Gannon University welcomed its eighth president, Walter Iwanenko, Ph.D., in an inaugural celebration on Sept. 22, 2023, that was steeped in tradition. This momentous occasion was a resounding testament to Gannon’s longstanding commitment to shaping a brighter future for its students and the community.
The historic Warner Theatre in downtown Erie served as the backdrop for the formal inauguration ceremony, where nearly 700 students, employees and friends of the university came together to witness the defining moment.
The Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, J.C.L., Bishop of the Erie Diocese and chairperson of the Gannon Board of Trustees, presided over the ceremony, and reflected on the steps Iwanenko took to get to office in his remarks.
“In early November (2022), the board identified Walter as the next president to take office in July of this year and now we formally inaugurate him into this high office and offer our encouragement and prayers. I like to think that, together, we found the right person,” Persico said.
“You have demonstrated your ability to deepen Gannon’s unique identity and culture, as well as to provide strategic leadership through both vision and execution. You have proven your aptitude to leverage the university’s financial health in pursuit of its goals, and to enrich Gannon’s connection to the communities it serves. Above all, you embody the Gannon University Mission, its Catholic Identity and its purpose to transform the lives of our students.”
In the formal conferral of the Presidential Medallion of Office – a symbol reflecting the link to Gannon’s heritage and continuity of tradition – Persico presented Iwanenko with the charges for office.
“Your first charge is to uphold and advance the mission of the university so that it continues to be an academic community, dedicated to excellence in teaching, scholarship and service … to promote a comprehensive learning experience that emphasizes faith, leadership, inclusiveness and social responsibility that is inspired by the Catholic Intellectual tradition. You will execute this charge in witness to the message of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve,” Persico said.
“Gannon is to be a recognized center of academic excellence that develops the intellectual skills and personal values of its students to prepare them to lead meaningful and productive lives … You are to uphold and advance this purpose in your leadership … and partnership with the Church and the broader community of alumni and community leaders in the city, the nation and the world.”
The crowd rose to their feet with roaring applause as Persico placed the medallion on Iwanenko’s shoulders to formally distinguish him as the eighth president of Gannon University.
The surreal moment painted Iwanenko’s gleaming face as he delivered his inaugural address.
“I am honored and humbled to stand before you as the eighth president of this esteemed institution, and I am truly grateful for the trust and confidence placed in me,” Iwanenko began.
He expressed gratitude and shared stories of those in attendance who influenced his life’s journey and led him to this moment.
He elaborated on several successes that Gannon achieved since he joined the institution in 2016, along with challenges that lie ahead for higher education.
“Together we will build on this success … we must and will remain steadfast in achieving our Mission and in delivering a quality education.”
So how does he plan to accomplish this?
Iwanenko outlined his plan for Gannon’s future under the banner of “Relentless Balanced Incrementalism.” This comprehensive strategy is built on pillars focused on advancing data-driven financial decisions, deepening commitment to well-being, growing enrollment and retention of students, and ultimately strengthening Gannon’s mission and Catholic identity.
“Our Catholic Tradition and Mission must remain at the center of how we act and make decisions. … We will use our Catholic identity as a framework to discuss polarizing issues and we will be sure to treat all with dignity and respect.”
He shared a call to action with the audience to achieve this plan together.
“As we look ahead, we cannot ignore the challenges that face our global community. Climate change, social inequality and technological advancements present both opportunities and responsibilities. Gannon University will be a force for positive change, a place where ideas are harnessed for the betterment of society,” Iwanenko said.
He expressed that Gannon’s students are at the center of the university’s purpose.
“Your passion, curiosity and enthusiasm drive us to continually improve and innovate,” he said. “I encourage you to seize every opportunity that comes your way, to challenge yourselves and to contribute to the betterment of our community and beyond.”
In the closing remarks of his address, Iwanenko expressed his firm commitment to the university’s success.
“Our university stands as a pillar of wisdom, a place where generations have come to pursue their dreams,” he declared.
“As we move forward, let us remember that our mission is not just to educate, but to inspire. … Together, as a united Gannon family, we will rise to the challenges of our time, inspired by our past, driven by our present and steadfast in our commitment to a brighter future.”
This inaugural celebration is relived like a time capsule that can’t help but be marveled at for its immense significance in Gannon’s history. It marked not only a shift in leadership, but a promise to uphold the values and vision that have defined Gannon University for nearly 100 years. A new chapter has begun, and as the university approaches its centennial anniversary, the future has never looked brighter.
The inaugural celebration was a significant milestone in Gannon University’s nearly 100-year history that engaged the Gannon family and surrounding communities in a series of events that were inspired by a convergence of tradition, camaraderie and a commitment to building a future together.
The day began with the Mass of the Holy Spirit, a tradition of a Catholic university, where the community gathered to invoke the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the new president and the university family.
Iwanenko led the assembly in the Profession of Faith (pictured above) and later placed his hand on the Book of the Gospels, taking the Oath of Fidelity, during which he expressed his commitment to the university’s Catholic identity and his promise to preserve communion with the Catholic Church.
The Inauguration Ceremony was held at the Warner Theatre in downtown Erie. It was gracefully guided by Mark Minnaugh ’81, vice chairperson of the Gannon Board of Trustees, and attended by Gannon’s board, employees, students and alumni, representatives from various universities as well as three of Gannon’s past presidents–exemplifying a seamless continuation of the rich legacy that defines Gannon.
In a show of confidence, student leaders from every athletic team, club and organization led the academic procession to open the ceremony.
Moving musical performances were shared of the National Anthem by the Gannon University Chorus under the direction of Kathleen Thiem, and “Holy Mother” performed by Sam Hyman with music by Eric Clapton & Stephen Bishop, as well as an interfaith blessing in prayer and song guided by University Chaplain Rev. Michael Kesicki ’83 and Gannon students from around the world. Gannon students, employees, alumni and representatives of the community shared special remarks to affirm their support in Iwanenko.
The ceremony was followed by a reception in the picturesque Warner lobby, where guests posed for photos with with the new president.
Following the ceremony, more than 100 guests filled the Yehl Alumni Ballroom for a Presidential Dinner, where Iwanenko thanked the many volunteers who made the day memorable.
Celebrations continued into the evening with “The Groove on the Green: A Block Party Celebration” that welcomed all and kicked off Homecoming and Family Weekend. The festivities were enjoyed so much so that plans are already in progress to make this a new homecoming tradition every year.
Gold sparks flew beneath an illuminated iconic Gannon arch as President Iwanenko and his wife, Mary, entered the block party and vibrant applause filled the neighborhood. Bistro lights strung across Seventh Street and classic hits by local band The Groove bellowed, setting the vibe to celebrate the historic day.
Students were drawn to join in the festivities with cornhole, a fire pit and s’mores, along with an extravagant display if sweet and savory treats all sponsored by Gannon’s Student Government Association and Activities Programming Board.
The following week, the celebration continued on Gannon’s Ruskin Campus, showcasing the unity and strength that defines the Gannon family. Iwanenko connected with students on their academic and profession experiences during a luncheon on campus.