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Now that he's starting his 12th year, Bill Medland is Viterbo University's longest-serving president.

But the boy who grew up in Logansport, Ind., almost didn't make it to college himself.

Medland said his high school grades and ACT scores "weren't so good," so when he finally decided to become a history teacher like the one he admired in high school, he was denied admittance to the University of Notre Dame.

Then he developed a plan.

"I have an Irish stubbornness," he said. "I went and camped out at the admission director's office. After a few hours, he was able to see me."

That admission's director told Medland that anyone with his determination would likely succeed in college. He graduated from that university with a bachelor of arts degree in 1966, and later went on to earn a master's degree and doctorate.

"That (lesson) influenced me all my life," he said. "I have great empathy for the underdog and believe the most important characteristics you need to be successful in college are determination and perseverance. If you have determination and perseverance, you probably will succeed."

Medland's first teaching job was at Donnelly College, an inner city school in Kansas City, Kan. One of his first requirements was teaching a night class filled with nontraditional students. Those students ended up teaching him as well.

"At age 23, I was the youngest person in that classroom," he said, and he was required to teach lessons on the Great Depression and World War II to people who had lived though it.

"Who was I to tell them the meaning of their experiences?" he asked.

"What I could do there as a professor is I could raise the questions, the answers of which would enlighten their perspective."

An acquaintance suggested he apply for a job as assistant dean at the Graduate School of Divinity at Saint Louis University. Medland said he did so "with much hesitation."

"I loved teaching," he said. "I wasn't sure I'd even like administration. To my surprise, I enjoyed it very much."

A series of administrative positions followed, with Medland ultimately becoming president of Viterbo in 1991.

Medland admits he wasn't very popular during his first few years on campus. He changed the way the university recruits students and handles admissions and financial aid. He established a new administrative team and reorganized the undergraduate schools.

Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and chairwoman of Viterbo's Board of Directors from 1994 to 2002, said Medland came in during a "difficult period" when there was division among the school's leadership.

"Most people in such turmoil would run as fast as they can," she said.

But Medland didn't. Instead, he developed Vision 2005, a mission statement that has directed every decision he's made. Capital projects that stemmed from that document include the renovation of the Fine Arts Center and the construction of a student residence, an outdoor athletic complex and the $11 million Center for Ethics, Science and Technology being built now.

But Medland prefers the things that can't be seen, especially the description of the institution as "person-centered, values-based, service-oriented and learning-focused."

Those words led him to require ethics be taught in every classroom. He also increased hours for student services, hired faculty who were concerned about the individual student and required every student to perform community service before graduation.

The statistics point to success: Undergraduate degrees have increased from 124 to 350 in the past 10 years; master's degrees have grown from 51 to 384 during that same time. Endowment has grown from $2.1 million to $10.4 million; and the university budget has grown from $8 million to nearly $30 million.

"Viterbo is at a better place than it's ever been in its history and a great deal of that is due to his leadership in those areas," Weisenbeck said. "He has definitely made a difference in people's lives."

Medland was the first president to be offered a five-year contract by the board, and he has since committed to another five years. He said he stays because he believes in the mission of the Franciscan institution, which prepares students for leadership and service, and teaches them to respect the world they live in.

He points to a 2002 graduate survey to prove his point: 71 percent of students said they learned to think critically and make ethical decisions; 49 percent grew most in the Franciscan value of reflection; and 75 percent grew spiritually.

"We are doing more than just educating students in knowledge," he said. "We are a community of many faiths, a community of knowledge, obviously, and also a community that serves."

"I believe that Viterbo is a hidden jewel," he added. "Here at Viterbo, we have a faculty that is truly engaged with their students."

Medland is a personable man who is quick to praise others. He and his wife, Donna, live in Onalaska and are foster parents for newborns who are being adopted. They have two adopted children of their own: Mark, 18, and Jeanne, 6.

But life isn't perfect. Medland has had lung cancer surgery twice - once four years ago and once this past summer. He goes in for checkups every three months.

"If cats can have nine lives, there's no reason Bill Medland can't have nine lives, in which case I've only used two of the nine," he said. "That means I have seven left."

Still, Medland keeps a framed copy of a poem about cancer can't do in his office. He also has his newly published Viterbo University Book of Prayers, which includes prayers of peace from many faiths in addition to traditional Franciscan and Biblical prayers.

Cancer does not define his being, he said - being a university president, husband and father does.

"Adversity is a wonderful, wonderful teacher. It puts life into perspective," he said. "I'm a better person for it, honestly."

Anastasia Mercer can be reached at (608) 791-8256 or smercer@lacrossetribune.com.

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