Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.
Growing up in football-crazy Nebraska, Dan Elsener played quarterback on his high school team and receiver during college. Tall as corn in August, the imposing Elsener now brings the same hard-charging, go-long attitude to his post as president of Marian University.
“You know ‘ready, aim, fire’? Some people accuse me of ‘ready, fire,’” said Elsener, 58, whose urgent, get-it-done approach has driven fundraising at Indianapolis-based Marian to stratospheric levels. “I don’t want to dilly-dally.
“I don’t promote being a fool. There is rational analysis that you want to do, and there’s experience to draw from. But I find a lot of leaders are frozen, writing one plan after another. I think you get in the game and you learn a lot.”
Elsener has been quarterback of Marian’s drive to recreate itself since joining the small Catholic liberal arts school in August 2001. Its enrollment has doubled to about 2,550, and the average SAT score of incoming freshmen has climbed about 90 points. Elsener has launched a variety of initiatives, including an adult education program, an entrepreneurial group within the school of business, and the Marian Academy for Teaching and Learning Leadership. To help underline the school’s growing ambitions, it upgraded monikers from Marian College to Marian University in 2009.
But, in particular, two radically different schemes have dramatically raised the profile of the school and created rallying points for students and donors. In the fall of 2007, Marian debuted a football team that this season boasts a 9-0 record and No. 2 ranking in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics competition. And in 2010, the university announced plans for a $100 million college of osteopathic medicine, which will be just the second medical college in the state.
None of this would be possible without Herculean fundraising, and Elsener’s prowess in generating excitement for new projects and attracting big donations is nothing short of miraculous. With Elsener at the helm, annual fundraising grew from $2.4 million in the 2002 fiscal year to $6.8 million the following year. In 2007, the school launched a hail-Mary, $68.2 million capital campaign; now, a year before scheduled completion, the campaign has generated more than $140 million.
About $82 million of that total has been earmarked for the school of osteopathic medicine, dubbed the Michael A. Evans Center for Health Studies for a $48 million gift from AIT Laboratories founder Michael Evans. (Expected to open in fall 2013, the center also will house Marian’s existing nursing school.)
In the video at top, Elsenser outlines his damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward leadership, fundraising and executing aggressive growth plans. “People say, ‘Well, you might waste some money or you might make a mistake.’ I say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and we’ll still do it. We’ll learn from that too.'”
In the video below, he recounts the initially fatalistic reactions to suggestions that the school start a football program. These indicated to Elsener that Marian needed to prove to itself it could meet a seemingly unachievable goal. “It told us that if we say we can do something big, we can do it, we’ll do it fast, and it will be excellent,” he said.