|Johnson discusses experience, vision|
Dr. Phyllis Johnson, Beltsville Area Director, USDA Agricultural Research Service and candidate for the UND presidency, discussed how her experience would benefit the University.
Johnson said the first time she saw UND was when she was 6 and her parents took her to the circus. It was in the Fieldhouse next to Memorial Stadium. “Pennants were flying from the stadium, and I thought it was a fairy tale castle,” she said. “I knew then that UND was a very special place.” She said that two years later, when her family moved to Grand Forks from Grafton for more opportunity, her father said it was so she could attend UND. And she did, earning bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry.
“UND is still a special place, and I’m delighted to be back,” she said. She said that when she earned her doctorate, she believed she would have to leave the state to get a good job. Instead, she took a position at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center as a postdoctoral student and stayed there 17 years. She rose to the level of research leader, equivalent to a department chair, before leaving Grand Forks.
Her agency, she said, solves problems through agricultural research. “Our research is connected to real life,” she said, while at the University, much of the research is driven by both real-life issues and scholarly curiosity, and includes other creative activity.
University research, she said, creates knowledge, and some is commercialized and increases economic development. She said she has a fair amount of experience with technology transfer. At some universities, she said, tech transfer and patent activity become paramount and can devalue other work in the humanities and arts and sciences. “That’s not good,” she said. “Creativity in the liberal arts and humanities is terribly important.” Those areas help form the values of a civilized society and are part of what makes us truly human. “They give students the opportunity to think and express themselves, to understand what makes people tick.” And no matter what they choose to do, she said, they help students learn to work with people.
“I had an outstanding liberal arts education at UND,” Johnson said. “And I think that the University needs to continue this tradition to continue to be a truly outstanding university.” She said she would also want to ensure that good teaching is recognized as valuable.
She said one goal she’d have as president would be to increase faculty salaries to recruit and retain outstanding faculty. If we don’t, she said, “we become a training ground. Quality of life in North Dakota is terrific, but you can’t put that in a retirement plan.”
Johnson said her present position is not academic. She has spent 11 years as director of the flagship research institution of the ARS, the largest research center in the world. She manages a budget of between $130 and $140 million, with 1,200 employees, a 6,500-acre campus, and hundreds of buildings. Three hundred staff have doctorates, and a number of students from post-doc to high school work at the center. “We don’t teach classes, but our research is similar to that of the University.”
She said she’s accustomed to dealing with well-educated people with strong personalities, and has experience managing conflicting needs and demands. She reiterated her experience with technology transfer and intellectual property, and said her experience ranges from relations with neighbors to the Beltsville Center to working with the U.S. House majority leader.
“It’s a demanding and intense job,” she said, similar to that of a university president but with the exception of athletics. “Our softball team doesn’t quite rank up with the UND hockey team.” She said her style is accessible, participative, and she has an open door policy. She holds regular brown-bag lunches with staff from Ph.D.s to plumbers.
She said she believes UND is on the right track, and the strategic plan is logical. “We need to focus on goals with input from the University community.”
Johnson’s vision, she said, has two parts. “I believe there is a real opportunity in the mental health area,” she said. Most of the state is underserved in mental health resources, and she added that UND has a terrific track record for medical issues. With strong medical and psychology programs, she said there is a good opportunity for UND. She said that she would also develop more initiatives in the international arena. “North Dakota is flat and the world is flatter,” she said. We no longer compete on the local or regional market, but the international market. “There is a compelling case to be made for an endowment so students study abroad, and not just in Europe.” We need global experience to be competitive, she said.
She then took questions from the audience, summarized below.
When it comes to outsourcing services, she has quite a bit of experience. In 2003, her center was ordered to undergo competitive sourcing in the areas of security, operations and maintenance, and research support. “I would approach outsourcing with a great deal of caution,” she said. “It’s very labor intensive.” She said the cost savings were nowhere near projected, and because corporations have to bid for the contract every five years, there is a lot of turnover. “You can get poorer service than you had before,” she said. “There may be times it’s justifiable, but I’m skeptical.”
A faculty member asked how not having risen through the ranks, from assistant professor to vice president, would impact her success. Johnson replied that many of her experiences are similar to the faculty experience, and that the federal government has its own version of a tenure system. She said the position of research leader is similar to that of a department chair, and her current job can be compared to that of a dean or vice president. “The big difference,” she said, “is that I’ve never taught a whole course.” She said she enjoys giving lectures, and that teaching is an experience she may be missing. “I think teaching is extremely valuable,” she said. “We need to foster and help people do it as well as possible.”
When asked what she’d do to improve liberal arts funding, Johnson said that she would place it as a primary goal, and devote time and energy to obtaining resources.
A faculty member asked how she would increase faculty salaries. Johnson replied that she understands salaries are partially controlled by the University, not entirely dictated by the Legislature and State Board. “We need to put our money where our mouth is,” she said, and added it cannot be done unilaterally and would require input from University leadership, including University Senate. “To remain excellent, we need the best people,” she said. “That requires difficult choices, such as focusing on fewer things and doing them very well. “If not, we’ll be reduced to mediocrity.” She said she’d develop a plan to allocate money and focus on increased salaries, especially at the higher ranks, which are particularly compressed.
When asked about her fundraising experience, Johnson said that as a federal employee, she’s prohibited from raising money, so she has little direct experience. “If I did, I’d be in Leavenworth now,” she joked. She added that she has done some fundraising for the North Dakota Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. “I think the biggest part of fundraising is developing relationships,” she said. She said she has a lot of experience with that, and would be able to work with individuals and corporations. “You need to understand what’s important to them.” She said that although she can’t ask for money in her position, she can and does ask for time and advocacy to move the center forward. She said that with some training, she can develop relationships and raise money.
Her biggest challenges were she to be named president, Johnson said, would be fundraising, which she could do with practice, and learning about athletics in a collegiate setting. “My involvement has been going to games and making noise,” she said, adding that she would welcome the opportunity to learn more about rules and the move to Division I.
Making UND a premier institution for American Indians is not an unreasonable goal, Johnson said, adding that she believes it’s already one of the top two or three in the nation. “Our programs attract people from all over the country, and our Native American heritage is an intrinsic part of North Dakota.” She said she would support efforts to improve relations and programs.
A faculty member asked if she had specific goals to move UND’s liberal arts programs into the nation’s top 100, similar to the present plan to move research into the top tier. Johnson said she’s not sure how liberal arts programs are ranked, but that the first step would be setting the goal and working toward it. When it comes to moving research forward, she said, much of the funding comes from grants, and arts and humanities would require different strategies to find resources. “You need to identify resources, look for the best people you can, and move forward, holding the goal out to the whole university.”
When asked how she’d interact with students, Johnson said that she would schedule lunch in the cafeteria or time to visit the Union, and would have conversations with students in addition to formal events. “When you walk across campus you need to see students and talk to them, not walk by and ignore them,” she said. She said she has an open door policy and that would also offer an opportunity for students.
The top three reasons to hire her, Johnson said, are:
Her passion for UND and the state. “There would be no learning curve.”
She has successfully dealt with large, complex issues, and is confident she could do the same here. She’s a quick learner.
She has lots of experience with people. “I’m equally comfortable with a farmer/rancher, a high-powered business executive, and a member of Congress.” She said a leader can convince people, from staff to politicians, to follow her. “I can do that.”
The nickname/logo issue is very divisive, Johnson said, and it takes attention away from other matters. It’s an important issue, and she would prefer to resolve it sooner rather than later, then move on. “There are strong feelings no matter what happens,” she said. She would listen, help people find common ground, and use the opportunity, whatever the decision, to improve relations with the Native American community.
Technology and online learning are here to stay, said Johnson. “We’re competing with the entire country, and we need to do it as well as possible. We have to let people know it’s there and it’s good.” There’s a lot to be said for on-campus learning, but it’s not possible for everyone. We need to stay tuned as people find new ways to use technology, and be alert to the fact that they use it in ways we may not expect.
Staff salaries also need to be addressed, she said. Salaries are low throughout the state, to the point where it’s going to cause problems. People complain when our young people leave the state after they get their education, she said. “They’re not moving to Minneapolis because there’s a better Starbucks there. They’re leaving for better pay.” We need to compete in the larger economy, and look at support salaries when recruiting. “People need to be paid what they’re worth.” She said the challenge is that there is never enough money, and that we need a strategy to move in the right direction. “You can’t ignore the issue or it will get worse.”
Regarding the possibility of becoming UND’s first woman president, Johnson said she thinks the climate has improved for women. She said that after graduation, when she interviewed for a position as a chemist with the state, “they asked how my husband and dog would eat if I got the job. Times have changed.” She said women are underrepresented in leadership positions at UND, and it’s important for the University to look at how underrepresented groups can move to higher levels.
-- Jan Orvik, Writer/Editor, University Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 777-3621