Fleeing the violence of apartheid South Africa in 1986, John Affleck-Graves came to Notre Dame to start anew as an assistant professor in finance. He recalls arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport with his wife Rita and two young daughters with limited cash and no idea when he would be granted access to his bank account back in South Africa. “Department Chair Howie Lanser (’65) drove a van to meet us at the airport and then put us in his mom’s home, and had her stay with him until we could get our own place,” says Affleck-Graves. “It didn’t take me two hours to figure out that Notre Dame is a special place.”
According to Professor Lanser, Affleck-Graves’ family had already been through quite a bit after thirty hours of travel. “I remember that they were so tired,” recalls Lanser. “Rita and the girls slept in the van all the way home from Chicago. I couldn’t help thinking how much courage it took for them to leave their homeland.”
Eighteen years later, John Affleck-Graves, now a naturalized United States citizen, has risen to the role of executive vice president at Notre Dame, a position in which he oversees all of the business operations at the university.
Described by Mendoza colleagues as gracious and hardworking, Affleck-Graves is also known for a gritty determination. A case in point, he ran two marathons a few years ago—on the same weekend!
Professor Frank Reilly (’57), who has team-taught an applied investment management class with Affleck-Graves for several years, points to his candor as another strength. “If you want to know what John thinks, just ask him,” says Reilly. “He’ll take the position he thinks is right, and he’ll be persuasive in his arguments for it.”
Affleck-Graves is determined when he talks about what Notre Dame aspires to achieve. “To say we have an education which is not quite as good as others, but we have this special sense of community, is not enough,” he contends. “A student at Notre Dame should experience an education that is as good as any student anywhere in the world—and also the sense of what it means to live in community, to worship in community, and to give back to the community.”
Although Affleck-Graves is the first lay person to serve in the role of executive vice president in the University’s history, he is keenly aware of the challenges Notre Dame faces in maintaining its Catholic identity. “Look at the top twenty private universities,” he says. “Most of them started as religious schools. And we’re the only one that still is. It’s not easy. But we have a mission to be the great university in the world where scholars can also talk about issues of responsibility and religion.”
Affleck-Graves asserts that Notre Dame’s mission is to create the next generation of Catholic leaders. And because the university does not plan to grow undergraduate enrollment beyond 8000 students, he contends it is essential that top students be selected for admission. “It may sound somewhat elitist,” concedes Affleck-Graves, “But we need to choose the best students, the students who we think will make a difference ten or twenty years from now.”
Affleck-Graves describes himself as fiscally conservative. “Father Ned Joyce didn’t like debt and neither do I,” he says. He pledges to balance the university’s budget every year and never to spend down the principal from the endowment, as some universities have done in recent years. In fact, even with major construction projects planned in the coming years, he is determined to maintain the university’s AAA bond rating with Moody’s, which requires that the level of debt of a university not exceed 10% of the endowment. Currently, Notre Dame is one of nine universities nationwide to receive this rating.
Even with a myriad of responsibilities, Affleck-Graves says he does not spend time worrying. He oversees an annual operating budget of more than $650 million, an endowment of more than $3 billion, and a work force of more than 4,000 employees. He directs the university’s many construction projects, while also teaching in the classroom.
He recalls the advice President Emeritus Father Ted Hesburgh gave him when he took over this job: “You’ll face a lot of tough decisions, a lot of decisions which impact people’s lives. We put Mary on top of the dome for a reason. When you have a difficult decision which bothers you, look Mary in the eye. Tell her what you’re going to do. And if you can do it without blinking or averting your eyes, it’s okay. If you can’t, then there’s a problem.”