Did I Grow Up Wanting To Be a University President?
A question I am often asked by students is some variation of “Did you grow up wanting to be a university president?”
Not only is the answer “no,” the fact of the matter is I did not even want to go to college. As the son of a soldier I wanted to go into the military and train for combat. My parents, however, had different ideas about my future. They grew up in the Depression, an experience that impressed upon them the importance of economic security. My mother and father worked hard to provide their three sons with educational opportunities they had not had. They preached that education was the key to getting ahead in America, and they wanted us to have a better, more secure life than what they had experienced.
I had the good sense to follow the direction encouraged by my parents, although I was highly uncertain about where college would lead me. Hence, I enrolled at Harford Community College as a cost-effective way to figure out if college was for me. I started off on a general science and engineering track because I have always been good at math and my parents were encouraging me to consider engineering. A military career as an officer, or perhaps law school, also were options I had floating around in the back of my mind.
In my junior year at Towson State University I experienced the transformative power of higher education. The light bulb came on for me when I realized I needed to get my act together and that I truly enjoyed the process of intellectual discovery. It was then and there I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in a mathematical science (math, operations research or statistics) with the intent of becoming a professor. Getting paid to think and share my passion for mathematical reasoning seemed like a good gig, if only I could secure it.
My decision to pursue a Ph.D. did not sit well with my parents, at least not in the beginning. I had worked as a computer programmer and statistician at a U.S. Army research laboratory near my home during summers while in college, and after my junior year I was offered a job upon graduation. It was an offer my parents considered too good to turn down: a starting salary greater than my father had ever earned in his life, excellent benefits and the security of government employment. The primary question put to me was: How can you turn down security to pursue an uncertain future?
Looking back, I see the decision to walk away from a strong job offer and pursue graduate work as the first manifestation of what has become a career of taking calculated risks. Time and time again I have decided to pursue opportunities that were considered by friends and colleagues to be risky or unconventional. Each decision forever changed my journey.
For example, two years into a tenure-track assistant professor position at the University of Florida I took a leave of absence to pursue a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the departments of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Washington. Post-docs typically are a steppingstone to securing a tenure-track position at a research university, something I already had. Instead, I pursued the post-doc to pivot away from a mainstream statistical career to one more focused on biostatistics, public health and medical research. At the end of my post-doc, I resigned my appointment at Florida and accepted a faculty position in the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
I’ll never forget the questions and doubts raised when I informed my colleagues at the age of 37 that I was accepting an assistant dean appointment in the School of Public Health’s Dean’s Office. I was told I should wait, take on an administrative role later in my career, perhaps in my 50s and after having served as department chair. I never served as a department chair, and I was 50 years old when I became president of Georgia State University.
This June marks 40 years since I graduated from high school, and I have taken an unplanned and nonlinear path to the presidency of Georgia State. In graduate school my first ambition was to be a math professor who lived at the beach, teaching my courses and enjoying the “good life” along the coast. That, of course, changed as I progressed in my doctoral program and came to realize a faculty career in a research university was my calling. If someone had told me 40 years ago I would choose a path where the norm is to work 10-to-12-hour days I would have said “no way, that is crazy.” Yet, that is what I have done, and it has been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience that makes me think I’ve got the best job in the world.
The best advice I can give to students starting careers is to embrace risk in an intelligent fashion. You do not know what your future holds, and yet you need to get on with life. Waiting and hanging out is the path to nowhere. Live, act and walk with a sense of purpose. Follow your gut. In time you will discover your passions and talents, and the best course is to pursue them.
In the words of the critically acclaimed adventure photographer and documentary filmmaker Jimmy Chin: “Try to balance risking too much and risking too little. Life is short and both are significant risks….”