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A Brand New Day
Protecting our homeland
Historically Correct
Journey to ‘the Ice’

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Office of the President

John Barclay Simpson
at a glance

Born: June 8, 1947, Oakland, California

Two grown children, Melissa and Matthew; a grandson and another grandchild on the way; a cat named Max

Favorite pastimes: Fly-fishing, bicycling, reading, travel, art collecting

Ph.D. Northwestern University, 1973 (Neurobiology and Behavior)

M.A. Northwestern University, 1972 (Neurobiology and Behavior)

B.A. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1969 (Psychology)

Academic Positions (select)
University of California at Santa Cruz (1998–2003)
Campus Provost, 1999–2003
Executive Vice Chancellor, 1998–2003

University of Washington, College of Arts and Sciences (1991–98)
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, 1995–98
Associate Dean for Computing, Facilities and Research, 1991–94

University of Washington (1975–98)
Director, Joint Physiology-Psychology Program, 1984–88
Professor of Psychology, 1982–98
Associate Professor of Psychology, 1978–82
Assistant Professor of Psychology, 1975–78

Public Service (select)
Board of Directors, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (governing body of Albright-Knox Art Gallery), Buffalo, New York, 2004–

Board of Directors, SUNY Research Foundation, 2004–

Board of Directors, Buffalo Niagara Partnership, 2004–

Commissioner, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 2000–03

Trustee, Pilchuck Glass School, Seattle, Washington, 1996–

Board of Directors, University of Washington Foundation, 1997–

Board of Directors, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, Washington, 1995–98

Board of Trustees, Intiman Theatre, Seattle, Washington, 1997–98

Professional Service (select)
Editorial Board, American Journal of Physiology, 1987–94

Member, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society for Neuroscience, Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior

Ad-Hoc Editing, Brain Research; Brain Research Bulletin; Criminology; Behavioral Neuroscience; Peptides; Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior; Physiology and Behavior; Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology; Neuroendocrinology; Journal of Comparative Endocrinology

  A Brand New Day

President John B. Simpson takes office with a message of commitment and challenge

Story By Nicole Peradotto

Photos By Eric Frick

John Simpson pauses during a March 2 photo shoot at the Center for the Arts—a spot that is sure to become a favorite for this art connoisseur and collector.

John Barclay Simpson, UB’s 14th president, loves fly-fishing. He’s so passionate about it that every year he sets aside a week to travel to the Bahamas, wade into the tidal flats off Andros Island and cast his line for bonefish.

What does Simpson’s longtime pastime have to do with his new role as UB president?

More than you might imagine.

Consider his prey. Bonefish, so named because they’re too bony to eat, are known for taunting their would-be captors. Because of their feisty temperament, they’re deemed the sport’s ultimate catch. Beyond their reputation as the hardest fighters pound for pound, bonefish prove especially elusive in the glare of the Caribbean sun, where they become nearly invisible.

In other words, those seeking a leisurely hobby are well advised to look elsewhere. The angler who pursues these little gray ghosts must relish a mighty challenge, as fly-fishing for bonefish demands a flexible strategy, quick reflexes, keen vision and extraordinary perseverance.

In that respect, it’s a lot like running a university.

To his credit, Simpson has a distinguished history of demonstrating this particular mix of attributes—and not only when he’s knee-deep in the ocean. During his five-year tenure as provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California at Santa Cruz—his titles before accepting the UB presidency—43 new academic degrees or concentrations were established, more than 150 faculty were hired and $500 million of construction was undertaken. Among the accomplishments he takes special pride in: helping create a humanities center with an aggressive research and teaching agenda, and developing an engineering school practically from scratch.

Simpson’s far-reaching contributions during a period of unprecedented growth at the institution—indeed, Santa Cruz’s student body swelled by 50 percent in that period—speak volumes about his adaptability and self-assurance in times of flux. And while UB will no doubt pose a unique set of challenges and opportunities for its forward-thinking 14th president, one can reasonably anticipate that he’ll shepherd it with the same creative energy and careful planning that has characterized his career to this point.

“I have spent my adult life dedicated to public higher education, and it’s where I want to be,” Simpson says. “This position gives me a chance, at an advanced stage of my career, to be able to shape the conversation about education—about what’s important in education and in our world, and what kinds of things we ought to value and support.”

Before serving in administration at Santa Cruz and, for nearly two decades prior, the University of Washington (UW), Simpson established himself as a prominent research scientist and professor, also serving in several administrative posts, including dean of the UW College of Arts and Sciences.

The 56-year-old Oakland, California, native holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and master’s and doctoral degrees in neurobiology and behavior from Northwestern University. His field of inquiry is neuroendocrinology, the study of the interaction between the brain and hormones. For some 20 years he researched the effects of the hormone angiotensin II on the central nervous system.

Like his predecessor, William Greiner, whose leadership style bore imprints of his legal training, Simpson’s administrative tenor no doubt will be influenced by his scientific background. He acknowledges as much himself.

“I think what I bring to a job like this is an approach of thinking about a problem or an issue, gathering information—trying to sift through it and decide which are the salient and which are the irrelevant pieces—and then using that as a foundation on which to act. I think training as a scientist is good for folks in thinking about how to deal with problems, and how to manage complicated positions.”

Shortly after settling into his office on Capen Hall’s fifth floor, Simpson penned his first letter to the university community, concluding it with a quote from the 19th-century physiologist and philosopher Claude Bernard: “Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown.”

That seems to crystallize his motivation—intellectual, professional and personal. Whether in the halls of academia, shifting from the laboratory to the president’s office, or the great outdoors, discovering a new path to cycle on or a new stream to fish in, Simpson combines the adventurer’s appetite for exploration with the scientist’s insistence on meticulous preparation.

Students join President Simpson for some impromptu conversation at UB’s Center for the Arts.

Not every adventure is trailblazing, mind you. Arriving in Buffalo this January meant Simpson had to promptly master the region’s most mundane winter skills—namely, scraping ice from one’s car and driving on snowy roads. The windchill notwithstanding, one of Western New York’s newest residents has marveled at the warm reception.

“People inside and outside the university have been astonishingly gracious, welcoming and helpful—more so than I could have anticipated, which has been a wonderful experience.

“The first week I was here I was wandering down the aisles of [the grocery store] Wegmans and a little kid about the age of my grandson came running down the aisle, and looked up and smiled at me. When his parents pulled abreast of my cart, the man looked at me and said, ‘Hey, aren’t you the new president of UB?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am’ and introduced myself. He said, ‘It’s great to meet you, and welcome to Western New York.’ That’s a perfect illustration of how people have been.

“The second thing I didn’t anticipate was how interested folks—whether businesspeople or educators or cultural leaders or elected officials—are in the university and therefore in me. I think the president of UB, probably more so than many universities in other areas across the country, holds a position of considerable prominence in Buffalo, and with that comes responsibility.”

Simpson recognizes that this distinction generates a commensurate degree of scrutiny that’s bound to intensify as he begins to unfold and implement his plan for the university. While it would be premature to expect him to produce a detailed blueprint so fresh in his position, he speaks candidly about how he operates, and how he’ll proceed.

“I like to think that I lead by example—that I gather around me talented people and let them do their job,” he says. “I much prefer to work as a collaborative, team-building leader than an individual, mandate-issuing leader.

“I believe that decisions that happen in a university ought to be made at the lowest level of management that’s feasible. My job is not to manage or interfere with good people doing their jobs, but to help them do their jobs—whether it’s faculty teaching or running a laboratory or installing a collaborative new art exhibition or reaching out to the community.”

Having devoted his professional self to public higher education, Simpson carries into his new job deep-seated convictions about what an institution such as UB ought to emphasize. In his words, this emphasis consists of “the generation, dissemination and application of knowledge.

“I want to continue to push, and perhaps even push further, our agenda of academic excellence and rigor in scholarship.

“I think that what we have to do collectively, as an institution, is decide which programs we’re going to emphasize, then go about making the kinds of selective investments in those programs, pushing them to the very highest levels of academic excellence.”

By way of example, he points to UB’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We have a tradition of strength in biomedical science, and there is tremendous interest on the part of the community—including the business community—in helping the university advance an aggressive agenda in the life sciences. This is an area where I see an enormous potential for growth.

“As a public university of the State of New York, it’s part of our responsibility—part of our ethical responsibility—to provide access for the citizens of New York to education at the very highest levels,” he stresses. “This, in my view, is a cornerstone of American society, of our democracy, and of our way of life, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

“There’s a remarkable panoply of activities the university and its citizens take on to support their community,” he continues. “Some of these can be measured in dollars. We have an economic impact just over—the last time it was measured—a billion dollars annually, which we put into the local economy of the greater Buffalo region. Every million dollars of research funding we secure generates somewhere in the vicinity of 25 to 30 jobs, so we’re a major part of the economy.”

However, that tells only part of the story, Simpson notes. He uses a recent performance by dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov at UB’s Center for the Arts to illustrate the way in which a university serves the region in a cultural sense. An art aficionado and collector—abstract expressionism being his favorite style—he looks forward to UB’s upcoming collaboration with the Albright-Knox to bring the largest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art to the Elmwood Avenue gallery, as well as to the UB Galleries.

“The area that I think increasingly is part and parcel of what public universities do is public service. This is an engagement of the university with its community. Whether in economic development, technology transfer or in operating departments in ways that assist—not interfere with but assist—regional enterprises, such as the Graduate School of Education’s grade-school initiative to enhance educational opportunities in area schools, we’ll be there, and we’ll be there increasingly so.”

Simpson is confident that UB can take tremendous strides despite declining state and federal support. Remember, he’s no stranger to the fiscal challenges impacting public higher education.

Under pressure from the state legislature, Simpson eliminated $4.9 million from the University of Washington’s budget while he was that school’s dean of arts and sciences—and he did so without cutting a single faculty position. At UC Santa Cruz, rather than falling back on traditional across-the-board cutting tactics, he fostered an innovative process to establish strategic budget reductions, while protecting and preserving the institution’s academic mission.

“If you look over the last 30 years at the proportion of first-tier public university support that comes from the state, you see a trend that just continues to decrease. That’s fine—it just means we have to change how we do business and pursue diversified revenue streams and sources,” Simpson says.

“There are a number of strategies that can be used. Sponsored research is one source of support that is generally quite targeted to the type of inquiry the funding is supporting, but it also provides flexibility for the entire institution. And philanthropy is an enterprise that is relatively new in public colleges and universities. It’s something more and more public universities are going to have to engage in—pursuing private support from alumni, corporations and foundations as a powerful complement to public funds.

“The president has a much larger role in securing private support than was the case even a decade ago. I look upon this as a part of my responsibility.”

If any of Simpson’s former colleagues begrudge him for decamping to the Eastern Time Zone, they must see it as some kind of karmic, or comic, retribution that he now lives in a region where one of the most famous athletes is Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe. After all, as quarterback for the Washington State University Cougars, Bledsoe caused plenty of grief for the University of Washington Huskies during two of the years Simpson worked there.

Since 1976, Simpson and his father, Barclay, the chairman and part owner of a San Francisco Bay–area company that makes connectors for the construction industry, have met in Seattle or Berkeley for another of that university’s classic rivalries: the Huskies vs. Barclay’s alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Going back farther still, Simpson’s introduction to campus life took place in Cal’s bleachers, as his family made regular treks to Golden Bears football games when he was a child.

That’s Simpson the fan. Simpson the president emphasizes that a university’s athletics program shouldn’t be evaluated simply on its win-loss record. “As a relatively new participant in Division I [sports], UB is going to have to be given time and support to succeed or not,” he says. “I think from the data I have seen, our programs have considerable success in terms of the achievements of the athletes as students. This, to me, is very important.”

By the time the Bulls launch their next season, preparations will have been finalized for the president’s official inauguration ceremony. Simpson expects his two grown children, a son and daughter who live and work in Washington, two-year-old grandson, and second grandchild, due this spring, will be among the many special individuals attending.

By this fall, Simpson also will have determined the ideal cycling route from his Eggertsville residence to the Amherst campus. That’s right: Weather permitting, he’s inclined to commute on two wheels rather than four.

“I’ll figure out a way,” he smiles. “Not Millersport—there’s too much traffic. But I’ll figure out the back roads.”

And as for his other favorite sport?

Simpson already knows where to go to find Western New York’s best fly-fishing.

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer and editor whose articles have appeared in George and Dance Magazine.

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