Steadman Upham, anthropologist and president emeritus of The University of Tulsa, died July 30, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from complications following surgery. He was 68 years old.
Upham served as president of The University of Tulsa (TU) from 2004 through the spring of 2012 and returned later that year at the request of the Board of Trustees to replace his successor. Upham retired as president in 2016 and planned to return to TU as a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology. At the time of his death, he was developing a course on the migratory history of humans.
Upham previously served as president of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California (1998-2004); as dean of the graduate school, professor of anthropology and vice provost for research at the University of Oregon (1990-98); and as assistant professor of archaeology, then associate professor and associate dean of the graduate school at New Mexico State University (1981-90). He completed his doctorate in anthropology at Arizona State University in 1980.
Upham is survived by his wife of nearly 46 years, Peggy; their son, evolutionary biologist and Yale postdoctoral fellow Nathan Upham; their daughter, Portland architect Erin Upham Lopez, and her husband, Alejandro Lopez; their grandchildren, Orion and Aadrock; and by countless colleagues and friends.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a gift to The Steadman and Peggy Upham Endowment for Community Service and Outreach at The University of Tulsa,
www.utulsa.edu/giving or 918-631-2565.
He didn’t know it at the time, but one of Stead’s friends and Claremont colleagues, management guru Peter Drucker, provided what is perhaps the best one-line summary of Upham’s time at TU. The 12 years of his presidency is a case study in self-determination.
Under Upham’s leadership, TU added more than 700,000 square feet of facilities; doctoral programs in chemistry, physics and anthropology; and a growing roster of interdisciplinary research institutes, including nanotechnology, alternative energy and the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities. TU also established the Mary K. and John T. Oxley College of Health Sciences, introduced the Center for Global Education and the Global Scholars Program, created the Office of Diversity and Engagement and partnered with the University of Oklahoma to establish the OU-TU School of Community Medicine.
Upham also oversaw TU’s Embrace the Future Campaign (2004-11), which raised nearly $700 million for campus growth, scholarship and faculty endowments and other priorities.
In 2008, Upham led the university in forging the Gilcrease Museum management partnership with the City of Tulsa – an unconventional arrangement that has benefitted both institutions by, among other things, boosting fundraising for the museum, spawning a master’s program in museum science and management and enabling a $65 million expansion of Gilcrease with funds from the successful Vision Tulsa sales tax ballot.
Upham also worked with the late Walt Helmerich and family, along with other donors, to establish the Helmerich Center for American Research, providing a long-wanted home for the expansive Gilcrease Documents Archive. In 2015-16, Upham led a major coup by representing the center during the acquisition of The Bob Dylan Archive – a joint effort with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. (Stead, both anthropologist and Dylan fan, admiringly noted that the archive’s treasures included the tambourine that inspired “Mr. Tambourine Man.”)
During Upham’s time as president, TU consistently ranked among the nation’s top 100 doctoral universities in the influential U.S. News & World Report annual rankings. Most important are the numbers behind those rankings: a 14-point gain in the percentage of freshmen who finished high school in the top 10 percent, a 14-point gain in the 6-year graduation rate and a 3-point increase in mean freshman ACT score (from 26 to 29).
The university achieved such distinctive growth not only through Upham’s leadership, but also through the dedicated efforts of many, including administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, corporate partners, foundations, government leaders and others. In short: TU’s success is the product of an extensive network of relationships – a network that flourished during Upham’s tenure. As TU’s First Lady, Stead’s wife, Peggy, played a crucial role as an ambassador for TU, planning and hosting scores of events each year and accompanying Stead in his travels. Their partnership began when a mutual friend at the University of Redlands introduced them; they married in 1971.
Nathan remembers a bumper sticker on his father’s file cabinet at the University of Oregon: Subvert the Dominant Paradigm. “I remember realizing that I didn’t understand any of those words,” he said. “But in later years, I saw how that described Dad’s work.”
Whatever disruption Upham’s work delivered, it did so through workmanlike substance, not pretense. His emphasis on deep excavation of major ruins was an innovative approach for Southwestern archeologists at the time. His dissertation research focused on the Southwestern Pueblo tribes of Native Americans, especially the Hopi people, and included several summers of archeological excavation at Chavez Pass, Arizona. From the field data, he developed a broad theoretical framework for the evolution of the region’s political systems during the last several thousand years of agricultural development. The resulting work, “Polities and power: An economic and political history of the Western Pueblo” (1982), did not gain much traction in the first decade after its publication but is now considered a classic of North American archaeology.
Upham’s publications showed that ancient Pueblo societies were more complex and hierarchical than previously believed, with large population centers tied to smaller outlying villages through trade, ceremonies, and intensified food production before pandemics devastated the region in the 1500s. His later field work uncovered what was then the earliest example of eight-row corn in the Americas, dated to 1225 B.C., indicating that irrigation and sedentary lifestyles were present by that time.
In all, Upham wrote or edited 10 books and wrote more than 75 book chapters and journal articles. In 2006, he wrote and edited a book showcasing the photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis, a renowned chronicler of Native American culture and people starting in the 1880’s. The book resulted from a relationship Upham developed with the grandson of Curtis, who agreed to have the images from hundreds of unpublished glass negatives printed for the first time.
It’s worth noting that Upham’s undergraduate degrees from the University of Redlands were in English and Spanish; his interest in anthropology was kindled during an extended trip that he and Peggy took through Mexico and Central and South America in 1974-75. The couple visited a number of pre-Columbian sites along their route. When their Volkswagen bus was impounded at the Costa Rican border, they continued by other means, making it as far as Cochabamba, Bolivia, before having to return to the U.S. (In 2012, Stead and Peggy returned to South America and completed the final leg of their trip to Tierra del Fuego nearly 40 years later.)
Besides being united in their leadership roles at TU, Stead and Peggy shared a passion for art. He was an accomplished painter, working mostly in a meticulous abstract pointillist style using acrylic gel paint. She is a silversmith specializing in fine wearables. When it was time to recharge, the Uphams often retreated to their second home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they maintained studio space and soaked up the local art scene.
Nathan and Erin draw a bright line between their father’s creativity and his supportive, humanistic approach to leadership. This observation will ring true for many. A fellow university president once said he holds Stead up as the prime example of a compelling leader who is not the expected “Type A” personality.
Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum told the Tulsa World that Stead had given him sage advice about a leader’s duty to be personally available to others. “You have a responsibility to take care of and be there for the people you lead,” Bynum explained. “It’s one of the best pieces of wisdom I’ve ever received.” As it happens, Stead had received that same wisdom from University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer.
A few years ago, when a handful of TU students took to Facebook to grouse about the unfamiliar cooking smells coming from the apartment of an international student, Upham issued an impromptu video response. In a firmly corrective but respectful way, he reminded students that universities are places of diversity and learning, and they demand mature responses of us. On another occasion, he sportingly joined a group of students who approached him about making a video to promote an upcoming campus event. They struck up a simulated “rave” in the President’s Office, complete with a pulsing dance soundtrack and glow sticks. Stead even whirled a t-shirt “helicopter” style.
This combination of approachability and reliable guidance doubtless played a large part in establishing Upham’s nickname among TU students: Uncle Stead.
In one of his most visible and far-reaching achievements, Upham led TU in establishing the True Blue Neighbors initiative, a service program that partners TU closely with the Kendall Whittier neighborhood and with service organizations throughout Tulsa.
In late 2008, Upham and his senior administrative team conceived of True Blue Neighbors as a response to that year’s harrowing economic downturn. The initiative would be a multifaceted exercise in community engagement and institutional citizenship. The pieces soon came together: a youth mentoring program at the neighboring Kendall-Whittier Elementary School, assistance for the Kendall Whittier Emergency Food Pantry and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, a Reading Partners initiative that advanced third-grade reading levels by 2.5 years, and more.
Skilled tradespeople from the TU Physical Plant fanned out through the neighborhood to help with repairs and maintenance. There were T-shirts and Golden Hurricane game tickets for neighborhood kids, and help with school supplies for homes that almost inconceivably lacked even pens. The True Blue Neighbors Behavioral Health Clinic opened its doors in a new building at the corner of 4th Street and Lewis Avenue.
A growing list of True Blue Neighbors project partners is led by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, an early and active participant.
True Blue Neighbors has seen year-after-year increases in volunteer contributions from TU students, faculty and staff (70,255 hours in 2016), and it continues to be the primary vehicle for the university’s community engagement. Along the way, TU students and others are learning volumes about the forces that shape communities, about aligning people and resources behind goals and about hands-on citizenship. Mostly, they are learning that they can make a difference.
With the succession of Gerard P. “Gerry” Clancy, M.D., to the TU presidency, the university has undertaken a months-long strategic planning exercise. The emerging outlines describe a future TU that has built ambitiously upon its culture of community engagement. Human service work continues, joined by a redoubled focus on economic development partnerships. Practical problem solving is integrated more broadly and consistently into classroom curricula. Corporate partners and alumni play an even larger role in developing TU-Tulsa partnerships.
One thing is clear: Tomorrow’s TU will flow logically and powerfully from the TU that Stead led us in building. We are the fortunate caretakers of a profound legacy – with responsibilities to match.
As Stead so often said: “Go TU!”