Taking the next step

New chancellor, campus ready to change together
Sunday, October 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:44 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Brady Deaton loves his kitchen table. He loves it so much he made sure it followed the family for more than 30 years, from Knoxville, Tenn., to Blacksburg, Va., to Columbia. Deaton’s mentor, the late agricultural economist Paxton Marshall, called it “the roundtable of truth.”

“We are a very vocal family,” Deaton acknowledges with a smile.

Deaton’s wife, Anne, bought it because it resembled an antique — but cost less. By chance, not design, it became a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas.

“This family was built around a kitchen table,” says Brady Deaton Jr., 35, one of Deaton’s four children, now a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “It’s the gathering point and the focus.”

The kitchen table is a place for critical evaluation, honesty and debate — just the way Deaton likes his administration to be.

Deaton, 61, resembles the characters of Horatio Alger-like stories that people read in their childhood, where young boys and girls live in the country, sometimes mountain towns. They are one of many children, milking cows and plowing fields to put themselves through school. They care for their grandparents and become role models for their younger siblings. At night they scale a tree and stretch over a strong branch gazing at the stars and imagining the world.

And when they grow up, they may lead major land-grant universities. Deaton has lived this story, and on Sept. 1, he will trade his provost job --at least temporarily--for MU’s top spot, the chancellorship. It’s an interim job in the wake of Richard Wallace’s retirement, but Deaton will treat it as the real thing.

“All of us are committed to do better than we have done in the past,” he says.

Deaton has expressed interest in the permanent chancellor’s post that will be decided in 2005 at the completion of a national search beginning this fall.

Big plans for a familiar environment

On MU’s summer-scented campus, Deaton sits in the spacious provost’s office in 114 Jesse Hall crafting strategies, making decisions, working on budget proposals and preparing for meetings of professional associations both on campus and across the nation. Every now and then he removes his round glasses that leave marks along his temples, rubs his eyes and puts the glasses back on. For those couple of seconds, he seems tired.

After serving as MU’s top academic officer for the past six years, Deaton knows the university inside out. He was the campus community’s pick for the interim role and his appointment came as no surprise. Not even to Deaton, who considers this a logical progression in his career.

His understanding of MU is laced with administrative-speak. Deaton holds a vision for Missouri’s flagship university coded in plans, papers and proposals. Always at his most sharp in dress and manners — typically, a jacket and tie — Deaton speaks with a frankness that is both confusing and comforting.

“It has been a time of change — but it’s been with everything on the table,” he says.

Gordon Christensen, chairman of MU’s Faculty Council, says he hopes Deaton will use this opportunity to demonstrate he has the leadership, administrative skills and vision to take MU to the next level.

“If he can demonstrate this capacity, then I expect that the faculty will favor his appointment as the new chancellor,” Christensen says.

Deaton’s vision includes making MU more affordable to students from poor families, increasing enrollment, turning the campus into a life sciences haven, strengthening graduate programs, expanding MU’s international reach, improving diversity and aligning the campus to the UM system’s goals.

If it sounds hard, it’s because it is. But Deaton has always been an optimist.

Nature-loving family man

The second of nine children, Deaton was born and raised in the hills of eastern Kentucky. He fell in love with the land at a young age and this love took him to Thailand where, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught agriculture to high school students. This love also took him through college and years of teaching and researching agricultural economics, food programs and the impact of a university’s knowledge base on neighboring communities.

“He has a meditative side the land brings out in him,” says his oldest son, Anthony Deaton, who teaches poetry at the University of Connecticut.

Anthony, 36, is the oldest of the Deaton children. The youngest, David, is 28. Family is one of Deaton’s core values, friends and co-workers say.

“While he is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known, family is certainly a value he instilled in all of us,” Anthony says.

His father rarely missed a family dinner. Even when he worked late, he came back to eat with the family and returned to the office when everyone went to bed. The Deaton children all have fond memories of being around their father. They went fishing, hiking, hunting or stayed around the house and played basketball, ping pong or chess — some in tournament style.

Even when they relaxed, they relaxed together. His daughter, 33-year-old Christina, who works with the Chicago Children’s Choir, recalls that on Christmas everybody would sit around the tree and read their new books.

Big visions

The future interim chancellor is not just a family guy. He describes himself as a “big picture” guy. He believes there are no limits to human potential, and he is not just referring to the university. Deaton’s view of the world, coined from philosophical readings, says people should work together to ameliorate the worst, help the poor and feed the hungry.

Citizens of developed countries are lucky because of circumstances, he says; if you are born in a prosperous society, your duty is to help others have a better life. Deaton applied this thinking in international work he did in underdeveloped countries such as Zambia, Kenya or Haiti — studying the impact of food programs and teaching agriculture.

Careful, thoughtful, respectful, imaginative, caring and ambitious for the institution: These are the words outgoing Chancellor Richard Wallace uses to describe Deaton. Integrity, commitment, sensibility, love are tagged onto the list by his children.

“I’m not saying he’s a superhuman,” Wallace adds after praising his right-hand man for the past six years. But Wallace is far from being the only person to paint Deaton as remarkable.

Michael Cook methodically describes his old friend. Sitting in his office in Mumford Hall, Cook, a professor in the department of agricultural economics, opens the media player on his computer and lets classical tunes flood the room before telling their story. His relationship with Deaton has three stages, Cook says, and he sketches them out in a notebook on his desk.

They met in the early 1970s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Deaton was two years ahead, working on his doctorate with a dissertation on the migration of population from eastern Kentucky to urban areas. They bonded over their common Peace Corps experience. There is a fraternal order between corps volunteers, Cook says — “like being in battle against the elements.”

Through the next decade, they saw each other at professional meetings. In 1989, they crossed paths again when Deaton took over the social science unit MU’s College of Agriculture and Cook joined as a professor.

Cook had been negotiating with the ag school when Deaton called to add his two cents of persuasion. At the time, Deaton was still teaching in Virginia, but he had started building his MU team by contacting strong faculty he would like to work with.

As chairman, Deaton built a reputation as a powerful listener.

“His consensus-building approach facilitated transparency,” Cook says.

In his years with the agriculture school, Deaton polished his trademark participatory approach to decision-making, typically planning for the future and not rushing to judgment. He was available and amazed people with his work ethic, Cook says.

Christensen, who represents MU faculty, says Deaton generates a mixture of approval and disapproval. He is praised for being a faculty booster, a promoter of research, a man who tries to find equitable ways to distribute state support and a fighter for the arts.

“On the other hand, I have heard criticism that he is inflexible and does not listen to faculty concerns,” Christensen adds.

Deaton realizes he is further removed from the faculty than he used to be and understands he can’t fully mend a rift that exists between academics and administrators at every major university. Sometimes, he says, there are decisions that can’t be vetted with the faculty and are only discussed with the department’s administration.

One of his plans as interim chancellor is to “set up more listening posts” across the campus to connect with the faculty.

“I want to be a leader that builds on the views of the people,” he says.

Lori Franz, vice provost for undergraduate studies, who has worked with Deaton since he came to MU, says the only thing he might be criticized on is not making fast decisions; but Franz, herself Deaton’s pick as future interim provost, doesn’t think this is a valid point.

“There will be always people who want instant gratification,” Franz says.

Deaton’s leadership is not about snap decision-making, she and others say; it is about availability and open dialogue between all parties at the table. He is the kind of man who makes people pull together, Cook says.

“He has phenomenal energy,” says Franz, looking through his calendar.

While Franz likes to go home and enjoy some quiet time, Deaton attends all sorts of meetings with an insatiable appetite for involvement. His calendar is packed, no matter the season.

“From the moment he wakes up to late at night, he’s on,” says son David, who works for a marketing company.

Co-workers, friends and family don’t see any serious flaws in Deaton. He can’t speak Swedish, says Anthony. He used to wake everyone early in the morning on Saturdays to do house chores, says Brady Jr. And all David can remember is being pulled aside numerous times as kid and getting praised for his father’s work.

“I was star struck as a kid,” he admits.

A full plate

Deaton has had it tough over the past year, even if he likes to deny it. The transition of many system responsibilities to the campus level added extra duties to his plate. He became chairman of the Council on Academic Affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. He lost his father. He came short in a race for the presidency of the University of Tennessee.

But Deaton is one who shrugs off bad things easily, says Anthony. He is “no-sweat Brady,” as his wife’s family describes him. Never thinking of what could have been, always looking forward, always the optimist.

Maybe that’s a criticism, Anthony says. But there is a need for people who can be that optimistic about the world, he adds. And when it comes to MU, Deaton never tries to hide it.

“We don’t want to be like Harvard,” he has said on numerous occasions, a phrase now part of his MU pitch. “We want to be the university Harvard wants to be like.”

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