05/10/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Doing University Administration Well, Part I

I'm often asked why I got into university administration. My usual, non-serious response is that I took a wrong turn somewhere in my career. I am a geologist and paleontologist by profession, and got into geology so that I could be outside, avoid meetings, and not wear a tie -- the opposite of my life now as a university president. My late father was a career faculty member in biology and gave me good-natured grief, literally on his death bed, about how I once had been " honorable member of the faculty" (his exact words), but having now strayed into administration, he wondered where he had gone wrong in raising me.

In all seriousness, I got into university administration because I felt that I could help move a department, research programs, and now, a university forward. When I was a department chair at Indiana University, I wanted the best possible educational and research experiences for our students and I wanted to support and encourage good faculty. So, I spent much of my time advocating within the university for our department to be able to hire new faculty members to provide more opportunities for our students, and to be able to offer incentives to retain current faculty. While at Desert Research Institute, a public research entity in the Nevada System of Higher Education, I also viewed my role as an advocate, but to different audiences. Instead of talking to university administration, I found myself going to granting agencies and governmental officials to explain the value of the research conducted by DRI faculty, our need for support, and the value that support provided to Nevada and the nation.

Now, as the president at Oregon Institute of Technology (a.k.a., Oregon Tech), I've drawn upon these past experiences as well as what I'm learning in this new opportunity to lead a polytechnic, undergraduate-oriented university. As a university president, I advocate for our institution as a whole: all faculty, staff, and students, to local, state and federal representatives, alumni, the private sector, and other friends of Oregon Tech.

What does "doing university administration well" mean to me? I've learned a lot about what to do and what not to do, and have formulated some of my own ideas about what it takes to do university administration well at a public university, which also can be thought of as a general list for leading in shared-governance organizations. I'll limit myself to the top five that I think are the most important for doing university administration well -- two in this contribution and three in a subsequent blog.

1. Students first. After I accepted the position of president at Oregon Tech, I asked a few administrators and presidents at other colleges and universities what advice they had for someone new to the job. Probably the best advice I got was from Bob Maxson (former president at UNLV and Sierra Nevada College), who noted that if I made decisions primarily with students in mind, I would be correct 95 percent of the time. In recent years, his advice has become even more relevant, especially here in Oregon where the State of Oregon has decreased its investment in its public universities by 44 percent since FY2008 (I began as president in October 2008). This has resulted in an increase in student tuition of 27 percent over that same time period, which means that even students paying in-state tuition have become the majority stakeholders in the cost of their own education. Given this change in the funding stream for public universities, why wouldn't higher-education administrators make decisions with students in mind as the primary driver? As the majority stakeholders in their education, the value of students' investment should come first (this return on investment, or ROI, will be the subject of yet another blog in the not-too-distant future).

2. Really listen. There is a deleted scene from the Oscar-winning film "Pulp Fiction" in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is picking up Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) for dinner, and Mia interviews Vincent in order to get to know more about him. In one part of the interview, Mia asks Vincent "In conversation, do you listen or wait to talk?" Vincent's reply is "I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I'm trying harder to listen." Vincent's honesty is refreshing, but it's Mia's question that hits the mark. Over the years, I've had way too many conversations in which it became apparent that one or more of the parties involved were not listening at all. The art of really listening is to not anticipate what will be said, which leads to mishearing what actually is said, and to not banally apply pat responses of dubious relevance to comments or questions. You need to really listen, really respond, really engage, and really connect with the other party in genuine discussion. By doing so, you will get deeper thought and meaning from your conversation. Really listening, in my opinion, is the real key in making the shared governance of universities work to its fullest potential. Without really listening, it is impossible to engage the broad constituencies in and around the university in a meaningful way, and the free flow of thoughts, ideas, and information all dwindle away, leaving university administration isolated, out of touch, and wondering what's wrong with everyone else.

In Part II, I'll continue my list for doing university administration well.