A Decade of Leadership: The Matthew Interviews President Pavoncello
by Enrica Barberis
This year John Cabot University is celebrating President Franco Pavoncello’s 10th anniversary. A series of events have been organized to honor his leadership. The Matthew sat down with President Pavoncello in the office lined with hundreds of books. Franco Pavoncello earned a B.A. in International Relations and Chinese and Japanese Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and continued his studies at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Political Science. Pavoncello is approachable and easy-going. He makes the atmosphere around him feel instantly relaxed. His wisdom is striking, and he loves to talk about JCU and meet with students.
How did you get to John Cabot University?
When I was studying in Michigan I met Robert Putnam, who at the time was doing research on Italian politics. I became his assistant for two years at Harvard. In 1983 we published a very important article in The Political Science Review, and he was kind enough to let me be the fourth author.
Because of my work with Putnam, I was asked to give a speech at a conference in Lazio. I told my wife I didn’t want to go, but she told me, “you never know who you will meet.” That night, I met the Dean of John Cabot University. We exchanged cards, I sent in my CV. He told me they did not have any positions for me. Then one morning, in the summer of 1990 he called, “Look, I have a class that starts in four days. I know this is crazy but would you be willing to teach it? It’s Europe and the Superpowers.” It was also very interesting, the Cold War was ending when I was teaching the class. We saw it live.
What was JCU like back then?
In 1990, the University was housed in a little building in Via Massaua. There were three classrooms. I remember the library, it was a few hundred books. That was the library. Shortly after we moved to the Guarini building, but we still didn’t have the Kushlan Wing. The courtyard used to be a parking lot. This is where I “grew up,” it was fun.
At that time you were still a part-time teacher?
Yes… but I became full time in 1995. However, at that time the university was not doing well, we were not even accredited. A new president, Michael Good, was hired, who after consulting some professors nominated me Dean. So that’s how I became Dean of John Cabot 1996.
The university was not in good shape, what was your approach?
Yes, we were having difficulties, but we saw the potential. I remember joking with President Good that JCU was a Ferrari pulled by a donkey. If we put in a real engine we would go places (laughs). The President and the rest of us did a lot. We introduced the Study Abroad Program, built a real library and started the process of accreditation.
A big impulse also came from Ambassador James Creagan, [the Former Vice Ambassador to Italy and The Vatican] who became President of the University in 1999. He had institutional visibility in Italy, and presided over the accreditation in 2013. The growth in those years was exponential. In 2005, when Creagan left, I was asked to serve as President.
What were some of your early successes?
The first move I did as President was to get the lower floor of the Kushlan Wing in Guarini. That way we could begin to expand. However, that was not enough. By 2006-2007 we already had 700 students, we couldn’t possibly fit in the Guarini Campus. People were sitting on the staircase.
I wanted to rent an elementary school on Lungotevere. I thought it would the perfect space for us. The board was at first hesitant, but I managed to convince it that it was the way to go. We started renting from the landlord at the end of 2007, and that became the Tiber Campus. We had to spend a lot of our money on the renovations, because it was hard to get loans from banks.
But then in 2008 the markets collapsed, and enrollment was painfully low that fall. We had this new campus, which cost us a lot of money, and less students. That was my hardest moment. It was hard to sleep at night. But I knew it was the right way to go. Without another building we wouldn’t be able to grow.
And then what happened?
In October/November, when we started looking at prospective enrollment for Spring, it looked like everyone wanted to come. It was insane! That’s when I thought: “We are going to make it through.” It was a special moment; I am telling you. A year later we built the cafeteria at Tiber, and in 2011 we rented the Gianicolo Residence.
What was your proudest moment?
In recent years, the number of degree seekers has skyrocketed. In five years we went from 200 to 700 degree-seeking students. That’s more than a 300 percent increase. We were fulfilling the dreams of the founders: to create a world class, global liberal arts college, that can produce leaders of tomorrow. I want to thank the board, my two vice presidents, and all the faculty and staff. Without their help and everyday work I would not have been able to achieve these results.
What do you see in the future?
Expansion. Making the school bigger and academically more competitive. We just bought a new building, the Belli building, where most of the offices will be. Our graduates are doing very well, so we hope to continue to form new leaders. I expect the university to grow, and to have as many as a thousand degree seekers. We are hiring new professors, who are just spectacular, but then outstanding Faculty has always been the tradition at JCU.
The conversation ends. As we begin to take photographs we ask the President for a parting thought. “I still enjoy teaching. I sometimes hop into a class just to give a lecture. I feeI I still have the duty to transmit all the knowledge I’ve gathered in 30 years of teaching. Otherwise it will go to waste. Friends and colleagues often tease me saying that I should write a book. Maybe someday I will.”
Photograph by Alexandra Folino