TU'S Upham returns with new goals, new attitude
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2012
11/22/12 at 7:38 AM
University of Tulsa President Steadman Upham has a nickname around campus.
He's known as "Steady Up."
It's not just a foreshortening of his names, but a description of his calm demeanor, his way of doing business.
Upham said he's had a lot nicknames over the years, but if people think of him as a strong hand on the rudder, he's happy.
"I'm honored that people think of it that way," Upham said in an interview last week. "That's really a crucial part of the job, providing continuity, leadership and direction - and making sure there aren't any dips or peaks, always moving forward."
As it turned out, his ability to provide calm leadership to the institution was tested at a moment when he hadn't planned on running the school anymore.
In the third month of his retirement, just as Upham was starting to put the day-to-day details of academic budgeting and fundraising out of his mind and start getting serious about his career as a Santa Fe, N.M., artist, he got a call from the TU trustees.
Upham's successor, Geoffrey Orsak, had been fired only 74 days into his presidency.
TU needed him back in Tulsa.
TU's 17th president would also be its 19th.
Upham has agreed to take the school's reigns for at least two years, while the trustees once again look for a new leader.
The school was lucky to have an experienced hand it could turn to, TU Trustees Chairman L. Duane Wilson said.
"During the past decade, TU has experienced unprecedented accomplishments both in the classroom and across the campus," Wilson said. "Our students, faculty and staff, along with our many alumni and friends, have contributed to this success, but the common thread throughout the past eight years has been the exemplary leadership provided by Stead.
"We are fortunate that he and Peggy have so selflessly embraced their familiar roles once again," Wilson said.
Taking over after the Orsak interim has required a lot of listening, Upham said.
"I think there was concern about the possibility of losing direction and losing energy," Upham said. "I wouldn't call it turmoil. Turmoil is when people aren't getting along with each other, and there was none of that really."
All the things that made the school succeed in his first presidency - a strong faculty, devoted alumni, top-class students and a supportive community - were still there.
"We have a great team here. The university really works well together. We've been blessed over the years that the boat moves in one direction. We don't have people rowing against the tide," Upham said.
Two issues were immediately pressing on him when he came back into office.
First, he had missed the early portion of the school's budget cycle, leaving a leadership gap for key programing decisions for the year.
Second, a large freshman class had come to campus, and they needed to see that the school wasn't wandering at the top.
Upham largely split his time between studying the school's fiscal data in his office and making sure he was on campus where he could been seen by the students.
Whatever issues were raised by the Orsak presidency turned out to be short-lived, he said.
"I think we're back," he said.
So, steady as she goes, and full steam ahead.
Upham says there probably is a difference in his leadership style at TU the second time around.
"I think I'm a little more philosophical about the job than I was," he said. "I think coming back in, especially being invited back in, has made me a little more philosophical about performance and the way in which you meet the job each and every day."
It's easy for a university president to be intimidating, but Upham said that's not what the school needs right now.
"I certainly feel a little more relaxed this time," he said. "It doesn't mean we're not working, but I think internally I've tried to bring a more mature attitude personally to the job."
To an extent, Upham is a caretaker. He isn't looking to start any new long-term initiatives during his short-term stay, but that doesn't mean the school is marking time.
"I have things I want to accomplish," he said. "We have an agenda."
Job 1: Shortly after Thanksgiving, the school will start construction on the Helmerich Center for American Research at Gilcrease Museum.
The 30,000-square-foot research center will bring the museum's archival document collection - including early Spanish colonial literature that has never been translated, documentary records of the founding of the U.S. and a priceless collection of Indian removal documents - out of the basement and into a new facility for scholars.
With the help of a lead gift from the family of the late Walt Helmerich, the facility is 80 percent funded, but Upham's job is to come up with the other 20 percent during the 18-month construction project.
Job 2: The Tulsa School for Community Medicine - a joint project with the University of Oklahoma - is in the middle of a critical accreditation self-study and needs about another $50 million to get off the ground.
The schools are in active talks with groups that would handle that funding need in one check, and Upham said it is the sort of transformative project that he would hope would someday be his legacy as a school leader.
"The health statistics of the state are shocking and abysmal," Upham said. "The difference in life expectancy between north Tulsa and south Tulsa is 14 years. We have a shortage of physicians currently, and there will be a wave of retirements of doctors who are now in their 60s. ... I think that this school is going to have an impact on Tulsa that will be extremely beneficial."
It also will be a leap forward for the school academically, leading to a broad range of basic science faculty hires and setting up research opportunities for professors and graduate students that could propel TU's reputation, he said.
TU isn't sitting and waiting for the next president to arrive, Upham said.
The school is moving ahead with a positive attitude toward a bright future, he said.
"There's a lot going on in many departments, and it's easy for people to concentrate on one small thing, like leadership transition, and not realize that the rest of the enterprise, the whole university, which is an amazingly complex organization, is still engaged in all of this activity," he said. "So talking about all the things that people are working on has been really positive."
About Steadman Upham
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Redlands, 1971; master's degree, Arizona State University, 1977; doctorate, Arizona State University, 1980
Dissertation title: "Political Continuity and Change in the Plateau Southwest"
Before TU: President of Clare- mont Graduate University, 1998-2004; vice provost for research and graduate school dean, University of Oregon, 1990-98; chief archeologist, tenured professor, curator of archaeology, associate graduate school dean, New Mexico State University, 1981-1990
TU history: Hired in 2004 as the school's 17th president, retired June 30 and named president emeritus, returned Oct. 1 as 19th president
Money man: Under Upham's leadership, TU has raised more than $700 million.
Homes: In Tulsa and Santa Fe, N.M.
Family: Married to Peggy, two children
Away from school: Directorships have included the American Mutual Funds, Capital Group Companies; St. Francis Health System; Tulsa Chamber of Commerce; Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce: Oklahoma Conference on Community and Justice; Tulsa Community Foundation; and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Future plans: Traveling in South America with his wife
Original Print Headline: TU's Upham returns with new goals, new attitude
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
Steadman Upham: "That's really a crucial part of the job, providing continuity, leadership, direction ... always moving forward.''
University of Tulsa President Steadman Upham is interviewed earlier this month at his office in Collins Hall. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World