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Q&A with DWU's Amy Novak

Dakota Wesleyan University's new president Amy Novak laughs at her office during a recent interview with The Daily Republic. (Anna Jauhola/Daily Republic)1 / 2
Dakota Wesleyan University's new president, Amy Novak, is pictured with her husband and their eight children. Back row: Isaac, Amy, Ken and Peter Novak; Front row: Seemela, Elijah, Zechariah, Marianna, Mark and Luke. (Photo courtesy of Photography Unlimited)2 / 2

In June, Amy Novak took over as Dakota Wesleyan University's new, and first female, president after serving as the provost and executive vice president from 2008 to 2013.

In a recent interview with The Daily Republic, the 42-year-old Mitchell native discusses her new role, her family and what her vision is for the local university in the coming years.

Q: What have your first couple of months as president been like?

A: It's been an exciting time so far. I've had a wonderful opportunity to meet with many donors and friends of the university, as well as to start thinking about our future. We're beginning a new strategic planning process, so I've been working with a lot of our faculty, staff, alumni and constituents of the university to really craft a distinct future for Dakota Wesleyan in the next 10 years.

Q: What do you want that distinct future to be?

A: I think we're tapping into the collective wisdom of our alumni, donors, as well as our internal community to really answer that question as a group. We want to look at some of the trends that are emerging, both the demographic and economic trends in our region, the employment forecast for various areas, as well as garner some insight about how is business changing? How are industries changing? What should we expect in future leaders? And hopefully that will help craft a series of imperatives that will guide our strategic vision as we go forward.

Q: So, in 10 years, where do you want to see DWU?

A: I think that's being developed, but I certainly think our goal is to create an institution that has a distinction as an entity that develops bold, spirit leaders to embrace our role as servants in our world -- whether that's in industry, whether that's in the nonprofit sector, whether that might be in health care -- but ultimately we're about developing future leaders for service to God and humanity.

Q: You mentioned service to God. How do you plan to continue and/or emphasize DWU's status as a faith-based institution?

A: I think our values as a Christian institution are values that are open to people of all faith traditions. We know that there are many people for whom religion often has negative connotations, but I believe one of the distinct opportunities we have here at Wesleyan is to help students understand that we shouldn't shy away from the real, strong values that have been at the heart of this institution since it was founded. Instead, we have to show students how those values really help create a stronger human community, and allow them to live out their lives with greater meaning and purpose, and with a stronger set of core values that informs their decision making.

Q: You are also the first female president of Dakota Wesleyan. What is that like for you?

A: I don't know that I've ever looked at my role from a particular gender perspective, but if being a female president inspires other young women, my own daughters for example, to lives of leadership, I am excited about the opportunity that I have to be a model for them and others who might be aspiring to leadership in higher education or other, related industries. I think regardless of whether women choose to stay at home, be in the workplace, be in a volunteer capacity, the most important thing for women is simply to find comfort where they're at. I think we don't do a good service to each other by criticizing or belittling people's choices. Instead, the best thing women can do to promote leadership of women in any capacity is really to lift up all women for the choices that they choose to make, and not find fault with any of those choices.

Q: Because some women have been looked down on for being stay-at-home moms?

A: Right, and I really feel saddened by that. I look at the role of my husband in a stay-at-home capacity, and he does a tremendous amount of work, and he's playing a very pivotal role in our family. For women who choose to do that, I am thrilled by that decision and I want to support them in that decision. Similarly, for women who choose to embrace different opportunities in a professional workspace, I want to support and encourage those women to pursue their calling in that capacity, as well.

Q: What brought you to DWU?

A: There were a series of sort of personal circumstances. My husband was medically retired from the Air Force. In his transition, I brought our six children, at the time, back from Germany and began looking for employment opportunities in Mitchell. I decided maybe this was an opportunity to try something I hadn't really tried, but had a passion for, and that was just education, generally -- I'm a passionate learner. I thought, "maybe this is an area I could really use my gifts."

Q: What was your first position at DWU?

A: I was fortunate to be able to have an opportunity to work here as their director of the TRIO Grant, which served first-generation, low-income students. As I started working with students, I really fell in love with the role higher education plays in our world, and the real impact each of us working in higher education can have on the future of our region, both its economy as well as its development of leaders.

Q: What other positions have you held at the university?

A: TRIO grant from November 2003 until July 2004, then I became the director of admissions here. In 2006 I became the dean of enrollment and retention, and then vice president for enrollment management in 2007. Then in 2008 I stepped into the role of the provost.

Q: How does your experience in those other positions help you in your new role as president?

A: I think it's invaluable, because I have a sense of, really, how the university operates. I understand the dynamics that influence our enrollment, how the curriculum is developed, the impact of athletics, how student loans impact enrollment, so I have a sense of the financial side of the institution, the enrollment side of the institution, the curricular side of the institution and the student services side of the institution.

Q: You're part of a gradual shift in gender roles, as the woman with the high-profile job while your husband stays at home. Did you seek out becoming part of that trend, or did it just happen?

A: I don't know if I ever aspired to become a college president, but I feel blessed by the opportunity to do so. Sometimes doors are opened for us, and we have to really take a serious look at our own skill sets and the gifts that God has given us, and understand that sharing those gifts is also part of our responsibility in this world.

Q: What did you see yourself doing?

A: It's been all over the board. I don't think if you would have asked me at 22 if I would have had eight children, I don't think I would have definitely forecast that. Ten years ago I hadn't thought about working in higher education. So sometimes, opportunities are simply put in front of you and as you embrace those opportunities, new opportunities arise. and, in this particular case, the opportunity to be a college president was just something that just really came to the forefront in the last year, and really gave me an opportunity to think about how I could use my leadership gifts to advance the values and mission of our institution.

Q: What's it like to be able "have it all," so to speak, with your career and family all in your hometown?

A: It's a tremendous blessing. It's a great opportunity to be able to be in Mitchell. I'm passionate about what higher education can do both for smaller communities like Mitchell, and for the economics of our region. I think there's tremendous collaborative partnership possible between our community businesses and university. So it's a real privilege to have an opportunity to come back to your hometown and be part of crafting the future of this region through education and partnership.

Q: There must be a lot of demands, both with being president of a university and with being a mother of eight. How do you balance those?

A: I think there's actually some natural intersections between the two. And I'm really fortunate to be blessed with a wonderful spouse who stays at home with our children and is able to really offer them a whole lot of support. It's a partnership between he and I to do what we do here at Wesleyan.

Q: In what ways do the two intersect?

A: There's always opportunities to connect with people, and leadership, whether it's in our homes, in our schools or in our jobs, is about developing authentic relationships. So having the opportunity to raise eight children gives me a wonderful opportunity to intersect with people and develop relationships in all sorts of different capacities. And fundamentally, being a great parent is about learning how to -- it's both humbling but it's also about learning how to let people make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, and much about leading a private institution also involves taking risks, it involves building community, it involves letting our students make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, so there's a lot of intersection between the two sorts of goals.

I often joke that I'm a mom to eight at home, and I think very seriously about being a mother to the 800 students who are here, and that what I want for my own children, I also want for the 800 students that are here, as well.

Q: Your children are Peter, 18; Isaac, 16; Luke, 15; Mark, 13; Seemela, 12; Marianna, 10; Elijah, 7; and Zechariah, 5. That's a lot of teenagers in one house.

A: That's right (laughs). But actually, I've enjoyed the teenage years. I really have. It's delightful to see them start to engage the world, and think about their role in it. That's been a real blessing of the teenage years for us. On top of that, they keep me very well informed about all of the things that are transpiring in the minds of teenagers.

Q: What does your day-to-day look like now at the university?

A: I'm involved extensively in our fundraising efforts for the institution. I'm also working very hard on our strategic planning initiative, crafting the vision for our future, in collaboration with our internal and external stakeholders. I'm involved in developing a great team of people here to lead us to that future vision, so working very closely to make sure that our staffing and our resources are aligned to accomplish our goals that we need to accomplish. Certainly, I'm attuned to the political environment that's shaping higher education, and our continual need to be advocating for students and for the federal support for their student loans and financing of higher education. I would say the final component would be just tending to our relationship with United Methodist Church, and continuing to foster and support a strong partnership between the church and the university.