New To The List: Rocky Road To Success

A $4.3 million gift helps pull Chaminade University into the black and onto the Top 250 list.

August, 2003

The last thing Hawaii Business expected, during its interview with Chaminade University of Honolulu President Sue Wesselkamper, was to be taken off-roading in a golf cart. But that’s exactly what happened, when, during a standard campus tour, Wesselkamper veered off the beaten path onto a rocky dirt road at the mauka end of the 70-acre campus. “The whole campus up until this point was all brush and shrub as little as three years ago,” she said, carefully maneuvering around mid-sized rocks while pointing out the aforementioned area. “But as we grew, we were running out of room on campus, so this is part of the expansion process. … We’re making room for three new residence halls, a new library and a student union, which will house a dining hall.”

Wesselkamper says Chaminade, a first-timer to the Top 250 list, with 2002 gross annual sales of $21.9 million, is expanding to accommodate its steadily increasing enrollment – which, during the past seven years, has nearly doubled, from around 600 undergraduate students in 1995, to 1,030 students last year. “In 1995, when I came on board, the school had a lot of problems, primarily financial. And for a lot of reasons, enrollment had been declining,” Wesselkamper explains. “At a tuition-dependent university, if enrollment drops, you don’t have resources for salary increases, building maintenance, etc. So we were faced with a number of challenges from the get-go.”

To secure capital, Wesselkamper approached Chaminade sponsor The Society of Mary (Marianists), which cut the school a check for $4.3 million. The sizable gift enabled the university to wipe out its massive operating debt and trim its bloated payroll by offering nice severance packages to early retirees. Suddenly, the school was staffed in proportion with its enrollment and was $350,000 (the amount it paid annually toward debt) wealthier.

“Once our finances stabilized, we improved our marketing and admissions operations. We began fund-raising to improve facilities, we spent some time developing a really clear consensus on who we are and what our product was,” says Wesselkamper. “We worked with high school counselors to teach them who we are, and we put a focus on expanding programs where we saw heavy needs.”

In particular, Chaminade has seen a heightened demand for undergraduate forensics, counseling and psychology programs, and, most recently, its “accelerated weekend and evening programs,” which cater to military and online students.

Interest in such programs has helped boost enrollment figures. The school has nearly maxed out its enrollment capacity, but Wesselkamper hopes to be able to accommodate 1,200 students by 2008, and 1,500 students by 2013. “It’s been barely methodical, but I think we’ve been making a slow and steady recovery,” says Wesselkamper. “Making the [Top 250] list is validation of the progress that we’ve made over the past five years, and especially in 2002.” And here we thought the ability to navigate several acres of rugged terrain in a golf cart while reciting the school’s 48-year history was the true mark of success.

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Jacy L. Youn