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A most noteworthy president leads with his heart

A most noteworthy president leads with his heart

Teri Rizvi June 29, 2021

When Eric Spina jots a personal note, it’s more than a simple gesture of kindness. It sends a powerful message: I care.

And while the P.S. may be unwritten, the president’s intent is clear: We are making this university stronger together.

As the Buffalo native finishes his fifth year as president, he’s depleted dozens of boxes of Uni-ball black gel pens as he’s scrawled 3,567 heartfelt notes (and counting). Imagine the surprise on the faces of roommates when each receives a personalized note after he visits their house for dinner.

“The UD family has been remarkable to Karen and me.”
The Spinas stand in front of a Chirtsmas tree
Spinas at the 2019 Christmas Gala. by Briana Snyder

“The UD family has been remarkable to Karen and me,” said Spina, who arises early on Saturdays to write a stack of notes at his home desk. “It was important for me to honor that graciousness and goodness, and I felt that a handwritten note — despite my suspect handwriting — was a good way to do so as it demonstrates that I really do notice, I really do care and I really do want to say ‘congratulations’ on that achievement, ‘thank you’ for making UD a better place or ‘I share your sorrow.’”  

When his thousands of tweets, Instagram photos, LinkedIn articles, blogs and campus-wide messages are thrown in, Spina is carving a reputation as a compelling chronicler of UD’s Catholic, Marianist mission — and as the most visible president in school history.

Colleagues praise Spina’s authentic communication style as much as his visionary leadership and agility navigating the campus through the greatest public health crisis of our times, seemingly without missing a beat. UD has established new enrollment, retention and graduation records, while the long-term investment pool, largely endowment, has soared past $1 billion and annual sponsored research now tops $180 million. Alumni and friends back UD’s strategic path, evidenced by a 40 percent climb in private support.

Spina quickly deflects credit: “I’m very rarely the smartest person in the room,” he says with characteristic humility. “I’m blessed with a great team, and I lean into their knowledge. We’re not quite out of the pandemic, but no one person or just the cabinet could have done it alone. A community came together.”

“Eric is an outstanding team builder,” agrees Provost Paul Benson, “but he also has an unusually perceptive mind, a very capacious heart, and a boundless commitment to the mission and values of UD and to our students. He keeps students at the center of his attention and at the top of his priorities.”

“He keeps students at the center of his attention and at the top of his priorities.”

In the Dayton community, Spina champions civic engagement as the ultimate learning curve for students aspiring to become servant-leaders. He calls UD’s role as an anchor institution “a sacred privilege.”

Spina with students smiling the Humanities Plaza
Spina with students supporting One Day, One Dayton in 2019. by Briana Snyder

“Eric very much sees the success of UD and the broader community as intertwined,” says Mary Boosalis, chair of UD’s board of trustees and president of Premier Health. “This mindset has contributed to game-changing projects across Dayton: investing in the Arcade, partnering to redevelop the former Montgomery County fairgrounds as OnMain, as well as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by collaborating with Premier Health to turn UD Arena into a testing and vaccination site.”

When asked to share his proudest moment, Spina doesn’t mention UD’s role in the rebirth of Dayton’s urban core or even the $76 million UD Arena transformation — an expansive renovation funded largely through private support. He points to the Flyer Promise Scholars program, which removes financial barriers for underrepresented students, many first-generation.

“To see 40 of the 42 kids in the first class graduate in four years was a very emotional moment. The University has worked to change their lives and the arc for their families,” he says.

Nationally, Spina sits on the steering committee of the American Talent Initiative, an alliance of universities and colleges dedicated to expanding opportunity for low- and moderate-income students. His commitment to shrinking the inequality gap — and increasing diversity — is rooted in the Catholic, Marianist conviction that each person is made in the image and likeness of God. All talented students, no matter their ZIP code, bring gifts that enrich the educational experience for all.

“He’s a staunch advocate for diversity, access and equity and has led us boldly to take the prudent and necessary actions to diversify our enrollment,” says Jason Reinoehl, vice president for strategic enrollment management. Beyond Flyer Promise, he holds up as markers the UD Sinclair Academy, a joint UD-Sinclair Community College nursing program, expanded services for veterans, a streamlined admission process and greater support for international students.

Eric Spina in the University of Dayton chapel
Spina in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception on campus. by Lilia Sciaretti

Those efforts are reaping dividends, with a 68 percent surge in the enrollment of historically underserved students and a 44 percent increase in Pell-grant eligible students, which puts a college education in reach for low-income students.

Leslie Picca, a sociologist who teaches about race and white privilege and written two books on racism, says the University has experienced “a seismic shift” in its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Debra Plousha Moore ’89, a trustee who spent a decade as associate dean of students on campus early in her career, agrees with that assessment.

“We believe in his vision.”

“UD is showing substantial signs of building a diverse learning and teaching community. We have seen diversity play out on the board and with faculty, students and Eric’s commitment to the Dayton community. He has the trustees’ support. We believe in his vision,” says Plousha Moore in a phone interview from San Francisco where she founded a leadership consulting firm.

Spina, she observes, is building the bedrock for UD’s future. “If you’re longing for short-term gains, you’ll see a few. The long game is transformational.”

President Spina, at home at UD