On his route to and from his University of Dayton office, new President Eric Spina drives by Hawthorn Hill, the Oakwood home where Orville Wright lived with his father and sister.

Spina, an aerospace engineer with a passion for modern American history, says he draws inspiration from working in the Wright Brothers’ hometown. While everyone can’t achieve the impact the Wright Brothers did, he says, “It’s a reminder if you work hard maybe there’s a little bit of difference you can make.”

A native of upstate New York who taught and was an administrator at Syracuse University for more than quarter century Spina is out to make a difference as UD’s 19th president.

You’ve mentioned that coming to Dayton felt like coming home. Why is that?

There are some places where if you’re born elsewhere and live there 30 years, they still think of you as somebody from someplace else. But from my first two meetings with the search committee here they wrapped their arms around me. It was very supportive and embracing and felt right. Syracuse was my home for 28 years. It’s a town that’s really the same size as Dayton. That was appealing to me also. It’s the size where you can make a difference and it’s a size where the university matters to the community and community matters to the university. 

As part of a strategic visioning process you’ve said you want to do a lot of listening. What have you heard so far?

One of the biggest surprises is all the students I’ve met so far want to use their education to help people and make society a better, more just, more peaceful place. And yes, those type of students are at other universities, but I think Dayton attracts more of them. I think that says something about the Marianists and the way they framed the university, and it says something about the faculty. It is something I think we can leverage in making certain the world knows it, too.

You’ve mentioned that diversity and research are priorities. Why?

What happens in the classroom, on the quad, in the residence halls is really enhanced by having a diverse community. Diversity enhances every conversation from sociology to mechanical engineering. It really helps our students prepare for a world that’s increasingly diverse.

I also want to emphasize that UD is a great research university. I don’t think nationally we get the credit we should. We’ve announced research expenditures for the past year in excess of $100 million and that’s without a medical school. It certainly places us in the top 10 nationally among private schools without a medical school. 

UD has a big basketball tradition, as does Syracuse. What’s the role of intercollegiate athletics today?

I’ll be honest in some places it’s an outsized role and other places like UD I think it’s an integral part of the fabric and very visible. To students, prospective students and alumni, it’s a rallying point. If a university loses sight that it’s part of what we do and not what we do, if it loses sight that these aren’t athletes but student-athletes then things can go off the rails. 

What prompted you to pursue engineering?

I was good at math and science in high school and people said, “You should think about becoming an engineer.” Truth be told my passion is actually American history. I was able to put science and math together and it’s been a good career. But if I had to do it all over again I’d probably be a history professor. I’m particularly interested in history that I see as having a profound effect on where we are today as a country, from the Great Depression to the 1970s.