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One on One: New Tennessee Tech President Dr. Philip Oldham

Liz Engel Clark
Thursday, Jul 5, 2012

Dr. Philip Oldham.

It’s a changing of the guard, a shift from the norm, the start of a new era. Any way you slice it, there’s big news at Tennessee Tech University in the form of a new face roaming the grounds today.

Dr. Philip Oldham, former provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was unanimously chosen as Tennessee Tech’s next president in May; he’ll be stepping in for the retiring Dr. Bob Bell. It’s obviously a big change for the university – Oldham becomes only the ninth president in its 96-year history – but it’s also a role he and is family are looking to settle into quickly.

We sat down with Oldham just days before his official start date, July 1, and chatted about his past, present, and Tennessee Tech’s bright future – let’s just say the school should be ready for some off-the-cuff humor.

Upper Cumberland Business Journal: How did you get into higher education initially? I understand you were a chemistry major in college?

Philip Oldham: To some extent, it (higher ed) was in my blood. Both my parents worked at the undergraduate school where I studied, Freed-Hardeman University, so I pretty much grew up on a campus, and I was very comfortable in that environment.

I started out majoring in chemistry, I actually was one of those rare students that never changed majors, and decided to go onto graduate school, to Texas A&M, after I finished my undergraduate degree. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do after graduate school, and I toyed with an industrial career, even did a one-year post-doc. I got a feel for the industrial setting, but I missed the academic environment and decided to try an academic career. I was fortunate enough to land an assistant professor position at Mississippi State, where there was a Ph.D. program in chemistry, so I had an opportunity to work with graduate students and participate in research and just fell in love with it.

I was at Mississippi State for 21 years and then went to UT-C as provost in 2007.

UCBJ: Talk about the thought process, and the discussions you had internally with your family, about applying for this position at Tech. Was it the next step for you, professionally?

PO: It is a logical next step for a provost. It’s a common pathway. I thoroughly loved my time at UT-C. It was an incredible time and gave me an opportunity to really grow professionally and personally. But like most jobs, I believe very strongly that if you do a good job, you’ll eventually work yourself out of a job, because you’ve done all you can do, in that setting, in that particular position, and it’s time for somebody else to come in and take it further. I hadn’t completely hit that wall yet, in my position as provost, but I felt it coming. I was interested in exploring what else was out there.

Tech is one of those rare opportunities that come around very infrequently, and it’s an institution I certainly have been aware of for a long time and admired in a lot of ways. When Dr. (Bob) Bell announced his retirement, it got my attention. When I was contacted by a search firm, I was prepared. Obviously, I had a lot of conversations with Kari, my wife, and later with the kids (Audrey and Sam) to see how interested they might be, and we kind of went from there.

UCBJ: Talk about the interview process overall - it seemed to garner a fair amount of public input, and one forum in particular was live streamed, etc.

PO: I expected it – I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I knew that, at a certain point, it’d become very public. It probably became public much faster than even I had anticipated. That’s why a lot of sitting presidents, for example, are reluctant to enter searches like this, because of how public they get and the vulnerability they have with their current positions. That crossed my mind as well. I was taking some risk.

The search process can be very emotionally demanding, and so to whatever extent I could protect the family from a lot of that, I did.

UCBJ: What was the most off-the-wall, interesting question you received during that time?

PO: I don’t know if it was exactly unexpected…but in the first round of interviews, the last question asked was, ‘Is there anything in your background that would embarrass the university or the Board of Regents if you were a candidate?’ And that was right after the events at the University of Arkansas (Editor’s Note: See Bobby Petrino). I think my response was, ‘Well, first of all, I don’t own a motorcycle…’ I did follow that with ‘my life is pretty boring, so I don’t think there’s anything that will embarrass anybody here.’

UCBJ: Coming in as the new guy, you’re likely going to have to earn the community’s respect and trust. Speaking to the business community in particular, how do you go about doing that?

PO: I think it’s something you have to continually work on. It’s a matter of trust, and how do you build trust? You build trust by saying what you mean and doing what you say. I hope that everybody involved, on or off campus, will quickly come to trust that I’ll try to follow through with whatever I indicate I will, and I’ll try to be straight and honest about it upfront. Those relationships just have to be built over time, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to get going on that very quickly.

UCBJ: Tech has already established some great relationships with the business community (for example, the College of Business Board of Trustees, which works with business leaders to enhance Tech’s business-related educational programs) but how do you get the business community even more involved on campus? How do you reach outside the greater Cookeville area to the rest of the Upper Cumberland?

PO: There’s going to be a period of getting to know each other, clearly. I think we’ve already started that process, through some receptions and impromptu meetings. There’s going to be a lot of that. It’s going to be a learning curve for me to get to know who the leaders in the business community are, what their interests are and where those opportunities lie. To a large extent, the university is such an incredible asset. It’s a great warehouse of talent and creativity and energy. We need to engage that in a creative way, in a powerful way, to assist the community in reaching its potential and its goals.

To a large extent, not just the president, but for other leaders on campus, it’s contingent upon us to be brokers, to be able to broker the assets and creative energies on campus with the needs and the opportunities within the local, regional community. The better I can get to know what those needs are, and to understand what the opportunities are like, and to really understand what assets the university campus can bring to those issues, the better position I’ll be in the broker those relationships and bring those parties together in a meaningful way.

UCBJ: Are there certain sectors where we have strong relationships already? Are there certain sectors we need to target more?

PO: Clearly, anything connected to job creation has got to be a high priority. Ultimately, jobs grow the economy, they’re the backbone for any community in terms of sustainability and future progress. Assisting local employers to see how they can grow their enterprises successfully and to make sure there’s a talented, well-trained workforce to help satisfy those needs, is key. We also need to be able to attract new talent to the community.

UCBJ: Speaking of attracting new talent, Tech is among the largest employers in the region. How do you recruit and retain top employees and faculty?

PO: One danger that most campuses have, and I can’t speak for Tech, but most college campuses struggle with recruiting because they take a very passive approach. They’ll go through the motions, they’ll submit an advertisement and they’ll wait to see who applies and then screen those applicants. Particularly for faculty, it’s a very competitive enterprise today, and if you take a passive approach to recruiting, most likely you’re going to be disappointed. You’ve got to be very proactive.

I think Tech and Cookeville have a lot to offer, obviously. This is a tremendous community, it’s a very attractive community, it’s got a great quality of life, low cost of living, there’s a lot of features that would attract the kind of talent that you want to. But you’ve got to introduce them to it, and usually, if you just run a search and see who applies, they’re not given the opportunity to see that upfront.

UCBJ: In your eyes, what are employers looking for these days and how can you prepare Tennessee Tech students to fulfill those needs?

PO: Based on what people have told me, the reputation of Tech graduates is every bit of what it’s cracked up to be. Tech graduates not only have been good students but they make great employees. I want to make sure that continues, obviously.

If the Cookeville area and Upper Cumberland runs true to form with other parts of the country right now, employers are speaking out about math and technical skills. It’s hard to find employees that meet their expectations. And to me, that’s right in the wheelhouse of Tennessee Tech, where we should excel. I think the campus is poised and in a good place to satisfy that need and make sure those future employees do have those skill sets.

The other thing that most employers talk about, aside from some of those technical skills, are those soft skills, the people skills, the ability to communicate well and work in teams and negotiate, resolve differences, those types of things. I haven’t heard anything that says Tech graduates don’t do well at those things, but we want to make sure that stays true also.

UCBJ: To wind things down, your official start date is July 1, so what can we expect in your first month or so?

PO: There’s going to be a lot of listening and visiting on my part. It’s going to be very busy in terms of meeting with a lot of different people, on campus and off campus, to get to know folks and give them a chance to get to know me. I’m going to do a lot more listening than talking. I need to fully understand how things have functioned and where the issues are. Even as good of a place as Tech is, there’s always issues. But that’s what makes it challenging and fun.

UCBJ: Do you have any longer term goals for the university?

PO: Yeah, I do. I’m hesitant to get ahead of some of this, because these things need to be vetted by a larger group of people. I’ve got my own biases coming in, obviously. Again, Tennessee Tech has a great reputation, it enjoys a very strong position within the higher education marketplace. But, at the same time, those reputations are not built quickly, and likewise, it takes a lot of effort to sustain them and to move to even higher levels.

Hopefully very quickly, with a lot of input from various stakeholders, we’ll set some targets and really look to the future. We can enjoy the past, reflect on the great achievements of the past, but we can’t dwell in it. What does Tennessee Tech need to look like five years from now, 10 years, 20 years from now? We need to really define what some appropriate aspirations should be, and then do some analysis on where the gaps are, and then hopefully use that to devise some strategic plans on how to aggressively close those gaps.

UCBJ: OK, for my last question, I’ve got a little curve ball for you. I read somewhere that you believe in a good sense of humor as part of your administrative philosophy. Do you have a go-to joke you can share?

PO: [Laughs] I have a great engineering joke, but I can’t tell that one... That’s a good question!

Most of my humor, actually, is not planned. I was either blessed or cursed with this gene for finding humor in the most unusual settings. But I think it’s very important for everybody to understand that, no matter how serious or important the things we deal with on a daily basis are – and they are, the things we deal with on a university campus are serious and it is important, what we do, we do make a difference and we need to take those things seriously – but sometimes they can become overwhelming if you don’t take the time to see the humor when you have a chance to. Humor often breaks the tension in difficult situations, but it can also stimulate a lot of creative thinking that helps move the progress forward on some tricky issues. I enjoy it and I think for the most part, everybody else does, too.

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Monday, Jul 9, 2012 at 10:38 AM
Welcome to Cookeville Dr. Oldham!
Monday, Jul 9, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Wow! Welcome to TTU Dr Oldham!