A Conversation with JCU President Franco Pavoncello

Franco Pavoncello, President of John Cabot University, was born and raised in Rome, Italy. He holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Chinese Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an M.A and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He has been President of JCU since 2005. A leading analyst of Italian politics, President Pavoncello’s work has appeared in, among others, the American Political Science Review, the British Journal of Political Science, Asian Studies, and World Affairs. He is also a well-known media commentator on Italian affairs, a contributor to major international newspapers, and appears regularly on radio and television networks, including CNN, BBC, New York Times, Reuters Press and TV, International Herald Tribune and many other media organizations.

What brought you to JCU?
I returned to Rome after finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. I had met the Dean of Academics at JCU at a conference and we exchanged business cards. Then, in the summer of 1990, he called me and said, “Listen, I have a class that starts in four days, and we need a professor. Would you be willing to teach it?”  I accepted. The class was “Europe and the Superpowers” and I was teaching it just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the world order was changing. It was an incredible experience. I continued teaching at JCU and, eventually, I was promoted to Associate Professor, and then Dean of Academic Affairs in 1996.

How has the University changed throughout the years?
JCU opened in 1972 with only 15 students. When I came to JCU in 1990 the University was in a small building in a residential area of Rome, with three classrooms and a tiny library with a few hundred books. Fortunately, we moved to the Guarini campus in Trastevere in 1991, and that is when the University started to grow. Over the years we acquired the Kushlan wing, launched our Study Abroad in Rome program, and, most importantly, received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

After I became President, our expansion continued, and we rented the Tiber campus. Unfortunately, this happened right before the economic crisis of 2008. It wasn’t an easy moment because of low enrollments, but I was always confident that the expansion was a good move. In fact, in Spring 2009, our enrollment grew significantly, and we never looked back. We then obtained the Gianicolo Residence, the Trastevere apartments, and in 2017 we bought our first property, the Caroline Critelli Guarini Campus. The Frohring Library has also continuously expanded, with the latest addition being the Aurelian Wing in the Guarini campus.

In terms of student numbers, we are expecting about 1,300 in Fall 2021. Our undergraduate degree student enrollment continues to be very strong, and our visiting freshmen programs have been very successful. Even though we have grown significantly in the past decade, (not considering this past year of pandemic, obviously), the atmosphere is still that of a small, outstanding liberal arts college, and a welcoming, inclusive community.

Tell us how JCU responded to the challenges of Covid.
We responded incredibly well to the pandemic. This was one of the most difficult phases in John Cabot’s history, and yet it was also one of the most glorious. We have an amazing group of faculty and staff who really stepped up to the plate. Thanks to the adaptability and resilience of the entire community, we ensured that our students continued to receive a high-quality education while staying safe.  When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, JCU quickly moved classes online with the help of Professor Carlos Dews, the Vice President of Academics Mary Merva, and a dedicated task force.

John Cabot University President Franco Pavoncello

John Cabot University President Franco Pavoncello

In Fall 2020 we were happy to reopen our doors and welcome back our students in person. Since then, we have been following a hybrid model of education, which allows for students to take classes in person or remotely, depending on their needs, and always in keeping with Italian health and safety protocols. Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Operations Jose B. Alvarez, along with other key staff members, has been instrumental in managing operations. We had a highly successful randomized Covid-19 testing program that helped us control the virus. The infection rate was extremely low and, to the best of my knowledge, no members of the JCU community were infected on campus. 

What is the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of being the President of John Cabot University?
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the University grow and our graduates succeed. They go to top graduate schools, have impressive careers, and are very well prepared. The most important and challenging task is making sure that JCU remains a dynamic, stimulating, welcoming, and inclusive environment where students can learn and thrive.

One of the things I like less about being President is that I do not have time to teach. I have always loved teaching, and I miss being in the classroom.

We live in the world of Tik-Tokers becoming millionaires while still in high school, and successful entrepreneurs who are college dropouts. Is there still a place (and value) for a traditional university education?
I believe that there is still a place for a traditional university degree. First of all, there are a lot more successful entrepreneurs with a solid university education, but you also need to ask yourself – what kind of citizen do you want to be? What kind of human being do you want to be? I believe that education, and particularly a liberal arts education, can be an enriching experience because it creates well-rounded, socially responsible, and empathetic citizens who can think for themselves and contribute to the growth of society. There are many facets to personal success, and we should keep them all in mind.

Undergraduate education is not just a place to acquire knowledge. It is also an ecosystem for social growth, a time to build relationships and communities, make lifelong friendships, and confront challenges.

Where is JCU headed in the future?
The challenges of the pandemic have made our close-knit community even stronger. We are now ready to look toward the future in terms of developing our graduate studies while also strengthening our undergraduate offerings. We have introduced a new major in Psychological Science that has the potential to become one of our largest, while at the graduate level our M.A. in Art History has quickly become one of the top-ranked M.A.s in that field in Europe. We are also continuing to prepare for the launch in the coming years of an M.A. in International Affairs, and we continue to pursue new collaborations with other universities.

Our strong liberal arts tradition will help us face the future and push the University forward. In June of 2022, we will launch a partnership with  MIP Politecnico di Milano Graduate School of Business for a Rome-based Executive MBA in Italian.  The Frank J. Guarini School of Business has gotten off to a great start and is a candidate for accreditation from AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business).

Our Institute for Entrepreneurship has made great progress in terms of entrepreneurial education while instilling a strong sense of social responsibility. We also recently created the Institute for Future and Innovation Studies, which promotes the study of emerging and future innovations of high societal relevance and impact. Equally noteworthy is the work of the Department of Communications on the digital transformation of our world.

Tell us about this year’s Commencement.
At first, I thought that we were going to have to cancel our Commencement Ceremony for the second year in a row, given the Italian government restrictions. I felt the sincere disappointment of our graduates and remembered a suggestion of Professor Antonio Lopez who had mentioned that at Berkeley they had multiple concurrent ceremonies. So, suddenly it dawned on me that we could use the various terraces on JCU’s campuses, thus allowing participants to graduate in person while respecting social distancing protocols and other Covid safety measures. Graduates from the Classes of 2021 and 2020 were given the choice of attending the event in person or remotely while families and friends followed the event via YouTube. Students were divided by major, and each group received their degrees from their respective department chairs or senior faculty.

It was a unique event, one that was not easy to organize, but it turned out to be a great success. Despite the limitations, everyone enjoyed the ceremony, which allowed graduating students to have a much-needed closure to an important period of their life. I really feel that this year’s Commencement Ceremony was one of the best and most memorable moments of my presidency.