Kittle ‘energized’ as he assumes Dakota Wesleyan University president role
Lifelong learning process continues in new position
MITCHELL — Attending high school in Ohio, Daniel Kittle admits he did not envision himself becoming the leader at a four-year university in Mitchell.
But that’s where his calling has led him, and he couldn’t be more excited.
“It’s been energizing,” Kittle told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “I found there to be a real sense of joy and purpose among the people that I work with at the university. I’m not surprised by that, but it’s been extraordinarily affirming and energizing.”
Kittle was announced as the 21st president of the university, succeeding Amy Novak, who served as president of the school since 2014 and announced her resignation in February 2021 . Then, she became president at St. Ambrose University in Ambrose, Iowa.
That left it up to a presidential search committee at Dakota Wesleyan University to seek and hire a new top administrator. A professional firm was hired, qualifications were weighed and interviews held, and in the end it was Kittle, who was serving as vice president for student life and dean of students at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Since his hire, it has been a whirlwind of life changes. After being introduced to the public at a press conference last year, he has been preparing for the role he finally began in an official capacity March 23 by getting to know his new school, students, faculty and staff as well as moving his family of three to his new home in Mitchell.
“It’s been great. During that interim period, I had to lean into it and understand how to use that time appropriately. What I did was really dive into the history of DWU and spend a lot of time on the website and getting to know people in the departments,” Kittle said. “That was really, really helpful.”
Further meetings with the senior leadership team soon followed, and he continued to be a sponge absorbing the finer points of the school, its campus family and the community at large.
How much has he learned since accepting the job and assuming his official duties a little more than a week ago?
“A lot,” Kittle said. “(My first week) coincided with our board of trustees being on campus as well, and I got to spend a lot of time with the board. In retrospect I can’t imagine a better way to start, because that group is so critical and important. And they were really gracious, so I spent a lot of time with them getting to know them, but then by extension got to know the university as well.”
Kittle, 46, grew up in Bazetta, a small township in Ohio , where he graduated from high school in 1994. He enjoyed school, though he admits he was an average student in his younger days. He focused on his academics and played basketball and track, as well as participated in musical activities, and eventually came to appreciate the diverse nature of the educational experience.
“In retrospect, my experiences there were academically and athletically oriented. I played basketball and track and field and other things I didn’t do quite as well, and I was also very involved in band and music,” Kittle said. “Looking back, that planted the seeds in me to have appreciation for the variety of experiences that students have.”
He attended Heidelberg University, studying public relations and political science before moving on to a major research university in Michigan State University, receiving a Ph.D. in higher, adult, learning and education. He also completed a Foundations of Christian Leadership program through Duke University.
It was at Heidelberg University that he began to see his future path.
“In high school I was an average student and didn’t have a lot of aspiration or confidence in terms of my place in the world. But in college I really began to find that, and I found that because of really quality academic experiences and co-curricular experiences,” Kittle said. “By the time I was a sophomore in college I knew that I wanted to play some role at a university or college. I couldn’t imagine not being a part of that magic, because I was a product of it and I saw the impact it had on me and my classmates.”
His leadership background is well-rounded. Kittle compares both Heidelberg University and Wartburg College as similar in size and scope to Dakota Wesleyan, and his time studying and working at Michigan State University opened his eyes to an academic experience at a large public school.
He notes that Heidelberg University has about 900 students, while his first role at Michigan State University was as the director of a residence hall that housed 1,200 by itself. The work broadened him and his vision of what a student college experience could be, but it also showed him that he belonged at a smaller institution like Dakota Wesleyan.
“I knew from day one to the day I left that I was going to find my way to a place like DWU. I never aspired to stay within (the large school) environment. That’s just not who I was or am, but it was really a helpful growth experience,” Kittle said.
Kittle was right about where he was likely to end up, although he didn’t necessarily see it coming in the beginning. As a career educator rooted in the Midwest, Kittle was familiar with Dakota Wesleyan University, though not closely. When the school began searching for its new president after Novak resigned, a friend of Kittle’s pointed out the position to him.
There were several factors that made Dakota Wesleyan an appealing fit. He cited the school’s values, along with its strong background in faith, learning, leadership and service, all appealed greatly to him and factored in his choice to investigate the position more closely.
Now that he’s begun the move into his office in Smith Hall, he has started the work of continuing to lead the school forward. He has scheduled meetings with staff and faculty, about 10 individuals at a time, to better learn them personally and professionally, and expects to make his way through them all in the upcoming months. The same goes for student and student leaders, with whom Kittle plans to meet in a similar manner.
He comes into the role with no set agenda, saying he believes the path the university needs to follow will show itself organically through those experiences and discussions. The work that Novak and other school leaders have done provided the school with a lot of “positive momentum,” and that’s what he wants to focus on developing.
“I don’t believe that style of leadership is sustainable and ultimately effective when a leader comes in with a set of agenda items that reflect his or her own perspective. An effective, sustainable leader is someone who comes in and gets to know the institution,” Kittle said. “An effective leader becomes a bridge-builder who can develop some consensus around a vision and strategy and goals and then is persistent in achieving them. I think that’s what I aspire to do.”
Like it did at his other stops around the academic world, the learning process continues for Kittle. As he gets to know his new family at Dakota Wesleyan, he and his family are getting to know the Mitchell community. He and his wife, Ashley, have a son, Grant, who is now in second grade at L.B. Williams Elementary School, and gave his parents “two thumbs up” after his first day at his new school. Ashley is a conservation professional with a special interest in ecosystems management and has worked as a naturalist and conservationist.
They’re settling into their new home in Mitchell, getting to know their neighbors and looking forward to becoming an ingrained part of the community. If they can find a little time this summer, they plan to take their RV out to explore the region and get to know their new state a little better.
But, of course, there’s some work to do in the meantime, and he is anxious to hit the ground running. It’s a new phase in his life and the life of Dakota Wesleyan, and he is looking forward to what the future holds.
“I think President Novak did a great job. She assembled and strengthened a really strong leadership team, and I am looking forward to continuing that positive momentum,” Kittle said.