(From the Winter 2010 Oregon Stater)
By Kevin Miller
Nearly four years ago, not long after returning to campus to become editor of the Oregon Stater, I found myself sitting beside OSU’s president for a couple of hours as I drove both of us back to Corvallis from a meeting we had attended in Bend.
I asked Ed Ray a lot of questions that afternoon, and he responded with candid, often hilarious or pithy answers, one of which keeps coming back to me as Ray and his OSU leadership team roll out their bold plan to deal with the university’s current budget problems while setting a long-term course for OSU to become a truly premier land grant university.
I had asked him if a person in his position could significantly change something as large and complex as a university, given human beings’ inherent resistance to change. He said he had learned from a mentor that it’s crucial for a leader to behave in ways that accumulate a lot of social capital – good will, respect, trust, etc. Then, when the going gets tough, the leader – having carefully studied the situation and become as certain as possible that the changes he’s proposing will help – can spend that social capital, drawing down his popularity account a bit, to get his institution to accomplish something that’s difficult but very important.
Two of the most obvious things about OSU President Ed Ray are that he profoundly loves his job and he’s a true believer when it comes to the power of public higher education to make the world a better place.
His analytical abilities may come from his Stanford graduate degrees in economics and from teaching the subject at The Ohio State University. His administrative skills may have been honed as he rose through the ranks to become provost of that
But his sense of why places like Oregon State University are important was born in a modest neighborhood far away, where he felt lucky to get a shot at Queens College, a “city college,” the New York City equivalent of a land grant school.
“Let’s put it this way,” says Beth Ray, an attorney and his wife of 40 years. “Ed is the youngest of three boys. He grew up in Queens, New York. His dad was a truck mechanic. He was the first in his family to go to college.
“He has great respect for public universities and even more respect for Oregon State University,” she continues. “We have been totally amazed by this place. When we came out here six years ago, it was not well known to us, and then we come out here and we find out what is going on – the educational aspect and the research part – and it’s just amazing.”
Ed Ray’s vision for OSU in 2025 arose from a mounting concern that, although OSU was indeed doing amazing things in the face of eroding state support, the university was running in place or even falling behind in its effort to move up to a higher tier of land grant colleges.
“This is not my vision that I’m imposing on people,” he said. “This has never been about me. I’m just saying: You know what? Talk is cheap. If you want to talk about aspirations, and wanting to be among the top 10 land grant universities, let me put a stake in the ground and see where we are. This is just my sense of what the attributes of this place will be in 2025 if we’re on our way to being a top-10 land grant university.”
He said it’s important to have a plan and to get moving on it, but warned against assuming that it will all turn out as first described.
“We’ve proposed a divisional structure but we’re not eliminating colleges,” he said. “I know of major universities that have self-destructed in their efforts to change because they’ve spent two years arguing about whether the College of Social Work should be a school or a college. We’re not interested in symbols. You don’t want to get caught in the weeds in your effort to do something much bigger and more significant.
“Every one of the divisions will have its own synergies, and the people in those divisions need to help us understand to what degree the colleges need to have their own autonomy … . I wouldn’t presume to say ‘Here’s the model of how each division is going to work.’”
He would, however, presume to say the option of simply staying the course, of trying to preserve the status quo, is a bad one for OSU. Oregon’s struggling economy and the state’s eroding willingness to pay for higher education make that a losing bet over the long term, he said.
“I said in my first speech to the faculty senate six years ago that the state is never going to be the answer, and we can’t balance our budget on the backs of students and their families, so we have to grow our own revenue base and better manage our core budget,” he said.
“For us there’s nowhere to go back to. It’s gone.”
His plan calls for doubling OSU’s private support, which is already breaking records with The Campaign for OSU, the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, which was started by Ray shortly after his arrival.
Mike Goodwin, the man brought in to run the campaign as president and CEO of the OSU Foundation, doesn’t flinch at Ray’s ambitious long-term goals.
“I can’t imagine there’s a president anywhere who does a better job of setting up a program like ours for success,” Goodwin said, adding that Ray’s insistence that OSU have a strong strategic plan and his willingness to make decisions are big assets when approaching the 10 percent of donors who provide 90 percent of the donations.
“A lot of times universities come across to donors, who are out of a business environment, as wanting to be all things to all people,” Goodwin said. “So it’s very refreshing to donors to hear somebody say, ‘We’ve really done the tough work. We’ve analyzed ourselves. We’ve looked at what we’re good at, and where we can make a contribution. Here’s what we think it is, and now we’re actually going to align our resources in that way, and we’re moving resources internally in that direction, and you know what? If it’s going to work, we need you to invest as well.’
“That’s better than just going out and saying, ‘Here are some great ideas we have. We can’t do them unless you give us money. So please give us money.’”
Goodwin works nationally and internationally to share his knowledge and experience and help other universities learn to raise more private money. He said Ray is on the right track with his push to make OSU more independent of state appropriations and more attractive to private donors and corporate partners.
“I think our public universities are really in a 40- or 50-year evolution from being what were really state bureaucracies, to being high-performing public-private corporations,” Goodwin said. “We’re kind of in the growing pains of that. Oregon State was behind the curve on this in many ways. Ed came in and really accelerated things, and now we have a chance to jump past some people.”
Goodwin also sees Ray’s inherent candor and lack of pretense as powerful assets, noting that “he is the same Ed,” no matter the audience.
“People always know where he stands, and I think that’s the part of working with Ed that people like the most,” Goodwin said. “In our society today it’s very refreshing to run into someone who is not constantly spinning things, who is willing and able to tell it like it is.”
Sometimes, when Ray is coping with the actions of people who seem to have it in for Oregon State or for higher education in general, the street kid from Queens will emerge and he will be downright blunt in his response.
His wife Beth says he seldom brings home the frustrations of his job – “just the good stuff” – but on days when the going has been extremely tough, “there can some muttering” when he gets home.
And, when the outcome of an OSU football game is up for grabs as time runs out, or when the game officials seem to be making particularly boneheaded calls that hurt the Beavers’ chances, OSU’s leader might quietly slip out of a crowded skybox to agonize in private.
“Life has taught me that I’m a person who, from time to time, needs to be put in a time out, so every once-in-a-while, I put myself in a time out,” he said.
While Ray repeatedly insists that the realignment and the vision for 2025 are “not about me, and never have been,” he knows that some might try to make them so. As provost at Ohio State, his job before being hired at Oregon State, he helped push through sweeping changes in the university structure.
“Some people who had their own agenda went after me with personal attacks in every forum that they could,” he recalled. “It was basically push-back, but very personal. And the thing that really hurt me at the time, and kind of startled me, was that nobody stood up and said, ‘Ed’s trying to do the right thing. You may agree with him or disagree with him, but Ed doesn’t have an ulterior motive.’ There were a lot of people I’d known for 20 or 30 years, and they watched this pitched battle but they never stood up for me. That was incredibly painful.”
That memory may still sting, but it’s not going to dissuade him from pushing for action on the realignment.
“I’ve never looked at leadership as being about how bad the risks are, or how receptive people are going to be to change,” he said. “It’s always been about, if you are in a leadership position, you are responsible to get it as right as you can, and then to persist. If you can’t do that – if your inclination is to blink when it gets difficult – you need to get out of the way and let someone come in who can step up.
“You think about major directional changes that should occur, then you try to create movement in that direction, then you pay attention to the details. What’s working? What isn’t?
“There’s never been a major system change that I’ve heard of where there weren’t unintended negative consequences.
“You realize that the human condition is such that we never get anything perfectly right, so even if you have a good sense about what the right thing to do is, exactly how to do it isn’t always clear. So you know what? You make mistakes. You come back the next day and try to get it right.”
The idea, he said, is to rise to the leader’s challenge to make a positive difference.
“If, by virtue of your experience and the training you have, it’s possible that something you care passionately about, and is at risk, can be kept whole by you doing everything you can to serve that cause, what would make you more inclined to get up in the morning?
“That’s as good as it gets, to know that something you really care about is at risk and maybe you can make a little bit of difference.”
This story is running in place of the regular “Ed Said” feature, which will return for the Spring 2010 issue.