This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

A conversation with John Barclay Simpson

Presidential candidate shares his vision for UB and his passion for public higher education

Published: October 23, 2003

He wasn't looking to become a college president. But the opportunity to lead a university that is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) made the UB job one that John B. Simpson found hard to pass up.

Following Friday's press conference, Simpson spent some time with members of the campus media—the Reporter, the Spectrum and WBFO 88.7 FM. An excerpt from that interview follows.



Q: What attracted you to UB?
A: The university. I like Santa Cruz, I like the job I have. It's a beautiful place to live. So I'm not going to leave unless it's someplace that's genuinely attractive to me as an academic enterprise. This is. It's a chance to run an AAU university. That's genuinely exciting. It has the whole breadth—nearly complete—of all the sorts of academic programs that exist at a major research university. So that's necessary. I also had the very clear sense from all the conversations I had with folks while I was interviewing that the institution is really on the verge of moving itself into a very, very elite group of public universities. I think for some reason, I'd like to help them do that.


Q: You spent some time at Northwestern—that's a very different place from a public university. Why do you find the publics so much more attractive than the privates?
A: Truth is, the privates are a lot more attractive if you want to go about building an academic enterprise—you have degrees of freedom there you never have at the publics. You don't have the kind of regulatory environment that any public agency does, you don't have the dependency on vicissitudes of state resources, and so forth. But I just have a personal commitment to public higher education because I think it's critical for our country to provide access to citizens to the kind of opportunity that education at a research university offers. That's in many ways as high a manifestation of democracy as there is. I believe in it. I think it's important.


An animated John B. Simpson talks with the Reporter, the Spectrum and WBFO 88.7 FM during an interview on Friday following a press conference held to introduce Simpson to the UB community.

Q: Are you concerned about the ongoing tight budgets here in New York State and funding for SUNY? Are you aware of those problems?
A: Yes, I'm very aware of those problems. The problems exist in differing magnitude and form in every state in the country. Public higher education is experiencing difficulties, in part, because of the economy, which nationally is not thriving; in part, because of competing interests that legislators and governors have to deal with. Public higher education as a consequence is not getting the support that it once did. I don't think that trend that's been going on for 30 years—of less and less of public universities' budgets being accounted for by state dollars—is going to change. What that means is that in order to maintain the kind of excellence that I and everybody at this university wants is that we've got to find as many ways as we can to diversify the support base that we have. Private universities have been doing it for decades; publics are late entries into the game of private support. Among other things, that's one of the sorts of activities we have to engage in.

Q: What's your vision for UB?
A: It's to make it without question the very best public research university in the Northeast. It may well already be that, but I want there to be no ambiguity about that, no question whatsoever. It's something that I'm sure can be done.

Q: UB's athletics programs—both basketball and football—are struggling at the Division I level. Are you committed to athletics? Do you see it as a vital part of university life?
A: Personally, I love college athletics. For most of my life, I worked at a university that had a huge athletics program—the University of Washington—and I enjoyed it. I still go back every year with my father to the Washington-Cal football game and we bet money and he always loses because he bets on Cal. Having said that, that's an expression of my personal interest and enjoyment. I don't understand and know the kind of athletics program that exists at UB. I don't understand it budgetarily; I don't understand what it means to the campus, to the alumni, to the town. It's one of the sorts of things I'm going to have to learn about when I'm here.

Q: Are athletics an asset to a university?
A: Yes, I believe that.

Q: What are some of UB's other assets?
A: You've got some terrific programs. Some of the folks in biomedical sciences are just excellent, especially some of the folks involved in pharmaceutical and pharmacological research. You have a Web site with poetry on it—it's just remarkable. You have very strong humanities in your history. Those are just a small number of things that I actually know about. There are lots of others that I will discover. There's something very interesting about the examples I gave—they're examples of how the university decided there were particular areas they had an advantage in and they committed to making them strong and prominent. And that's a very sound strategy for a university.

Q: How extensively have you visited the campus?
A: This is my fourth round trip—all have been within the last five weeks. The previous three visits, I spent time with the search committee, I met a small number of folks from campus—generally people in administrative positions. I met some of the members of UB Council and the UB Foundation. I met with some of the leadership of the system, including Chancellor King in New York. Someone like me has a snapshot, but not a good one. I haven't wandered the halls of the biological sciences building, where I feel at home. I will do that, but I didn't have the opportunity to do that when I was interviewing as a presidential candidate.

Q: Did you reach out to the search committee, or did the search committee reach out to you?
A: I was contacted. I was not looking for a job as a president; I wasn't looking to change the job that I had. This has happened like that (snaps his fingers)

Q: Did you know much about UB at that time?
A: Yes, I knew the following: There were folks I knew as a biomedical scientist and I knew there were good folks here, good programs, good graduate training, excellent research. I knew a few folks who had been deans here in arts and sciences because when I was an arts and sciences dean, I used to go to the AAU arts and sciences deans meetings. That was pretty much my knowledge base. I knew that UB was searching for a president, but I wasn't looking for a president's job. Besides, Buffalo?

Q: But at the same time, your name came up at the University of Washington. That didn't work out?
A: I don't want that job. I "know too much" about that university.

Q: What are some of your major accomplishments at Santa Cruz?
A: M.R.C. Greenwood (UC Santa Cruz chancellor) and I have changed the culture there from a small, isolated, liberal arts college into a modern research university that still acknowledges and honors its roots, particularly with respect to treating undergraduate education as something very special while at the same time pushing the kind of research agenda that a University of California campus must do. There are a lot of actions that I think allowed that kind of change to occur. I redesigned and rebuilt the academic central administration. I didn't have the title of provost when I went there; that was added a year later. I put together a two-year strategic planning process that largely was from the bottom up, from the departments and faculty centrally, to basically plan how the campus was going look at its build-out at the end of this decade, anticipating that California will continue supporting access for its young people at the university. Santa Cruz was scheduled to grow between the time I got there and 2010—now a lot sooner—by 50 percent. That's why it was so much fun—the chance to build a University of California with lots of money. That was the provost's job of the decade. I also believe in having a public institution that embraces diversity in everything it does—whether it's talking about geographical diversity or gender diversity or ethnic diversity or intellectual diversity. One of the things I did with the money that came into the university to pay for enhanced enrollments was that I set aside a number of faculty positions and basically created my own hiring initiative as a provost—what we called the Campus Curriculum Initiative—and I made the positions available to academic departments if they put forward a competitive proposal that explained how, in terms of diversifying the curriculum, they were going to use this position. We achieved, I think, a substantial amount of diversification of the curriculum to what is a remarkable, diverse and polyglot population of students that are the students of California. In California, there's no ethnic majority any more and the university is lagging behind in that, among other things.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any spare time?
A: I'm ruthless about seeing that I have spare time. I like to ski, I like to fish with a fly rod. I spend a lot to time bicycling. I love art—you have wonderful cultural legacy and set of opportunities in Buffalo in general, and for the kinds of things I like it's just terrific—theatre, arts and so forth. I like to read if I get the time, but I have a stack of books on my nightstand that's almost as tall as I am. And I add them faster than I consume them.

Q: You have two children?
A: Yes, I have two children; both live in Seattle. They can't imagine living anywhere else. They like the rain, they like the trees, they like the mountains and the salt air. And I have a grandson who's 2 years old. My son is a computer guy—I wouldn't call him a geek because he's really not. My daughter teaches first and second grade in Seattle. I have a housemate—Max the cat. He'll have a big house to roam. I'm quite interested to see what he does when he gets in snow for the first time.

Q: UB is an enormous resource in this community. The president plays a leadership role. Do you feel comfortable being looked upon as a local leader and perhaps getting involved in other community issues?
A: Yes. I've thought long and hard about that because I was given to understand that in Buffalo the person who is president is a public figure beyond what perhaps is the case with other universities I've been familiar with, which were in much larger cities. I like the notion. I think I have something to offer.

Q: Are you ready to become a Bills fan?
A: I kind of always liked the Bills, and I didn't know why. Now I understand. Don't you have Drew Bledsoe as your quarterback? Remember where he went to college? When he was at Washington State, they one time knocked Washington out of the Rose Bowl, at which I was quite annoyed at the time. But I'll get over it.