Author: Hu, Helen
Date published: December 22, 2011
Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban's first few months as interim president of Seton Hall University put him to the test.
The university - where he serves as president - saw its first staff cutbacks in 25 years. And a sophomore from Virginia was shot to death at an off- campus party in East Orange, N.J.
"The first six months were very challenging," says Esteban, who was appointed president of New Jersey's largest Catholic university last January.
Still, he says, "Because of things that happened, the campus came together as a community. Because of adversity, you can grow stronger as an institution."
Esteban, 50, is used to coping with change and tackles challenges with gusto.
He grew up in Manila. His father was a doctor and professor at the University of the Philippines, and his mother taught world history.
Esteban enrolled at the university a few years after President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law, and he became involved in protest marches and served as a poll watcher as part of the push for free elections. He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics with a minor in computer science and later earned a master's in business administration from the university.
He taught marketing at the university for a couple of years before being selected for a scholarship to Chaminade University in Honolulu where he earned a master's in Japanese business studies. He also received a Ph.D. in business administration from the University of California in Irvine.
Esteban got his first teaching job at the University of Houston- Victoria, where, after two years, he was asked by Dr. Larry Robinson, the provost - who was to work at two other places with Esteban, including Seton Hall - to set up an office of institutional research. "Being young and brash, I said I'd do it," Esteban says with a chuckle.
He later held leadership positions at Arkansas Tech University and the University of Central Arkansas, where Robinson served as chief academic officer and provost.
While in Texas and Arkansas, Esteban succeeded in increasing enrollment by at least 40 percent, in part by establishing offsite campuses.
By 2006, he began to keep an eye out for university president positions and was approached about becoming provost at Seton Hall. He was reluctant at first, concerned that his experience was with public universities, but applied and was offered the job in 2007.
Esteban became interim president in June 2010 after longtime president Monsignor Robert Sheer an retired. Esteban earned the top job the following January after the board of trustees exempted him from the requirement that Seton Hall presidents be priests. Esteban is a devout Catholic, however, attending morning Mass in the on-campus chapel near his office.
Esteban is the first Filipino-American to head a major university in the United States and one of the few Asians to reach his level in higher education in this country. Others include Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College since 2009; Sung-Mo "Steve" Kang, former chancellor of the University of California at Merced; and the late Chang Lin-Tien, who served as chancellor at UC Berkeley.
Esteban had mentors, which he says is key to seeing more Asians rise into management positions at universities.
And he's willing to work hard. "I'm not the smartest," he says. "But I'll make sure no one outworks me."
Robinson says that, apart from his financial know-how and academic strengths, Esteban has a calm, humble demeanor, can conceptualize ideas and is a good organizer. He also works well with people, which "enables him to be very effective," Robinson adds.
Esteban says it is important for those who want to rise in higher education to become involved in activities on and off campus. He has served on many academic committees and was chairman of the chamber of commerce and a women's shelter in Conway, Ark.
He also has worked to help Asians and Pacific Islanders gain access to higher education and become leaders. He is a founding board member of the newly formed APIACU, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Association of Colleges and Universities, and has been involved in LEAP, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifies Inc.
At Seton Hall, Esteban has pushed to raise the school's academic profile. He wants it to become one of the top 10 Catholic universities and top 100 universities in the country.
In April 2010, the business school earned accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a significant distinction reached by only one other business program in the state, Esteban says.
The school also is proud of its recent award recipients: It had its first Rhodes Scholar in 2008, first Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow last year and llth Fulbright Scholar named in May.
Starting in 2012, the school, which is 15 miles from New York City, will offer in-state tuition to high- achieving, out-ofstate applicants. That means a discount of about $20,000 a year.
Esteban is visiting 23 cities over six months to reconnect with alumni chapters and meet people who might be thinking of applying.
The school also plans capital improvements, including some new classrooms and a new recreational facility and student center.
Esteban says Seton Hall's Catholic culture makes it very different from other universities he's worked for. There's an emphasis on giving back to society. "It's very invigorating," he says. "It plants your feet on the ground in terms of what you do."
Esteban's daughter, Ysabella, a senior at Seton Hall majoring in biochemistry, says she appreciates her father's humility and ability to stay unflappable despite the stresses of his job.
In addition, the college president has an athletic streak. He played a lot of basketball in his youth and took taekwondo classes for several years with Ysabella and his wife, Josephine, while in Arkansas. These days, he plays golf.
-By Helen Hu