Dennis Golden probably is the only sitting university president to have twice turned down a draft offer by the NFL. The Fontbonne University president, who plans to retire in 2014 after 19 years at the institution, turned down his contract with the Dallas Cowboys in order to serve in the Marine Corps. After his service, he declined another offer from the New York Giants, to take an assistant dean’s job at his alma mater, Holy Cross College.
“As I look back on it, I can see the hand of the Lord in it,” he says. “The presidency for me is really a vocation; it’s a calling, not a job. You ask any university president and they’ll say it’s a 24/7, 365 job. To do it, you’d better really have a love affair with your institution, which I do with Fontbonne.”
And with his decision to retire, as with his initial entry into academic life, Golden sees a higher power at work, referring to his favorite Biblical verse, Ecclesiastes 3:1: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. “I will have been in higher education for 48 straight years, and it’s been a labor of love all the way through. I’ll also have time to spend a good number of years—God-willing—with our family, who are out of state.” He adds that it will allow more time with his wife, Monica, who is a cancer survivor. “When the person you love more deeply than anyone else in the world is suffering through that, you put different values on time and your life, so it was time from both an institutional and a family perspective.”
When he leaves, Golden will be departing a university very different from the one he began with 19 years ago—although, he says, some of the most important things have not changed. “It’s a cooperative relationship between the lay members of the board and our founders and sponsors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet,” he says. “I’ve tried to keep in concert with the Sisters of St. Joseph throughout my presidency, and I hope that continues. They also founded St. Joseph’s Academy, and they have been phenomenal partners. It’s their values and charism and vision that founded these institutions.”
But while staying true to its foundations, Fontbonne has grown in many ways during Golden’s tenure. At the most basic level, the school was granted ‘university’ status, having previously been designated as a college. “That was monumental,” he says. “It helped elevate the quality and the public image of the institution.” The university also has instituted an embedded three-year strategic planning cycle to provide more thoughtful consideration of the school’s growth, as well as annual all-campus meetings that Golden believes are instrumental to having a fully informed university community. And since 2008, the university has had an annual Dedicated Semester, in which the entire faculty participates, bringing in speakers and hosting forums on that year’s theme. The first such semester focused on Judaism and Its Cultures, earning the school the Norman A. Stack Community Relations Award from the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It’s brought us a breadth and depth of intellectual pursuit and transformational change beyond what I’ve seen on a college campus,” he says.
More recent university achievements include national acclaim for Falling, a play by Mustard Seed Theatre founder Deanna Jent; as well as recognition for the university’s international program with the Export Achievement Certificate, presented by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Upon his retirement, which he considers more of a ‘transition,’ Golden and his wife have plans to move to Charlotte, N.C., where two of their three adult children live, and spend time with their nine grandkids. Although plans aren’t set in stone, he is leaving the door open to consultation and teaching opportunities that might come up. But he does know one thing for sure: “I’m not going to sit on my back porch and contemplate the cosmos. That is just not Denny Golden.”