Dr. John A. White, 68, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville since 1997, announced Wednesday, Jan. 9, that he intended to step down from the job in June and return to the engineering faculty.
The following are edited responses to questions he answered in a telephone interview with the Arkansas Times.
In light of reports of unhappiness on the Board of Trustees about some recent athletic decisions, including the buyout of football coach Houston Nutt’s contract, did you feel any pressure to retire.
None. The only pressure I was getting to retire was from my kids.
Why are you stepping down?
Eleven years as chancellor should be measured like dog years. They are not normal years. My wife Mary Lib and I devoted ourselves entirely to this. We put the rest of our lives on hold. Every year, we get together with our kids in Atlanta. Every year they ask us, ‘Mom and dad, when are you going to stop this and have more time for us?” The time has come. I have got things in good order for people to come in and build on what we’ve done.
What will you do now?
Alan [UA President Alan Sugg) has said I could have an off-campus duty assignment, like a sabbatical, for up to a year. They made the same offer when Dan Ferritor stepped down. Then I’ll teach, probably a couple of classes a semester in the College of Engineering. I’ll teach from a textbook I’m revising on principles of engineering economic analysis. It’s about investing money, borrowing, return on investment, taxes, inflation and other economic factors as applied to an engineering project. I’m also revising a textbook on facilities planning, a logistics book. Supply chain management is my specialty.
You make about $277,000 a year as chancellor; will you be paid the same?
Oh, no. In my letter to Alan, I told him I knew he’d have to adjust my salary appropriately.
Will the UA be able to hire a replacement for the same amount?
I doubt it.
What’s your fondest memory?
The students and the success of our capital campaign that gave us the resources to recruit high-ability students and break the code, if you will, about the academic reputation of the university. The thing I’ll remember most is the freshman class of 1998, the first class I got to recruit. I had gone all over the state and talked about keeping the best and brightest in Arkansas and asking them to join me in a journey to excellence. That’s the thing I’ll remember most, the young people who on faith stepped out and came here in record-setting numbers.
Not persuading the legislature to support the UA at a nationally competitive level. Per student, the state provides less support, in constant dollars, than when I started. And I wish we could recruit more minority students, though we are making great progress in graduation rates of African-American students. The problem is the pool size. Look at our state and look at the number of African-Americans who are high school graduates with an ACT score sufficient to be admitted. It’s a small, small group and nationally everyone is competing for them.
Are you frustrated by the amount of attention given to athletics?
Absolutely. It’s about 15 percent of the budget and 85 percent of the publicity. But look at how many reporters are assigned to cover sports at the university and how many are assigned to cover everything else.
Do you read sports blogs and message boards or listen to sports talk shows, where they sometimes talk about you?
I’ve never looked at any blogs. I don’t listen to talk shows. I don’t know what they say about me. My job is to make sure I’m hiring people who are highly qualified to run their organizations. My job was never to be athletics director.
Are these alternative media influential in UA decisions?
Publicity had a big influence on Houston Nutt’s decision to leave. But I also know that, in my case, in the months of November and December I deleted a thousand e-mail messages about football without opening them. You might ask, ‘Are you indifferent?’ No, I’ve hired someone whose job it was to make recommendations on that subject.
Though the University raised a billion dollars and increased enrollment and admission standards during your tenure, some have suggested a decrease in support for liberal arts, in favor of science and business. Your response?
I think it is not true. This institution already was very strong in the liberal arts. But in order to grow the state’s economy, we need to generate knowledge-based industry. We didn’t do anything to diminish support for arts and the humanities. In fact, we have strengthened them. But it was very clear that there was a huge need for us to be competitive. We couldn’t afford to let the next wave like nanotechnology or biotechnology pass us by.
One of your first official acts was an effort to close the University of Arkansas Press, an effort eventually dropped. Would you have done that differently?
I would have done that very differently. I was going strictly on the advice of others. I had involvement of university trustees, the president, the chief financial officer, the dean of libraries. All of these folks were telling me it was the right thing to do. I learned an important lesson. I need to check things out myself instead of just relying on what others are telling me and try to understand unanticipated consequences.
Editor’s note: See more coverage and reader response on our Arkansas Blog.