The University Record, February 4, 2002

Interim president meets rigors of job with enthusiasm

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Prior to and during his first few weeks in the position, interim president B. Joseph White visited the campuses at Flint and Dearborn, toured the Kellogg Eye Center (above) and met with a number of people on and off campus, including state and local lawmakers. Pictured with White is Debra Thompson, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
At his first meeting with the board of regents, Interim president B. Joseph White shared one management philosophy that best characterizes his first month in the position. He said that a wise person once told him one cannot lead from behind a desk. Consequently, the majority of time during his brief tenure has been spent outside of the office.

Visits with faculty, staff and students on all three U-M campuses, meeting with lawmakers at the state and local levels, and special appearances at campus events, including introducing the keynote speaker for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, have filled the interim president’s schedule to the brim. Issues involving ongoing efforts, including key building projects, the affirmative action lawsuits and University finances, consume their share of the daily schedule.

The Record recently caught up with the interim president to talk about his first few weeks on the job.

The interim period

“The two words that I have used repeatedly since mid-October are continuity and momentum,” says White. That commitment to keep the campus moving includes going forward with building projects such as the Life Sciences Institute, the Ford Center for Public Policy and the Walgreen Performing Arts Center, says White. It also includes further encouragement of research initiatives and increased fund raising though major gifts.

White says he is energized for the interim, however long it may be before the regents and the search committee complete the process of hiring the next president. He has declined to comment on his candidacy for the permanent position in order to respect the search committee’s desire for a confidential process.

But of the interim appointment, he says, “I just couldn’t imagine a greater privilege or greater pleasure than to serve this University that we love and all these colleagues I admire so much.”

The budget

When it comes to the issue of general finances, White is optimistic the University can weather the recession that he believes will end mid-year as predicted by economists. “We’re going to go through a lean period here but we hope it will be only one lean year. We think right now that a budget continuation would be probably the best news we could expect but there could be a reduction,” says White.

At the same time, he says U-M is not sitting still. Interim provost Paul Courant has asked deans and directors of major programs to begin the budget process based on what White calls “conservative assumptions about state aid and modest assumptions about tuition.

“I can’t tell you how much confidence it gives me to have wise and experienced people who are doing this budget planning. They are the ones in the best positions to put together plans and budgets that will minimize any negative impact on their units so that we can continue to protect and develop the excellence of the University of Michigan.”

Affirmative action lawsuits

White led his first board of regents meeting Jan. 17. He opened by reciting the names of University alumni who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He reminded regents that his interim presidency is dedicated to those who perished in the attacks. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
The University is awaiting word on the outcome of the two admissions suits for which oral arguments were heard in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Dec. 6 in Cincinnati. White is optimistic about the outcome because he says affirmative action is “to date the only way to ensure that underrepresented minorities are present in meaningful numbers on our campus.” But he says if the suits should force U-M to eliminate what he considers the University’s most effective tool in creating a diverse campus, U-M will remain committed to diversity, and will use all the means that continue to be available to assemble a diverse class. “Whatever the outcome of the affirmative action suits, it will continue to be crucial for us to assemble a group of talented, high-achieving, diverse human beings, so that we can prepare our students for the world they are entering.”

The Arts

One of the building projects underway is the Walgreen Performing Arts Center which is to include the Arthur Miller Theater. White says recent cost overruns won’t affect the University’s commitment to the project. “I think we have encountered an unfortunate but perfectly normal problem,” says White, who likens it to building a dream home where the cost of the ideal house exceeds expectations. “Now we need to understand why are they [costs] so much higher? How can we get those costs contained? What hard choices might we have to make about what we’d like to build so that it’s affordable and it’s responsible?

“From the time Lee (Bollinger) announced it, I thought that the Arthur Miller Theater was an inspired idea,” says White who admits to being a fan of Miller, and to using his famous play, “Death of a Salesman” in classes to illustrate a number of organizational concepts. “What better way to honor one of our most illustrious graduates?”

University Development

Last week, the president announced the resignation of current vice president for development Susan Feagin, and the appointment of Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations, in the interim.

White has considerable experience with fundraising from the Business School, which he hopes to use in the coming months to bolster private gift giving.

Life Sciences Institute

The interim president is working with LSI director Jack Dixon to determine a new leadership structure for the $230 million initiative. Meanwhile, White says all other aspects of the program, including construction of a new facility, remain on schedule.