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Kevin Kirby, vice president for administration, talks leadership and transformative power of teaching

Courtesy Kevin Kirby

By Ivanka Perez     11/17/20 11:01pm

Editor's note: This story is the first installment in a series of profiles on Rice's administrators, those who shape the lives of our community members from behind the scenes. 

If you ask Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby whether he's busy, he's likely to laugh it off. "Sherry makes me seem busy," he told me during our interview. And yet Sherry Ziegner, Kirby’s assistant, may well be right. 

An hour into our conversation, Kirby has to pause — our talk is running longer than expected, and he has a mile-long to-do list to finish before heading to the leadership class he teaches on Tuesday nights. The one credit hour class isn't part of his job description as vice president of administration, yet he says teaching is what he enjoys the most.

"I'm proud of all my time at Rice, and I like all the things I do, but teaching brings me the most joy," Kirby said. 

Kirby's journey toward working — and teaching — at a university hasn't always been straightforward. His first encounter with a university, when he went for his undergraduate degree, wasn't exactly a positive experience.

"I was sixteen when I went to college. Never had a date, never had a beer, never shaved — I was out of my league," Kirby said. "I just wanted to get done with it, get out and work."

But even after Kirby entered the workforce as an engineer, he couldn't escape the pull to higher education. His employer at the time spent two years convincing him to get an MBA, and after offering to pay Kirby a salary as well as tuition and living expenses, Kirby gave in.

"It was transformative. For me, it was completely different than my undergrad educational experience — I couldn't get enough of it," Kirby said. "At that point, that's when I decided that somewhere down the line, I wanted to go back to work at [a] university."

Part of what shaped his MBA experience, Kirby says, were his classmates. Kirby studied in a one-year program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and found that his class's higher-than-average age group meant that he was surrounded by fellow students who were already successful and similarly motivated to learn. 

"I just didn't want to leave. I was taking the maximum amount of credits I could take, I was going to every lecture and [seminar], seeking out every faculty member I could find and spending many hours with my classmates, who were all very successful," Kirby said. "It was just an amazing learning experience."

As part of the program, MIT brought in alumni from the program to speak to students. One day, Kirby was at a dinner with his classmates and the CEO of a Fortune 50 company, who told them a story. The CEO said that he'd been trained as a chemical engineer, like Kirby, but was offered the position of vice president of human resources at his company after graduating from the MBA program. Although he didn't enjoy the human resources position, coming from an engineering background, he said that that experience was what prepared him to become CEO.

Once Kirby graduated the program, he went back to work at the company that had paid him for his masters. One day, after Kirby mentioned the CEO's story to his boss, the boss walked into his office and offered him the position of head of human resources.

"A strange opportunity presented itself, and I leapt into it and it had a profound impact on me for 20 plus years," Kirby said. "It all came out of a conversation over dinner."

Despite being equipped with an MBA, Kirby says none of his previous experiences fully prepared him for the role he was taking on.

"I'll never forget my first day. I'd been a supervisor once before. I was supervising scientists and engineers; I felt calm, competent, and comfortable in that role. I knew what I was doing," Kirby said. "[But in human resources,] I looked around the room, and I realized for the first time that I was completely incompetent. And I was, for the next two years, because I didn't know what I was doing."

Kirby found that his role in HR required a different outlook on decisions than his previous positions had. When supervising engineers, Kirby often made decisions himself — but he says he never did in HR. This experience ultimately shaped one of the main lessons that Kirby now teaches in his leadership course at Rice.

"Good leaders actually don't make a lot of decisions. You'd think they do, but actually they don't," Kirby said. "[My role in HR] had a profound impact on me for the next several decades, where I rarely make decisions by myself. That [lesson is] part of my class."

Although Kirby enjoyed his work in HR, one of his favorite places to work was the National Institutes of Health. Kirby says his time at the NIH was a combination of three factors coming together: the right place, the right people and the right time.

"I've loved every place I've worked, but that was something really special," Kirby said. "The National Institutes of Health in the mid to late ’90s, it was a magical moment. We had this combination of the most amazingly smart people you could imagine."

As the end of the century wrapped up, Kirby was working in neuroscience at the NIH, and things were looking up. The 2000 elections were approaching, and if Al Gore won the presidential election, Kirby's supervisor was going to be the next director of the NIH. But then Bush beat Gore for the presidency, and his supervisor left for the medical center at Columbia University. Kirby soon joined him as the chief operating officer.

Working at Columbia was Kirby's first foray into academic administration. In his role, he oversaw Columbia's medical school while managing their public health, nursing and dental programs. Not for the first time, Kirby felt out of his depth at Columbia, never having had prior experience in a similar role. To better equip himself for the position, Kirby decided to get a doctorate degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Before Kirby ended up at Rice, he was choosing between Rice and a similar position at Yale. Kirby says that when he visited Rice’s campus, he recognized that Rice had potential to grow, and knew that this was where he wanted to end up.

"In between interviews, I went out and sat in the middle of the academic quad, and it was really quiet. And I was like, 'Wow, is school in session?' And then about 10 minutes later, it was in between classes, and all of a sudden there were people on the campus," Kirby said. "My impression was a key part of our strategy a dozen years ago, which was to expand the university, expand the student body, so they have a little bit more vibrancy and a little more activity on campus."

In the years since Kirby has joined Rice, the student body has expanded. But this semester, he says campus has returned to its empty state due to COVID-19, similar to how it was when he joined. 

"When I walk out in the middle of the academic quad [now], it feels like 2006, because there are about half as many people as we would normally have today," Kirby said. "That's the population we had back then."

At Rice, Kirby is the vice president for administration — a less visible role than president of the university or dean of undergraduates, but an important role nonetheless.

"Rice is a small city of about 11,000 people on any given day," Kirby said. "We house people, we have retail, we transport people around, we have buildings that we maintain, we have a police force, we have our own water well, we generate power, we deliver health services, all of that. And so my role is like the city manager."

Although Kirby didn't have a role as a professor at Rice, it was something he'd previously considered. Before joining the NIH, he applied to doctorate programs across the country in the hopes of potentially becoming a professor like his father, but ultimately decided against it.

Then, a little over a decade ago, Kirby had a chance run-in with Michael Wolf, a math professor who was Will Rice College's magister at the time. Wolf mentioned to Kirby that he should teach a class in leadership, and Kirby decided to do it.

"All summer [before I taught my first class], I just sweated away. I was really nervous. It's really intimidating, getting up in front of students," Kirby said. "I was like, 'God, do I really have anything to say? Is it going to be worth people's time?'"

Since teaching his first course, however, Kirby has come a long way. He now teaches a course on leadership in higher education each fall, and a course on crisis management in the spring, each for one credit hour. Over the years, he's faced many challenges — dual delivery being the most recent one — but continues to enjoy his time teaching.

"I've been doing that for 11 years now, and it's the best thing I do all week, for lots of reasons. I don't get paid to teach, but it's the thing that brings me the most joy," Kirby said. "And it's also a way for me to interact with students [outside of] my job, so it makes me better at my job … It's the best — I always look forward to Tuesdays."

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