Interview: Tom Kean

Interview: Tom Kean

After 15 years at the helm of Drew University in Madison, NJ, President Tom Kean is set to step down next year. The former two-term governor of New Jersey, and chairman of the 9/11 Commission, sat down with Editor In Chief Tom Halligan to discuss his career, the state of education, and his achievements at Drew.
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Kean: We're spending too much time on that. You can't be a good president doing all that. I might be a little old-fashioned, but I think the business of the college and the university is education. If you're being pulled off education, you're going to have trouble. You've got to do the others. You've got to get into the technology issues, they're too important for a president not to be aware of them. You've certainly got to do fundraising; it's too important for the university. But if they become your primary occupation, I think it probably hurts the academic enterprise.

Well, first I might say that I was fortunate enough to have six or seven universities or colleges who were interested in my coming for one reason or another, once I decided this was a direction I was interested in. I liked the idea of a small liberal arts college with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring as well as research, and where professors really can get to know students. I picked Drew because it very much had that philosophy and had a very strong commitment to the liberal arts. And because, frankly, it enabled me to come to a place that was a short distance from my home.

Well, you get hit with some real problems that have to be solved and you can't put off. And they become your priorities for a while because they have to be done. And then you have a long-term vision, but you're not able to get at that for a year or two until you solve the more immediate problems.

When I came, we had a budget deficit. You can't have a budget deficit. I had to immediately get a hold of the budget and straighten it out. And we haven't had a budget deficit since. We also had a gym which was like a high school gym. And it was an embarrassment: an embarrassment when the other teams came, here, and an embarrassment when prospective students visited. Students had been promised a new gym for, oh, 15 years, and it wasn't ever going to happen. So, in my first year or two, I had to say we're going to have a first-class gym because I want to attract great people to this university to speak. We had no place for them to speak. So we build a forum on top of the gym that holds about 1,000 people. So I've been able to have ex-presidents and Colin Powell and Tom Brokaw are coming this year. That was the beginning of putting a little bit of my own priorities on things.

Any student who wants to come in and chat with the president can do so any week. We hold them at different times because we don't want to do it when students have classes or athletics or whatever, so every week it's a different time.

Yes, whatever they want to talk about. And students are wonderful. They talk about everything and ask me why I haven't been to a rugby game this year...to a student who talked about his father being very sick and lost his job and the student didn't know if he'll be able to graduate now because his family can't afford it. It's everything. It enables me to put out small fires before they become large fires because the students will come in and say--this is a problem. And you find out about it, you bring in the resources to eliminate it before it becomes serious.

You need interventions, particularly in those first couple of years. I think this goes for all schools. More and more students have some kind of a problem. It can be a learning disability, for example. These are not things that they have put down on their admissions applications, so you find out about them when they get here. Unfortunately, more and more students are picking up bad habits, particularly alcohol habits, back when they were 14 or 15 years old. So they come into college already with a drinking problem and you've got to deal with that. Some students have, unfortunately, some very difficult family problems. We find here that students who come from an inner city, often on scholarship, really need somebody there for them every day and if you are there for them every day, they will stabilize; they will do well and they will graduate, often with honors. But if you're not there, you lose them and we work very hard at that.

I believe, we were one of the first, before it became fashionable, to give every student a computer. We've been technologically wired on this campus for a long time. It is very common for faculty and students to correspond at 10 or 11 o'clock at night. For a student who has a problem, he or she feels they can message that faculty member and get a message back. In the course that I teach, I can tell you which students are into theater, which students are into sports, which students may or may not have a problem. I can intervene if there's a problem and that's the philosophy here. I think we have a very good graduation rate because of that.

Was every professor really into it by the time I got here? No. When I came here, people said the theological school is going to be a problem for you on technology. Well, the theological school, thanks to an energetic dean, took the leadership...first ones here to have online courses, a cyber cafe--the theological school jumped ahead of everybody else. Because of that early leadership, I didn't have the kind of problem that many other university presidents have had. I mean, by the time I came, we'd been into it (technology) for 10 years,

It's always a combination, I think, but the skills are very transferable. I mean, you've got to have skills to work with the faculty and the alumni and the students and the trustees, and they're all different groups. I had many more constituency groups than that to work with as governor. If you think the faculty is difficult, try working with the state legislators of the other party. The faculty was easy compared to that. I had no problems ever with the faculty. We've always gotten along well because we understand the idea of shared leadership. I mean, I understood very clearly, as governor, that when I was dealing with the Democratic state Senate that I wasn't going to say, "This is my idea and you'd better deal with it."... I had to bring senators in and say, "What do you think of this idea, would you buy into it?" If they'd buy into it, you give them the credit for it and it's their bill, not your bill. So it's a very interesting set of skills, but they're the same. They're really the same.

If you think faculty is difficult, try working with legislators of the other party.

Let me tell you the biggest change, and this is not just in the 10 years or so that I've been here, although part of this change has occurred in that period. The biggest change from my own time as a student was when we wanted to make change, we marched, we demonstrated. I marched with Dr. King. We would go down to Washington and we'd march, and we'd come back home again and we'd go back to our classes or whatever. This bunch of students is not interested in that because they don't think it matters. They don't think you make much of a difference that way. What they do think is that you make a difference as individuals.

We have a very large chapter of Habitat for Humanity here where kids go to take their vacations. We had another group that volunteers to work at an orphanage in Honduras. We have students who tutor kids in Newark. We have other students who teach English to immigrants. They believe in individually working with people.

They do feel helping kids grow up decently and get an education does make a difference.

The change that is negative is access because of overcrowding, and combined with the rise in cost it is very dangerous right now because I think it is starting to price-out people who are qualified. Now, we've gone from grants to loans. If you're poor, you can't get the loans. I think that's wrong in a democracy. In the past, you were in trouble if you didn't have a high school education. Now, if you haven't got a college education, you're condemned...you're condemned to a less than satisfactory life, for you and for your family.

For any president, the most important and valuable commodity you have is your time. Because of the complexity of the job, you can get pulled off in 15 different directions every day and end up working very, very hard but not being terribly productive. And as a new president, you have to understand the people you're going to be working with. Faculties have their own personalities and you've got to get to know them.

Faculties all have leadership individuals, the people who just simply are listened to more in faculty meetings either because of their age or their competence or the respect they have among their colleagues. Make sure that you get to know them a bit. I think presidents neglect students who are, after all, the customers. I think because they get pulled so far in other directions. I don't think presidents are spending enough time on their campuses with students and student activities.

And, by the way, I differ from some university presidents, but I think teaching is important. I think teaching is what the institution does.

Yes, and I think that's what we do. First, teaching enables you to understand the faculty better, and they love it when they see me with a pile of papers under my arm, grumbling that I have to correct them all tonight. Second, teaching gives you a group of students that you know particularly well and talk to you about what's going on at the university. It keeps you intellectually going. I know some presidents do that, some don't, but I would recommend to any new president to think seriously about teaching.

I teach one three-hour seminar on Mondays because if I tried to do it another day, I would get pulled off campus too much and I might miss classes. I don't ever miss a class, so I just set aside three hours on Monday, every Monday.

Absolutely. I think, in a university atmosphere, you've got to have transparency. You have to be able to explain, particularly to the faculty, what you're doing, why you're doing it. You have to work with the faculty on committees in order to put together their budget so that they buy into it. It's a totally open process so that everybody knows every dollar coming in and every dollar going out. The final budget here is placed on e-mail so that every student can look at it, every person in the community can look at it, before it's adopted. Then we have a town meeting and people can come and weigh in. So, by the time the budget comes to the Board of Trustees, the whole community has an opportunity to have an input into every bit of it. And the result is I've never had a problem or a fight about the budget since I started that method.

Yes. When I came here, the previous philosophy was the budget was a secret.

The difficulty was that as the Commission started taking more and more time, my first impetus was to say to the trustees, maybe I ought to take a sabbatical. So I just decided that I couldn't have done the Commission work unless I had hired very, very well.

I have a group of administrators here which I would match against anybody's. So if I was in Washington and I called in twice a day, I knew the place was going to run like a top and it had one of its best years last year. I came back and said, you do better without me. But I think that's one of the things also that presidents have got to recognize--they've got to know how to delegate and they've got to bring in the right people.

I get letters from alumni saying they'll never contribute as long as I'm there.

If you're really good at who you bring in, you don't have to spend as much time on a lot of these issues. If you've hired well, people know what your priorities are, they will do it for you. They will take care of the priorities.

I actually am very disappointed in most of my colleagues in this respect. Not in the respect of being great college presidents necessarily. There are a lot of them out there who are. But in years past, you could think of a number of college and university presidents who took major roles in the life of this country. And I don't see that anymore.

I've mentioned that point to some of my colleagues and what they tell me is that, you know, if you say something to the right, your students are mad at you. And if you go to the left, the trustees get mad at you.

That's not an excuse. I believe that university presidents are some of the finest and most able people in this country. And not to take public positions on important issues, not to take leadership of important commissions and committees, not to get out there in the life of the democracy, I think that's a terrible example for their students.

I've said this to my colleagues, telling university presidents that once you get outside of your campus, you really are quite respected. And you could make a difference. You could make a real difference.

They're in those positions because they are positions of strength. I know university presidents who are among some of the most able people I've ever been associated with. Great backgrounds. They have to get out there into the light of the democracy because if they don't, they're poorer for it, the universities are poorer for it, and certainly the students are getting a bad example.

For a university president to say I'm not going to get involved in this issue because it might make somebody mad is not leadership, really not leadership. These are institutions of change.

I've taken on more controversial stuff. Personally, I don't believe people should be running around with guns, the semi-automatic weapons. I've taken very strong positions on that.

I get letters from alumni saying they'll never contribute to the place as long as I'm there. But they're your principles. Is that a reason for a university president not to say anything because two or three alumni are going to get mad? I think it's a way to engage the debate. And if we're not going to speak out, who is?

That's my only criticism. I wish they would be out there more, taking more positions on more issues and showing leadership, not only in the university but outside the university.

I don't know. I've been the university president longer than I've held any other job. And I decided about a year ago that this should be my last year because the university is in better shape than it's ever been in. I'll see what comes along. I've got probably one more job left in me. What it'll be, I just don't have any idea.

If I could help, yes. Full-time, probably not. I don't think I want to go down to Washington, but if it's a part-time thing or something where I could be an advisor or help government in some way, yes. It's an obligation as a citizen to help out.


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