Conor Fellin: We’re looking at the end of the second year since your return to TU. What have those last two years looked like for you?
Steadman Upham: My gosh, they have gone so fast. It is remarkable. I was 74 days into retirement when I got the phone call and to be honest with you the first few weeks of retirement I was pretty restless. I didn’t have the routine that I normally had, but after 74 days, I was settling in.
But coming back has been terrific. I realized, in coming back, how much I loved this place and how special the University is. You know, sometimes God just opens up opportunities for you, and you just have to go with the flow. What it said to me was my work’s not done here.
So I’m back, and I’ll tell you I’m fully engaged. We have been super busy in all kinds of projects: new building projects and new initiatives. So it’s been very exciting.
CF: Do you tend to see the years after Orsak as being continuous with the years before him?
SU: Well, I think it was your paper that called me the Grover Cleveland of the University of Tulsa.
In my mind, it’s continuous. Seventy-four days is really not long enough to see a separation. Although quite a few things changed while I was gone, nothing irrevocable. We’re very much back on track.
CF: Is there a retirement time in the works right now, or is that something that’s still undetermined?
SU: To be honest with you, it’s undetermined, but the board of trustees is working on a package that would be probably another couple of years. There’s no agreement, but it’s being proposed. I’m talking to my wife about it, because we’re partners in this. She works as hard as I do for the University. So we’ll see, but my anticipation is I’ll be here for another couple of years. Maybe longer, maybe three.
J.Christopher Proctor: When you first came back, we just assumed it would be a quick band-aid until we could get someone new, but it’s been great having you stay.
SU: The way that transition occurred, there was a lot of talk about what would be the right time to go back into a search process. To have another one right then probably would have damaged the institution a little bit. It’s been easy to stay. I love this place.
CF: What is the typical day in the life of Steadman Upham like?
SU: Every day is different. And that’s one of the fascinating things about the job. Even if you have a schedule laid out, like I do for every day, you just never know what is going to land on your desk or walk through the door. In a lot of respects, we’re like a small city. We have 4600 students. We’ve got 1200 employees. There are all kinds of people coming on and off campus. Because of that, things happen. It’s life in action. And there are unexpected opportunities that arise and take you off your schedule. I need to call this person, or I need to call that person. It’s a great job, but it’s always different.
CF: Can you think of a specific day that you were surprised by what the day brought you?
SU: Routinely. It happens several times a week, actually.
April 4 was my birthday, and so I woke up thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna come in and everybody’s going to be telling me how old I am.” The very first thing that happened is I got a call from Danny Manning saying he was leaving. He did such a great job for us. I just wish him the best. That set in motion a process that’s consumed me for two weeks.
JCP: It’s always so nice when these coaching searches are finally over.
SU: Yeah, and there’s always second-guessing. You’ve just got to close your ears and not read the paper.
JCP: What is your favorite part about being president?
SU: I certainly like working with students. That’s what brought me into the university in the first place. I taught for many years before I got into administration. Every time I’ve had an administrative job, whether it’s been a dean or a vice provost or whatever, I’ve found ways to continue to interact with students, even if it’s just driving a golf cart across campus and stopping to talk to students. That’s what keeps me going.
CF: What’s your least favorite part about being president?
SU: Oh, golly, all the issues that require dispute resolution. That’s probably the nicest way to say it. In a big organization, not everybody gets what they perceive is coming to them. So you need to adjudicate.
JCP: If you could get a degree in something other than your college major and what you’ve taught, what would it be?
SU: My degree is in archaeology, and about halfway through my career, I realized that I was limiting myself in my study of the past. I got involved reading a lot of paleontology, because the time depth goes all the way back to basically the first organisms on the planet. My son’s working on that. At that time—I don’t remember what year it was—he was just a preteen, and I was doing a lot of talking about that at home. He just finished his PhD in evolutionary biology, which is a combination of mamology (the study of mammals) and paleontology. So I’m living vicariously through his accomplishments in the paleontological realm.
JCP: Yeah, I was expecting something like business or “how to run a university.” But paleontology? That’s more interesting.
CF: Or something related to your painting.
SU: That’s strictly avocational.
CF: Actually, could you tell us a little bit about your artwork?
SU: I’ve painted on and off my entire life. You know, I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It’s an outlet for me. It’s peaceful. It’s solitary. The style of painting that I do requires concentration, and it’s sort of Zen-like after a couple of hours, so it’s really relaxing.
I guess that’s why I do it, but I also like the end product. I love color. I love texture.
JCP: In the off-chance that any future university presidents are reading this interview, do you have any advice for them?
SU: You know, one of the things you learn after being president a long time is that advice to a potential president is probably not terribly welcome.
The first thing I would say is being president is an eating job, sometimes three meals on the job, sometimes more than three meals if you get double-scheduled for a dinner or a lunch.
There’s an incredibly important pastoral function that goes along with the job. People look to you for advice and making the right decision and creating the right kind of atmosphere.
A new president suffers from the five-pound rule; for every one of the first five years a person is president, they gain five pounds a year. If you’re not careful, it can begin to slow you down. I’ve been through those cycles.
Other than that, I’d say it’s a fabulous job. Anyone who has the opportunity to be the president of a university is very privileged.
JCP: There are fears among some students who are more football inclined that we might be turning back into a basketball school like we were in the early 2000s. What are your thoughts about that?
SU: My mantra is, if we’re going to participate in any endeavor, we need to work as hard as we can to be participants at the highest level. It was only a short two years ago that we were 11–2, went to a conference championship and went to the Liberty Bowl where we beat a Big 12 team. I’m not terribly worried about football. Last season was disappointing, and the first person who would tell you that is Bill Blankenship. He was very challenged and upset about the season. He’s working hard. His coaches are working hard. We’ll be better this year, how much better I don’t know.
We’re committed to the Division I profile. I don’t think our alumni or the boosters of the university, and certainly not the board of trustees, want any diminishment of our competitive edge. So we’ll do our best.
JCP: As a history major, I have a bit of an issue; we don’t have a history professor that specializes in European history anytime after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Russian Revolution. That’s a pretty big gap for a history department to have. I know in the state of the university you discussed how it’s really only in the last four years that we’ve had this exodus of students from the arts and sciences. Is that something that the university’s wanting to fight against, or are we just going to let what happens happen and adapt to it?
SU: This year, for the very first time, we have changed our financial aid strategies to encourage students who are interested in arts and sciences to actually come to TU. The change in the balance is not a problem—we’re managing it well—but the arts and sciences college really represents the core of the liberal arts, and we’re a liberal arts university. We don’t want to be overly weighted so that we are perceived as a technical university like Rice University or MIT. That’s not our aspiration. We really want to balance it.
We’ve added a lot of faculty and resources in engineering and natural sciences to keep pace with the student growth. We have very good faculty members who have said precisely what you just said about the gaps. Actually, the gap in history is probably closer to the top of the list. As soon as we can stimulate some more student growth, which I think we’re going to see this year, there will be additional resources.
JCP: While we’re talking about changes for next year, will we be putting students in the Aloft again?
SU: We hope not. There’s a real issue when you have enrollment growth, especially for a residential campus. Do you build the dorm before you have the growth and then hope for the growth, or do you have the growth and then build the dorm to accommodate the growth? We had a plan to create more housing in advance of the growth, but when the markets crashed in 2008, it really took us off our game. We put all our efforts into preserving programs and making sure we didn’t have to terminate or lay off any employees. So all the things we were doing to stimulate student growth went on, and all of the sudden we have this tidal wave of students coming at us. We have another tidal wave, but right now it looks like we’ll be able to accommodate everyone on campus. Undergraduate places on campus have been prioritized. If there is displacement this year, it will probably involve some graduate students or English Institute students.
JCP: One of the things that people have been most excited about this year are the new dining options in ACAC. Could you talk a little bit about that change? Are there other big physical changes to campus that we should be looking for in the next few years?
SU: Let me talk about the first part. We have wanted more dining options in ACAC, and it began with Chick-Fil-A and Subway. We redid the menu at the Hut. There was Benvenuto’s.
But the prime mover on this was the fact that we’re building a new dormitory with 311 beds right next to ACAC. The demographic shift of residents is going to be noticeable. We wanted to create more dining venues in the center of campus. Pat Case is great. Pat Case is crowded. We’re more than doubling the seating in ACAC, and so there’ll be more sit down space. I think there’s going to be eleven or twelve dining options when we’re done. It’s gonna be fun.
What to expect in the future? The next thing on the list is a classroom/office building. We need more classroom space. We need more faculty offices. So we are looking at options right now—actually had a meeting yesterday—about the possibility of getting a classroom/office building going.
We’re renovating the John, a $10 million project, and as soon as we finish the John we’ll immediately go over to Lottie Jane and do the same thing.
JCP: A few more narrow questions: It seems like every year we make the list of the “most overachieving” universities, which we tout as a good thing, because it seems like we’re better than people think we are. But it also means people don’t know we’re as good as we actually are. I know part of it’s overcoming the “where’s Tulsa” effect. I was wondering if you could talk about anything we’ve been doing recently to fix that.
SU: That’s a very slow indicator to change, but it is getting better. We’re just going to keep doing the things we’re doing. We reach out. We publicize. We get help whenever our team plays in the NCAA, and the announcers say, “Tulsa’s a small school and a high academic school.” A lot of people still think we’re a large, public, urban university. Even people who know ought to know better, people who have been in higher education a long time say, “Really? Tulsa’s private?” It’s very frustrating.
JCP: There’s one of my personal ideas that I want to run by you, because I will never get the chance again. We’ve had a lot of complaints about the traffic on Delaware. It’s the only real street that crosses through campus. That can sometimes be annoying and sometimes be a real problem. I know a lot of the girls have problems with getting cat-called on Delaware. Would it be possible to cut off Delaware right in front of the U between Sixth and Fourth, fill that in, have another intramural field and cut off the campus more so?
SU: It’s a highly desirable idea. Whether we could get it through the city is another matter. Delaware is viewed as an artery to 244, so I think it would probably be a long, bitter battle. We also have a very good neighbor who is an industrial partner, Bama Pie. They’ve got big trucks coming in and out all the time. They use Delaware usually.
But it’s a great idea. I would support it wholeheartedly. We can have a conversation with the city about it. The one thing in our favor is that we own both sides of the street. That’s one of the criteria if you’re going to close a street. So we could proceed on that basis, but it would be a fight.
JCP: Maybe Atlanta could be expanded?
SU: Kendall-Whittier School is in the way. Then you have EduCare and then West Park. It’s pretty continuous.
This is way before your time here, but we went through a process before we began to acquire property in the neighborhood. It was not always very peaceful. There was a lot of acrimony. Same when we started buying the south campus property. To reopen those wounds by trying to do something so major in the neighborhood would probably irritate people. We have good relationships with that neighborhood right now.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.