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Loras College president reflects on time at university ahead of retirement

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Loras College president reflects on time at university ahead of retirement

Jun 14, 2024 | 6:36 pm ET
By Brooklyn Draisey
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Loras College president reflects on time at university ahead of retirement
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Loras College President James Collins will retire at the end of the next academic year after serving 20 years in the role. (Photo courtesy of Loras College)

James Collins will soon be marking the 40th anniversary of his graduation from Loras College, the end of his 20th year as president and the end of his five-year employment contract. As a former “finance guy,” he said it felt like all the numbers were aligning just right to announce his retirement.

Collins will retire as Loras College’s longest-serving president at the end of the spring 2025 semester, closing a 40-year chapter filled with introducing and adapting to changes, facing challenges and fostering a place where students can succeed both in and outside the classroom.

Collins’ connection to Loras College began 45 years ago when he enrolled as a student. He graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and was hired as an admissions representative that summer. From there he never left, holding positions such as director of special projects, director of alumni relations, vice president for institutional advancement and senior vice president.

Looking back, Collins said he had no idea he was going to stay in Iowa after graduation, let alone at Loras.

“It wasn’t even on my radar,” Collins said. “I was a finance major here so I thought I was going to go back to the Chicago area and work in the banking industry. It never dawned on me that I would have worked at my alma mater for this long.”

It was the great mentors and colleagues providing new opportunities for Collins that kept him at Loras, he said, and they helped him stay at a place he loved while working to make an impact on the students he worked with.

The success students have found at Loras is what Collins said he’s most proud of, as well as the success of the employees and the university itself. Loras has expanded its campus and its offerings to students, acquiring new properties and modernizing historical buildings while expanding undergraduate and graduate programs.

In contrast, the number of students pursuing a higher education is on the decline, Collins said, which has been and will continue to be a challenge faced by Loras and other universities. Concerns about cost and whether a college degree is worth getting when trades and high-paying jobs for young people are becoming more and more available are making new recruitment strategies and partnerships a necessity, he said.

Political rhetoric and divides are also placing more scrutiny on universities, and for Loras specifically there are fewer religious young people looking to get an education from a private, Catholic college or anywhere else.

Loras College president reflects on time at university ahead of retirement
(Photo courtesy of Loras College)

Loras has responded to those challenges by pursuing partnerships with St. Ambrose University and Mercy College of Health Sciences, allowing students to obtain dual degrees in certain areas from the institutions, Collins said.

The university has also provided opportunities for students to study internationally for anywhere from a few weeks to a semester and experiential learning. One example of this is a program where finance students are given the opportunity to pick stocks and invest a portion of the university’s endowment each semester.

“I think as president you have to kind of shift where your priorities and your focus is based on the evolving challenges that we face in higher education,” Collins said.

Personally, Collins said balancing raising a family and having a 24/7 job was a challenge, one that his wife, Lisa, helped him handle. When Collins was named president, his six children were between the ages of 4 and 11.

Another number Collins shared was six — the college president’s family will welcome its sixth grandchild into the world this September, and the extra time he will have after retirement will allow him to spend more time with them while he’s still “relatively young and healthy.”

With the time he has left at Loras, Collins said he will focus on raising as much money for the college as possible through the $128 million “Enduring Values/Vibrant Vision” capital campaign. The college has already raised $55 million through the campaign, which will split funds between student financial assistance and the Loras Fund, capital improvements, academic programming and the college’s endowment fund.

He will also work to put forward initiatives aimed at growing enrollment and help in any way he can to foster a smooth transition with his successor. “I’m hoping to work harder this year than any year prior,” Collins said.

At the moment, Collins’ only plans for his first year of retirement are to support the new president and remain active in the Dubuque community and in higher education.

The response Collins has received since announcing his retirement at the end of May has been “overwhelming and humbling,” he said, having received thoughtful and kind well-wishes from students, staff, alumni and other colleagues in higher education.

Collins said he sees all of the connections he’s made during his time at Loras as a gift he never thought he’d receive, especially with students who he’s been able to know while in college and now as alumni out in the world, seeing success in their personal and professional lives.

“I’m reminded daily about how blessed I’ve been to be at a place I love for all these years, to develop lifelong friendships and relationships in a way I never thought imaginable,” Collins said.