Friday, November 1, 2002

For UC's Steger, it's 'time to leave'

After 18 years of rebuilding the university, he says it's time for someone with a new vision

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] University of Cincinnati president Dr. Joseph Steger in front of McMicken Hall.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
Joseph Steger will announce today that he's retiring as University of Cincinnati president - two decades after he first viewed a campus of shabby buildings and saw a future of academic and international acclaim.

The announcement, long speculated about, will be quick and simple: No grand speeches, just a press release from the office that Dr. Steger has occupied since 1984. His retirement will take effect at the end of June, leaving eight months to find a successor.

He plans to do a little fishing, visit Civil War sites and spend more time with his wife of 24 years. He also wants to start a nonprofit center in the university's business school.

"It's time to leave. I've had a great run," he said Thursday. "I've been calling people, and you start to reminisce. But this is the right decision. Somebody has to come in with a new vision."

Steger timeline
UC then and now
UC presidents
As Dr. Steger prepares to leave, UC has become the city's largest employer with 14,274 employees. The dilapidated buildings that he first encountered have been replaced by state-of-the-art labs, research centers and dorms. UC's endowment, a measure of gifts given to the university for investment, approaches $1 billion. That ranks UC 50th among all U.S. colleges and universities, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Yet it's been a long and sometimes tough tenure for Dr. Steger, who holds the second-longest presidential term in UC history, just five years shy of Raymond Walters' 23 years. He has confronted some of the worst state budget cuts in school history and a one-time no-confidence vote in his ever-changing, love-hate relationship with the faculty.

Colleagues say he's a fierce fighter for Ohio higher education, and especially for the school he has grown so much to love.

"If you look at the great university presidents both past and present, they tend to be the ones who stayed long enough to make a difference," says James Votruba, Northern Kentucky University president. "He has that longevity. There's a lot of pressure being a university president. You have to love it and not just love it, but believe in it.

"And Joe Steger believes in it."

A little history

Dr. Steger, 65, first arrived on campus in 1982, a candidate considering a job as senior vice president and provost. He was 45, and making the switch from Colt Industries Inc., which used to be a diverse manufacturing corporation in New York. He had been with Colt several years after serving as teacher and an administrator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Born: Feb. 17, 1937
Wife: Carol
Children: Marty (son), Tracy (daughter)
Grandchildren: 3
1960 - B.A., psychology, Gettysburg College
1963 - M.S., experimental psychology, Kansas State
1964 - Ph.D., psychology and statistics (psychophysics), Kansas State
UC salary: $275,000
Top Priority: "Quality. Quality in education, research and human relations. The state must recognize quality and not simply quantity. The quality of the research university is what defines Ohio's future."
His wife, Carol Steger, remembers their first conversation about the possibility of moving to Cincinnati.

"He always wanted to be a college president, and he came to the children and I, and he said, `What do you think about going to Cincinnati?' And we said, `Uh, what?'

"We took a big pay cut coming here, but he said, `I can contribute so much more here.' "

She recalls her first impression of campus buildings: Something akin to an industrial, military complex. But even with the outdated buildings and makeshift offices and labs, Dr. Steger believed in the university from the beginning, she says.

"I remember when we first came on campus and looked around and I said, `Oh my God,' and Joe said, `Physically, it's not what you want, but there is a great academic institution that doesn't know it's even here.' He always thought, academically, it was wonderful."

From that time on, the two were a team, going out every night for years to dinners, speeches, lectures and ballgames to meet and network with people. She worked at the UC Foundation, which helped because she could whisper the names of donors in his ear and serve as a sounding board for big decisions.

Cincinnati felt like home right away. The people were friendly. So much so, Dr. Steger thought, that in 1983 he launched the Friendliest Campus in Ohio campaign. With a few hundred bucks of his budget as provost, he had car window decals made and passed them out at the university bookstore.

The phrase caught on with newscasters and sports announcers and eventually became an unofficial university slogan.

"That thing didn't burn out for 10 years," university spokesman Greg Hand says.

In 1984, Dr. Steger was named president, inheriting an institution with such an outdated campus that a Quonset hut from World War II sat where the bookstore now stands. Old Tech, the building housing the geology department, had a crack in the wall so wide that students could put their arms through it. Stalactites hung from the crumbling ceiling. A hole in one floor was so big that a desk sank into it.

Hollywood producers looking for a place to film the movie Fresh Horses scouted the campus for a lecture hall. When they arrived at Old Tech, administrators were worried filmmakers might pick that spot.

"People said, `You're not really interested in this room, are you?' " Mr. Hand recalls. "And they said, `Oh, no. Not for this movie, but we've got a great script about Bulgaria.' "

The equation was elementary, Dr. Steger thought. "If we don't have the facilities, faculty won't come. If the faculty won't come, the students won't come."

So under the watchful eye of two old campus standbys, Mick and Mack, the cement lions that Dr. Steger so often poses with for campus portraits, a transformation began to take place. In 1989, he unveiled a master plan to improve the campus over the next 15 to 20 years. Priorities were to bring academic facilities up to standards and add research centers in key areas. Making UC more of a 24-hour campus would keep crime down, Dr. Steger figured, and innovative residence halls would help attract and retain students.

In the past decade, UC has spent more than $1 billion on infrastructure, including wiring for the Internet. The newest state-of-the-art dorm, Jefferson Residence Hall complex, opened this quarter.

"I've known him intimately for many years," says George Rieveschl, a former UC professor best known for his development of the medicine Benadryl. "When you used to walk down University Avenue, it was all old buildings. The actual physical transformation is one of his big marks."

Building blocks

But it's not just buildings for which Dr. Steger wants to be remembered. His goal was to position UC as a national and international leader in research and service both to the community and to students.

Early on, he noticed that freshmen were more media savvy, more computer literate than they'd ever been. To get professors the tools they needed, he started a faculty development fund, which today spends up to $1.5 million a year on computers, software and training.

Research funding increased dramatically, too. In 1988, UC brought in $38.7 million. This year, that number soared to $163 million. The engineering and College Conservatory of Music programs are world-renowned. More students participate in international co-ops, and increasing numbers of foreign students attend.

Dr. Steger also worked to transform the relationship between the university and regional business. Instead of simply asking a company for money, students and professors work with company employees on joint projects. For example, millions in projects are ongoing with Procter & Gamble Co.

Dr. Steger also reached - albeit for a short two weeks last year before the economy turned sour - his goal of a $1 billion endowment.

Some tough times

There have been plenty of tough times - contract negotiations, layoffs and budget cuts in the 1990s and racism on campus.

Dr. Steger often has been at odds with the faculty over money, benefits and academic direction. In 1991, more than 700 faculty members gave him a "no-confidence" vote because budget cuts reached into academic departments instead of just administrative areas as they had in years past.

"That's an example of how you have to stand up for the institution," Carol Steger says. "He makes those decisions on what he believes is the right decision for the right cause so he doesn't regret things."

Dr. Steger has been outspoken about state policies, and he's gone head to head with some of Ohio's most powerful politicians. That isn't the best way to win a popularity contest, he admits. Once, during former Gov. George Voinovich's term, he said the man didn't have any social policies.

"The governor was not too happy about that," Dr. Steger says.

Mr. Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, remembers that time. "Joe has always been a passionate advocate not just for the University of Cincinnati but for Ohio's higher education system as well."

Lowell Leake, an emeritus professor in mathematics and former president of UC's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, says that while some new buildings on campus were badly needed, money spent on expensive architects could have been better used for other things. The move to hire more part-time faculty rather than full-time, as other universities across the country have, is a disturbing pattern, too.

"He has severely weakened faculty governance," Dr. Leake says. "What used to be a senate with particular clout has evolved into something that meets once a month and doesn't do much. On the other hand, if those things were his goals, he has been enormously effective."

Yet it hasn't been all work and no play for Dr. Steger. With his gold-rimmed glasses and boyish grin, he has been described as the most likeable guy at a party. He's known to join students playing the bongos and in Spirit Day activities. He once endured a session with an optician because someone thought he needed more "presidential" specs for his portrait. He couldn't see a thing, he says, and the photos were never used.

Just before Valentine's Day 1990, he shared the memory of his first kiss with the student newspaper: "My first kiss must have either been overwhelming or awful because I can't remember it."

That's just the sort of sayings he's known for: "Most of our money is in people," he says. "Our whole business is people. We're not making widgets, you know."

What's next

So what will Dr. Steger do now, besides travel to Civil War battlefields, write poetry and build miniature sailboats? He says he wants to start a nonprofit center at UC that would collect data on how foundations are run and help them become more efficient.

"If we can pull it off, I want to have a master's degree for nonprofits," he says.

Michael Albert, a professor at San Francisco State University, studied 20 years ago under Dr. Steger at Albany State University. Now, he tries to emulate Dr. Steger's teaching methods.

"He had a profound effect on my career," Dr. Albert says. "He engages students rather than talks to students, and he fosters an exchange of ideas rather than lecture to them."

But before Dr. Steger makes formal plans for all that, he's going to do some fishing at a little place he has on Lake Huron.

"I don't have to shave," he says. "I don't have to wear a suit. I don't have to wear a tie. There are no cocktail parties. It's a place where chopping wood is fun."

This week, Dr. Steger reflected on what his leaving might mean.

"It's a hard thing to do, but it's time for somebody else to do it," he said. "In your 60s you slow down a bit. Your whole life is the university whether it's dinners or football.

"It's nice to see a place change. I've always been an advocate for change because if you don't, like I tell my wife, `Somebody's going to eat you for lunch.' "

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