Robert Ivany, Ph.D.
Robert Ivany, Ph.D., president of the University of St. Thomas and a retired Army major general, sat down with Texas Medical Center executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer William McKeon to discuss how his military background has translated to his work with St. Thomas, and the wisdom he hopes to impart on his students.
Q | Where were you born? Tell us about your early days and how that led you to West Point.
A | I was born in Austria. My parents were Hungarian refugees who fled from Hungary to Austria during World War II. They were displaced persons, DPs as they were called. We were in a refugee camp for a while as they tried to figure out what to do—go to Germany or go back to Hungary? My mom and dad finally decided to come to America. They spoke no English, they left everything behind. The three of us got on a troop ship, sailed to Boston and then took a train to Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. I am very thankful that they had the courage to come to this wonderful country.
Q | Why Cleveland, Ohio?
A | They had a distant relative who came to Cleveland back in the 1920s and they agreed to sponsor us, so that is where we ended up. I was born in ’47 and we came to America in ’49.
Q | Did you feel like a DP when you were growing up, or were you so young that it just felt natural
A | Cleveland has wonderful ethnic communities, so where I grew up on the east side, the church had a mass in Hungarian, the stores had Hungarian signs, and everyone, it seemed, spoke Hungarian. It was a relatively easy transition for my parents and me. We lived there for a couple years and then we moved out to the west side, which was rapidly expanding. My father was an engineer and thought that we would all benefit from living in the suburbs, and then assimilation became much stronger.
When I went to school, I started to play football and got the opportunity to attend St. Ignatius High School, which is an outstanding Jesuit school in Cleveland. I graduated, and from there I went on to West Point. My father, who passed away 12 years ago, always emphasized to me how fortunate we were that America took us in. I think it was that spirit of gratitude and respect for America that first got me thinking about a military career. We had no connections to the military otherwise. I just felt a calling to go to West Point and so I went there. I did well and even played for some great football teams. Then I started my Army career. I served in different places.
I had a tour in Vietnam. I was an armor officer, serving on tanks. I was wounded while I was in Vietnam. I was able to stay on there after a couple weeks in the hospital, finished my tour, and came back. I really didn’t know if I should stay in the Army. It was a tough decision, but I felt that even though there was a lot of anti-military sentiment after the Vietnam War, I wanted to serve our country. I found my dear wife who agreed to marry me and follow the nomadic life of an Army officer.
Q | Where were you at the time?
A | I had just come back from Vietnam, and our parents set us up. My mother played tennis with Marianne’s mother, and when I came home, my mother announced that we’d be going to dinner at the O’Donnells’. I’d just been back for a week or so—I said, ‘O’Donnells? Who are they?’ Reluctantly, I went to dinner. But it turned out much better than I thought it would. We were married about a year later. God bless Marianne, because I could not have served the 34 years I served without her and the children being willing to put up with the challenges of a military career. I moved the family 24 times. I ended my career as a major general presiding over the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Q | How has your family responded to the 24 trips?
A | Each of our children went to eight different schools between kindergarten and 12th grade. When I ask them how they adjusted, they say, ‘Dad, we wouldn’t change it for the world.’ They lived all over the world. They learned to cope with different types of people, nationalities, backgrounds, and I think it’s made them much more open, resilient and focused. The oldest right now is an Army psychiatrist. He’s working in the Office of the Surgeon General on treating PTSD and eliminating suicides in the Army as a lieutenant colonel. Second son is a priest in Washington, D.C. He is a pastor in an inner-city parish there. Our daughter had a tour in Iraq as a civilian. She’s an anthropologist who helped advise the Army on different cultures, religions and tribes. The youngest is back here. He graduated from West Point, served his five years—two tours in Iraq—and earned his MBA. Now he’s here in the energy business, so we finally have one close to us. But I think that our lifestyle gave them a sense of confidence. I think it was great for them.
Q | If you look at your career in the military, what are some of the highlights that when you look back you think, ‘I can’t believe when I started the first day at West Point that I had the opportunity to do this’?
A | I was lucky to serve 34 years. Seventeen of those years were in a command position, and the best thing about being in the Army is being with soldiers. You’ve got to love soldiers. Training them, even disciplining them, caring for them and feeding them. And if you enjoy being with soldiers, quite frankly, it was easy to make the transition to loving students. It’s basically the same thing. People always say, ‘Wasn’t it a big change from the military to academia?’ Sure, it’s a different environment. But the central point, the focus in academia, is the student. If you focus on students—how are they going to mature and get better—it’s much like the Army.
To answer your question directly, other than being with soldiers, what I enjoyed the most: First, being the aide to Ronald Reagan. I had served three years in Germany. After I came back, I went to the Command and General Staff College—it was a yearlong school in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. I got assigned to the Pentagon, so I was in the Pentagon for a year, and then in 1984, I was selected to be the Army aide to the president.
Q | Can you tell us what that means?
A | The president has an aide from each of the services, and they have basically three jobs. The first is to act as a typical aide, so, for example, if there’s a military-related event then you are responsible for setting it up, working with the White House staff. The second is to coordinate all the military support to the office of the president: Air Force One, Marine One, the helicopter, and a whole team of military personnel in communications and transportation. And the third and most well-known duty was carrying the so-called ‘football,’ which was a briefcase that had to be near the president all the time. As a result, during the two years I was in the White House, I got a chance to see the president in a lot of public and private moments, and I was very fortunate to have Ronald Reagan as the president. He had this innate respect for the military. My job was made easier and, personally, much more rewarding because he allowed us the opportunity to watch him and learn from him.
Q | I read about the number of awards that you’ve received. Which one was most special to you?
A | Probably the Purple Heart. It makes you realize how lucky you are. Those situations, it’s a difference of seconds, it’s a difference of feet whether you’re wounded or killed or you’re not. You get a different appreciation of things when you’ve been in combat and you realize just how fragile life is. I think that’s something that stays with you forever.
Q | Does that help you in times of stress—whether it be leading a great university or an important function of our military service—to prioritize or not sweat the small things?
A | I’ve been very fortunate, my parents brought me up to believe in God and my Catholic faith has always been an important component of who I am. As a result, a lot of times I pray for the good Lord to help me. This print behind me is one of my favorites given to me by the George Washington Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution. It’s an unusual print because you don’t normally see George Washington kneeling in prayer, but when you read his memoirs you realize how much he really did do that. He prayed, especially in the days of Valley Forge, when things were pretty bleak and he hung in there. You try to do the best you can and I think it’s essential to have a belief in God to get you through those tough times.
Q | What brought you to St. Thomas?
A | When I left the Army, I had no idea what to do. I’d been focused on doing my job, I was lucky enough to go to different parts of the world and serve our country in many different ways. Then, all of a sudden, I have to do something different. My dear wife convinced me that I should take a year to really figure that out. The military had always been a calling. I looked upon it as a vocation. It was a wonderful career. I thought about the next step for a long time and decided to go into higher education. I had my Ph.D., and I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’s kind of the same thing, it’s a calling.’
The good Lord works in strange ways. The Basilian priest who was the president here, Fr. Michael Miller, suddenly got elevated to archbishop and sent to Rome on very short notice. I interviewed and went through the process. I’m always very grateful to the board of directors. They took a gamble probably wondering, ‘Is this military guy going to fit into Houston and in a Catholic university?’ So far, so good. I am going on my 11th year, and we love it here.
Q | Can you tell us a little bit about St. Thomas’ relationship with the Texas Medical Center and how that’s starting to come together?
A | Our mission at St. Thomas is to educate leaders of faith and character. The only way we can accomplish our mission is for the University to be a strong presence in Houston. If you look at the major cities of America, I think you’ll see there’s a Catholic university—at least one—in each of those cities. Georgetown, Fordham and Loyola. And they’ve contributed in their own unique way to their city. The University of St. Thomas has the opportunity to do the same here. We are in a great location and we have a great reputation as a faith-based institution with outstanding academic programs. Our graduates think critically, communicate effectively and succeed professionally, and that’s where I think the University of St. Thomas can play an indispensable role in Houston. To partner, to cooperate and to collaborate is an essential part of contributing to this great city. We are always looking for partnership opportunities.
We have great relationships with the University of Houston College of Engineering, and the Glassell School of Art, the South Texas School of Law and others.
The institution with the greatest potential partnerships for us is the Texas Medical Center. Not just because of our proximity, but because some of our strongest academic fields are pre-med, biology and chemistry. The best example is, of course, our Odis and Carol Peavy School of Nursing, which graduated its first class of 27 students this past May. St. Thomas reopened its School of Nursing in 2012. We had a nursing school at St. Thomas for a short time, from ’72 to ’85, but it closed due to poor economic times. Now, we have five endowed chairs. With those chairs we were able to attract outstanding faculty. This year the national accreditation organization, Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, came to see us in March, and they were impressed. We are looking forward to this national accreditation. Now we are looking closely at making the next jump to advanced nursing practice. We’re talking to the hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, asking about the future of nursing. We want to complement the Texas Medical Center and the city of Houston.
The other partnership we’ve been very fortunate to forge is with the Houston Methodist Research Institute. We just had the celebration to announce our new partnership to launch a new master’s in clinical translation management degree.
Q | Tell us a little more about that program. How many people will be in it? How does it work in the relationship with Methodist research?
A | The Master of Clinical Translation Management degree is a 36-credit-hour program. The first cohort begins in spring 2015. We’re aiming for 12 students, and we’re talking to lots of potential students from diverse backgrounds. Some applicants are researchers, who need to learn about financial backing—how do I raise millions of dollars? Others are great entrepreneurs; they know the funding part, but they need to know how to navigate the FDA process. We have many wonderful discoveries here in Houston, but when it comes to financing, our researchers go to Boston or to Los Angeles because there are no venture capitalists or entrepreneurs to finance their discoveries. If we can work to pull this together, there is a niche that I think will be very productive and rewarding for everyone.
Q | St. Thomas students will have access now to the Innovation Institute. Students apply to the program with new products, new devices, and new therapies.
A | The Innovation Institute is one of the most encouraging initiatives that we’ve seen. You are doing a great job promoting collaboration. The only way to be successful for a hospital, a university or for a city is to work together.
Q | Any closing thoughts?
A | When I talk with our students, I urge them to try to put everything in perspective. ‘When you’re 85 years old,’ I tell them, ‘and sitting in a rocking chair on your front porch, and you look back upon your career, what are you going to remember?’ I think you’re going to remember the times that you made a significant impact on people. Yes, it’s wonderful to be recognized for achievements, for wealth or whatever you have. But what you will really treasure are people that you have mentored, guided or assisted.
All of us at St. Thomas are fortunate to be around students whom we can inspire.
I am very confident in our young men and women. They will meet the challenges of the future. Our responsibility is to provide them with an education that prepares them to face those challenges with faith in God, themselves and their institutions.