President Birx

 

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Photo credit: Josiah Perry

 

The following is an interview I conducted for a magazine project I began while studying journalism in New Hampshire called The Grayscale Timelines (GST).

On August 21, 2014, Plymouth State University president Sara Jayne Steen announced that she would be stepping down from her position after nine years of service. It would take nine months for the University System Board to hire her replacement. With the candidate names kept anonymous, rumors inevitably circulated regarding who the next president might be, with names like Maggie Hassan, governor of New Hampshire, thrown around. Finally by May of 2015, the Board announced that the next president would be Dr. Donald Birx, chancellor of the Behrend branch of Pennsylvania State.

Dr. Birx had an impressive résumé. He graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a bachelor’s in engineering, then took two master’s degrees from Miami University of Ohio, one in physics and one in finance. He finished with a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Dayton.

The new president now inherited a 32-million-dollar building project from former President Steen, and was stepping into office with the largest incoming class the University has ever seen.

Dr. Birx, looking trim at 62, sat in his conference room in a wingback leather chair, his hair neatly combed to the back. He wore a suit mixed with patterns, from a checkered blazer to a pinstripe button-down, the top button left undone. Hanging from his neck was a loose tie patterned with palm trees and elephants. The view from the window overlooked the whole campus, a job he now took as his own.

 

GST

How much work do you have to do today?

 

Birx

My day starts last night, and it goes on from early this morning. Before I get here I start working on strategy, then I come in and I talk to people.

 

 

GST

When you first got the job, what was that conversation like?

 

Birx

I got called while I was driving in the car from Penn State to Behrend, and they told me about what was going to happen. It was kind of exciting. It gave me a lot to think about.

 

 

 GST

Did you have to ask anyone for advice before you took the position?

 

Birx

Yes, I did. I asked the former president of Penn State for his thoughts.

 

 

GST

What were the kinds of things you two talked about?

 

Birx

We talked about what the job would be like, what the opportunity was, and the challenges we faced. I had two other presidents I talked to, one was the president of Auburn, and the other was the president of Houston.

 

 

GST

What was the best piece of advice you got?

 

Birx

Move in harmony with what the culture can take. There’s change, but you’ve got to be reasonable about the pace at which you can move.

 

 

GST 

Who told you that?

 

Birx

I think they all did in some way or another. The president of Auburn told me, “Just remember: average tenure three-point-two years.”

 

 

GST

Was there anything that you saw on this campus that surprised you?

 

Birx

I think the willingness of faculty and staff to try some new approaches, the strength of faculty and staff, and the incredible engagement of the students.

 

 

GST

What was one of the first challenges that you faced?

 

Birx

Defining the vision and direction of Plymouth.

 

 

GST

Were you able to figure that out?

 

Birx

I think so. I think we’re getting there. It’s a team effort, let’s put it that way.

 

 

GST

How do you define Plymouth State among two thousand other colleges in the country?

 

Birx

I think something about Plymouth that I find most unique is this: There is a willingness to integrate education and practice, whether you’re in the liberal arts or you’re in the professions. This idea of engaged scholarship, working in the community and coming out with an understanding of the deep underlying principles of knowledge, but also understanding how to put those into practice. I think Plymouth, with that foundation, can be really well positioned for the future. Location-wise, why any student would not want to go here is beyond me. The relationship between faculty and staff is a close relationship. They say that one of the greatest measures of success for a student is what the engagement was with faculty when they were at school. Plymouth is really a family atmosphere.

 

 

GST

Why is there so much money going into an athletic building for a Division III school when we have departments that are falling apart?

 

Birx

When you come to a university, and you’re a resident student, a handful of what you’re going to learn in the rest of your life comes from outside the classroom. It’s the type of experience that can only happen in a university setting. Team sports I think play a key role in building teamwork, leadership, and interacting with people. It’s not just the athletic side of it, but it’s the whole other part of being on a college campus that we want to put as much emphasis in that we put on the educational side.

 

Now, I’m not for scrimping on the educational side because you want to build facilities for sports, and I think you have to find the right balance between those two things. But if education was all about what happens in the classroom, then why can’t you just substitute that with online education? I think there’s a reason why resident instruction is valued as highly as it is by companies. That’s because there’s an awful lot to learn outside as there is inside the classroom.

 

Now what I think is, there’s a good way to integrate the ALLWell North center with the educational side. But I think what you’re going to find is the universities that are really successful in transforming their communities and building the student population are the ones that have engaged and reached outside the classroom as well as inside. Athletics is just one part of it, maybe there’s been an imbalance on that side of it to some extent, I can’t say.

 

 

GST

So we have plans to improve the classrooms in the next five to ten years?

 

Birx

Oh yes. What we’re going to put a lot of focus on is these clusters or hubs. We’re going to build like six to eight clusters or hubs, and they’re going to be cross-disciplinary spaces. For example, arts and technology. We’re going to take the strengths we have in art and the strengths we have in technology to create great product designs, multi-media activities, interactive activities, and artificial environments where students can learn and run companies – we’re going to build a whole bunch of things.

 

 

GST

Do you think where the school is right now that it’s preparing students for the outside world?

 

Birx

I think it does a very good job, probably one of the top twenty percent, I think, for the reputation for students that come out of here. I’ve talked to lots of companies and the people outside of here say “we love Plymouth students,” no matter what they’re doing. They say Plymouth students really have an ability to integrate knowledge with practice.

 

 

GST

Will it be able to compete with the top colleges in terms of experience and readiness of students?

 

Birx

Yes. It depends what you’re asking. Are we going to be a top one percent university in the traditional measures of the scholastic aptitude of the students that come in? No, because that’s not what we’re about. But are we going to a place where the students that come out can compete in that top one percent? Yes, we are.

 

 

GST

When you leave here for your next mission what do you want to take away as one accomplishment?

 

Birx

I would like to see a creative community around Plymouth that’s working with students and really doing some cutting edge stuff. I would like to see Plymouth be known for six to eight key areas that are cross-disciplinary, nationally and internationally.

 

 

GST

Where is it right now?

 

Birx

There are some really good programs here. What I want to do is create overlapping clusters or hubs that integrate with the community and bring everything to that top level.

 

 

GST

What is the ideal Plymouth State student?

 

Birx

I think one that has a healthy appreciation and engagement with others, builds a sense of community, loves outdoor activities, stretching their minds, and also has a love of learning, and what’s to be able to change something about this world when they come out.

 

 

GST

What’s something you wish you could say to students that you don’t get to say every day?

 

Birx

Engage, really engage. The biggest difference of whether you’re going to be successful, whether you’re going to enjoy the experience, is whether you’ve engaged with other students, whether you’ve engaged with the activities that are in the community – engagement will make all the difference in the world. That’s the great thing about a resident education, the great thing about here. There are few universities where you get all these pieces together and I think it’s a great community, just engage with it.

 

 

GST

Because we’re a growing university, is the development of ALLWell North a physical representation of the direction we’re going in, and will we eventually move up in divisions because of the increased numbers?

 

Birx

It could happen, particularly in some of the sports. Overall our goal is to create the best student-athlete, or student-whatever. We want to create the engagement, and when you come out, the external endeavors that you participate in give you the communication skills, the leaderships skills, the teambuilding skills – they’re so important in success – as well as, you’ve got the really critical discipline-based skills that give you the ability to think critically to know, and to understand, and to apply knowledge.

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