Gabriel Esteban: The ‘accidental president’

Photo: Seton Hall University

By Cristina DC Pastor

For Gabriel Esteban, the road to Seton Hall University was one that began with mediocre school grades and reinforced by a lot of hard work.

“I was never the smartest person, but I would not let anyone outwork me,” said the 20th president of Seton Hall University and the first Filipino American president of a major American university.

At a recent talk at the Philippine Consulate, Esteban, 50, took his audience on a journey from the turbulent 1970s when he was a UP student all the way to 2011 when he was named the first lay president of the Catholic institution. Esteban recalled that as a UP ‘aktibista’ during martial law, he was always fascinated that rallyists were always in front of marches and protest leaders were always at the back. “Are we the sacrificial lambs?” he asked himself. It would be his first “lesson” on leadership.

By his admission, he was a regular guy – a “very poor” student but a very good chess and basketball player. By the time he earned his MBA, he had matured a little bit. He taught Economics at UP around the time that former Budget Secretary Ben Diokno and former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Dante Canlas were among the faculty. He won a scholarship to study in Japan, and later worked at San Miguel Corp. doing feasibility studies as part of corporate planning.

He went to the U.S. with his wife Josephine and both pursued higher education with the support of scholarships and student loans. “No way we could afford to study in this country,” he said.

A teaching career opened up in California, as the young couple with one car drove 2.5 hours from one campus to another and back so they could save. They left California for a better paying teaching job in Texas. After four years, Esteban earned his doctorate degree and would later “pay through the nose” to upgrade his and his wife’s immigration status.

He moved to the Arkansas where he acquired his first administrative position as an associate vice president. “What I learned is that don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something,” he said. He was promoted to dean of the College of Business and later as chief academic officer.

Someone approached him during the search for a Seton Hall president, but he thought nothing of it, thinking “it was not a good fit” coming from a relatively medium-size university. But he was persuaded to become interim president when Seton Hall agreed to his two requests: that he not pay rent on the house he was staying, and that his house be equipped with a garage door opener. Both were granted, Esteban recalled with a laugh.

All Seton Hall presidents were not only experienced leaders with impeccable academic credentials, they were all priests. As a candidate, Esteban – already an interim president — fulfilled the first two requirements. However, during the search, the two priests who were co-candidates for the post withdrew. The title went to Esteban, a father of one, as the university waived the priest-only requirement.

“It was a humbling experience,” he said, but at the back of his mind, he was thinking, “Is there no one else?”

“Gabe clearly was the best option,” Patrick Murray, the board of regents chairman, told

The Math major from UP is now CEO of a New Jersey university of nearly 10,000 students – about 200 of them Filipinos – 900 faculty and 1,800 employees. On his first year, he dove right into a couple of issues that were causing some turbulence at Seton: the union negotiations, an off-campus shooting and an armed robbery where the suspects are basketball players on the university’s men’s team.

“It was a rough semester,” he said.

As president, Esteban’s administration has forged a partnership with Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung to bring advanced technology to the campus, according to the university website.

As one who is constantly learning, Esteban left the audience with nuggets of lessons that saw him through his most challenging moments.

• Learn to prioritize.
• Do the right thing even if it is not popular.
• Don’t pray for what you want, pray for what is best.

Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. said the story of Esteban is most inspiring as the community celebrates October as Filipino American History Month.


rio Dedicated to success at every stage of the immigration process. Click here to contact their lawyers.

One Comment

  1. […] Hall University President A. Gabriel Esteban has been appointed as the next president of DePaul University in Chicago, according to the SHU […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: