St. Ambrose University in Davenport will spend $8 million to transform the second-oldest building on campus into the Higgins Hall for Innovation and Human-Centered Design.

Made possible in part by a significant donation from SAU alumnus and trustee Tom Higgins ’67, the near-total interior renovation of the 105-year-old building known as LeClaire Hall will begin in the spring of 2022, with an anticipated re-opening in the fall 2023.

Once completed, the building (which formerly housed the school gymnasium and fitness center) will feature five modern classrooms and more than 20 offices. It initially will house the St. Ambrose School of Social Work, the Institute for Person-Centered Care and the Master of Public Health program. Officials held a formal groundbreaking for the project Thursday afternoon.

A rendering of the renovated LeClaire Hall, which is behind the main Ambrose Hall on the SAU campus, 518 W. Locust St., Davenport (courtesy of St. Ambrose University).

The announcement follows by less than a week the inauguration of St Ambrose president Amy Novak. The announced plan puts her inaugural themes of inclusivity and innovation into action by imagining new means of reaching and teaching the next generation of learners, and by enlisting the varied and individualized ways those students process information.

“What Tom is envisioning is how we more intentionally provide support services and a holistic experience for students in all disciplines on our campus,” Dr. Novak said. “If we’re looking at the future of higher education, it rests with how we know a student best. Can we create a customized experience by recognizing their strengths, where they’re vulnerable, and understanding their learning style? Can we deliver a tailored learning experience?”

New SAU president Amy Novak (second from left) gets ready for the groundbreaking with donor and 1967 alumnus Tom Higgins (second from right).

A previous $1-million donation from Higgins led to the creation of the MPH program and the IPCC, both of which debuted in the fall of 2017 and currently are based at the Center for Health Sciences Education in Lombard Street. Higgins also contributed funding that helped the School of Social Work add a Bachelor of Social Work degree to a master’s program that began in 1995.

Advancing a mode of healthcare delivery designed to meet the needs of a patient and their family has been a passion for Higgins throughout his professional life. That includes chairing the Iowa General Assembly’s Health and Human Services Committee while serving three terms in elected office less than a decade beyond his St. Ambrose graduation.

He later worked in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, starting as a senior executive in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At the conclusion of Carter’s term (which ended in 1981), Higgins was a senior White House aide with an office directly above the Oval Office.

Higgins also headed the Department of Health and Social Services for Portland, Oregon; started a weekly national newspaper covering nationwide health news and trends; served as vice president for Maryland’s largest health insurance provider; and founded Prosetta Biosciences Inc.

Tom Higgins speaks at Thursday’s special event at his alma mater (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Along the way, he became a strong advocate for person-centered healthcare practice.  

Making sure to treat “the whole person”

The Higgins Hall for Innovation and Human-Centered Design will build upon the IPCC’s mission to create a more collaborative approach to treating the “whole person.” Higgins said the human-centered design concept ultimately could be built into the curricula of such SAU programs as engineering, education, computer science and multiple programs in the College of Business.

In a meeting in California prior to Novak’s start at St. Ambrose, Higgins (who lives in Oakland) was pleased to learn that his values and vision for the future of Higgins Hall and St. Ambrose University were fully aligned with those of the incoming president.

“I would say we had an immediate meeting of the minds,” Higgins said. “She put a particular emphasis on human-centered design, which, of course, fits very well with person-centered care. More to the point, she has a vision for St. Ambrose to produce graduates who can really help in the transformation of our economy and the nature of work and service in that economy.”

Novak said Higgins’ keen understanding of the university’s core mission values and support for incorporating those into preparing St. Ambrose graduates to lead in the modern workforce will be invaluable assets in growing innovation and inclusiveness at SAU.

Higgins’ gift toward the renovation of LeClaire Hall was approved more than two years ago by former president Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD ’21 (Hon.) and her Cabinet.

“Groundbreaking” in several ways

Novak said the gift and the new center are “groundbreaking” in more ways than one.

“The creation of the next generation of education will confirm this university as an innovative and compassionate leader, equipped to address the current challenges of higher education, in order to better serve learners across their lifespan,” she said.

St. Ambrose president Amy Novak speaks about the new building project Thursday as alumnus and donor Tom Higgins looks on (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“The word groundbreaking also stands for the faculty and Board of Trustees’ wisdom in choosing to invest in a future that is difficult to predict,” Novak said. “It stands for the groundbreaking generosity of an incredible alumnus — Tom Higgins — whose love of the university has propelled his giving to the development of the Institute for Person-Centered Care; the creation of the master’s of public health and today, we are proud to announce the centerpiece of Tom’s strategic investment in St. Ambrose.”

The center will emphasizes taking students into the community for real-life applications of what they learn, she said.

“Human-centered design recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching is no longer sufficient in developing the next generation of learners,” Novak said. Collaboration, critical thinking and creativity will be prized.

“The human-centered environment is built on relationships — something that has been a hallmark of the learning experience at St. Ambrose since its origins,” Novak said. “This state-of-the-art facility will expand the capacity of St. Ambrose to house programs which currently practice many of the aspects of human-centered design.”

They include the bachelor’s and master’s of social work, and the master’s of public health.

“It will be a living, learning laboratory, for the creation of the next generation of higher education,” Novak said, noting university leaders must make “unprecedented decisions about the direction of that future.”

Amy C. Novak, St. Ambrose University’s 14th president, was formally inaugurated on Oct. 1, 2021.

SAU was inspired by Higgins’s “bold vision and commitment to the dignity of every human person,” the president said. “Tom Higgins has been a model of visionary, servant leadership. His very generous investment in this project positions St. Ambrose at the forefront of creating the education of the future.”

“Our university seeks to prepare students to meet the challenges of this century, with an education that reflects our values,” Higgins said. Broad social, economic and political changes require us to “rethink and redesign our education, both to be relevant to these changes and to help lead them.”

Old ways of doing business must change

Each of SAU’s colleges are stakeholders in human-centered design, he said. “Their collaboration is essential to achieving our vision. Our old ways of doing business have to change, but our values should not.

“St. Ambrose University will lead through innovation and education, to what our founders held dear,” Higgins said. “A Christian belief in the dignity of humanity. I’m so proud that this historic building will continue to play a significant role in this noble vision.”

Two SAU students also spoke Thursday in support of the project — Myra Clasen, a senior majoring in social work and psychology, and Daneel Gayle, a second-year master’s student in public health.

“It is beyond exciting to see the opportunities for the School of Social Work, to work closely with the Institute for Person-Centered Care,” Clasen said. “I am thrilled to see what possibilities are in store for the School of Social Work here at St. Ambrose, working with the public health program as well.

St. Ambrose senior Myra Clasen, who’s majoring on social work, speaks at Thursday’s ceremony (photo Jonathan Turner).

“And I am so beyond excited to see the next chapter in the School of Social Work as a whole, moving the MSW program back here on the main campus,” she said. “This will allow future BSW students to work more closely with MSW students and will greatly impact this program in a positive way. This move will definitely open up more opportunities for collaboration to occur.”

Gayle said public health means everyone has access to the right care at the right time, in the right place. She said she has felt overlooked and disregarded when encountering the healthcare system, not feeling her individual needs were met.

Her aim from the SAU program is to help educate the community about the resources available to them, ensuring equity and person-centered care.

Daneel Gayle, an Ambrose master’s student in public health, speaks at Thursday’s ceremony (photo Jonathan Turner).

Gayle expressed personal gratitude to Tom Higgins, Ambrose faculty and Sister Joan for their vision, wisdom and commitment to this project. “I’m extremely excited that Tom and Dr. Novak are expanding the concept to better serve all SAU students in professional programs through the Higgins Hall for Innovation and Human-Centered Design.”

Design of the new interior was done by Studio 483 Architects. Estes Construction will be the lead contractor. Higgins said later he’s not sure what his total donation will be, and that SAU is in the midst of fundraising to cover the $8-million cost.