The need for holistic education is more pronounced than it ever has been precisely because of the pace of change that it impacting on all of us in a global society. The need for cross functional, interdisciplinary, and multi-cultural sensitivity has never been greater.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Chancellor Kevin C. Eichner of Ottawa University. Chancellor Kevin C. Eichner was named as the 21st president of Ottawa University in March 2008. Eichner has been a member of the OU Board of Trustees since 1982 and led it as Chairman for five of those years. Since his inauguration, he and his leadership team have engaged the University in a major transformational strategy known as Vision 2020, which is designed to position the institution for significant growth and exceptional student outcomes. A former public company CEO (Enterprise Bank and Trust) and successful business leader, Eichner has led the institution to new growth horizons, built three new schools in business, arts & sciences and education, and has overseen the largest capital campaign in the University’s history. Online educational programs have been dramatically expanded; innovative new models for supporting student success have been implemented; and the University has renewed its historical relationships with the Ottawa Tribe and American Baptists.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Iintended to become a college president when I graduated from Ottawa University in 1973 and even went so far as getting admitted to the Ph.D program in Higher Education Administration at Michigan, but instead spent two years as director of admissions at Ottawa. There, a consultant to the university convinced me that I should apply to the Harvard Business School and to pursue an MBA instead. Using the values clarification tools Ottawa gave me, I determined that all of the institutions in which I could imagine myself working at some point all needed the same thing: competent and enlightened general management. I decided then that business, education, the church, the arts world, and government would all benefit from such leadership, and so broadened my options by pursuing the MBA to add to my undergraduate degree from Ottawa in Social Change. After graduating from Harvard in 1977, I enjoyed a very rewarding career in business as an entrepreneur, consultant, banker, and CEO of two publicly traded companies while serving on numerous boards in education, the church, and the arts. As CEO and co-founder of Enterprise Bank and Trust, a $5 billion company NASDAQ traded company I had co-founded in 1988, I was heavily involved with the university as former chairman and as a board member since 1982. In 2008, my wife and I were invited to take the leadership of Ottawa University and thus, coming full circle to an original career intention, I did become a college president.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The Chancellor of Ottawa University wears a beautiful medallion, which is the actual seal of the university. It hangs on a chain with a link for the name of each president who has served the university since 1865, now including mine. It is a very heavy medallion hanging on a long chain which actually has two places it can be secured so it doesn’t hang down too far. I missed the shortened link the first time I wore it and the medallion was striking the new leader of Ottawa University as he walked in a most unfortunate area of his body until it was corrected by a sympathetic colleague, who probably was wondering how in the world a guy that dumb could ever run a university. I am happy to say I wear it more comfortably now after nearly 12 years on this job.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are always new and exciting projects in this work. However, the most exciting has to be the opening of our brand-new residential campus in Surprise, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. This campus has grown to more than 800 students in less than three years and is on track to our vision of it becoming a campus of more than 3,000 students within 10 years. This project has taken everything I have ever learned in my 40-plus year career in strategic planning, finance, marketing, enrollment management, organizational design, campus construction projects, community and governmental engagement, and student experience. This brings a much-needed brand of private education for guiding our students to lives of significance in a part of the country that has very little private education with its emphasis on building whole people who will be game changers in the society of the future.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I don’t think of myself as an authority on the field. However, my background as a business leader, CEO, entrepreneur and consultant has been enormously helpful in my work at Ottawa.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Research. Access. Whole person development of students. Impact of technology. Improvements in teaching and student engagement.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Financial aid. More comprehensive and coordinated approach to regulation at national and state levels. Mental health services for students who are increasingly enrolling with serious personal issues. Advising and career services. Professional development for faculty and staff.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement? Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Student programming and advising at much earlier ages is necessary for all students, especially young girls and women. I believe that more engagement with real role models and practice and internships would help light up more students to what lies ahead for them.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
By definition, we at Ottawa are firmly committed to graduating students who not only have strong and rigorous educations in their fields, but who have skills, knowledge, personal values and behavior patterns that will allow them to be able to respond to a world in which they will most likely change careers at least four or five times over their adult lives. They cannot be “one-trick ponies” who learn more and more about less and less and then find themselves outsourced in a global or increasingly technology driven job market. The need for holistic education is more pronounced than it ever has been precisely because of the pace of change that it impacting on all of us in a global society. The need for cross functional, interdisciplinary, and multi-cultural sensitivity has never been greater.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would change the existing year by year, grade by grade system that begins in pre-K. I would work on ways to individualize the education of every student without arbitrary or artificial organizational and pedagogical constraints. In my brave new world, there would be far less separation of employers and educators and between schools and organizations. The faculty cultures in many higher education institutions are not as constructive as they could and should be and in many cases act as barriers to more responsive, productive, and impactful educational models.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Nothing is ever as good or bad as it initially appears.”
“The distance from ‘who’s who’ to ‘who was he’ is not very great.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
David Brooks, New York Times author and commentator on PBS. I find him to be among the most reasoned, wise, and balanced persons I have ever heard. His is a voice so greatly needed today.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@OttawaU and @Ottawa_OUAZ
Thank you for all of these great insights!