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Columbia Missourian

Chancellor Loftin focuses on making MU a model land-grant university

By Kevin Modelski
February 26, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin talks in his office on Thursday at Jesse Hall. Loftin has been the chancellor for almost a month.

COLUMBIA — For a demonstration, MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin aligns the flaps of his black-and-gray bow tie around his neck and gives them a firm tug.


CHANCELLOR OF SOCIAL MEDIA: Compared with the online presence of other SEC presidents and chancellors, R. Bowen Loftin's stands out. The new chancellor responds to nearly all tweets directed at him, interacting personally with students by favoriting and replying to their online posts. (This article is available to Missourian digital members.)

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"The problem with bow ties is that they're all different," Loftin says, winding the fabric around his fingers. "The material a bow tie is made out of is actually a problem. Sometimes the material you use is not the best."

In less than a minute, he has a tidy bow tie perched below his chin. He can tie a bow tie so efficiently because he has a vision for what it should look like and decades of practice in his fingers.

When Loftin talks about MU's future, he is leaning on almost 40 years in higher education. He uses the word "vision" often. He can see in his mind a grander MU years, even decades, down the road — MU as a model land-grant university in the Association of American Universities.

"I think MU’s to be commended for saying pretty honestly to its faculty and its supporters, 'Here’s where we are and here’s where we want to be,'" Loftin said in an interview last week. "That, to me, is a very exciting thing to have, and a pretty clear goal in mind here. It helps you to energize everyone involved to move toward that goal."

Loftin, 64, has been MU's chancellor since Feb. 1. He is the former president of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and has served as a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and chief executive officer of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Loftin recently discussed building relationships with faculty and students, increasing the school's AAU standing and fundraising. Here is the interview, with slight trims made for clarity:

Last week, you told members of the MU Faculty Council that you plan to attend as many of their meetings as you can. What other specific ways do you plan to connect with staff at MU?

Well, the main thing is to be where they are. I’m a member of the faculty myself. My department is physics. I’m hoping to find time to attend their faculty meetings as well.

I also intend to show up when there are events the faculty will be at. I’ve learned one thing about faculty: If you feed them, they’ll come. I intend to have a few events on campus from time to time and attract faculty to them, and they’ll have a chance to engage in a somewhat more informal way.

At Texas A&M, you oversaw a fundraising campaign that raised more than $1 billion between Jan. 1, 2012, and Jan. 1, 2014. How, specifically, will you try to translate what you did there to MU? What are your strategies?

It’s nothing magical. There are a couple things you have to do.

First of all, I need to become very, very familiar with Mizzou. Every day I spend time trying to learn more about the institution. Mizzou has many things in common with Texas A&M, but it’s also distinct. It’s older, there’s a lot of great history here, traditions. I’m still learning those things, so I’ve got to become really knowledgeable about this institution. 

I already have a passion for the place. ... And you have to be able to have passion for what you’re trying to sell, which is the word, grossly here, so my job is to sell, promote, and advance the institution. You do that by having passion.

People can tell whether you’re genuine or not. If you’re talking about something you don’t believe in, they can tell right away, so they’ll walk away. I love this place already, I love you guys as students here, and I think that is in place right now and will only get deeper over time.

We also have to have a few more things here in place. We have to continue our process begun before my time here, which is to inventory the strengths this university has. No university, no matter how great it is, can be the best at everything. Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford or Cambridge are great places, but they can’t be good at everything.

In particular, at A&M, we were able to work on a project approach that was not about university needs A, B and C. But if you partner with the university, we can solve a very big societal problem. You can solve world hunger. A&M, like Mizzou, has a great ag school. So, think about the impact agriculture can have worldwide, on developing nations in particular.

You have the ability, literally, at a place like Mizzou to solve world hunger. That’s a noble cause, and you can imagine going to a donor and saying to them, 'Look, together we can do this great thing.' We’ve got to find a few thematic areas like that where the university can truly be impactful in every dimension, both locally and globally.

With that in hand, I think people can get excited about being able to partner with a university. Now once you have partnered and you become a fellow traveler in trying to move toward these noble goals, then you have to figure out how to get there.

That’s where the things come in, the needs come in. I need faculty, I need this, I need that, but starting with needs is the wrong answer today, I think. You want to start with a vision of where you want to go.

I think Missouri has some extraordinary things it can do already, and we’ll find more over time.

You have several key hires to make coming up — the dean of the Journalism School just announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago, vice chancellor of research and dean of the medical school just to name a few. How many of these jobs hinge on hiring a provost?

The dean searches depend very much on that. We don’t need to delay starting a search for the dean of the J-School, for example, until we hire a provost, but we need to tie them in so that we identify a provost before we get to the final stages of a dean search for the J-School so the provost can weigh in on that decision, because the deans report to the provost.

It’d be very unfair to bring a dean in, you know, brand new, who would not know who his boss or her boss might be. ... A month or two is all we’ve got to deal with here. It’s not going to be a big problem to delay that enough to be sure we have these things matching up properly.

MU and the entire University of Missouri System is in the midst of a strategic plan. What are your thoughts on the nature of plans and planning in the academic world?

I think planning of that nature has a lot of commonality. I don’t think there’s anything strange about that. Obviously, the things you might focus on here might be very different than you might find in a corporate setting. I’m not wanting to increase sales, and in a corporate setting, that’s my goal, for example.

Here I might talk about our enrollment size. I might talk about our research productivity. These things are different of course, but they still fall under the same pattern, basically.

Right now, long before I got here, the leadership of the system really began moving all the institution system towards a long-range planning view. I’m very used to that, I’ve done many long-range plans.

Most recently at Texas A&M, we did one which was based on a five-year plan from 2011 to 2015. I left a little past midstream in that particular plan. So I’m very used to coming up with three- to five-year plans that are strategic in nature and provide you guidance towards investments you might make.

I’m also used to something we haven’t quite done yet, which I want to look at here at Mizzou, and that is looking out 20 to 25 years. It’s not a plan so much as a vision. Being able to look ahead and say, this is sort of fuzzy, but where do you want to be?

I was talking this morning (Feb. 20) to Sen. (Roy) Blunt, who was in the office here. I made a statement to him that I’ll make to you. I said, 'I can see Missouri becoming the model land-grant university of the second half of this century.'

So think about that. Think about around 2050 that Mizzou is acknowledged as a model land-grant in this century right now. It’s a great land-grant university, the first one west of the (Mississippi) River, we know all that. But there are other land grants out there. ... We would like to be, I think, here at Mizzou, if I’m allowed to think about this and project it, as the one that people aspire to be like.

One of the strategic goals that this university states is for MU to raise its standing in the Association of American Universities by four places by 2018. What is your role in that, and what do you intend to do about it?

There are four primary and four secondary criteria used in the AAU ranking scheme, and they’re well-known. So I’ll just deal with the primaries.

The primaries are your federal research expenditures derived from competitive grants divided by the number of tenure-earning faculty you have. That division gives you a normalization to allow large and small schools to be sort of ranked or measured relatively equally in terms of their expenditures. So that’s out there as your No. 1.

No. 2 is the number of National Academy memberships you have. We have eight right now. A ninth is on the way at this moment in time. We’re coming up a bit now, but we need to have many more.

The third is the other types of major recognitions, fellowships and learning societies, other various prestigious awards and such out there.

The last of those categories is citations, the research your faculty do and how important it is to be judged by their peers.

The other four secondaries are there, too, but are less influential on your rankings than those first four I named. When you know that, it’s pretty clear. The average AAU school has a medical school, as does Mizzou. But in the average AAU school, the medical school’s contributions to that first ranking number, the research expenditure number, is far more than ours is.

An immediate issue is to think in terms of the medical school’s contribution to this. We are right now in the final stages of searching for a new dean of the medical school, so it’s a logical thing to think about how that dean is going to be influencing this particular metric.

I talked to all three of the finalists, and I’m sure others did, too, in the same mode, and we talked about how they envisioned taking the medical school to another level in terms of its research expenditures and federally awarded dollars.

I’m going to hire a dean who will work really for the provost, not for me. But the dean is going to have a major responsibility for that. We’re going to be moving to select very soon a vice chancellor for research that will have a role to play in this regard as well.

So this is a team effort. This is not Bowen Loftin. And it ultimately comes down to the faculty of the institution.

The faculty here are the ones who do the research, they’re the ones who get the recognition, they’re the ones who are cited by others who do research in their field, so they’re the ones we have to turn to here.

This university may be by itself among those in the bottom quartile of AAU rankings that has actually pretty openly talked about this.

I think MU’s to be commended for saying pretty honestly to its faculty and its supporters, 'Here’s where we are and here’s where we want to be.' It helps you to energize everyone involved to move towards that goal.

President Barack Obama cited statistics last month regarding sexual assault, saying that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted. He called upon a change in this culture on college campuses. So, as chancellor, what do you think your role is in addressing the campus climate around sexual assault?

There are several things, and again, it’s not just Bowen Loftin, it’s a whole team effort here. There are several things we have to do very well, and right now we are in the middle of an assessment requested by the president of our system to really review all of the policies and the practices of those policies we have in place here at MU regarding sexual assault.

I’ve done this before at other universities. I’ve made this same assessment before, most notably after the Penn State issue became public, relating to underage individuals on campus and their vulnerability.

You find out very quickly that one of the key issues can be that people don’t know what to do. If they observe something or if it happens to them, they don’t know who to talk to. I can show you that we’ve already told people that, but I can almost guarantee that if I ask anybody on campus, they wouldn’t be able to tell me. So we have to figure out good strategies not simply to say it once, but to say it many times in different ways.

If you put a poster on the wall that says what to do, after a few days that poster’s wallpaper. You don’t see it anymore. I can show you many examples of that. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t find in our study here that we do things well, but that we do not have the knowledge on part of our people here (our students, our staff and our faculty) of what to do.

It’s well-known that oftentimes these kinds of issues are tied to issues like alcohol abuse. So you have to deal with that issue, too. I’ve already begun talking to student affairs and to others on campus about what are our approaches to education here among our population in particular about the use of alcohol.

That’s going to, I think, be again the ability to make a difference over time and to make sure you understand the risks they take, which are going to put them in a position where this might be occurring in ways they can’t control then. We have to deal with this, and I think that’s going to be an important message for us as well.

We’ll see what comes out of this. Mike Middleton, my deputy chancellor, is busy (reviewing and collecting the policies and procedures related to mental health and sexual assault) right now. Many on campus are involved in doing this. We’ll find out what we’ll do here and if the other three campuses are doing the same thing in the (University of Missouri) System.

We will share all of that, and I think next month or so we’ll be able to put this down as something we now know where we are and can chart a course forward. I believe we, as a team, pull together and really address this problem aggressively, and I believe it’s going to come down to communication more than anything else — about sexual abuse itself but also contributing factors, like alcohol abuse.

You have experience taking a university into the Southeastern Conference at Texas A&M. What lessons did you learn in that process and how is that relevant to MU now? 

Read my book. Seriously, I’m writing a book right now that is a story of how A&M made that transition. I’ve been thinking about adding a chapter with help from people like Chancellor (Brady) Deaton and others here about how Missouri, in parallel, made that same transition.

What I’ve said repeatedly in my public statements, probably equally to Texas A&M and Missouri, is that the SEC is the premier athletic conference in the country. At no time in the past has A&M or Missouri had greater visibility than today, and that’s largely due to membership in the SEC. I wasn’t here to make the decision about Missouri’s transition, but I was at A&M.

Clearly, my No. 1 criterion there was enhancing the visibility of the university on the national stage. That enhances your brand. It enhances the value of your diploma, basically, when your university is more prominently known than others are. It’s just how it works. You understand that from a journalism or marketing point of view. That was a key thing.

A second key thing was I experienced, as did Chancellor Deaton, the instability of the Big XII, which I think is still not resolved. Again, going to the SEC, we’re going to a conference that I think will be around for a long time.

My book, for example, is titled "The 100-Year Decision," a phrase I used in a press conference where we announced we were going to do this. And I meant it that way. It is a decision for the long haul.

And part of that is the long-lived nature of the SEC. If you look at the penalty for leaving conferences, it’s very high in some cases. Look at the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), for example. You know that number. What’s the penalty for leaving the SEC? It’s zero. Tulane left immediately because of a more competitive advantage issue, but none of us wants to leave, and that’s the beauty of the SEC.

Another piece of that stability is the equity. The Big XII, which has reformed itself quite a bit since we left, was unequal in terms of distribution of revenues when I arrived there as A&M’s president. Chancellor Deaton saw the same thing, I’m sure, from his point of view.

The SEC divides its money equally. Really easy to do. That gives you a sense that everybody’s on the same plane. There are no have’s or have-not’s in the SEC. It’s a wonderful place to be.

Ultimately, and this was really going to begin in the next few years with the SEC Network, the revenues we would derive from this membership are going to be very, very important, not just in athletics, but in other parts of the university as well.

I’m a known commodity to the commissioner (Mike Slive). We have become quite good friends. We worked together extensively. For a while we talked every morning at about 7:15 as we were moving through these very difficult moments in the transition. Mike and I have become quite close during this period in time, and I have the utmost respect for him.

You are now, perhaps, the "public figure-in-chief" at MU. It’s almost like you have your own brand. You live in the heart of campus now. Based on your experience, to what extent do you keep your private life private, and how do you balance the potentially competing interests of being both a public and private person?

I have no privacy. That’s not quite true, but you have to recognize in a role like this that assuming you’ll have much private time is a pipe dream. You just won’t have it. I lived not quite in the heart of campus, but I lived on campus where I was before, and I’m even more in the heart of campus here, which I actually am glad about.

The price you pay, if you want to call it a price, is that there is little privacy. But the benefit is you continue to engage with what makes this place go.

A common occurrence to me is the doorbell rings at 10:30 at night. You go out there and there are three young ladies who are part of a sorority and they say, 'We have a scavenger hunt, and one of our items is a picture of the president, or the chancellor in this case. Can we have one?'

So I can’t take my tie off, sir. That’s just an example. Being on campus has its moments or challenge like that, but again, who am I? What do I do? What do I focus on? My interest is in the student body, primarily, and they’re here. I should be here.

You’ve been teaching or in administration at the college level for almost four decades or so. What are some things you have learned from your experience?

I’ve mentioned some things. I talked about, for example, the role I play in advancing the institution from a standpoint of finding private dollars and how you do that. This role is different in a few ways from being a faculty member only.

I have my teaching role to play still, but that’s OK. Leadership in a place like this is a somewhat interesting animal. Faculty don’t view themselves as employees, they view themselves as colleagues with you.

I don’t like the idea of being 'the boss.' I’m not 'the boss.' I’m a colleague, and I’ve got some responsibilities for doing some things they don’t have to do. But I haven’t forgotten where I came from. That’s really one of the key things I wanted to say in response to your question. You can’t change who you are. You can’t change where you came from. I can’t change the fact that I’m a graduate of Texas A&M. I can’t become a Mizzou graduate. I just can’t do that. 

We’re all the sum of both our DNA and our experiences in some combination. You can’t alter that, nor should you or want to. I became what I am today from a whole bunch of things that are both fun and not so fun. You all can look back at that. As you get older, you’ll know what I mean about that. That’s part of the equation. You bring to the table what you’ve been through.

During my time at A&M, not quite five years, 72 students died. I’m sure the number here would be adjusted a bit by the size, but probably comparable. That’s hard. No 19-year-old should die. But it happens. A car wreck happens. A disease happens. A suicide happens. These things happen, and it’s a very tough situation.

What’s important is that you reach out to the families, not just as a chancellor of the institution, but on behalf of the family, which is this institution. Let them see that this is a family.

One of my favorite hashtags you may have noticed on Twitter is #MizzouFamily. I mean that. I used #AggieFamily a lot where I came from because it is that. I’m not copying; I’m just being true.

This is a place where people feel an affiliation to each other. You feel like you’re a family. You may have it in different layers. You may be part of a sorority and you feel it there. You may be part of a major and feel it there. You can be part of an organization of another type and you feel it there. Last night I was talking to some of the band members at the arena at the basketball game, and they’re a family.

You have these layers: You have the close family that you see every day, you have an outside family that you don’t see as much. But when things happen, this family stands up for you. So, Mike Sam. Mike Sam, what happened to him? We had Westboro show up here, and what happened? That’s the family.

So when people do have a death of a student and they come here and see you guys, they’re going to understand this is not something they’re sharing by themselves. They’re sharing it with you. The grief is spread. Grief spread is more easily borne, I’ve learned.

These are the kinds of things that shape you over time. I’m going through all that. One benefit I bring to this university is about 10 years of doing this kind of work. Like I’ve said, it’s not my first rodeo. That’s helpful.

A lot of my experiences can be translated. A lot of the things I’ve learned can be translated. I have more to learn about this place, and I’m looking forward to that.

One thing I’ll say for sure is the students here today at this university are very much like the ones I’ve dealt with before. They’re intelligent, service-focused, very energetic and wanting to impact and change the world. Good stuff. Makes my job a joy.

Is there anything else you want to touch on about getting acclimated into your new role or moving into the new house with your wife, Karin Loftin?

What was challenging for us is that I’ve been in government housing for over 10 years now. We owned a private home in Texas besides our public home. Over the years, you kind of grow a completely duplicate set of things.

We have one home here right now, and so we’ve concatenated two households, and that’s been complicated. We’re trying to figure out what we want to keep and what we want to give away. The house is big enough, but we have to figure out what we really want to have there.

We want to get a home some place else as a getaway. We had one of those, we had a lake house in Texas, which I used for my time in Galveston. I wasn’t able to as much when I went to the job in College Station, because it was a pretty soul-consuming job.

You figure out right away in a place this size, and that was true in College Station, it’s a 24/7 job. There’s not much down time. Thankfully you guys are around to give me the energy I need to keep going.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.