John Affleck-Graves is not a horse guy.
But he has a granddaughter in Ohio who’s a serious show rider, and he and his wife, Rita, visited last year for a big event. First time they’d seen the girl compete.
At the beginning, Affleck-Graves was full of questions about technique and tactics. By the next day, he was offering observations of his own: “She needs to put her knee down there” or “I think that jump’s going to be short.”
By the time the show ended, he had seen enough to advise his daughter, Susan McCusker ’99, a farm owner who’s no stranger to the saddle, “You need to get her a better horse.”
McCusker laughs at how fast her father banked around that learning curve. That’s him. When something captures his heart and mind, he’s all in, collecting and interpreting the information, considering the implications for the people involved, formulating and advancing a plan.
Colleagues describe the same characteristics: an uncanny ability to gather and process data, to ask incisive questions that sift signal from noise, to identify when a rider needs a new mount. Managing a sprawling portfolio for the past 15 years as Notre Dame’s executive vice president, the tools of his trade were that enthusiastic curiosity and nimble intellect.
When former Notre Dame president Rev. Edward A. Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A. asked Affleck-Graves in 2004 to become the University’s first lay EVP, he accepted because he’s a finance expert and he reckoned it to be a finance job. Manage the University’s money.
That’s a paramount responsibility, to be sure, and Malloy could not have identified a more earnest steward. Affleck-Graves oversaw more than a doubling of Notre Dame’s annual operating budget to $1.6 billion and nearly a quadrupling of the endowment to $13.1 billion. He credits the growth to chief investment officer Scott Malpass ’84, ’86MBA and vice presidents for finance John Sejdinaj ’81, hired by Indiana University in 2016, and Shannon Cullinan ’93, who succeeded Affleck-Graves on July 1.
Affleck-Graves’ tenure included the delicate caretaking of resources during the 2007-08 financial crisis, a storm through which, he believes, Notre Dame owes its safe passage in part to Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, ’37, who died in 2004. The EVP under Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, Joyce set the conservative course that Affleck-Graves inherited with gratitude, a legacy of low debt and balanced budgets that he made a priority to maintain.
He soon learned that the executive vice presidency demands much more than securing the University’s coffers. Supervising the human resources of St. Joseph County’s largest employer with some 7,000 people on the payroll. Improving the physical space to which innumerable alumni and admirers attach so much sentimental value, and that students and faculty expect to be state of the art. Extending Notre Dame’s intellectual and economic influence to the greater regional community and the world.
Finances sluice through all of those objectives, but the money represents only the bloodstream of the enterprise. If he had failed to understand its heart and soul, Affleck-Graves could not have fulfilled his mandate.
Developing that understanding, especially early in his tenure, meant dressing for work in the occasional hair net or reflective vest. He manned the burger line at the dining hall (until his failure to rack the cheese right got him banished to peeling potatoes), planted bulbs with the grounds crew, folded towels in the laundry.
In the areas where his expertise did not precede him into the EVP’s office — and that’s most of the job, he’s the first to point out — Affleck-Graves set about the business of learning. “John is as much a student as he is a teacher,” says Mike Seamon ’92, ’94MBA, Notre Dame’s vice president for campus safety and university operations — and Affleck-Graves’ first senior adviser from 2004 to 2008.
Affleck-Graves scheduled time on the clock in departments across campus to experience the working conditions firsthand, to witness the bottlenecks that stifle efficiency and, especially, to meet the people who dedicate their working lives to Notre Dame. That meant doing things like pulling wire alongside information technology staff or answering phones in their service center.
Photography by Matt Cashore
“So, some poor person on campus called the OIT help desk and got John,” says Mike Chapple ’97, ’09Ph.D, the academic director of the business analytics master’s degree program and senior adviser to Affleck-Graves from 2009 to 2011. “Not sure how much he was able to help them, but that type of thing was so important to the staff all around campus, to see that John was willing to do anything that he asked them to do.”
The object was not to develop proficiency. You don’t, for example, want John Affleck-Graves making your concession-stand hot dog any more than you want him troubleshooting your computer issues. He just needed to learn enough about the processes in practice to ask the right questions, to augment data with daily reality, to reach informed decisions. Sort of like the horse thing.
Speaking of his equine judgment during his granddaughter’s competition . . .
“He was right, yes,” McCusker says. “We bought her a horse last summer.”
Lee Tavis ’53, a longtime finance professor, asked the young South African scholar to present a research paper on campus in 1985. Affleck-Graves had never heard of Notre Dame before that invitation.
His memories of that visit echo many people’s first encounter with campus. He reminisces about driving along Notre Dame Avenue to the Morris Inn, taking a walk across a quad and experiencing something distinctive and difficult to put into words. A feeling.
“It was this sense of place that was different,” Affleck-Graves says. “It was palpable.”
Two months later came an offer to teach in the finance department, an untenured position that would mean moving to another hemisphere with his wife and two young daughters, leaving his native country and a full professorship at his alma mater, the University of Cape Town, where he had taught for the previous decade. He didn’t hesitate to accept.
“What drew me was, we were living in apartheid South Africa and I didn’t think it was going to change, so it was a tremendous opportunity,” Affleck-Graves says. “I had two young children and I didn’t really want them to grow up in that society. So it was actually a very easy choice.”
Notre Dame and Cape Town had one essential thing in common: the classroom, the wellspring of Affleck-Graves’ professional zeal. Even during his tenure as executive vice president, he taught a fall-semester course each year. Plans to return to the faculty full-time enliven his vision of “retirement.”
Seamon, the former senior adviser, knew Affleck-Graves as a teacher, too, in a capital theory course he took as a graduate student in the 1990s. Tall and thin, Affleck-Graves stands ramrod straight, exuding excitement for his subject like a living exclamation point. His physical presence commands a room. When he speaks, his accent conveys a regal tone to an American ear — “here” sounds like “he-yah” — adding a certain decorum to the proceedings.
“I never understood what he was saying, either from the content or his accent,” Seamon jokes, “but you quickly realized how gifted he was.”
Four Notre Dame teaching honors, for his work in the regular and executive MBA programs and the undergraduate business school, bear out his reputation in the classroom. “Oh, it goes up and down,” Affleck-Graves says, letting escape an experienced professor’s knowing chuckle over the impossibility of universal student approval. What never varies is the joy he takes in conveying his knowledge to students.
“Whatever they do in their lives — whatever it is — finance is going to be a part of it, and just understanding how the financial world works is extremely important,” he says. “So I’m always going in with that: How can I make it easy for you? How can I make you understand why this is such a great subject? And how can I help you to navigate your future in the financial world?”
One way to command attention, at the very least, is by filling students with the dread that they could be called on at any moment. He has an algorithm that selects the next person to answer a question. Or so he claims.
“He called it a random number generator; I called it b.s.,” says Seamon, who once found himself on the hook twice in a row in a class of 50 students. “What’s the chance of that?”
Through nostalgic laughter, with a vestige of student trepidation still audible, Seamon explains that the procedure “sent a clear message to the class that we’re all invested in this, every minute of every class.”
Implicit in his approach was the essence of what makes a teacher resonate with students, a characteristic Affleck-Graves displayed long before he had the empirical data to verify its importance. Former provost Nathan Hatch asked him and professor emerita Barbara Walvoord to conduct a survey about what makes an effective teacher. Affleck-Graves thought he knew: proficiency in the subject, preparation for each class, presentation of the material.
Not so much.
More than expertise, more than enthusiasm, responses from 25 years of Notre Dame alumni showed that students consider caring to be a professor’s most important quality. “If the students feel that you care about them and you care about their learning, now they’re hanging with you,” Affleck-Graves says. “You don’t have to tell jokes every minute; you don’t have to be the most slick presenter.”
His care for students made an impression that lasted long after they left campus. Just about everywhere he went on University business as EVP, Affleck-Graves would run into someone who had taken his class. He remembered not only their names but something meaningful about each of them.
“The first few times it happened, it just felt surreal,” says Matthew Blazejewski, the director of talent acquisition in Notre Dame’s human resources department, who served as senior adviser to Affleck-Graves from 2012 to 2016.
As they crossed a busy intersection during the 2013 Shamrock Series football weekend in Texas, a voice called from a car window. “Hey, Dr. Affleck-Graves!” He stopped in the middle of the street and chatted with the former student, idling at the red light, like they were old friends.
“Meanwhile, I’m standing there in traffic and the light changes, and he’s still talking to the person,” Blazejewski says. “I’m like, ‘I think we need to cross now.’”
Despite a calendar so crowded that an hour can be hard to carve out even a month or more in advance, Affleck-Graves always had time. Or, rather, he made time. Not just for former students he bumped into on the street, but for anybody at Notre Dame who made an effort to meet with him. If a staff member stopped him on campus with a complaint or a suggestion, he promised to meet with them and put the onus on his staff to make it happen, usually within a day or two.
“We would always laugh,” Blazejewski says. “‘Your schedule already has 13 meetings on it tomorrow.’”
After the laughter, the staff would either add a 14th or determine which of the other 13 could be postponed. Because, to Affleck-Graves, those impromptu meetings were no joke. “Very serious,” Chapple says.
To delay or delegate them would be to diminish the concerns of people who already felt removed from the upper administration. Affleck-Graves made sure that the conversations would not be reduced to a brief moment of facetime forgotten after a farewell handshake.
“When he’s able to help someone, he does that and follows through,” Chapple says. “And when something’s not possible, he’s up front about that and explains the reason why.”
In 2012, Affleck-Graves formalized the encounters, offering periodic 15-minute windows to anyone on campus who wanted to claim a time. Over 100 employees a year took him up on it.
“They’ve come up to show me pictures of their family. They’ve come up to complain about their work conditions. They’ve come up to make suggestions for how we can do better. Everyone comes in with their own story,” Affleck-Graves says. “We don’t have any formula or anything, but it’s great. You learn a lot.”
Those meetings provided a personal supplement to the data from an employee survey called ND Voice that Affleck-Graves developed with human resources vice president Robert McQuade. The study offers insight with campuswide breadth and departmental depth into people’s true impressions of working at Notre Dame.
“John would spend a lot of time with those numbers, digging in and trying to figure out areas where we could improve,” Chapple says. “He was very introspective about looking at that data and figuring out what the University could do better to make it a better place to work.”
Improvements to training and development that human resources established during his tenure, including a rotation program that identifies aspiring leaders and introduces them to different departments on campus, demonstrate Affleck-Graves’ attention to a need that the data revealed.
“Just to allow themselves to grow in whichever direction they want to grow as a person is an important responsibility of the employer,” he says. “I’m really proud of what HR has done in the last 15 years to offer a lot more programs on campus.”
The way Affleck-Graves conducted business brings to mind a famous John Wooden aphorism: Be quick but don’t hurry. He set a breathtaking pace, shepherding initiatives as transformative as the Crossroads construction project and as pastoral as an inventory of every campus tree.
“His motor, his engine, whatever you want to call it,” Blazejewski says, “was unlike anything I’ve ever seen from anybody in any position, any age, any stage of their career.”
Here’s the thing, though, Blazejewski hastens to add: as revved up as Affleck-Graves always appeared to be, he maintained impeccable control at the wheel. “This is a guy who, pretty regularly, because of what was really important in his life, would oftentimes leave the office around 5:30 or 6 because he wanted to have dinner with Rita every night.”
He expected the same of his staff, often stopping on the way out to urge lingerers to call it a day. Work to be done could be resumed online later, if need be. His own hours in front of the laptop at home, Affleck-Graves insists, created a different domestic impression of what colleagues interpreted as meticulous caretaking of a work-life balance.
“My family would absolutely disagree,” he says. “They would definitely think I’m a workaholic.”
And they do. “He doesn’t have a lot of balance,” McCusker says, though he’s not without his hobbies. Some of those just happen to be pretty demanding, too.
When he visits his daughter’s farm, she adds, “He’s putting electricity into my horses’ run-in shelters and he’s using a Bush Hog to cut fields and trails.” Affleck-Graves and his wife had a fixer-upper first house, and he learned electrical wiring and plumbing from his father-in-law. McCusker asks why he would want to do it now, in his fleeting free time, and he insists it’s a relaxing diversion from his everyday stress.
Not that he felt any ill-effects from his workaholism. On the contrary, at 68, on the cusp of retirement after 15 years of endless administrative demands, he greeted what many would regard as a daily grind with almost boyish enthusiasm. He always wanted to be involved — to a fault, he says with customary self-deprecation, presuming that “several folks who’ve worked for me would say I’m a micromanager.” But he treasured firsthand insight.
During football games, for example, he walked the concourses and parking lots to witness the gameday battleship at sail. At halftime of one early-season night game a few years ago, Affleck-Graves and Seamon surveyed the tailgating lots and discovered a scene far from the idyll that forms the mental scenery of a football Saturday — quads groomed with meticulous care, Dome aglow, Touchdown Jesus lit as if for a photographic backdrop.
“We were just floored at the volumes of trash,” Seamon says. More or less a landfill had piled up, overflowing designated receptacles to create a hazardous mess and an urgent new initiative on the executive vice president’s agenda.
Seamon, whose responsibilities include overseeing gameday operations, remembers that as “a tough night,” but Affleck-Graves did not assign blame for the situation so much as insist on accountability for improvement. He expected unforeseen problems to arise and, when they did, turned his attention to the task of solving them.
“His focus is all on that, you know, what is needed of you, what’s needed of others, what’s needed of him,” Seamon says. “He doesn’t shy away from that. He would rather know. He’s the type of leader that wants to know not only the good things happening, but the challenges. What are the one or two things that are bothering you or keeping you up at night?”
The response, swift and comprehensive, involved the campus sustainability office, Notre Dame police and the athletics department. University officials collaborated on new strategies for collecting the garbage that tailgaters generate as well as tactics to encourage pregame revelers to bag their own trash.
“By the second or third game,” Seamon says, “it was a world of difference.”
Affleck-Graves has even wheeled around a garbage can himself, literally getting his hands dirty to understand the scope of the cleanup chore and the effectiveness of the solutions. From collecting the trash to fulfilling Notre Dame’s most ambitious aspirations, Affleck-Graves has been elbow-deep in every aspect of the University’s operation.
In the full sweep of the position and in each of its particulars, the bucks that stop with the EVP defy easy summary. Off the top of his head, he says, “We’re serving 25,000 meals a day on campus. We have over 1,000 acres of ground. We’re doing construction projects. We have students from 60 different countries.” Notre Dame police and fire also operated under his purview, making him ultimately responsible for the safety of the thousands who live and work here every day and the multitudes more who visit for football games and other stadium events, which he also helped initiate.
It didn’t hurt, of course, to have all the resources of the University at his disposal, including the people whose jobs depend on producing the results he demands. Those closest to him came to understand his relentless energy as an expression of his personal fervor, not as an expectation to perform with the same machinelike precision.
They also saw his sense of humor and eagerness to display his playful side. Like his shoes-off and hands-in-the-air abandon during a spontaneous ride down an inflatable slide while walking between meetings. Or his showcase of dancing skill in a fundraiser-video “evaluation” of an underperforming “Jitterbug Johnny” Sejdinaj. And his staff knew he was sincere about ushering them out the door in the evenings, because, whenever personal complications arose, he accommodated them with patient understanding.
Not everyone on campus whose work intersected with Affleck-Graves’ got to know him so well. For those who didn’t, he lamented that his title, his office in the august Main Building, and his single-minded determination might have created a misimpression about his disposition.
“My regret is that I think some people find it intimidating and it’s just not meant to be,” he says. “It’s just what I do.”
To understand the doggedness inherent in everything Affleck-Graves does, consider the marathons.
“I got into running in 1980 when I was heavily overweight,” he says, a description of himself almost impossible to reconcile with the stick-figure silhouette he cuts on campus.
By “got into running,” Affleck-Graves means he started training for marathons, 26.2 miles of one foot in front of the other. One marathon led to another and he didn’t cross his final finish line until he had completed 100 — 2,620 miles in competition alone — a preposterous ambition most people would never conceive of, let alone fulfill.
The will to commit and to endure. That’s the story the data tells about Affleck-Graves. He accepts that assessment, but as is also typical, he finds a less flattering interpretation.
“If you do the same thing for 26 miles over three or four hours and nothing changes — you’re doing exactly the same thing — you’re a pretty dull individual,” he says, “but you do have staying power and determination.”
With the miles, results start to accumulate. Some blisters, too. The metabolism changes. Notre Dame is a different place from what he inherited 15 years ago. More research-oriented, more international, more attuned to its regional citizenship.
Those goals predated the current administration, Affleck-Graves emphasizes, stretching back to Father Hesburgh’s commitment to building a global research university and the bridges Father Malloy built between Notre Dame and South Bend. As he worked to fulfill the priorities established with the University’s president Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., and provost Thomas Burish ’72, another figure in University history lingered in the back of his mind.
“Sorin is one of my favorite Notre Dame characters,” Affleck-Graves says. “He was entrepreneurial, he was driven, he was ambitious. He had a lot of bravado.”
When Sorin received the land for his new school, he didn’t wait six months for spring to embark on his long journey across Indiana. He barreled ahead, on foot, in the snow, embodying the resolve for forward motion that fortified his founding vision of a Notre Dame that nobody but he had the foresight to see.
Affleck-Graves went stride for stride with Sorin during the 2017 Notre Dame Trail, participating in the entire 250-mile, two-week trek from Vincennes to South Bend that recreated the University’s origin story. The soil where Sorin established roots still nourishes Notre Dame’s growth nearly two centuries later.
Over the past 15 years alone, that growth included an additional 3.3 million square feet of residential, classroom, athletic and administrative space across 36 new buildings, with multiple residence halls and a new Corby Hall in progress. Old dorms have been renovated to meet modern needs, and the Hesburgh Library has undergone a makeover for the digital age.
Around the basilica, the Main Building and the Grotto, a halo of untouched history remains — to be preserved at all costs, Affleck-Graves believes — while a 21st-century university takes shape in its light. “We have to have a modern university,” he says, “but it shouldn’t infringe on those places.”
The potential impact of the modern university comes into sharper focus with a recent $33.7-million grant, the largest research award in Notre Dame history. The money will fund work on a high-tech mosquito repellent that could help reduce rates of malaria and dengue fever in the developing world.
“That can affect 120 million people around the world and give them a better life,” Affleck-Graves says. “So that, I think, helps people to see how important that research mission is.”
The University has invested more in the local economy as well, with Affleck-Graves taking the lead as founding chair of the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Development Authority that received a $42-million state grant for quality-of-life projects in 2015. In April, the Lilly Endowment awarded Notre Dame an unrelated $42 million to leverage the University’s academic expertise, spur innovation in the region’s manufacturing and technology industries, and create new educational and employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame Stadium isn’t just for Fighting Irish football anymore. A Garth Brooks concert, the NHL’s Winter Classic and a July 2019 futbol friendly between European soccer powerhouses have increased the versatility (and economic benefits, to the University and the city) of the iconic venue.
To hear Seamon tell it, credit for the deal to bring Brooks to campus goes to Affleck-Graves. All the country singer knew about the University came from watching football games as a boy. In the span of a two-hour meeting with Brooks, Affleck-Graves transformed a fan from afar into a member of the Notre Dame family, instilling a sense of shared mission that transcended the commercial interests that each party could serve for the other.
“That was years of just living, breathing, understanding and loving Notre Dame,” Seamon says, of imbibing history while building the state-of-the-art facilities and financial strength necessary for the institution to endure.
Affleck-Graves would never mistake himself for a visionary like Sorin. He sees himself as a person who implements what others envision. Once a plan is in place, though, a more indefatigable leader would be hard to find.
To the extent that the University’s dramatic evolution over the past 15 years recalled the founder’s resolute stride into the future, the footprints could be traced through the executive vice president’s office.
Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.