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Building the Universe Dr. Louis Agnese, Jr. Transforms Incarnate Word

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by Kim Munsinger
Photo by Anthony Padilla
reprinted with permission from Scene in S.A. Magazine, November 2003
Dr. Louis Agnese Jr.
In 1985, Incarnate Word College was a sleepy, local school with a dwindling enrollment. Given the declining trend, in eight or so years, it would be out of business. Who would have guessed that Incarnate Word could become today’s busy, cosmopolitan university? Even a casual observer can see dramatic changes–imposing new buildings, international flags flying, and an ethnically diverse student population streaming from campus at the end of the school day.

How did this remarkable turnaround happen? The short answer: the irrepressible Dr. Louis Agnese,
Jr., who became Incarnate Word’s president in 1985.

The right man for the job

Dr. Agnese had the ideal mix of disposition, training, and motivation to tackle a college with flagging vital signs. “He is a marketer. He is a promoter. He is an entrepreneur,” says celebrated adman and friend, Lionel Sosa. And, consistent with the mission of a religious institution, “he is a very sensitive person that is out to do good for people,” says Sosa. Marketing, the key to Incarnate Word’s revival, was a natural for Dr. Agnese, who has a Ph.D. in counselor education. Sosa explains that Dr. Agnese is “your totally non-traditional president...because he approaches everything from a marketing point of view.”

As part of his training, Dr. Agnese studied organizational psychology, which is the psychology of social systems. This, too, helped him evaluate and understand what was happening at Incarnate Word. Dr. Agnese explains that “when you study organizations, you study different social systems, whether it’s a corporate system, whether it’s a law firm, whether it’s a family system, whether it’s a political system.” A college is also a social system, which Dr. Agnese could analyze like any other.

Dr. Agnese knew he wanted to be a college president: “It was always in the back of my mind.” The journey towards higher education as his life’s work began in 1974 when he got his master’s degree and chose a job in higher education over a clinical position in a hospital. His next ambition was to be the vice president and head of a student affairs program, but this required a Ph.D. He then got the Ph.D. and took a vice president’s job at a school in Iowa, where the college president himself suggested to Dr. Agnese that he would make a fine college president. That was when, in 1981, his goal to run a college solidified.

So, Dr. Agnese came to Incarnate Word with the right package of skills. But, was he really up to the task at the tender age of 33? Sosa says that, incredibly, “everything that anybody could do, he could do at that young, young, age. And I can’t say he hasn’t grown, but he was so tall at the beginning. He [was] seven feet tall at the beginning–how much more can you grow?”

How on earth do you promote the universe?

Shortly after Dr. Agnese arrived at Incarnate Word, he met board of trustees member Lionel Sosa at a cocktail reception. Sosa approached the new college president and said, “Lou, I’m Lionel Sosa. I’m in marketing. If there’s anything I can do for the university, I’d love to help.” Sosa had made this offer to Incarnate Word multiple times over the years, but never had any takers. Dr. Agnese explains, “Lionel thought I would never take him up on it, but he was mistaken.” Dr. Agnese told Sosa that if he found any opportunity for marketing or advertising, he would call in three or four months.

Meanwhile, the school went through a planning cycle. Dr. Agnese consulted Incarnate Word faculty, students, and administrators to gather ideas about what was there, what happened in the past, and what they should do in the future. The most urgent need was to increase enrollment. In addition, Dr. Agnese wanted to increase minority enrollment, scholarships, and financial support for the college so he could expand the physical plant.

After about three and a half months, Dr. Agnese visited Lionel Sosa at his office where they had a historic conversation that Dr. Agnese and Sosa recount this way: Dr. Agnese said, “Lionel, I’ve put together this plan, and I’d like to launch it if the board buys it. It’s going to be expensive. It’s going to cost about a million dollars in advertising. And I would like for you to design the ad campaign and to help us secure the media.”

“Wow!” Sosa said. “This is fantastic! That means, let’s see, 15 percent of that means $150,000 for me. OK!”

“But Lionel,” said Dr. Agnese, “as you know, we don’t have any money. So we’re going to do this without money.” A bewildered Sosa asked Dr. Agnese how he proposed to do this campaign without money. Dr. Agnese explained, “One thing I do have is space.”

Spare classroom space and a high ratio of faculty to students were two significant side effects of the low enrollment that Dr. Agnese discovered he could turn into strengths. Because the college had been losing enrollment for about five years, there were only about 1200 students in 1985 compared with 1500 in 1980. The faculty size wasn’t reduced, so the faculty/student ratio was around 1 to 11. The optimum ratio needed to be about 1 to 14.

With all this excess capacity, Dr. Agnese’s innovative marketing plan was to barter scholarships for media time and expertise. He said to Sosa, “We’ll give scholarships in the media’s names, we’ll give scholarships in your name, and we’ll reach that target audience that we want of students that can’t afford to come here” to show them that Incarnate Word can make a college education possible. Sosa was excited, but skeptical. “But, I convinced him,” Dr. Agnese explains, “and so then we had two believers. And the two believers then went out and sold everybody else.”

The first “media partner” the marketing duo sold on the concept was William Moll, now president of Clear Channel Television. At the time, Moll was the president of KENS TV. Charles Kilpatrick, former editor and publisher of the Express-News, was another early media partner. Univision also came on board. After only a week and a half of making calls, Incarnate Word secured 1.3 million dollars of advertising. By the time the campaign was launched on March 25, 1986, it was a multi-media campaign. “TV, radio, newsprint, billboards. You name it. We had it,” says Dr. Agnese.

But, did it work? Yes. Results were better than anyone could hope. “We turned a five-year enrollment decline [around] the first year,” says Dr. Agnese. In 1986 after only three months, Incarnate Word’s new marketing plan brought in so many students that it blew the top off 1980's peak enrollment of 1500 students. Along with the sharp increase in scholarship students, the number of paying students skyrocketed, too.

Current enrollment, including graduate students, is close to 4,300 students, showing that Incarnate Word still uses media effectively to get their message out. Dr. Agnese says this is “the power of media.”

How did they tell Hispanic families and other minorities about Incarnate Word?

Dr. Agnese wanted to attract more students who belonged in college, but didn’t think it was an option. Sosa says that in minority families “there is an assumption at the very beginning sometimes, when they are very little, usually an idea put there by their parents or family or community that says you will never be able to afford it, so what’s the use of trying? So they give up at an early age.”

To overcome this attitude, Dr. Agnese and Sosa designed a marketing program in English and Spanish targeting grandparents and parents. The ads showed young people and others from Incarnate Word talking about the school. Agnese and Sosa reasoned that although grandparents and parents may not be fluent in English, they might watch Spanish language TV or listen to Spanish radio. Then, as Dr. Agnese explains, the grandparents and parents could see and hear the students and think to themselves, “Well, that looks like my daughter...or son, and whether she could go to Incarnate Word, and why can’t he? or why can’t she?”

To develop the ads, the marketers conducted focus groups with students, teachers, and parents from Incarnate Word. What they found was a unified message that Incarnate Word is a supportive place with an environment that almost guarantees success. >From these focus groups, the marketers picked students, teachers, and parents who were particularly good at telling the Incarnate Word story. Sosa then made 30-second commercials showing people relating their experiences. Sosa says a typical student might describe his story this way: “I’m the first in my family to go to college, and I can tell you that I was really scared. But, once I got there, I found that the professors really helped. That if I was struggling for some reason, they would get me out of it. And, I know I’m going to do well, and I’ll be the first in my family to graduate [from college].”

Many of the young men and women in the ads were minority students. Sosa says there were “lots of Hispanic faces, boys and girls, lots of Black faces, Asian, Anglo, everybody. But, it had a strong ethnic look and feel to it.” The message to Hispanics–who were a small percentage of the enrollment at the time–was, “You are welcome here, and you will succeed,” says Sosa.