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Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Amy C. Novak has enjoyed a “straight A” year in 2021 – not only did the South Dakota native turn 50, the former president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., recently started a new job as 14th president of St. Ambrose University, Davenport. Her top priorities, unsurprisingly, are also all As.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Before coming to St. Ambrose, Novak was president of Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota for eight years.

Chief among them are affordability, accessibility and attainability, Novak said Tuesday in an interview at her office, to help the private Catholic school make progress on key issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“When we look at the data at who is completing and attaining degrees in higher education, we know we have work to do among first-generation students; students of color, and students from low-income backgrounds,” the new president said. “I believe one of the attributes that’s always been in the DNA of St. Ambrose is this willingness to innovate and create opportunities where opportunities may not have existed.”

That may include things such as not requiring students to be on campus five days a week or sit through 50-minute classes, since students learn in different ways today, she said.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Amy Novak, 50, is a devout Catholic. She earned her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, and a doctor of education degree in 2014 from Creighton University.

“How our brains have been re-wired by technology will require a different approach to student learning and engagement,” Novak said. “I’m prepared to make investments in our faculty to equip them for teaching what I’m calling the next-generation learner.”

They also have to come up with new ways to provide skills to non-traditional learners – who are 30 to 60 years old, for example.

“The learning lifespan is going on well beyond the 18-to-24-year-old,” Novak said. “It will really be about, how does Ambrose become the place of choice for the person who’s 40 and wants to come back for a certificate; or wants to change careers at 50, or wants to learn Spanish at 60? We will think differently as well about how we can serve learners across their lifespan, and not just in a traditional way.”

Other “As” that SAU must focus on are to be adaptive (responding to needs of the region), and anchored to the school’s Catholic history. “How do we build strong, ethical decision-making in our students? How do we encourage acts of character?” she asked. “How we develop servant leaders? We have this wonderful tradition here at St. Ambrose, that I think we can draw upon to equip people for what I call

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

St. Ambrose University was founded in Davenport in 1882 as a seminary and school of commerce for men.

the values, the core responsibilities we need to embrace as educated citizens in the world we’re in today.

“That call us to be inclusive, to lean into service to our community,” Novak said. “That invite us to treat people with respect and dignity.” A final “A” is for Ambrose to be aware of what the community needs are, and to be invested in the community, she said.

“In what ways can we not only be a thought leader, but be a collaborator in solving community problems, in addressing gaps in the community, or offering insights that might help strengthen our community?” she asked. That includes how SAU can help the area address diversity and equity issues.

“It’s being aware of those needs and being the kind of institution that’s listening for those opportunities,” Novak said. SAU requires students complete “an experiential learning opportunity,” that can include study abroad, internships, volunteerism or other service work.

Each fall, SAU has a “Bee the Difference Day” — an annual campus-wide volunteer day, organized by the SAU Student Government Association. Students break into teams and give four hours of service to the surrounding community, completing projects that range from raking leaves to decluttering yards. In the process of giving back, students get to know their neighbors and have a positive impact on the community.


A devout Catholic herself, Novak wants to continue to embrace that and institutionalize that even more throughout the year.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

A statue of St. Ambrose (an original doctor of the Catholic Church, Bishop of Milan and one of the most important theological figures of the 4th century) in front of Ambrose Hall.

“One of the roles of an educated population is simply to understand what is its role, beyond the jobs we all fill, in being active participants in our community,” she said. “How can we collectively strengthen the common good?”

As a Catholic school, SAU also should be open to people of all faith traditions, as well as nonbelievers, Novak said.

“What is it, at my core, that motivates what I do?” she asked. “How do I exhibit the best version of myself? It doesn’t matter if a student is no religion at all; if they’re Muslim or Jewish. Our goal is to help them explore, what is truth? What is value? What matters in my life? I think that will only grow here.”

SAU has a long history of being a staunch advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, she said. It was the first Catholic university to have a campus chapter of the NAACP (starting in 1947), Novak said. Just two years ago, SAU hired its first Associate Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Ryan Saddler.

Named to top job in February

Novak earned a Doctor of Education degree in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University in 2014, a Master of Science in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University in 1997, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Notre Dame in 1993.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Novak greeting people at the Rogalski Center on campus.

Following her graduation from Notre Dame, Novak held a variety of jobs while traveling with her husband, Ken, throughout his years of service in the U.S. Air Force, when he taught at the Air Force Academy – and won the honor of teacher of the year – and served as chief speech writer for the U.S. Air Force Command in Europe.

A leadership career in higher education was not a thought for the daughter of entrepreneurial parents when the Novaks returned to her native Mitchell, S.D., following Ken’s retirement from service. Yet, she quickly discovered her passion for the opportunities higher education offers to help raise people up after accepting a part-time job as a grant administrator for Dakota Wesleyan’s TRIO Student Services Program in November 2003.

Novak was appointed DWU’s vice president for enrollment management in 2004, was named provost in 2007, and became president of the private university of 950 students in 2013.

During her tenure as president, Novak led two capital campaigns raising nearly $60 million. Much of this fundraising supported building

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Novak, who started her new job Aug. 7, speaking with Ambrose students.

initiatives on DWU’s Mitchell campus, including a 50,000-square-foot science center, a 90,000-square-foot sport and wellness complex, an alumni welcome center and performing arts space, and a new residence hall. A School of Business, Innovation, and Leadership will open in a modern new building this fall.

She was chosen early this year by the SAU Board of Trustees following a national search and succeeds Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD., who retired Aug. 7 after 14 years as SAU president.

Novak was picked in February following a nationwide search initiated by the Most Rev. Thomas Zinkula, bishop of the Diocese of Davenport and chair of the St. Ambrose University Board of Trustees. SAU trustee alumni John Anderson (’87) and Renee Citera (’81) co-chaired the search committee.

The search was completed with the assistance of national search firm WittKieffer, started shortly after Lescinski’s August 2020 announcement of her intention to retire from a nearly 50-year career in service to Catholic higher education.


“Dr. Amy Novak brings proven presidential leadership to St. Ambrose University,” Bishop Zinkula said early this year. “Innovative, articulate, energetic, and compassionate, Amy clearly has the requisite personal gifts and professional experience to shape the future of the

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Amy Novak with retired SAU president Sr. Joan Lescinski.

university in a substantial manner.

“She has a passion for supporting students and actively engaging with the community, including business leaders,” he said. “Her respect for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teachings will be a tremendous asset. Amy will be an outstanding leader and she and her family will be a wonderful addition to the Quad Cities community.”

Novak had finished her virtual interview sessions as a finalist in the search, but hadn’t yet been offered the job, when she requested a visit to campus in late January 2021. Among the last stops on her unofficial tour was Christ the King Chapel.

Novak was impressed by the unique depictions of the Stations of the Cross in the etchings of the late Rev. Edward Catich (SAU ’34), the legendary artist, famed calligrapher and iconic St. Ambrose art professor. In the back of the chapel is

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Sister Joan Lescinski retired Aug. 7 after leading St. Ambrose University for 14 years, and a nearly 50-year career in Catholic higher education.

a painting depicting a white Madonna holding a Black baby Jesus. She found an instant connection, as the mother of two Black children she and her husband adopted from South Africa in 2001.

“That piece of art just spoke to me in a very profound way,” Novak said. “After a really tough summer, struggling with two Black children in rural America, there was this incredible sense of peace that just came over me. I realized here’s a place, this university, that A) had the courage to have a leader who painted this in the late 1940s, and B) is still embracing that role today, to be a place where diversity and inclusivity and an image of a universal Christ can permeate the experience we create.”

“When I walked into the chapel and saw this beautiful image of the Virgin Mary holding a Black baby Jesus, done in 1947, it’s this incredible foresight to say – this is the universal Christ,” she said. “This is someone who’s not white or Black, but someone who’s the embodiment of what it means to respect the human dignity of all people. There was a tremendous sense of calling right at that time and place.”


Novak and her husband adopted their children after they had three of their six biological kids.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

Novak and her husband Ken have eight children, including two they adopted in 2001 from South Africa.

They were living in Ottawa, Canada at the time, and she was working with new immigrant populations. “It was at the time of the AIDS crisis in South Africa and I had background in economic development and particular interest in the developing world, so one thing led to another, and the spirit called,” Novak said. “We ended up with two more beautiful children that really shed light on us, and they’ve probably been more of a blessing to us than we’ve been to them.”

Reflecting on the racial and social justice issues of the last 18 months, she and her husband have long had a passion “for amplifying the voices of people who’ve been marginalized and what role can we play in doing that,” Novak said. “That really led me to the calling of, how can I continue to work in higher education, but in a manner that is even more intentional than I previously had been, about creating pathways of opportunity and hope for people who might not otherwise have those?”

Leading by partnering

As she begins her St. Ambrose presidency, Novak will prioritize innovation in the face of a fast-changing higher education landscape, as well

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

The Fighting Bees encourage everyone to get vaccinated against Covid — so far, 75 percent of Ambrose staff and 43 percent of students are fully vaccinated.

as expanding community and business partnerships, and creating a more diverse and inclusive campus while making an SAU  education both attainable and affordable for students of all demographic and economic backgrounds.

Both Dakota Wesleyan and St. Ambrose boast a student to faculty ratio of 12:1. For 2021-22, DWU costs for tuition, room and board total $36,800, while it is $33,290 at SAU. Ambrose currently has a minority student body of about 17 percent (out of roughly 2,800 total students).

Unprecedented success during Novak’s tenure led to Dakota Wesleyan being profiled — along with three other U.S. colleges and universities — in the 2019 book “Pivot: A Vision for the New University.” For her progressive leadership and innovative steps toward partnerships, educational outreach and overall growth, Novak was awarded the 2019 Courageous Leadership Award by Credo — a comprehensive higher education consulting firm and publisher of “Pivot.”

“As president, Dr. Novak set out to make DWU an active leader, community partner, and incubator for economic growth and entrepreneurial thinking in South Dakota with an explicit connection to serving rural communities and students,” Credo stated in its announcement. “DWU is now a leader in rural workforce development, contributing to the sustainable growth of communities, a healthier South Dakota and their graduates’ future job security. … DWU stands as a compelling model for other small, rural colleges.”


She intends to bring that forward-looking vision to St. Ambrose, working with faculty and staff who are eager to reimagine higher education for the next generation. Novak plans to partner with Quad-Cities businesses and business leaders to shape and provide the educational opportunities employers and employees want and need, as they do business across a global economy in a digital age.

Innovation Summits will be a means for bringing employers, workers, and educators to the table to foster progressive thinking, teaching and learning practices. As she leads the campus community in celebrating and embracing her inaugural theme of “Come to the Table: Equipping

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

A view of SAU’s Ambrose Hall on Aug. 17, 2021.

Inclusive, Innovative and Invitational Leaders for Our Future,” Novak plans to make SAU a community asset in fostering conversations that can dissect root causes of racism and divisiveness and put into action real potential solutions.

She wants to pause and understand what she can learn from a variety of voices and their different experiences.

Sister Joan has been “an incredible mentor in many respects,” Novak said Tuesday. “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I’m very cognizant of just the impact she and Dr. Rogalski had on this university and where it is today. I will draw upon both of their wisdom as I continue to lead and serve in this capacity.”

Following her retirement, Lescinski will remain in Davenport for a year to serve as a resource for the new president. Under Lescinski’s leadership, SAU has experienced significant growth in its curriculum and a major expansion of its academic, residential, and athletics facilities.

Since 2007, the university has added many new academic programs, seven new or renovated academic buildings, two residence halls, and 11 varsity sports. During her tenure, the endowment has grown by more than $100 million and academic scholarships have more than doubled.

In Novak, Lescinski sees an experienced leader well prepared to build on St. Ambrose’s 139-year history of empowering students and enriching lives.

“Dr. Amy Novak is able and ready to become our 14th president at St. Ambrose University,” Lescinski haas said. “She brings an innovative mind, a compassionate heart, and an innate understanding of this university’s character, capacity, and potential. I believe the campus community and the Quad-Cities community will be pleased and impressed with the next leader of this great university.”

Due to a limited number of in-person attendees, the Oct. 1 SAU Inauguration Liturgy and Installation Ceremony will be livestreamed. The livestream link can be accessed the day of the event on this website — www.sau.edu/inauguration/schedule-of-events.

The 2021-22 SAU academic year begins on Aug. 23. While students and staff are not required to be vaccinated against Covid, the school is requiring masks be worn by everyone indoors on campus. As of this week, 75.5 percent of SAU employees have been fully vaccinated, and 43 percent of students, according to the university.

The Ambrose “Bee Promise” begins – “As Ambrosians, we have a responsibility to care for each other and support the health and wellbeing of our entire community. As we begin another academic year in the midst of a pandemic, this sense of responsibility remains essential.”

For more information on Covid protocols, visit www.sau.edu/covid19.

Amy Novak Starts As14th President Of St. Ambrose University, Davenport

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.
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