Sister Camille Celebrates 50 Years at Stritch

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:25:00 AM

By Sara Woelfel


When people speak of Stritch chancellor Sister M. Camille Kliebhan, they generally do so with reverence and respect. During her 50 years of service to Stritch, which she is celebrating this fall, she has won the admiration of co-workers, community leaders and her fellow sisters with her gentle spirit, natural elegance and genuine warmth.


People likewise express deep admiration for her legacy at Stritch and within the community. Guided by her faith, Sister Camille helped to shape the University as its president for 17 years and throughout decades of service.


“When Sister Camille assumed Stritch’s presidency in 1974, the college was a nice little parochial school, with an enrollment of less than 1,000,” according to a 1993 Business Journal story. “By 1991, when she relinquished the helm, the school had more than 4,000 full-time students and had become a vibrant urban learning center.” Stritch’s current enrollment is about 7,000.


Despite her 82 years, Sister Camille continues to report to work nearly every day as part of a University Advancement team that fondly refers to her as the “Queen Mother.” Her 50 prior years have been filled with memorable moments and significant milestones, which she recalls with great clarity and often a feeling of nostalgia that adds a glow to her face.


She laughs wistfully when she remembers the antics of the women who lived in Clare Hall during her stint as dean of students, as she recounts winning “best legs” honors in a fundraiser for the Model UN, when she thinks back to the early 1960s when the Mother’s Club led an effort to save thousands of coupons and stamps to redeem for furnishings and linens for the new Fox Point campus, or when she talks about scooping up mud in the driving rain at the ground-breaking event for the 1985 addition.


Yet, she grows more serious when discussing the triumphs – building projects, increased enrollments, innovative academic programs – and the challenges – fundraising campaigns, accreditation visits, the changing needs of students – that have defined Stritch. Her pride in the University is unmistakable.


Before succeeding Sister Mary Aquin Miller as Stritch president, Sister Camille was a faculty member, joining Stritch in 1955, after she earned her Ph.D. from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She went on to assume duties as head of the departments of education and psychology, director of student teaching, dean of students, chair of the graduate division and vice president for academic and student affairs. She became the first Stritch president to be elected and appointed by a governing Board of Trustees, chosen from 25 lay and religious applicants.


The building project


In fall of 1974, Sister Camille got right to work, planning, among other things, for the addition of a new library and gymnasium.


“We realized that we would be subject to another North Central accreditation visit in 1982, and we didn’t think the library would meet accreditation,” she said. “We knew we had to build. At the same time, we were starting the athletic program and didn’t have a gym … . We didn’t think we could afford two separate buildings. So the challenge was, can we include both in one?”


So the Jubilee ’87 capital campaign, to celebrate Stritch’s 50th anniversary, began to take shape. In preparation for the project, Sister Camille made the difficult decision to sell some land to help pay for the project. Today, upon those 13 acres sit the Coventry Apartments, where some Stritch students live, and the Coventry office building, which houses Stritch’s University Advancement office, where Sister Camille works. At the insistence of the Stritch administration at the time, the office building also houses the North Shore library.


Groundbreaking for the sprawling Stritch building that includes the library, Great Hall, field house, auditorium, student union, bookstore, and mailroom took place on May 28, 1984, exactly 25 years to the day after the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi broke ground for the Fox Point campus. The $6.5 million building opened in fall of 1985 and earned a Wisconsin Society of Architects award for its design.


After the building was finished, Sister Camille visited Sister Aquin and invited her to come to Stritch and see it. “She said with a smile, ‘No, Sister Camille, the other buildings that were there, those were my buildings. These are your buildings.’ And she never came out … . So, when Sister Mary Lea (Schneider, current Stritch president) built the Communication and Fine Arts Center, I said to her, ‘Those are your buildings.’”


Within Sister Camille’s building is the Alfred S. Kliebhan Great Hall, named in recognition of her father, a man who lived his life in service to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. His involvement was natural given that two of his daughters, Sister Camille and Sister Joanne Marie Kliebhan, a former chair of the special education department and director of the St. Francis Children’s Center, held pivotal roles within the institution. Today, the two live together in the Fox Point home their parents once owned.


Academic additions

Besides adding a building, Sister Camille led Stritch down an important academic path when her administration began offering “credit for prior learning.” The move enabled adults to translate learning acquired through employment, extensive reading, and workshops into college credit, and it opened new opportunities for Stritch. A huge one resulted from an invitation from the University of Phoenix to offer accelerated evening business degree programs for working adults, initially called Programs in Management for Adults (PMA) and later the College of Business.


“I think it was one of the biggest things, because it was risky, it was new,” said Sister Camille, who weighed the decision very carefully.


In assessing that decision, History Professor Sister Justine Peter said Sister Camille was “very forward thinking, but not in a flashy way. You knew when she made a decision it was carefully vetted, carefully designed. She had prayed over it, she had worked over it and sweated over it, I’m sure. But you could be sure it was not an ill-designed move.”


Introduced in April of 1982, the PMA programs brought a large spike in enrollment. A total of 581 adults signed up within the first 18 months, at a time when Stritch’s total enrollment was about 1,700. In the first two years of PMA (April 1982 to Sept. 1984), Stritch enrolled more than 1,560 students in the programs, in 20 locations.


Allowing credit for prior learning also led to the formation of the nursing program, in 1980. In partnership with Sacred Heart School of Practical Nursing, Stritch began an LPN to ADN progression program. A bachelor’s program started in 1983. Many of the students who enrolled were already in the field and could earn credits based on their work history.


“After our first year, our 23 graduates wrote the state board exams and every one of them passed. We were very pleased with their 100 percent success,” Sister Camille said.


With the PMA and nursing programs off the ground, the 1980s were characterized by an increase in the number of nontraditional students. Stritch served them not only with credit for prior learning but also with a separate orientation and special personnel to address their needs. By 1986, 50 percent of Stritch’s students were 25 or older.


“At commencement this year I marveled at how many of our graduates had gray hair!” Sister Camille said in a 1986 interview with the Business Journal.


Bolstering that nontraditional population even more was Stritch’s partnership with Sacred Heart School of Theology, a seminary in Hales Corners for second-career men. As a member of the seminary’s board, Sister Camille helped create a program allowing seminarians to earn their bachelor’s degrees at Stritch, since Sacred Heart granted only master’s degrees. That partnership continues today.


Civic service


As with Sacred Heart, Sister Camille has served on many boards, held leadership positions, raised Stritch’s profile, helped pull in fund-raising dollars, and forged lasting friendships that she maintains to this day. When appointed president of Stritch, the board charged her to build more community relationships, a duty she has enjoyed thoroughly and fulfilled beyond expectations.


“I think one of the first boards I was on was De Paul Hospital,” Sister Camille said. “Then gradually there were others. And then all of a sudden, I was on 12 or 15 different boards.”


While her honors and achievements are numerous, her work with three organizations is especially impressive. In the early 1980s, Sister Camille became president of the Wisconsin Foundation for Independent Colleges, making her the first woman to head the statewide organization. In 1987, she was among the first three women admitted to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, the Midwest’s largest, and years later she was the first woman to be elected president of the group. In 1996, Sister Camille served as chair of the board for Sacred Heart School of Theology and was the only woman in the nation to hold such a position at a Roman Catholic seminary at that time.


“She was never what one would call a rabid feminist, but she did support women and women’s causes,” Sister Justine said. “Not acclaiming herself or claiming to do it to push women forward, she just did it. But, in her own quiet way, she didn’t talk about it.”


In an effort to recognize some of the distinguished people she met in the community and those who served Stritch, Sister Camille awarded many honorary degrees during her time as president. Among the more memorable recipients were Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl, not yet a senator but a good friend of Sister Camille, and Barbara Bush, wife of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush.  Sister Camille remembers how thrilled Barbara Bush was to receive her degree.


“She came out at the reception after the ceremony and shook hands with everybody,” Sister Camille said. “She was wearing the hood. And I said, ‘Don’t you want to take it off?’ and she said, ‘Sister Camille, I’m going to wear it over my nightgown!’”


For years, Sister Camille kept in touch with Barbara Bush, who later served as the honorary chairperson for the Jubilee ’87 campaign.


Another priority of Sister Camille’s presidency was creating more awareness of the core values of St. Francis of Assisi.


In the 1980s, she brought together a committee made up of students, faculty and Sisters that met for more than a year. “The goal was to articulate the Franciscan values and make sure that once there weren’t sisters here anymore we had a document that would be useful for the orientation of new faculty and students,” said Sister Coletta Dunn, a professor of Religious Studies.


While the committee developed a “Franciscan Values” booklet that was disseminated for years and recently was updated, many would argue that Sister Camille most successfully educated the campus community on values by her own example, through her hard work, respect for others, modesty, quiet leadership, and concern for all people.


Teaching president


In her inaugural pledge, Sister Camille vowed to a “teaching president,” and she fulfilled that promise for many years.


“I enjoyed a degree of ‘mock’ respect, hailed as the best teacher of the worst subject, educational statistics,” Sister Camille wrote in “Our Stories,” a compilation of self-written biographies of the Sisters. “I recall beginning the course each semester with a lecture on mental health, assuring students that no one had ever expired from the mathematical experience. It is still very rewarding to run into alumni who say, ‘I’ll never forget statistics.’”


Sister Camille’s mark on the University is acknowledged not only by her former students, but also by so many people.


"The University is honored to have benefited from nearly five decades of Sister Camille's service and commitment," Stritch President Sister Mary Lea Schneider said when introducing the new Sister Camille Kliebhan Conference Center in Bonaventure Hall earlier this year. "She has interacted with and touched the lives of thousands of students, and through our graduates, the lives of countless more individuals. And the grace, humility and deep dedication to Franciscan values she always demonstrates have endeared Sister Camille to so many, including all of us here at the University."


As Sister Camille marks her milestone anniversary, questions naturally arise regarding her possible retirement.


“I get teased by people in the office during weeks when I don’t come into work every day. They say, ‘Oh, I see you’re working Sister Camille hours, huh?’” she said with a smile. “At this point, I’m taking it a day at a time.


“While there is still a lot to do, I’m still here.”