The Sitdown: Christine Wiseman, president of St. Xavier University

SHARE The Sitdown: Christine Wiseman, president of St. Xavier University
SHARE The Sitdown: Christine Wiseman, president of St. Xavier University

As told to Sandra Guy, Staff Reporter

The St. Xavier University president has been hurdling barriers and bucking the odds all of her life, so it should come as no surprise that Wiseman, the first woman in her traditional Roman Catholic family to attend and graduate from college and the first female lawyer in Wisconsin to represent a convicted Death Row inmate, is presiding over opening a campus in alumni-rich Arizona and enabling new revenue streams and debt-reduction strategies in these challenging times for higher education. The self-described indefatigable 65-year-old also boldly became the only child in her family to marry a non-Italian 42 years ago. She identifies intimately with the first-generation, underserved students who qualify for need-based financial aid and who make up the majority of St. Xavier’s 2,974 undergraduates.

I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood near the Milwaukee airport at a time when women weren’t going to college and they certainly didn’t go to law school. My family did not know possibilities for women.

My father and I didn’t see eye to eye much in those early years, although he softened a lot and was very proud of what I was able to do. So my formative years, in the seventh and eighth grades and at the all-girls’ Catholic St. Mary’s Academy high school, were really important.

Those sisters (the nuns), who were young themselves, saw something in me that they encouraged. One of them even ‘took on’ my father. I was a member of the Glee Club and couldn’t show up for a performance. My father said it was too bad, I had to work. The sister gave him what-for, and let him know that my Glee Club attendance was as important as working in the local bakery.

I remember in 1976, when I had my first child, not many women worked outside of the home. You pretty much had to make a choice.

I remember being interviewed by the (Omaha) World-Herald about taking the position as vice president for academic affairs at Creighton University, and I got a letter from a reader telling me how awful it was that a Catholic university would take me from my family.

We cannot rely simply on tuition. There are limits to the affordability of a college education that we can provide for students.

It means planning curricula and getting students to buy into it. We have to sit down with parents and say, ‘Look, it’s important that your son or daughter be able to complete this curriculum [within the four- to five-year time frame].”

In October 2015, we are opening a site —it’s not yet a campus until it’s approved by the Higher Learning Commission — in Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, with a series of degree completion and graduate programs in business, nursing, education and in liberal studies.

The local government is floating $40 million in bonds and constructing the building because they want faith-based private education there.

We also just last year started collecting insurance from patients at our SXU Center for Nursing Innovation on the main campus. The 2014 patient revenue was $242,000, and the projected 2015 revenue is $480,000.

We have two centers dedicated to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We have a center for instructional design and academic technology with mobile technology so students can come in with an app and connect to the monitors that exist.

Our students graduate and move into jobs in teaching, nursing, the business community and community organizing. When you look at the income potential or labor market first-year earnings of students like ours, who tend to remain in the local area, they will be very different than those who have the latitude to explore other markets.

Among 200 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities that belong to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, about 35 percent of the leaders are women. … I’ve been fortunate to work with bishops who are interested in what we have to offer, in what our experiences bring. They appreciate our candor and that we are highly intelligent women.

As for the death penalty case, I was a faculty member at Marquette University Law School, where I taught for 22 years. I taught evidence, remedies, jurisdiction, criminal procedure and civil procedure. I was on the board of the Wisconsin ACLU in 1987-88.

One of my good friends, Jim Rebholz, contacted me. He asked if I would be interested in taking a case since Texas had an overabundance of Death Row prisoners, many of whom found themselves without a lawyer when they got a writ of execution with a death date.

That case lasted seven years, from 1988 to 1995. When I went to the Greyhound bus station to pick up the 3,000-page record in the case —defending Billy Conn Gardner in the murder of a cafeteria worker during a robbery of the local high school cafeteria — he was 30 days away from lethal injection.

I knew the law. I knew the issues. I had been a prosecutor. I had worked on defense cases. I taught the law. I had written Law Review articles.

At one point, I thought the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would grant a new sentencing hearing. We had exhausted everything, including a petition [for a hearing] to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Gardner was executed in 1995.]

I was devastated. … I returned to teaching the day after he was executed. My class was deadly silent. At some point, we’ll talk about this, I told the students. But I can’t right now. You could have heard a pin drop in that class of more than 100 law students.

Now, I would tell them that you do what you must do, and sometimes it means exposing yourself to personal risk — to devastating personal risk — because justice demands it, because our system doesn’t work unless people like them or me step up.

I have established a scholarship in my parents’ names —the late Anthony “Tony” Giaimo and Pauline Giaimo. This is my first college presidency and it will be my last. When I’m done —no date is imminent — I’m retiring to really go spend all of that wonderful time with our grandchildren.

If I die tomorrow, I will have considered myself among the most fortunate of people.

If you can make a difference for some of these students, you will have done more than you could ever have done by taking a couple of cases on Death Row.

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