in accord with our mission?’ and refer to one of our key values, I nearly jumped for joy. I knew we’d struck the right chord.

“It is terribly important that we keep in front of people both within and outside of the university what Marquette is, what we have been since Marquette was founded in 1881 at the instigation of Archbishop Martin Henni. His whole driving idea for Marquette College was that it would be a tremendous resource for all the immigrants coming from Europe who wanted to be the first in their families to go to college. He saw that as something the church could do for these newcomers and, in my mind, his foresight was simply amazing. We’ve applied that founding vision again and again, such as when Marquette became the first Catholic, Jesuit university to admit women to undergraduate programs in 1909.

“We applied it to first-generation college students more recently with the addition of some terrific scholarship partnerships, including the Urban Scholars and Boys & Girls Clubs scholarship programs. Our commitment to first-generation education has such a long-term, game-changing impact — not only on the individuals but also on their descendants — and that’s why we’ve focused so much energy and put together far more resources to enable these students to attend Marquette. It’s why we’re getting better at providing support for all of our students. The name of the game is not having students arrive here as freshmen. The name of the game is having people complete their college degrees.

“In a similar move that was simply right and appropriate and connected to our mission, we sanctioned the Ethnic Alumni Association. We went from no engagement with our African-American alums to a highly enthusiastic, energetic engagement with an extraordinary group of men and women.

“And then there have been developments in our recent history that straddle business and pleasure. Joining the Big East Conference was an enormous change for us. That was the moment when we said, ‘We can do this. We have the ability to play at the highest level of Division I sports, and we want to seize this opportunity with both hands.’ It wasn’t just about athletics. It was about raising our image in the northeast part of the country, and sports have the power to do that. It gave us entrιe we never had before in terms of student recruitment, and it energized our alums, which was a goal for us.

“We haven’t always batted one hundred. There are a couple of issues that were very tough to handle — the nickname debate comes to mind. We said we were going to be ‘Gold’ but it became clear to me pretty quickly that this was not going to work. Those things happen, and you have to sweat through them, but it’s not fun to see the front page of the newspaper basically saying you’ve made a massive blunder. And the recent search for an Arts and Sciences dean and how the university community gets its arms around LGBT issues point out our need to just continue chipping away at what seem to be the most basic justice issues, certain that we will find our way.

“Yes, we’ve had a few low moments and many, many moments of celebration. There are so many opportunities for Marquette, and we have by no means exhausted them. I imagine that Father Pilarz will want to take a good look at where we’ve come as a university community and where we have yet to go. I am certain of one thing — my successor is not going to get bored.”

Unforgettable 15 years

Then: Marquette was struggling financially

Now: Nearly $800 million raised during Father Wild’s tenure, with $375 million invested in new construction and campus renovations

Then: Roughly $12 million in research awards were earned in 1997

Now: More than $28 million won in 2010, a university record

Then: An endowment of nearly $160 million in 1996

Now: More than $366 million as of December 2010

Then: Nearly 5,400 prospective freshmen applied in 1997

Now: More than 22,000 students applied for admission to the fall 2011 entering class

Today: Built the Rev. John P. Raynor, S.J., Library, Al McGuire Center, School of Dentistry, Eckstein Hall, Zilber Hall and the first phase of a new College of Engineering complex


Comment by Richard B Cook at Apr 25 2011 12:52 pm
Please pass on my thanks to Fr. Wild for everything he does and has done to improve Marquette's image and reputatation during his Presidency--especially in the area of Athletics.
Richard B. Cook Arts, 1966
Comment by Jane Breslin Mentzer, Speech,1972 at Apr 26 2011 10:53 am
Fr. Wild, thanks for your wonderful positive years of service to the Marquette community and beyond. You have done a wonderful job of improving and maintaining a top notch Jesuit university! Enjoy your time with family! I'm sure we haven't heard the end of you!
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