John Gardner offers insights into reorganization


John Gardner (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)

PULLMAN – John Gardner, vice president of Advancement and External Affairs, was assigned in mid-August to lead radical reconstructive surgery among several major university offices. The goal is to flatten the administrative structure, reduce costs and increase collaborative efforts and effectiveness, particularly in the area of fundraising. 
To provide some insights and a prognosis on the procedure, Gardner candidly answered a number of key questions in a recent interview with WSU Today.
Gardner came to WSU in June 2007, when he was appointed by President Elson S. Floyd as vice president for Economic Development and Extension. Prior to that time, he was vice president of research and economic development at the University of Missouri.
Floyd named Gardner to his new position on Aug. 16. It combines his previous assignment in leading Economic Development and Global Engagement (with its main office at WSU West in Seattle) with that of restructuring and leading Alumni Relations, Marketing/Communications, WSU Foundation/Development and Government Relations.
Gardner earned his bachelor of science degree and master of science degree in agronomy from Kansas State University, and his Ph.D. in agronomy from the University of Nebraska. 
WSUT: In your youth you worked for the highly successful entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman. How has that experience shaped your outlook today toward free enterprise and entrepreneurship?

Ewing Kauffman

JG: That was my first job and it was really a blessing. I worked for Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, at their home estate in Kansas City, from about 14 to 18 years old. Ewing made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, but his true legacy is that he ultimately began what is arguably the world’s leading think tank on entrepreneurship – the Kauffman Foundation

Kauffman grew up of modest means. He had no formal training, a high school education and became a drug salesman in the early prepharma(ceutical) days.
He recognized the opportunity to aid people with calcium deficiencies and created a supplement using crushed oyster shells called Os-Cal. That marked the launch of his eventual empire – Marion Laboratories – which ultimately was acquired in 1989 by Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals.
Over time, the original Kansas City offices faded, representing the end of Kauffman’s era. To his credit, however, that disintegration spawned more entrepreneur life science companies than if it had stayed together, because all his employees spread out and were accomplished entrepreneurs – the very kind of people Kauffman attracted and nurtured.

In his later years, he also founded the Kansas City Royals, the smallest market-based baseball team in the nation, and vowed that they were going to win a World Series, which they did (in 1985). Though Kauffman left ingenious provisions for the Royals having to remain in Kansas City after his ownership, the team has never seen the success they had under Kauffman.
But it goes to show, without coaching or managing that team, his power of leadership was such that he took the smallest team to the championships in a brief amount of time. It’s really a story about what leadership can do, and he taught me the importance of that spirit and of recognizing opportunities.
His and Muriel’s approach to me and my co-workers was generous. I was just a 14-year-old kid. He treated me like he would treat anyone else. It really left a sense in me that wisdom comes in all forms and places, and all lives are equal.
He also taught me about taking risks, calculated risks that were worth the effort.
In hindsight, I have likely underestimated the impression he left upon me; but then, I was at a very impressionable age.
Technically, I was on the Kansas City Royals payroll, working for George Toma. Toma was the groundskeeper for the Kansas City Athletics, Royals and Chiefs, and has overseen (the groundskeeping for) every Superbowl and the ProBowl since then, even through today.
Ewing wanted his yard and grass to look as good as the Royals stadium. So that’s where I learned about turf grass and turf management.
I wanted to study agronomy and be a farmer anyway, so I ended up farming grass for a while. But it was a great experience where I learned about life and risks.
WSUT: Do you think those principles apply to today’s situation in higher education and at WSU?
JG: I’m convinced higher education in this country is at a crossroads and there are going to have to be some real risks taken. I’m guessing the solutions are not going to come from where we’d expect, either. I don’t think there is going to be a one-size-fits-all solution or a single recipe to be a great public research university in the future. But I do hope that WSU makes a stab at establishing its own brand.
In the West I think WSU has a unique opportunity to do that. I think we sit in probably the smallest town in the nation that hosts a major, public university. And we sit in a unique landscape that is rich in history, culture and certainly agriculture. It is a potent place, and one that leaves a mark on our alumni. 
But as part of the Pacific Northwest, I’m hopeful we will take the kind of calculated risk and employ the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary make this transition. I hope we will have the confidence to do that, and yet will not take ourselves too seriously. Higher education often takes little things far too seriously.
Having already attracted so much talent, how can we not succeed?

I believe our challenge in the reorganization process – not just in Advancement and External Affairs – is focusing on what our future as a land grant institution can be across the university. I’m hopeful we can stamp our own special brand. For example, it was nice to see the recent Wall Street Journal story recognizing how we’ve become a favorite target for companies recruiting new employees.
It’s certainly representative of the brand or image that I hope WSU will choose to portray, as a university that is relevant, gritty and delivers the goods, a university that controls its costs and delivers what’s valuable and important. That’s the kind of brand and culture that I hope our faculty, staff, students and alumni continue to build. It’s a winner.
WSUT: How has your experience in the private sector helped you in higher education? What different perspectives does it allow you to bring to the table?
JG: When I was younger, I never thought I’d work for a university (laugh).
Well, I’ve worked at five land grant universities now. And what I love about that is the mission and focus on public service – providing knowledge, helping people succeed. I take that very seriously.
What I don’t relate to is the image of academia as the ivory tower. 
I love great scholarship as much as anyone, but academic prestige as a currency? I understand it and I know it’s important, but in and of itself it doesn’t have a great deal of value for me. The question is, what do we do with that knowledge to be relevant? How do we put discovery and knowledge into context and to work in the world around us.
I love basic research, and I love discovery, but I guess I’m too practical in that I also want to see an outcome.
I’m much more comfortable at the interface between discovery and practice. I love practice and the practitioner and feel like I can move with relative ease between the two realms of university and business. I hope I bring that to my role at WSU.
WSUT: Since July 2007 you have been focusing on economic development, global engagement and extension. Will you be continuing in that leadership role?
JG: When Elson first asked me to come to WSU, he asked me to do a couple things that were both challenging and thrilling. He asked me to be the interface between the university and the external world – in both the private and public realm, as well as in the nonprofit and for-profit realm.
In doing so, Elson also wanted to set up an administrative beachhead for the university in Seattle. A place where a representative for the president was not only available but at the table … a person who could be trusted and who provided a direct pipeline to the president.
After three years of experience in this role I believe the concept of establishing that presence on the west side was a brilliant move on Elson’s part. It’s a stroke of genius that is providing WSU with access to the state’s power center and decision makers.
Yes, I will continue to be part of that economic development effort, but just in a slightly different way. I see it all in context with this new organizational structure where we are emphasizing affinity building, philanthropy and relationships with the public and private sector. It’s a logical extension to my work in economic development; it’s just building a bigger tent.
WSUT: How can you successfully add these new duties, when your plate was already full and overflowing in your previous job? What’s your strategy for handling the size and complexity of your new assignment?

JG: Perhaps my best role will be as a broker. If I can help broker the relationships between our colleagues at WSU and the key representatives in government, or the private sector, or the nonprofit world, or other countries, those relationships will take off on their own.
I don’t see myself in a role where I will have to manage all of those, but as someone who passes the baton successfully. So it’s like planting seeds.
The team that we have assembled now in Advancement and External Affairs – if we do it right – will have such a core expertise that it will be able to spread and multiply that force in many ways.
If you are relying on any single administrator, that becomes the bottleneck, and I don’t want to be a bottleneck. I’m trying to work myself out of being a bottleneck and into being a facilitator who spawns relationships and leadership across the division.
I think in the long run, once the dust has settled, the issue won’t be so much an issue of the structure, but what we are doing. If we can build new ways and collaborative relationships and tear down the old walls, that will be what survives and what people will recognize.
WSUT: Are there principles from economic development and global engagement that apply to your current challenge of reorganizing WSU’s foundation, university relations and alumni relations offices ……. and transforming them into the Office of Advancement and External Affairs?

When Elson introduced the concept of these four divisions to me, I thought to myself, ‘OK there’s an opportunity here, and I’m looking, but I’m not sure what it is.’
In looking at it now, I realize it’s kind of a cube concept with Yin-and-Yang forces that lead to the same result.
For example, you have the relationship between affinity building and philanthropy, that both lead to the building of confidence and investments in the institution or individuals.
On the other side of the cube, the same is true between the public and private sector interface. I’m used to operating in a private-public sector interface where there is much more overlap than isolation.
Since moving to Washington, I’ve learned there is more isolation here between these two sectors than in other states. From what I can tell, there seems to be an overlying suspicion or idealism that we need to avoid conflicts of interest at all cost. 
In the past, this state has enjoyed so much bounty and success, both from natural and invented resources.
Now, I’m convinced that in the future one of the things that Washington needs to do is find a way to blend the private and public sector, like no one in the world has been able to do. And I think WSU has the recipe for doing that. It’s a gift that we haven’t used to its fullest extent. 
Consider the example being led primarily by Bill Gates of reinventing private-sector nonprofits so they can take the lead in building a new kind of public-private partnership. That new structure will give the rest of the state a confidence and understanding that public-private partnerships are not something to be avoided. Instead they are something to be managed, something to be put on the table and discussed … We don’t have the time, affluence or luxury any more of trying to avoid conflicts of interest.
I’m hopeful that with some inventive structures, WSU can help lead that move in higher education. A great example is the Global Health Alliance, which has been magical. It has drawn together WSU and UW, most of the nonprofit organizations, the research centers, and the global philanthropic leaders we have here.
I’m trying to take those lessons, along with the assignment and vision that President Floyd has presented, in joining the power of affinity building and philanthropy, along with the public and private sectors, into a synergistic force that no other university has quite tried. And in Washington, I would suggest that no one else has the resources that WSU has to accomplish that.
WSUT: What is it that makes Washington so unusual, in that regard?

Washington, I’d guess, has over 1,600 registered nonprofit philanthropic organizations, with nearly 500 of them focused on food, environmental and agricultural systems. Most people don’t realize the breadth and scale of this sector.
We also have the world’s leader in trying to rewrite the definition of what nonprofit means, with Bill Gates. He is demonstrating how an organization can do good and do well at the same time, and that you can run a philanthropically fueled foundation with the same kind of performance expectations with which you run a business. In that regard, the Gates Foundation has turned the nonprofit, philanthropic world on its head. 
And we have President Floyd who, as an example, immediately recognized the power of the Global Animal Health concept and was able to monetize that with the Gates Foundation. He also clearly prioritized WSU’s roots in agriculture, and has visualized the potential power of uniting the four objectives (affinity building, philanthropy, and the public and private sectors) into a unified force and applying that at WSU through advancement and external affairs.
The exciting part is figuring out how to execute that concept and make it tangible at WSU. That will be fun, which is why I’m anxious to get this first restructuring phase done, so we can get on with the work. I think as people see our success they will see their role and catch the fever.
That’s why I think Washington is in a unique position, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.
WSUT: When President Floyd announced your new position as vice president of Advancement and External Affairs, you said you also were planning to maintain your office at WSU West. Is that possible, given the size of the new division you are overseeing now?

It may not be possible in the end, but I’m flexible. Right now I’m back and forth because I’m still shedding a bit of a calendar from my old assignment, which I am delegating. Overall, that’s a good thing, because we have a number of people who can step into that role and begin planting more seeds. It’s not one person, but a team that includes President Floyd.
Meanwhile, I’m creating a new calendar, as I spend about half of my time in Seattle and the other half in Pullman and on the other campuses.
WSU is the state’s university. We’re not peculiar to just Pullman, Vancouver, Spokane and Tri-Cities; we’re in every county. We own the geography. No one has the size of network that we do, but we haven’t wielded that power and influence for good the way we could. We do wield it, but not to the extent we could or hope to.
So when people are worried about where I am sitting on a particular day, I don’t think that is the question. I believe we need to be omnipresent in that regard. The real question is, what am I contributing to WSU?
We have a network with more than 90 locations throughout the state, which is second to none. But when I look at the nearly 250 employees in Advancement and External Affairs, the majority of them are in Pullman, so I need to watch over the home fires first.
On the other hand, it’s very difficult being a successful vice president for external affairs in Washington without being involved in that personal network in the Puget Sound, so I have to watch that side too.
So it’s something we’ll need to watch and weigh over the long haul.
WSUT: Talk about the role of fundraising at WSU (its importance and how it is conducted), please. Do you see that changing?

At public universities nationwide, the funding sources are definitely shifting. So, we have to restructure the university such that we can respond and put ourselves in the best position to earn those resources – state and federal funding, gifts and grants, as well as the trust and investment of students via tuition. The value of investing in WSU must be clear and real.
When you look at it bluntly, Advancement and External Affairs is really the revenue agency for the organization. I say that with no misgivings – we are about revenue generation. In other words, engagement is designed to end in commitment, and we have to face that as a public institution.
That is the new public-private shift that is going on, and there will be no entitlement to public funds in the future. I am convinced of that. We’re going to have to earn that funding. So that changes the way we do business.
WSUT: You’ve said the organizational structure of your new division will be “extremely flat.” Generally, what will that look like?

JG: The key is it needs to be a contemporary design.
We’re used to structures that are rigid and sturdy, but they don’t really reflect the problems of the day.
The problems of the day are in the form of projects. Some are a day long, and some five years long, and we have to make sure our structures mirror that.
I hope our midmanagers come away from this not being called to be champions or advocates of a structure, but to be champions and advocates for a project and outcomes. Then we will be successful if we can make that leap.
It should be tremendously freeing once people become comfortable with it.
I have great empathy for those who need the structure to help set priorities for them and guide them daily. And that’s the work of this next few months, to implement that.
These disparate units that have been put together will be successful if trusting relationships are built and we create relationships that just weren’t there before.
It’s very analogous to the social media, or certainly the way that my kids operate in the world and via Facebook. I would hope the network of internal “friends” among WSU colleagues in Advancement and External Affairs will grow exponentially, resulting in the building of trusting links and the ability to tap information that they didn’t know existed before. If we can do that we will be successful.
WSUT: How would you describe your style of management?

JG: My role is more of a facilitator and broker, not as an administrator. Being accepted as a leader is something you can’t force – it must be earned. It is something we will build from the bottom up and not from the top down. It fits my style, and so I hope that I can deliver that value for Elson and all our colleagues. I gain much more fulfillment and success from watching other people succeed.
I know the major professor that I had, who is still a mentor to this day, has an entire library and photo wall in his home of all of his graduate students, and his true joy is going in and seeing those. And that rubbed off on me. I feel much more gratification in helping someone else succeed, and it’s an attribute that I’m glad I have. 
WSUT: What do you see as your “initial goals” for the next few months or year – for your division and personally? And what is your top priority (or priorities)?

JG: Certainly the major long-term goal is to diversify our revenue sources. And that will be measured by whether our engagement leads to commitment and then to investment, regardless of whether it is from the public or private side. We all need to be aligned with that goal and it will all be driven by confidence.
The biggest immediate goal staring us all in the face is the upcoming launch of a comprehensive fundraising campaign. The key to that will be making sure that we are all aligned with the comprehensive campaign.
Some people have expressed apprehension about the campaign. But the reality is, a l-o-t of work has been done preparing for this campaign over the past several years. A lot of work. So it’s not that we haven’t prepared for the campaign – we are prepared. We just need to align ourselves institutionally and emotionally, and that is the top priority. And, our volunteer leadership is there and ready to assist us in that.  
WSUT: What book(s) are you reading right now?
JG: I’m reading “River of Promise.” It’s the story of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia (River) west of the Missouri (River). Most books written about Lewis and Clark focus on things that occurred east of the Missouri River.
It is written by David Nicandri, who is director of the Washington State Historical Society, who I have not met yet. I am a Lewis and Clark nut. 
I was at the University of Nebraska studying for my Ph.D. when the Lewis and Clark Journals by Gary Moulton were being edited, and that’s where I really caught the bug.
I have lived along the Lewis and Clark Trail all my life. In fact, my last three years in Seattle are the furthest away from the trail I have ever lived. 
In reading it, I find that David is challenging all the traditional narratives, like was Sacagawea really a guide or was she a symbol? He’s comparing all the legends created in the 20th century to the legends created in the 19th century, then suggesting what they might be in the 21st. It’s a fascinating book.
WSUT: What 3 books have had the greatest influence on you personally or professionally?

JG: Those three are really very clear; I can name them right off the bat. And interestingly they are all nested.
The first is “New Roots for Agriculture.” It turned what I’ve learned and practiced in agriculture upside down. It suggests nature as the best model to observe and attempt to mimic in agriculture – but that has proven very difficult to practice. 
The second book is the “Unsettling of America” by Wendell Berry which points out the sobering results that come from over-estimating the carrying capacity of the land. Having lived in rural North Dakota for nearly half my life, I experienced the right-sizing of agriculture, towns, jobs and lives first hand.
The third one would be “Centennial” by James Michener, which is a fiction that looks not only at agriculture, but government, family, love and passion, all in one place but over the course of history.
Oddly, they very much relate to one another.
WSUT: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
JG: I really don’t have any spare time, which I say with regret.
My wife Julie and I are members of the sandwich generation right now. We have three children who live around the world. The oldest daughter is tutoring in English and studying French in Lausanne, Switzerland; our second daughter is a journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, soon to continue her journalism in Lima, Peru; and our son is in the Americorps program in Knoxville, Tenn., preparing to pursue graduate work in environmental science. All three are graduates of the University of Missouri.
Keeping up with them and helping them launch their careers is priority number one.
And we also help take care of my mother, who unfortunately – as our children are traveling the world – is in the process of leaving the world. She suffers from terrible dementia and just advanced to a new stage of reality.
It’s not always fun, but it’s all meaningful and all there for a purpose. So that’s our spare time.
Julie was my high school girlfriend, and we’ve been married since we were 18. I don’t know what I would do without her.
See the following website for a bio on John Gardner.