January 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rev. Timothy Lannon has always been able to size up things pretty quickly. As a math major at Creighton University in the early ‘70s, the likeable young man from Mason City, Iowa, was known for his keen and analytical mind, with a head for numbers. So when he became president of Creighton in July 2011, the first alumnus to lead the Jesuit campus, he knew the numbers didn’t add up.

“We have 130 acres of land and 55 buildings with about four million square feet of space,” says Lannon in his staccato delivery. “But we only have 8,236 students total. That business model is tough to manage with such a small student body and such a large campus.”

The numbers led Lannon, in one of his first acts, to ask the Creighton trustees to scrap plans for a new building to house the business school. He suggested they renovate about one-fourth of the Harper Center For Student Life and Learning for the school’s expansion.

“Harper is a magnificent building and was underutilized,” explains Lannon, 64, who stepped down late last year as Creighton’s president. “It didn’t make sense to build a new [business school] building for $35 million and add another million-a-year in overhead.”

Thanks to a multimillion-dollar gift from Creighton business graduate Charles Heider and his wife, along with a fundraising campaign that netted $93 million to ensure future academic programs, the Heider College of Business at the Harper Center opened to great fanfare in October 2013. And it set the tone for President Lannon’s visions for Creighton’s future: maximize space, create or integrate programs, and maintain a low student-faculty ratio.

Having returned to Omaha from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he served as president for eight years and oversaw the most successful capital campaign in that school’s history, Lannon sees the health sciences—a new degree in neuroscience, for instance—as the key to raising Creighton’s already prestigious profile. “We call it inter-professional education,” Lennon explains of his strategic plan. “We want to bring together our Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy programs and connect them structurally to the school of medicine, the nursing school, and the pharmacy program.”

This emphasis on a more practical course of study has induced a lively discussion among students, faculty, and staff at Creighton. Many are concerned his plan takes away from the Jesuit tradition of liberal arts and service to others. But Lannon quickly re-affirms the school’s commitment to the liberal arts, pointing out that all undergrads share a common core of classes.

Faced with a heavy debt load stemming from the university’s eastward expansion in the early 2000s and a weak economy, Lannon uses the words “consolidate,” “repurpose,” “streamline,” “renovate,” and in some cases, “cut” when addressing the school’s most pressing issues. Although known primarily for his genuine interest in people, his patented smile and larger-than-life Irish personality, Lannon has a pragmatic side he’s not afraid to show. “One thing I’ve learned about leadership is you have to make tough decisions that impact people’s lives, but you do it for the sake of the mission.”

One of the toughest decisions Lannon made was to step down from the post he loves. Not long after the new business school opened, Lannon suffered heart problems that required hospitalization. In February he announced his retirement.

“It gave me a wakeup call,” Lannon says. “Thankfully I lived to learn the lesson.” He will only say the incident he suffered is very rare and physically he’s in good shape, but “there’s a history of heart problems on my mother’s side.”

The need for less stress in his life means leaving a city and a school that, in many ways, formed him as a man, a priest, and an administrator. He arrived as a student at Creighton with plans to go on to medical school, following in the footsteps of his physician father who played football at Creighton. He became so involved on campus, even serving as student-body president his senior year, that his grade- point average dipped to 3.5. “So I applied to our medical school and I was rejected,” he admits. He could have accepted a special appointment to the med school, but “there was a haunting in the back of my mind about being a priest.”

Lannon had never thought himself holy enough to be a priest, “until I met the Jesuits,” he says with a laugh. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1977 and was ordained at Creighton in 1986, having received several master’s degrees and a doctorate from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. His first job after ordination was as president of Creighton Prep. “Talk about a learning curve,” he remembers about Prep, where he served until 1995. “I was very green but was so well mentored by three members of the board. That’s where I realized I’m able to lead at a different level.”

Now that the demands of leading an institution of higher learning are winding down, Lannon purposely finds time to reconnect with his Jesuit brethren. “I’m a Jesuit first and a president second,” he says, reflectively. He plans to go back to Harvard in the fall as part of the President-in-Residence program, working with students who want to develop their leadership skills, then travel to the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio for some spiritual renewal.

One of his proudest accomplishments, he says, was moving Creighton into the Big East athletic conference. The publicity from the success of the men’s basketball program has created new revenue streams, brought a spike in admissions, and opened a whole new market on the East Coast. Fr. Lannon came back to Creighton with innovative ideas. To its everlasting credit, the university took the ball and ran with it.