Father Malachi Van Tassell PhD in Education with a specialization in Higher Education Leadership

Capella University students come from all walks of life and use their education to achieve things they may never have dreamed possible when beginning their careers.

Case in point: Father Malachi Van Tassell, who earned his PhD in Education with a specialization in Higher Education Leadership from Capella in 2006. Fr. Van Tassell has had a wide-ranging career, but also a circular one.

Q. Please share a bit about your background.

A. I received bachelor’s degrees in accounting and Spanish and went on to get my CPA so I could practice at an audit firm. I also received a master’s in taxation and ended up working at Coopers & Lybrand [which later merged with Price Waterhouse]. But I realized that was not where I needed to be, so I left to become a Franciscan priest.

I felt God calling me to the priesthood as early as my high school years. I entered the Franciscan Order after meeting the Franciscans at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where I did my undergraduate. The fact that they run two universities (Franciscan University and Saint Francis University) was appealing, because I wanted to teach Accounting on the undergraduate level, which I was able to do for 12 years (full and part time).

I ended up teaching business at Saint Francis University as adjunct professor while working on my PhD at Capella. I then became the chief financial officer of the Franciscans for seven years before becoming the president of Saint Francis in 2014.

Q. Why did you go into your field?

A. My father was an accountant, and he inspired me. I also had two accounting professors as an undergraduate who really encouraged me to think about teaching. Even while working as a CPA, the idea of teaching was always in the back of my mind. I became a priest in 1997, and was able to teach at Saint Francis. I had a very peaceful feeling that this was the right thing for me to do.

Q. Please tell us about your role as president of Saint Francis University.

A. There are several roles. I’m the CEO of the university, the animator of the mission, and the pastor of the university. It’s a multi-faceted career, and I’m humbled and privileged to be the leader. I do a lot of fundraising and look out for the well-being of our students. Every day is different, but every day is about our students. With 1,700 undergrads enrolled, we’re a small school with a close-knit environment. We have to be student-centric. I get out and about with the students as much as I can, whether it’s at a sporting event, lunch, or church.

Q. What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing your university right now?

A. Enrollment. We’re a tuition-driven institution in a competitive environment. We have to identify what makes us different—the excellence of our academics. We really have to be on our game.

Q. Why did you seek out a PhD?

A. The leadership of my religious order encouraged me to pursue the PhD in Higher Education Leadership with an eye towards being an administrator at one of our two universities. Only a Franciscan can be president at our schools, so this degree trained me for the Presidency of Saint Francis.

Q. Do you feel your PhD from Capella prepared you for this work?

A. Yes, definitely. Capella really stayed true to its mission. The dissertation made me really appreciate the rigors of research—I could tell from the very first week that it was going to be rigorous. I gained a lot of practical knowledge about management issues and leadership styles. These are things I use every day. And it’s a huge accomplishment that I’ll have forever.

Q. What would you recommend to others who are thinking about pursuing a graduate degree online?

A. Don’t put it off. Just go ahead and start. If you have discipline and drive, you’ll be successful. It involves sacrifice, but it’s worth it. I kept reminding myself: “I am working towards a goal.” Just get it done!


Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Higher Education Leadership degree program.