As he prepares to yield the presidency to Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Iowa, and return to the business school, interim University President B. Joseph White talked to Michigan Daily Staff Reporters Jeremy Berkowitz and Kara Wenzel Below are excerpts from the interview.
The Michigan Daily: What kind of objectives and goals do you think the University should look towards in the next five years?
B. Joseph White: Well, the backdrop of the answer is that I have very high confidence in the future of the University. I think we have every reason to look forward with confidence to the continued development of the University.
What we do here (are the) things that are most valued in modern societies. We create new knowledge. We educate and develop students and adults for a lifetime. And we also deliver on a very large scale the highest quality medical care.
Now if you ask the question, what are the things most in people’s minds’, these are very high priorities in modern society. So I think we have every reason to look forward with confidence.
What are the challenges and goals for the next five years? Well first of all, maintaining existing excellence at the University. Whether it’s in the academic area, whether it’s in the medical center, whether it is in the arts or athletics, it takes constant unrelenting effort to develop our own people and to recruit the very best from across the country and around the world.
So first and foremost for me, is maintaining existing areas of excellence.
And the second thing is developing new areas of excellence. The most visible example, obviously, today is the Life Sciences. We are facing, in the coming year and years, the recruiting challenge of our lifetimes at the University of Michigan because the Life Sciences are exploding. The best people are much in demand both in the academic world and the industrial world and in the government world – like (National Institutions of Health), for example. So there is intense competition for the very best people in the Life Sciences.
Wherever we want to develop new (aspirations) of excellence in the University, we’re going to have to invest heavily. It’s expensive. We’re going to have to lock arms and do a great job recruiting and retaining the best people.
And let’s be candid, we’ve seen how challenging it is, with Scott Emr’s decision not to fulfill his commitment to come to the University of Michigan and Jack Dixon’s decision – which genuinely was for personal reasons, nonetheless the result’s the same – to return to California, which was his home. So if anybody needed a reminder of what I’m saying is true, those are very acute reminders. That’s second.
Third, I think we have to continue to have a goal and a very high aspiration to be a highly inclusive community (where) what matters is merit and performance and contribution and (where) everybody – simply because they are a member of our community – is treated with respect.
A couple of other things – I think we need to play close attention to the affordability of education. Many people, sadly, are seeing the savings that they put aside to fund their education, or their children’s education, eroding in the face of the stock market retreat. Good news, stock market is up 165 points (July 24), by the way. But nonetheless, this is serious erosion. And I think that because a high-quality education is perhaps the most indispensable element to a successful professional personal life today. We’ve been entrusted with something extremely precious. And we need to pay close attention to doing the best we can to ensure affordability.
Finally, there is the issue of our ability to compete. At the University, we pride ourselves not only in competing successfully with the very best public universities in the country, but also the very best private universities in the country.
And all you have to do is be dean for a day around here, and I was dean for a decade, to learn how intense the competition is for faculty, for students, for reputation, for resources and to learn how rich our best private competitors are.
So at the same time, we have to focus on the affordability of the education we offer, but we (also) have to ensure that we have the resources, and even more important, the will, to be successful with the best publics and privates in the world.
TMD: Did you want to attain the job permanently? If you didn’t, why did you seem to enjoy it so much?
BJW: Those are two separate questions. I resolve to make no comment on the search, (but) the important thing about any search is finding a great person to head the institution.
Mary Sue Coleman is going to be a great president of the University.
In regards to why I enjoyed the job so much, this job has represented a convergence for me of doing everything I love.
That’s just what it comes to. I love serving others, I love leadership work, I love the University of Michigan. I believe deeply in our missions of education, research and service. I’ve always enjoyed interactions with students. I mean I’ve told people when I was dean (of the Business School) and interviewing faculty, if you don’t really love helping educate and developing very talented young people, this isn’t the place for you, that’s what we do here.
And I do love it. The job, even though it has been 15 hours a day, six and a half days a week, it’s never felt like hard work to me. I’ve never felt stressed, I’ve never felt harassed, I’ve never felt pressured. And it’s simply because I love doing virtually every aspect of the job.
And so, it is the case that it is sort of hard to leave the job. But I think that’s how it should be. In other words, if you really love your work, it shouldn’t be easy to pack up your last day and just walk out the door and never look back. What kind of a human being would do that?
It’s probably most difficult me for to leave the job because I’ve really bonded with the people I’ve worked with – the executive officers, Erika Hrabek (secretary to the president) outside the door here, the President’s Office staff, the vice presidents, the student leaders, the students I’ve met, people in the medical center. I’ve spent a lot of time in the medical center, I really enjoyed it. It’s hard to leave the job because I love the job very much.
At the same time, I made a decision two years ago to end my term as dean after two terms of service, after a decade. I did that because I’ve always had the dream of finishing my career as a faculty member. I think it’s the highest calling there is.
I mean, understand, I fundamentally think faculty work is much more important than presidential work. Faculty work is what we’re here for. The presidential work is to support the faculty and students.
So a year ago, I was happily on my way into meeting the big challenge of being a faculty member and doing work that I’d be proud of in the coming decade. And now, I’m about to restart that effort and I’m very much looking forward to it.
You know, one other point, I think if you’re a really lucky person, like I’ve been, there are multiple things that you love to do. It isn’t that there’s only one thing that I do and if I can’t do that, I’m devastated. You just say, ‘so what’s Plan B or Plan A,’ and you always have alternatives and options.
TMD: What is your opinion of the students here? How do you want them to remember you?
BJW: I think our students share a remarkably high degree of intelligence and talent. I think they have a very wide range of interests and passions. I think when the chips were down, as they were on Sept. 11, I think our students pulled together and were a community, even though often we seem to be a community with lots of different groups.
I think there’s a great Michigan tradition of student activism that continues today. I find our students today to be a wonderful combination of idealistic and realistic, but not excessively in either direction, with both points of view well represented within the same individual. I think that’s really good.
So that’s how I experienced the students, they are a never-ending source of fascination to me.
What (MSA President) Sarah Boot said at the regents’ meeting, in presenting me with the gift I cherish more than any I ever received – the quilt (of student t-shirts) – summarizes everything about how I’d like to be known by students. That is: accessible, interested, and respectful.
TMD: What are your best and worst memories of your tenure?
BJW: There are so many good memories. I would say right in line with the conversations (that) I had with students, the regular meetings with the (Michigan Student Assembly) leaders, the MSA board, the (College of Literature, Science and the Arts Student Government), meetings in this conference room with (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) students, Native American students and with Michaguama students.
I would even say the experience of the demonstrations when SOLE came and wrapped the building with a banner. That got my adrendaline going. That was a memorable day.
So I would say it was the many interactions with students.
As for the worst memories, I’m a competitive person for my institution.
On the days that we suffered losses, (like) the day Scott Emr told us, “sorry, not coming to the University,” after my wife and I had gone out and spent time with him and worked on him to come. I’d say when it began to become apparent that Jack Dixon was going to go to (University of California at San Diego).
My first day, when Michigan got creamed by Tennessee, that was a bad day.
I’d say anytime Michigan suffered losses. Fortunately, there were a lot more wins than losses.
Q: This last question is out of personal curiosity. What does the “B” stand for in your name?
Oh yeah, I’m very proud of the “B” The “B” stands for Bernard. It’s my father’s name, and I’m also proud to report that by the choice of my son and daughter-in-law, it’s my grandson’s name. And what’s kind of neat is that my father’s 86, my grandson’s 2 1/2, and three of us share the name Bernard White. The reason for the initial – I grew up being known as Joe. So actually until I was about 40 years old, my name was Bernard J. White. When I moved back to the University of Michigan, from years I spent in industry, I said it was a good opportunity to clean up this little confusion, so it became B. Joseph White.