WSUV needs a new pair of shoes

Publisher John McDonaghFrequently, when an organization loses an effective and charismatic leader, the comments begin almost immediately about the need to “fill those shoes,” or “those will be huge shoes to fill.” Well, the shoes of Hal Dengerink are shoes we should never try to fill. Frankly, no one could fill the shoes (or the position) in the manner or style, nor with the sense of ownership that Hal demonstrated over the years he was leading the Washington State University Vancouver campus. What the campus needs, is a new pair of shoes.

Avoiding as much of the discussion as possible about the style of shoes they should be (running shoe, cap-toe, black pumps) let’s look at what we want the person wearing the shoes to be like. Hal was without question the architect of the Vancouver campus. Because of his work in designing the campus and laying the foundation for a community resource that has the opportunity to grow and develop in the coming years, we no longer need an architect. Now it is time for someone who can come in and build out what the architect designed.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to share my thoughts about the desirable characteristics and qualities of a new chancellor with Mark Stephan, PhD, professor of Political Science and member of the WSU Vancouver Chancellor search committee. The committee, comprised of university faculty and staff (multiple campuses) as well as individuals and business leaders from Southwest Washington, has been asked to screen applicants for the position who are both seeking the job independently and being recruited by a search firm to consider the position. In addition, the committee is asked to recommend a candidate to WSU President, Elson Floyd. 

Always willing to help with efforts on behalf of my Alma Mater, especially the local campus, I was more than happy to answer Dr. Stephan’s questions.

My first suggestion was to find someone who has a demonstrated history of involving the local business community with the various departments and schools on campus. Currently, there are a number of programs involving local businesses and owners either in class project work, research or as adjunct professors and topic speakers. Not only should this continue, but the new chancellor should be out in the community advocating for even more involvement.  

The benefit of business community involvement is multi-faceted. It offers tremendous rewards for the businesses involved; unmatched experienced shared with students; and highlights available resources both on and off the campus. We finally have a quality research institution in Southwest Washington and the region needs a leader that will help bind it to the community.

Approachability was what I suggested next. One of the characteristics of our region (good or bad) is that we don’t stand on much formality. Most of the presidents, chairs of boards and executive VPs I know either answer their own extension or are willing to take calls put through to them. Fewer and fewer wear a suit and tie every day, and judging by verbal greetings the only Mr., Mrs. or Ms. tacked on to someone’s name is in reference to their parent. Our next chancellor needs to not only be comfortable, but able to survive in this environment.

Then we discussed the fact that the WSU Vancouver campus, by all outward signs, is running well. Given the quality of the professional leadership team in place, the chancellor should have the opportunity to spend time in the community first, getting to know it. The last thing we need is a fixer – at least I haven’t seen or heard of a need for one. Consequently, upon arrival, the chancellor should take the opportunity to lead the campus from the outside-in. Rather than taking the more traditional approach of arriving, changing things to make it their own and then looking to the community it serves, the new chancellor has the opportunity to allow those in place that are managing well to continue to do so. Then, the chancellor can assume his or her place in the greater community and not only showcase WSUV, but show the community who the new face of the campus is.

Finally, with all biases declared out front, I suggested the new chancellor must want to be a “Coug.” Even those who have gone to other colleges and universities can tell you about real Cougs. It is endemic to those who studied at WSU regardless of which campus they were on or whether or not they’ve ever seen a football, basketball or volleyball game. Though the athletic fans bleed Crimson – in fact more bleeding the last few years, Cougs are more about the shared experience in school; about the unofficial Cougar Network of employers; about caring for Wazzu in a way that we want to make it the best state institution of higher education in the country.

Elson Floyd learned about what it meant to be a Coug before coming to WSU and spending time in the state during the 1990s. Hal Dengerink spent most of his professional career a part of the WSU family; he knew what it meant to be a Coug. If our next chancellor knows what it means to be a Coug and wants to join that fraternity, then WSU Vancouver will indeed have the leadership to capitalize on the foundation put in place by its architect.