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Rice alumnus chosen as new president of University of Tulsa

By Nicole Zhao     5/22/12 7:00pm

The Thresher sat down with incoming president of the University of Tulsa and Rice alumnus Geoffrey Orsak (Will Rice '85, '86, '90) to learn about his past experiences and future plans.

Rice Thresher: Why did you decide to take on the position of president at the University of Tulsa?

Geoffrey Orsak: From the first time I stepped onto the Rice campus, I just fell in love with universities. Ever since, I have committed my professional life to ensuring that higher education institutions provide a meaningful impact on people's lives. Having the honor to lead an important national university like TU will give me a really unique opportunity to put my experiences and vision to work.

RT: I understand that before starting your work at SMU as an associate professor of electrical engineering in 1997, you were an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at George Mason University. How does being an administrator in education differ from being a researcher and professor?

GO: As a [professor], I was certainly concerned about helping students learn as well as creating new knowledge, but it was much more self-focused.

Today, I think of myself as a servant leader who is ultimately responsible for the university and [for helping] the individuals who make up the university to achieve their greatest goals.

RT: Did anything in particular influence the shift in focus from research to education administration?

GO: Oh yes, I started feeling like the research I was working on was becoming so specialized that it was in danger of being esoteric or, even worse, irrelevant. So I started asking myself, "What is the biggest problem engineering faces today?"

The answer became clear: How do we energize a new generation of young minds to get engaged with innovation and technology? That moment was the "big shift" of mentality for me.

RT: What goals do you hope to achieve at University of Tulsa?

GO: The University of Tulsa has been on a fast rise in the academic world over the last decade. In fact, it is currently ranked 75th by U.S. News. Maintaining this momentum is vital for increasing the university's national influence on key issues.

One of the exciting new ventures that I will be focused on is the joint development of a new medical school aimed primarily on community health issues. The Tulsa School of Community Medicine is a new partnership with the University of Oklahoma and will help recruit and educate physicians who will have a passion for working in underserved communities. The impact of just this initiative will be extraordinary.

The University of Tulsa has also recently entered into an agreement with the city of Tulsa to oversee the operations and vast collection of the renowned Gilcrease Museum.

RT: What challenges do you foresee and how do you hope to overcome them?

GO: Universities today are under pressure to control costs, increase their national rankings, win in football, and so on. To achieve these goals, it is going to take everyone pulling together in the same direction. I wouldn't call this a challenge per se, but something that will occupy my attention from day one.

RT: How has your experience at Rice influenced who you are and what you do today?

GO: Rice taught me to believe in powerful ideas no matter where they took me. Otherwise, I wouldn't be the person I am today. Yes, the ideas have changed over the decades, but the [belief] that ideas matter hasn't.

RT: Could you describe for me a favorite memory or favorite tradition of Rice that particularly stands out to you?

GO: I remember how moved I was by matriculation. It was the first real event I attended at Rice. We marched in by colleges and cheered and jeered for an hour or so. It had a kind of ancient feeling to it. After being somewhat untethered in high school, I felt like I now belonged to a long tradition of dedicated learners. In a real sense, I was home.

RT: Do you have any advice for current Rice undergraduates interested in research and/or education administration?

GO: Our entire academic culture is built off of the tireless pursuit of truth about our world and ourselves. Love research not because it is a stepping stone required to assume higher positions at a university; love it for the mystery it provides. And if you are destined for other roles on campus, they will find you sooner or later.

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