In the eyes of interim University President B. Joseph White, who has filled the position for the past two months since Lee Bollinger left for Columbia University, his position is one of trust that demands the highest integrity and a love for the institution.
“I think these jobs go better when they are a love affair between the individual and the organization,” White said. “It really is a privilege there is not much about it I don”t like.”
His days start early and end late. He prepares his own speeches, personally replies to e-mails and makes sure to ask colleagues about their families, while setting aside time to give advice to friends who need it.
In meetings, his presence exudes confidence, yet he is frank when he does not know something.
“You can”t pretend to know everything,” White mused. “Most of the time you”re talking to people who spent their whole lives studying their subject.”
An ordinary day in the life of the University president all too often starts with an unordinary event, such as giving a 7:50 a.m. wake-up call to a group of executive officers via conference call over a co-worker”s cell phone.
While most students have not gotten out of bed by 8 a.m., White has already worked out and enjoyed a bowl of cereal with a cup of coffee.
“You need to be prepared to give it your all, it pretty much demands your life. You need to be in shape mentally and physically,” White said in reference to the demands of the position. “It”s the professional equivalent of running a marathon.”
Once in the office, White”s secretary Erika Hrabec, who White describes as “the best,” reviews his schedule and briefs him on the events of the day.
Hrabec herself is more than organized. A full-time job in itself, she creates White”s schedule every day, among other things, and is always trying to find a way to fit in everyone who wants two minutes with him.
“We really are a team,” White said.
A few minutes after his briefing with Hrabec, White is heading down State Street with the blueprints for the speech he will deliver in a few minutes to 100 coaches about the values and expectations he has for the Athletic Department.
White said the University presidency demands a lot of time for public appearances and formal speeches, but that those duties can have an impact on the University community.
“Ninety percent of the people here will never meet the president, but knowing that they can is very important,” White said. “The tone set by leaders through the priorities and values set by the leaders makes a real difference in the long run.”
After his speech White attempts to head to his next meeting of the day, but he is intersected every few yards by coaches eager to shake his hand and thank him for speaking.
Although the clock is ticking and his schedule is packed, White said he is unable to tell a person he doesn”t have time to talk.
The rest of the morning is spent with administrators preparing for meetings and presentations that he will do during the next week, such as the University Board of Regents meeting and a hearing on higher education.
Without a lunch break, White heads into a discussion group with faculty to listen to their thoughts on the arts and humanities at the University.
White tells the group that he wants to do more “listening than broadcasting” and opens the floor to the faculty for discussion where he takes six pages of notes. He said he will evaluate them later to develop three courses of immediate action that would relieve some of the faculty”s concerns.
White added later that his meeting with the arts and humanities faculty was his favorite part of the day.
“I like meetings where ideas spark,” White said.
In between meetings White takes the time to write a thank you note and return a phone call from Regent Kathy White (D-Ann Arbor).
“The regents are my bosses,” White said. “So I always make sure to let them know they”re important and I”m paying attention to them.”
The role of the president”s staff becomes clear during the afternoon meeting when all of the University executives meet to discuss current issues, lightening the tone with a few jokes.
Although the oval table the staff uses clearly has a head, White sits along the side so he is able to blend into the rest of the group.
White said he is surrounded by people who are helping him.
“The single most important decision you make as a leader is the appointments you make to your staff,” White said.
White said he is enthusiastic about the opportunities and challenges each day presents and the lessons he learns about the University and its vastness.
“The thing you see as president of the University is that there are so many worlds within the University,” White said. “Every day when I come to work, I just feel like I”m incredibly fortunate to serve as the president.”
One of the challenges he has faced is having to earn the respect of the diverse range of people he works with, from coaches and artists to senior administrators.
“You have to deliver for these people. You have to raise money, you have to put together a budget,” White added. “Ultimately, you earn their respect by supporting them well.”
Although White has overly positive comments on his job, he does admit that there are difficulties.
The most difficult meetings for White are those in which he has to disappoint people.
“The hardest thing in this kind of job is when you have to say directly to people that the answer is no,” he added.
After meeting and greeting students at a reception, talking at the Michigan Student Assembly meeting and attending a concert at Hill Auditorium, White returns home after 10 p.m. He will wake up the next day, some time before students fill the Diag, to continue trying to make the University better.
“I love what I do,” White said. “It”s really a privilege.”