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Former ISU athletics director Sheahon Zenger named Illinois Wesleyan's new president

A former Illinois State University athletics director is headed back to the Twin Cities as the 21st president of Illinois Wesleyan University.

Sheahon Zenger is set to take the top job at the private liberal arts school come July 1. He succeeds Georgia Nugent, the university’s first female president who announced in October she planned to step down after five years at the helm.

“I am honored and excited to be joining the Illinois Wesleyan family and I am humbled to be selected to serve as president of an institution with a rich history and a strong tradition of giving back and doing good,” Zenger said Wednesday. “I greatly admire this community’s sense of pride, its purpose and its commitment to making a difference.”

Zenger, 58, comes to IWU from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, where he became interim president in 2022 before being appointed its executive vice president and chief operating officer earlier this year. Prior to that, Zenger was the athletic director at the University of Kansas from 2012-2019 and at Illinois State University from 2005-2011.

A contractual agreement between Zenger and IWU is still being finalized, officials said Wednesday.

Why they chose Zenger

Zenger was chosen from a pool of three finalists sourced by an IWU search committee and Oakbrook-based executive search firm WittKieffer.

"After combing through hundreds of pages of materials from excellent candidates, one cover letter stood out to me as distinctive," IWU associate vice president for institutional effectiveness Michael Thompson said. "Sheahon's narrative regarding the current state of higher education and how his competitive spirit, experiences and accomplishments will propel the university into a more prosperous future was both compelling and provoking."

"The question posed to the search committee was: 'What does the university do right now in the current environment?' The answer is Dr. Sheahon Zenger," Thompson added.

Search committee chair Timothy Szerlong said trustees elected Zenger based on a “track record of strategic leadership, relationship building and successful fundraising.”

A former football player himself, Zenger got his start in higher education at Kansas State University in 1989, when he became a full-time football staffer. After completing two master’s degrees and a doctoral program, Zenger became a recruiting coordinator for the University of South Florida in 1996 and for the University of Wyoming in 1997.

He held various positions within KSU before becoming Illinois State’s athletics director in 2005.

At ISU, Zenger was credited with revitalizing the university’s sports programs — doubling fundraising totals, the building of the $3.2 million Duffy Bass Field, programs that saw student-athlete grade point averages break records, renovations of Hancock Stadium and securing a five-year contract with Nike. His tenure coincided with ISU capturing the Missouri Valley Conference All-Sports Trophy twice within three seasons.

Zenger is also responsible for the hiring of former Purdue University defensive coordinator Brock Spack as ISU’s head football coach, a position Spack still holds today.

A man wearing a dark green jacket approaches a podium that says Illinois Wesleyan University
Lyndsay Jones
New Illinois Wesleyan University President Sheahon Zenger, right, is introduced Wednesday, April 10, 2024, to the campus community.

Kansas tenure

Zenger left ISU in 2011 to become the athletics director at the University of Kansas. He held that position for seven years before being abruptly fired without cause in 2018. At the time, KU’s chancellor wrote in a letter that “Kansas Athletics has improved in many ways under [Zenger’s] leadership” before adding that “the department continues to face a number of challenges and progress in key areas has been elusive.”

Zenger was responsible for introducing "The Kansas Way," a culture-building program aimed at orienting “new staff more effectively to the organization” and promoting staff development, according to an IWU release. He also was responsible for the hiring of two football coaches at KU, one of whom led the Jayhawks to their first winless season since 1954.

In 2019, Zenger moved to the University of New Haven to become its director of athletics; while there, student-athlete enrollment grew from 360 to 500 and Zenger led the development of an organization for minority student-athletes.

Zenger told the Kansas City Star after his termination from KU that he hoped the “entire picture” would be considered when assessing his legacy. “I’m not sure I needed more humility, but it certainly put life in perspective,” he told the newspaper in 2018.

IWU, in a press release, appeared to have done just that, pointing to Zenger’s overall career accomplishments in fundraising over $400 million in total, administration and athletics as part of the reason for hiring him.

“The search committee worked incredibly hard to make sure we found the right president for Illinois Wesleyan at this time," W. Thomas Lawrence, the vice chair of the IWU Board of Trustees and chair of the presidential search committee, said in a statement.

"Sheahon's background in higher education, his passion for the liberal arts, and his love of Bloomington-Normal and Illinois Wesleyan University made our decision incredibly easy."

What's next

IWU enrolls about 1,600 undergraduate students, more than 40% of whom are student-athletes.

In September, IWU said first-year student enrollment had increased by 16%, its largest incoming class in five years.

Zenger, in an interview with WGLT Wednesday, declined to say whether that 1,600 figure is the university's "sweet spot" for enrollment.

"There are so many components of that that are at play, from revenue production to the return of investment for students," he said. "There is a sweet spot. I'm not quite sure what that is yet, but we all have to collaborate and build consensus."

Zenger emphasized relationship-building is among his top priorities. Back in 2020, IWU cut a handful of its program offerings and staff, leading to a divide between faculty and administration.

"You're going to hear me say this word over and over: I need to be amongst them. You not going to learn anything if you're not with them and amongst them on really a daily basis — and when you're with them you listen, don't just talk," Zenger said. "I have some ideas and aspirations, but I need to see if they can be validated."

Zenger declined to specify what those aspirations are, saying it was too soon to do so, but said he had a "vision for where this institution can and should be in this community."

Illinois Wesleyan, he added, is where he has wanted to be for some time.

"It's really the culmination of a lifelong goal of what I believe in, in what I believe is the best of American higher education," Zenger said. "I wasn't able to attend an institution like this based on some family circumstances and so on and so forth. I always aspired to this. I've watched this institution from afar for close to 18 years and have admired it — and finally get to be a part of it."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.