Outgoing Dakota Wesleyan University President Amy Novak ‘will be a Tiger forever’

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DWU President Amy Novak

by Erik Kaufman for the Mitchell Republic, Jun. 10, 2021

The packing boxes are in her office, ready to be filled with work supplies, mementos and personal effects from her time at Dakota Wesleyan University.

But for the moment, they sit empty, as Amy Novak, president of the university, continues to tend to business at the school where she has served eight years as president and to which she has given a total of 18 years of service.

“I haven’t packed anything in my office,” Novak told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “Next week that has to happen.”

Novak is in her final stretch as leader for the four-year university in Mitchell, having accepted a new position as the president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. She announced in February that she would be departing DWU for the new challenge, but since then, the Mitchell native has stayed the course on her duties to her current school, wrapping up school-year business and handling the standard array of affairs that come with the responsibility of leading the private school.

Those responsibilities can seem endless.

“There is still a lot to do to finish the school year well. We just submitted an accreditation report that was important. The end of the fiscal year is coming up and the end of the academic year. In many respects it’s been busy, which is good,” Novak said.

She is used to being busy. A graduate of Mitchell High School, Novak, 50, earned a bachelor of arts in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1993, followed by a masters of science in social and applied economics from Wright State University in 1997. She received her doctor of education in interdisciplinary leadership from Creighton University in 2014.

Over the years, she served in numerous roles as her husband, Ken, served in the United States Air Force. She came to DWU in 2003 as a grant administrator in the TRIO Student Support Services program, and advanced to vice president of enrollment from 2004 to 2007 and provost from 2007 to 2013.

Now, as her time in Mitchell winds down, she takes a moment to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of her tenure.

“It is a time of reflection for me. This has allowed me to step back and fully appreciate the experience of all the people that I’ve encountered in this role and the previous roles I have had here,” Novak said.

In terms of accomplishments, the DWU campus looks much different than it did in 2003 when Novak first arrived. She helped lead the drive on campus improvements, raising over $50 million dollars. Much of that fundraising supported building initiatives on campus, including a 50,000 square-foot science center in 2013, a 90,000 square-foot sport and wellness complex in 2016, an alumni welcome center and performing arts space in 2017 and a new residence hall in 2018. And there’s more to come. A new school of business, innovation and leadership will open in the fall of 2021.

She has also helped grow endowed support for student scholarships and endowed faculty positions.

“People have asked what I’m most proud of, and what I would say is I’m immensely grateful for the buildings that have changed the landscape and the financial stability in terms of budget and overall finances of the institution,” Novak said.

Those buildings provide a boost to the capital assets of the school, but she hasn’t just focused on brick and mortar projects. Novak, a mother of eight, takes great interest in the students, faculty and staff at DWU. They are the lifeblood of the university, and she said she enjoyed cultivating those relationships through everyday life on campus.

“Having conversations on parenting with a faculty member or interacting with parents with a child who is going to college for the first time and looking at them with a sense of awe and pride,” Novak said. “Those have truly been the formative moments that have left a powerful imprint on who I am.”

Faces of those people have flashed before her as she’s prepared to leave the school she has called home for the better part of two decades. A number of students touched by her support have reached out to her since her announcement.

There was the student from Miami who was experiencing a down moment and wasn’t sure he could make it through the requirements of the school. She remembers distinctly walking him to his car after a long conversation, telling him that he “will not give up. I’m not going to let you.” To her great pleasure, he did not give up.

There are a few stories like that that have come flooding back in the past few months. Students who came up against the brick wall of challenge and somehow managed to climb over it give Novak a particular amount of satisfaction.

“Some of the students with whom I had interactions at DWU reached back out. I think you realize what a privilege it is to be a part of their lives, and to realize the impact that you have on them. That was very powerful,” Novak said. “Whether it was the non-traditional, Native American woman who graduated in 2007, or the young woman who came in and had some serious health issues.”

Her gift for developing relationships extended beyond the student body and faculty. It was also a big part of her work with financial donors. Sometimes, these critical donors are alumni that Novak has never met before, but an affinity for meeting and getting to know people, coupled with a dedication to the work of improving DWU, keep her focused on the job at hand.

“It is the same with donors. We have had a heck of a run for financial support for facilities and scholarships. Our endowment has grown by $20 million. We have constructed five new buildings since 2013,” Novak said. “That doesn’t happen overnight. That’s from the relationships and a belief in the university and the vision of where it’s going. I’ve spent hours and days with these individuals, and they’ve become very dear friends.”

She’s spent time at bedsides of dying alumni, and hugged parents upon the death of a student. Her connections to the people in her life go beyond a simple phone call or power lunch. Novak has lived and breathed the DWU family since her arrival, and it’s been part of what has informed her on the goal of a university and the greater community it serves.

As the leader at DWU, it’s her job to make sure the university engages itself in that leadership role, she said.

“I think universities must be a vibrant leader within any community in which it exists. This is not a one-way communication process. We need to be listening to leaders in our communities, leaders in the non-profit sector and really understanding of the forces that shape our community and how to collectively build the good in that. Higher education is in a unique position to offer perspective and entrepreneurial thinking,” Novak said.

She brought many of her own characteristics to the role of president at DWU, but her time at the school and interaction with its people have shaped her, as well. She said she developed a greater appreciation for diversity that continues to shape her perspective. Her time at the school has strengthened her own personal faith. And she feels her work has made her more open-minded and, she hopes, a little more patient.

As someone always in possession of forward momentum, her timelines for projects have become a bit of an inside joke with some of her fellow administrators. She admits that she sets tough goals when it comes to progress, and laughs while recollecting meetings where she would outline the timing for a project while her fellow staffers would tease her with questions laced with mock incredulity about just how soon she wanted it done.

“I push hard,” Novak said with a laugh. “My team would often say, ‘When do you want it by?’”

As president of DWU, she also acknowledges that she has had to continue being a lifelong learner. Her staff and other university leaders have helped shape her leadership style and helped her realize that sometimes an aggressive approach is the best way to encourage growth.

“You can try to sit here and be safe, but the reality is in leadership, at a small, private institute of higher education, safe is not going to help you grow. You have to test things, be tolerant of failure and try new initiatives,” Novak said.

And growth has followed at the university. Goals set to increase enrollment to 900 have been surpassed with 949 enrolled last year. The school has grown its endowment, and student retention has exceeded the 72 percent goal it set for itself. And the new buildings on campus stand as monuments to those rolls of the dice and the dedication to improve the school, continuing to welcome new students to the next phase of their educational lives.

Novak’s voice cracks occasionally when reflecting on her time at DWU. She stresses it has been far more than a job, but an experience that introduced her to a whole new family that has become almost as dear to her as her own blood.

But it is time for a new challenge at a new school, she said. St. Ambrose University, a Catholic school which hosts about 3,600 students in Davenport, will help her continue her own growth while allowing her to share the skills she honed at DWU to help another generation of scholars achieve their dreams.

“There was an appeal at St. Ambrose. They’re one of the first Catholic schools to have a chapter of the NAACP, and I’m excited to work with that. They have innovative spaces and what I call next generation higher education, things we’ve dabbled with and have started (at DWU), but I can take some of that learning (and apply it),” Novak said. “We are learning and are learners for a lifetime.”

She found another calling at St. Ambrose University, and she plans to follow it through, she said, even though it will be coupled with the bittersweet reality of leaving a school she has called home for so long.

“The last day (at DWU) will be hard, but the first day at (St. Ambrose) will be exciting. I’m really looking forward to it. When I was there and visited a couple of times this spring and had some conversations with their team, it feels like it will be a good home,” Novak said. “I walked into their chapel and felt a sense of calling, in much the same way I felt one here.”

Now comes the challenge of finding a successor to Novak. Finding a new university leader can be difficult even when not trying to replace a successful president who has spent 18 years at the helm of the school. Novak said the school will take its time with the hire, with the selection committee whittling down the top candidates more and more until a handful are selected for a visit to campus, which could happen late this year or early next year, she said.

In the meantime, Theresa Kriese, executive vice president for DWU, will take the reins on an interim basis.

Kriese said it is never easy to lose a leader like Novak, but she has left the university on good footing for the future.

"She’s a very dynamic leader, and it’s going to be a great loss for our university. She’s done a great job to prepare us to keep moving forward, so we’re not fearful of being able to move forward after her departure, and we wish her absolutely the best. It’s a great opportunity for her," Kriese said.

She said the bold approach Novak took in leadership of the university were a big part of why DWU has grown on many levels in recent years.

"Sometimes higher education is criticized about how slow it moves, I can’t say you could characterize her leadership that way at all," Kriese said. "It’s all about exploring the ideas and taking the chance and boldly going forward. Sometimes you don’t succeed, but we’re all very grateful for her bold leadership and pushing us."

And while Novak may not longer be an ever-present figure on campus, she will always be woven into the fabric of the school.

"She will be a Tiger forever," Kriese said.

The next president of Dakota Wesleyan University will find the school in a condition that is poised to move into the next phase, whatever that may be, thanks to the leadership of Novak. The work she and her colleagues have accomplished, along with the fact that school leaders are on the hunt for the next qualified candidate, gives her peace as she heads eastward to new horizons.

Novak, whose last day as president is June 18, said she leaves with a sense of thankfulness to everyone who has supported her, the school and the community at large in her time at DWU.

“(I leave) with an immense amount of gratitude for friendships, wise counsel and belief,” Novak said. “Most importantly for the commitment to creating a community where we could appreciate each other’s differences and where we could live out our faith with respect for each other.”


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