A Conversation with: Thomas Kunkel, President of St. Norbert College

I can think of few better ways to end my college career at St. Norbert than having a conversation with the president who has changed the landscape of the institution so much, even in my four short years here. In his last nine years as president, Kunkel has overseen $100m in renovations and improvements to the campus. He has shaped the campus reputation, culture, and continued its emphasis on community (or communio for all the Norbertines out there).


Although he has seen incredible progress in his nine years here (which is much longer than the average six year duration of a typical college presidency) President Kunkel has certainly encountered some difficulties. He describes how he was prepared for the demands of the position, yet did not anticipate some of the consequences of being a college president…

“Where are you going?” says Deb Kunkel.

“To the store” responds Tom Kunkel.

“Not dressed like that you aren’t.”

It turns out that the demands of being a college president extend far beyond attending sporting events and cutting ribbons…one weekend day early in his presidency, President Kunkel was going for an errand run to the grocery store dressed in a hat, T-shirt, and shorts. His wife, Deb, promptly urged him to change his attire.

This was certainly the least of the many challenges President Kunkel has faced in his time here. The office was particularly demanding in 2015 when renowned feminist, Gloria Steinem, spoke on campus. Steinem’s pro-choice status and public discussion of her decision to have an abortion caused an uproar. Many online petitions from pro-life groups prompted viewers to call President Kunkel to voice their concerns. He says that during this time, they lost track of how many individuals contacted them, but he estimates it was over 10,000.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 12.07.07 AM.pngSteinem and bell hooks in dialogue at St. Norbert College in 2015

“It’s exhausting. Nobody like’s getting punched all the time. But, it’s the price you pay to do what people expect you to do.”

In these politically tense times, colleges have not been exempt from the widespread lessening desire to have open conversations about political and social issues. However, President Kunkel insists that these institutions are the “last bastion” of hope for civil discourse. He explains the importance of open conversation and being confronted with controversial concepts in a college campus:

President Kunkel spent most of his professional life examining and reporting others’ perspectives while working as a journalist. Given his experience interacting with people from varied backgrounds and of differing opinions, I wondered how he approaches conversations with those individuals with whom he disagrees.

He explains how the other party needs to be open to discussion in order to have an effective conversation. In those cases where he knows he will be met with a brick wall instead of an open ear, Pres. Kunkel explains it is too difficult and not worth the effort.

He states that true change in civil discourse will most likely come with millennials.

“With my generation, we are who we are. Folks who think President Trump might change…he’s not going to change. He’s a 70-year-old man. He’s fully baked! He is who he is…I don’t think the current state of the country in terms of political discourse is really going to change until your generation holds more sway with what is happening.”

Although Kunkel claims he can “procrastinate with the best of them,” much of his success is due to his inquisitive nature and capacity for hard work. He describes how he was originally shy, yet working in journalism enabled him to overcome this and be able to speak with lots of different people.

“A strong sense of insecurity. Most successful people, at least down deep, have a pretty healthy sense of insecurity, and that’s a big part of the things that fuels their drive. To prove over and over that they don’t need to be insecure. They can accomplish things. They do have capabilities. I’ve been able to tap into that.”

In addition to these personality traits, Pres. Kunkel also explains how he has continually been given chances by those who have believed in him. As I know many graduates are discovering at this stage in our college career, hard work and perseverance are essential to success, but having connections and being in a situation where an employer is willing to take a chance are equally, if not more, imperative.

President Kunkel and I also talked about the value of a college education, what’s next for him (he explains he is going to keep writing until he gets senile enough for his computer to be taken away…judging on his sharpness I doubt that will be very soon…), and how media are changing with the advent of millennials in the workplace.

I feel extremely privileged to have attended SNC at a time when so many exciting changes took place under President Kunkel’s leadership. If the foundation that he established in his time is continued and built upon, I have no doubt that future students will benefit just as much as I have in my short time here. (And with a brand new workout facility…not bitter at all that I got to use it for only a week before graduating…enjoy that pool underclassmen!)

Watch my full video conversation with President Kunkel here:

Subscribe to The Conversationalist on iTunes!

Here is my podcast with President Kunkel:

Thanks for reading and watching! Speak to you soon.


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