The transition was mostly smooth when Dan Curran replaced the popular Brother Ray Fitz and became the first lay president at the University of Dayton in 2002, but one skeptical donor had to be convinced.
“One of the significant contributors to the university called and said, ‘I don’t think I can contribute anymore with this new president.’ They asked why. And they said, ‘Well, he’s a socialist.’ They said no, no, no — he’s a sociologist,” Curran recalled.
“Since then that person has continued to be a great supporter of the institution.”
As he begins to count down his days as UD’s 18th president, sociologist is noticing the little things amid all the big changes he has brought to campus.
“I can walk here in the summer; I can get to my office in like 10 minutes. But during the school year it’s a half hour because students stop you constantly,” Curran said in an interview last week.
“That’s a great part of UD, that students are willing to talk to you, and they have a great love for the university.”
Curran, 65, will step down as president June 30, transitioning out of a job he’s held since 2002. He will take a one year sabbatical before returning as a professor.
Curran is a former Fulbright Scholar who has helped turn UD into a major Catholic research university and one of the area’s most influential economic engines. Over the next five years, UD already has locked in about $500 million in research contracts.
The university’s purchase of the old NCR world headquarters in 2009 gave the UD Research Institute much-needed elbow room, which in turn has helped the School of Engineering thrive. More than 2,300 UD undergraduates — about 27 percent of the student body — now major in some form of engineering.
The recent openings of the GE EPISCenter and Emerson Climate Technologies’ global innovation center added more prestige to UD’s research profile.
“In science and engineering we’ve really made our name,” Curran said. “When a sociologist came in, I think some of the engineers got worried because Brother Ray was an engineer, and now they’re getting an engineer back (incoming president Eric Spina).
“But I think they were pleasantly surprised when they realized we were going to enhance the image of the university.”
While the campus has nearly doubled in size to 398 acres under his watch, and UD’s endowment has grown to $500 million, Curran’s biggest point of pride is the diversification of the student body. When he took over 14 years ago, 42 international students were on campus. There were more than 1,700 during the just-completed school year.
That push happened because of Curran’s desire to reach overseas, and because of changing demographics in Ohio. In 2002, about one in three UD students were from out of state. Today, more than half are from beyond the state’s border.
“One of the main achievements was we really developed a recruiting strategy and presented ourselves very differently as a university,” Curran said. “We’ve gone through a period of growth and diversification of our students.
“Looking at the demographics of Ohio, we had to change that. Right now we’re at the trough of high school-aged students in Ohio going into college. We saw it right away and had to recruit out of state.”
Over the past decade it also has become more challenging to get into UD. Its acceptance rate went from 84 percent in 2002 to 57 percent in 2015. The average ACT score for entering classes improved from 24.7 to 26.8.
Many of UD’s new students come from China, where starting next year Curran said he’ll be spending about five months each year as executive-in-residence for Asian affairs at the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou.
He acknowledged some growing pains brought on by the influx of foreign students, but he is proud of the strategy. He said about 300 students go through an intensive English program each year.
“I think it’s much smoother than it was initially. We’ve gotten more involved in assisting professors, but it is hard, no doubt,” Curran said. “It was a major transformation. We made the decision we would integrate them in and not create large classes for just Chinese students.
“I look at these students at being very courageous. Most of them have never been abroad before.”
Some other topics Curran talked about:
Acquiring the old NCR world headquarters for $18 million in 2009:
“I think we improved the footprint and helped the region. The acquisition of the NCR world headquarters, that was really an easier negotiation because it was very clean land. Our vision early on was to almost rebrand the research institute. It was doing well, but it was in Kettering Labs. They needed space and it’s really paid off. This year the research institute will do over $100 million in research.”
Men’s basketball coach Archie Miller, who has a 115-55 record in five years leading the Flyers:
“I think Archie will be here for a number of years. I think he sees this as a very good situation for him and his family. But, there are probably eight to 10 universities that you couldn’t pass over. If anyone was a true friend to him, they’d probably say (if one of those schools made an offer), ‘This is your opportunity to get to the Final Four every year.’ ”
The possibility of UD joining the Big East, which three years ago added Xavier and Butler from the Atlantic 10 but not UD:
“I don’t see anything happening. I don’t think Fox Sports is willing to put more money on the table and I don’t think the institutions in the Big East right now are willing to divide the money more. I’m friends with multiple presidents in the Big East. They’re pretty straight about it. They’re keeping a hold of the finances that are there. I think Fox would like to have more teams, but they’re not willing to put more money to it.”
UD’s purchase of a $1.55 million presidential mansion in Oakwood:
“It’s been discussed at times. I was going through the transition of my children leaving the house and (when it was brought up) I said, ‘Well, I’m going to actually downsize.’ But we needed a president house. I think it’s a good investment in the long term for the university. We do need function space to have dinners. That was a board call, and I supported the idea of a house.”
Curran was interviewed at noon Thursday and had not received word of the death that morning of UD basketball player Steve McElvene. He has previously had to comfort families who lost students on and off campus, and he alluded to that when asked about the 24/7 aspect of his job.
“You always worry,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing. The death of a student is the most tragic thing that can happen.”