QCBJ Q&A: Amy Novak

In her first full semester as leader of St. Ambrose University, President Amy Novak has been tireless in her efforts to spread the word about the Davenport-based higher-education institution. 

Since taking over in August as the university’s 15th president, the educational innovator also is  leaning on her deep experience in higher education and her role as a mother of eight to captain SAU as it embarks on a strategic planning process. 

Ms. Novak, who holds a Doctor of Education degree in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University, comes to the Quad Cities after nearly two decades as leader of Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, South Dakota. 

What are your goals for SAU? 

The university is embarking on a strategic planning process that is inviting input from a variety of core constituencies. I  believe that expansion of partnerships with business and industry will be a part of this plan, alongside the development of new enrollment offerings to help upskill and reskill working adults as well as majors that will respond to the growing shifts taking place in the economy. 

Moreover, the plan will also include an examination of emerging pedagogies (that is, how we teach) and how we equip our faculty to be facilitating the learning of the future. Mindful that such learning must be grounded in our core values and embrace of service and justice.

What’s in the future for St. Ambrose?

On April 7, we will be hosting a special summit on campus and inviting leaders from 10 different industry sectors to help us understand the forces shaping their respective industries and the labor force of the future. 

We will use this information to also inform the creation of a new Ambrose core curriculum that will have intentional skill development and exposure to the premium human skills that are so vital to the knowledge era economy. These skills include things like innovation, creativity, conflict management, leadership, financial acumen, information literacy, ethical decision-making, etc. 

Ambrose will be very intentional in the next two years about really understanding how students learn and ensuring that we are creating the learning infrastructure to meet learners from various backgrounds and equipping our faculty with state-of-the-art pedagogical approaches that prepare them to teach tomorrow’s students.

Moreover, we know that civil dialogue and problem solving will be necessary skills as we engage the challenges of the next decade. While we have always had a strong liberal arts core, we will likely become more specific about the experiences we create for students that really hone these skills and ensure that students can demonstrate their proficiency in these core area.

You can expect that the Ambrose curriculum may have stackable credentials built into various programs where students receive industry certifications in core areas as well as the necessary liberal arts skills.

Are there things that need to be done to steer more high school graduates to education? 

We will explore different business models that may open more doors of access for students who struggle to pay for higher education. We will also be testing ways of more intentionally integrating work and service into the learning experience – students can ideally learn and earn simultaneously, not just during an eight-week internship during their junior year.

It’s a question men rarely are asked, but it continues to be relevant in 2022: Did you find that your gender created challenges or roadblocks for you? 

I’ve never looked at life from the lens of “roadblocks.” Instead, I worked really hard to be an authentic leader and live out that calling with an appreciation for the multiple roles I play. I was always very honest with supervisors in explaining how my work might get done differently. 

Overall, though, being a mother to eight has been an incredible asset to my work. They keep it real. I see my work through their eyes, their learning styles, their approach to the world. They are eight distinct learners with eight distinct passions. They aren’t afraid to tell me when my ideas are crazy or to challenge my assumptions. It’s been my own experimental pod on a lot of different initiatives. 

Sometimes as women we become constrained by what we “think we need to do or be” that is different from “who we authentically are.” My goal is to get the work done. How I get it done and when I get it done it might look really different from someone else, but I don’t think working and motherhood are incompatible. I think it’s about being present to the space we are in — some days, that is being present to a child who is struggling through an issue in middle school. Other days, it’s being present to a group of faculty working through a challenge. When we live in the space of “presence” we are able to be more effective in our work.

How does one get from the Dakotas to the Quad Cities? 

After 18 years at Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) and the completion of the campus master plan, I felt called to find another university that aligned with my faith tradition as well as appreciated a spirit of innovation, especially given the projected demographic declines and challenges that appear on the horizon.

St. Ambrose’s deep commitment to social justice and the Catholic intellectual tradition, alongside it’s appreciation of inclusion and diversity, as well as the university’s progressive approaches to innovation in both the undergraduate and graduate spaces inspired me to apply. 

The work being done on micro credentialing, the Institute for Person-Centered Care, the long-tradition or partnerships in the Quad Cities to serve the needs of business leaders suggested that this was a university that was willing to think creatively about how we prepare not just 18-24 years, but persons across the life-span of learning. 

What are you proudest of from your time at DWU?

There were many things that were accomplished at DWU for which I am proud, including completion of the campus master plan through the strongest fundraising in university history or the record enrollment. But what I am most proud of was actually the culture that we collectively built at DWU. This organizational culture embraced a willingness to experiment and innovate and collectively they all bought into the vision for our future.  We actually had 100% of the faculty and staff give back, financially, to the university and that commitment truly symbolized a deep embrace of our mission, vision and values. 

Alongside this effort to build a strong culture was our intentional efforts to develop a stronger spiritual maturity on our campus. The growth of student involvement in campus ministry and the growth of faculty and staff embrace of our institutional values around faith provided a fruitful framework for us to accomplish our other goals.  

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