José D. Padilla speaks to the congregation after being inducted as the 19th Valparaiso University president on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Staff photo by John J. Watkins
José D. Padilla speaks to the congregation after being inducted as the 19th Valparaiso University president on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Staff photo by John J. Watkins
VALPARAISO — José Padilla, newly inaugurated as president of Valparaiso University, said he hopes to ignite a renaissance of VU.

“We are on the cusp of a renaissance on the promise emboldened by students who will ask the questions, what if, why not, why here and why there and not dissuaded by those of the cynics who say we can’t, who believe our best days are behind us,” Padilla said.

Padilla was inaugurated Saturday afternoon as Valparaiso's 19th president.

“I am both humbled and honored to be Valpo’s 19th president at this time of renaissance, at this pivot point between the legacy that has shaped us and the future we are going to shape together,” he said.

Valparaiso has begun work on a strategic plan for the next five years and beyond. The university faces challenges, including a demographic cliff with fewer prospective students for universities in just a few years. The competition will be more difficult for recruiters.

He had compliments for university recruiters’ efforts this year. “For the first time ever, almost 30% of this year’s freshman class is students of color, and that’s only going to grow,” he said.

The university’s enrollment is about 3,000, he said, well below what it was a few decades ago. That includes the decision by Padilla’s predecessor, Mark Heckler, to close the law school. There was a glut of lawyers, and enrollment wouldn’t be enough to allow the law school to be sustainable.

Other challenges include business models that change quickly, the impact of online learning and COVID-19.

“Valparaiso University is built for times like this,” Padilla said. “At times when we walk through the valley of darkness, I fear no evil because I walk beside Beacons who light the way for me,” a reference both to Psalm 23 and the university’s new mascot, the Beacons, replacing the Crusaders.

“We have a legacy of rising up to a challenge,” Padilla said. “It’s a legacy that informs our vision and ignites a renaissance.”

The campus is “60 miles east of Chicago, 60 west of South Bend, 180 or more to Indianapolis — for me, the center of the universe,” Padilla said.

“I am so energetic about being the drum major for this great, small yet mighty university that punches above its weight,” he said.

Within hours of taking the university’s reins on March 1, he found out 60 students had tested positive for COVID-19 the week before. He quickly ordered all classes moved to online learning and made other changes at the dining hall and elsewhere, including suspending in-person worship at the Chapel of the Resurrection, the spiritual center of the Lutheran university.

“I stood on these steps on my very first day, on March 1 of this year,” he said during his inaugural address at the chapel. “The eight months since is one of the most fascinating challenges of my life. It’s been a journey of learning, of earning my seat at the dinner table with my Valpo family, of sensing God has sent me to do this work and seeing Him in the faces and eyes of Valparaiso’s students.”

Padilla spoke to various stakeholder groups, starting with the board of directors.

“What I’ve seen is how four years in a young person’s life can translate into devotion to the university to make it what you are today,” he said. “You are carpenters who walk in the path of the greatest carpenter of all, God’s only Son.”

To the faculty, he said, “Your scholarship leaps off the pages into the hearts and minds of young men and women.” Being teachers, not just scholars, is clearly a passion for the faculty, he said.

To the staff, he said, “It’s not an exaggeration to see during a pandemic, you helped keep people alive.” The extra effort toward cleanliness and safety, as well as vaccinations, has paid off. Last week, there were no new COVID-19 cases on campus.

“This place wouldn’t run without you,” he said. “You make four years out of a student’s life some of the best years in their life.”

Padilla is impressed with Valparaiso’s students. “Your optimism and resilience are something to behold,” he said. “Man, do you have swagger.”

He also talked about partnering with various groups in the Region, including One Region, the Northwest Indiana Forum and the Urban League of Northwest Indiana.

“One day, we will be a magnet for all those who want a quality of life and economic engine to sustain that quality of life,” he said.

Padilla said alumni have given him and his family a warm welcome. “Your love for this institution is infectious,” he said.

A couple of months into the job, an alumnus came to his office and pulled out a shawl knitted by another alumnus. “She said it was a prayer shawl, and while that alumnus knitted that shawl, she was praying for me.”

Another alumnus, class of 1959, met him in the chapel, where she took out a crucifix she said was worn by O.P. Kretzmann, who was president of Valparaiso from 1940 to 1968, and give it to Padilla. He wore it Saturday.

Kretzmann is a campus legend. “He was ahead of his time. He integrated this university. He brought social luminaries to speak, luminaries like Bobby Kennedy, weeks before he was assassinated,” Padilla said. “A day doesn’t go by when I ask what would O.P. do.”

To those who need inspiration, Padilla offered the story of his father, who attended a one-room schoolhouse but not high school. His father became a paratrooper, and his sergeant steered him toward classes to earn a GED. He went on to attend university afterward, becoming an educator. His last job was as a high school principal.

“The story showed that where you start doesn’t dictate where you end,” Padilla said. “We’re going to double down on transforming the lives of our students from here to there, wherever there is.

“We’re going to ignite a renaissance of this great Lutheran university.

“We educate students from all walks of life — some who are well-heeled and some who have only two pairs of shoes."

He spoke of Valparaiso students and graduates being a force for social justice and change.

“Here at Valparaiso University, we are happy warriors for the defenseless, the desperate and the distressed,” Padilla said.

“I want us to be a great equalizer for everyone despite their background.”
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