Valpo’s third and final candidate for presidency is first generation college student, Dr. Troy DeWayne VanAken. VanAken currently serves as the president and professor of math at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill.
VanAken has not only served as Elmhurst’s president, but also president of Thiel College as well as serving as Athletic Director, Vice President of Finance and Management, Assistant Vice President for Informational Technology and numerous other roles at various schools.
VanAken began addressing the student forum with background information about his education and how he and his wife were the first in each of their family’s to attend college. He says he feels “transformed by educational opportunities.”
Notably in 2007 when President Mark Heckler was in the search process to be Valpo’s president, VanAken had also been involved in that search process but hadn’t made the cut for campus visits and presentations.
“But since that time, I’ve paid a little extra attention to Valparaiso and saw all the great things that had been going on,” VanAken said. “And I know there have been some challenges the institution has gone through more recently but I think as I look at the different things that were highlighted in the search profile, I felt that not only could I check that box but there were some areas where I might be able to add some value.”
VanAken explains that working in higher education for him and his wife Annette is a vocation to help young people reach their full potential through an exceptional higher education experience. To back up his self claiming love for a stellar student experience, VanAken prepared statistics of improvement to share with the Valpo community.
“If you were to ask me what the number one retention I pay attention to as a president, it’s student retention,” VanAken said. “And that really ties to graduation rates.”
VanAken explains that as the first to second year retention rates go up, graduation rates will also go up.
During his presidency at Thiel College, the first to second year retention rates went up 10 percentage points and while at Elmhurst, they have gone up seven percentage points.
“That’s really what drives me,” VanAken said. “I don’t want students to just come to the institution, I want them to walk across the stage.”
Junior Liz Palmer asked VanAken at the student forum how his religious beliefs with the LCMS would affect his policy efforts.
While VanAken admits to having history with the LCMS church, he has attended ELCA churches as well.
“So I think in some ways, I might be uniquely qualified to be at Valparaiso where you have both dimensions here,” VanAken said.
The biggest difference VanAken sees with the organizations is same sex marriage, telling the attendees at the forum he considers himself an ally.
VanAken goes on to joke about his wife encouraging him to read a recent Torch article, suggesting that Valpo students intend to do their homework on presidential candidates, including VanAken.
“So for example, would you allow a drag show on campus?” VanAken asks, referencing previous questions asked by students.
“Well not only would I allow it, but I’ve done it. Fact of the matter is I attended one last spring,” VanAken said.
He recalls hurtful messages being written on a bathroom wall, targeting certain groups. After this, he felt he needed to be at the show in order to show support to those individuals who felt marginalized.
“It's great to hear that you support diversity and inclusion on your campus at Elmhurst,” said sophomore Jolie Floor. “My question for you is will you bring any new diversity and inclusion initiatives once you've settled into your position as president?”
While he wants to bring in ideas to Valpo if given the opportunity to serve as president, VanAken acknowledges that the conversation to change and implement procedures is a two way conversation.
VanAken says he likes to be informed that the multicultural groups on campus are doing event wise so he can try to go to an event or meet with them once a term.
VanAken earlier stated the retention rates at Elmhurst had grown but included in that growth, was also “large gains in some of our underrepresented populations.”
“Elmhurst is a place that when I had the privilege of joining up four years ago, our students of color, were about 35 percent of our incoming class, this last year, they were 49 percent,” VanAken said.
The demographic shifts in the western suburbs of Chicago is a key factor in making this possible, according to VanAken, but, he feels himself and Elmhurst are using the right recruiting tactics as well.
“We're doing some things even before students become students to try to support these individuals beyond just, you know, tell me your GPA and your ACT or SAT score, and we'll get your scholarship,’” VanAken said.
One student explained that smaller programs on campus are afraid of cuts due to the financial situation the university is in currently. While VanAken mentioned he feels drawn to Valpo because of the financial challenges, students want to know more of why, and how he would fix this issue.
“The best thing you can do is, you know, you can make sure that you have a sustainable financial model,” VanAken said.
VanAken explains that Elmhurst College had very similar financial challenges to Valpo, four years ago.
“We've been able to turn that around. We've been running structural surpluses, we've had years of record enrollment, and we're not talking about cutting programs to be able to balance the books. Now, will that happen here at Valparaiso? I don't know,” VanAken said.
VanAken continues to say that while the turnaround didn’t occur simply because he stepped on that campus, and “blessed those individuals with an unbelievable insight into how to solve very complex problems,” he does have ideas that have worked before.
“I guess my approach on solving those problems is to try to really build up a lot of teamwork” VanAken said.
While he feels that morale may be low with the faculty and staff, he wants to create an environment where the creative juices flow again.
“That would be my approach. How can we create an environment where creativity and energy and focus on things that will drive retention up and drive recruitment on?” VanAken said.
The Torch staff plans to endorse a candidate and advises readers to stay tuned for that endorsement.