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Weekly Wisdom Episode 5: Transcript of Conversation With Ed Ray, Former President, Oregon State University

Weekly Wisdom Episode 5: Transcript of Conversation With Ed Ray, Former President, Oregon State University

Note: This interview, Episode 5 of the Weekly Wisdom Series, originally aired on May 11, 2020 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Click here to access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.

Ed Ray: 
I think I tell them one thing, and you’ve heard me say that I always say to students and to others, and that is, “Our graduates are the most important contribution we will make to the future.” And I would tell these graduates, “I believe in you. I think you’re being tested like steel in fire now and I don't think you’re going to let anybody down.

Bridget Burns:
Welcome to Innovating Together, podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration and leaders to help you improve student success. I'm your host, Bridget Burns. You’re about to watch another episode of “Start the Week With Wisdom,” which for those of you at home, if you have not seen this before, these are weekly episodes where we conduct an interview with a sitting college president or chancellor. And we want to talk to them about how they’re navigating the challenge of this moment. We’re in a really unique time and we want to focus on their leadership and unpack how they are making decisions, how they are navigating. And hopefully it will leave you with a sense of optimism, a bit inspired and give you a bit of hope.

Jeff Selingo:
I'm Jeff Selingo, joining you from Washington, D.C., where I'm an author, a journalist and a special adviser at Arizona State University. Bridget, today we’re thrilled to bring an interview with Oregon State’s President, Ed Ray. Ed has served as President of Oregon State since 2013 and prior to that he was at another O.S.U., which is Ohio State University, where he was the provost. He was also one of the founding members of the University Innovation Alliance and has really led a significant transformation at Oregon State in his time as president. As I understand also, Bridget, that you were on his hiring committee.

Bridget Burns:
Yes. You’ve known me since I was – when I first started being annoying. On his Presidential Hiring Committee, I was his first student body president, and then later I was on the State Board of Higher Education. So I was one of his first bosses in the State of Oregon, and then now he’s one of my bosses as a board member in the U.I.A. I mean I cannot choose amongst my presidents, right, but –

Jeff Selingo:
Well, Ed, it’s great to have you here.

Ed Ray:
Thank you.

Jeff Selingo:
How are you holding up? I assume you might be happy now that you’re on your way out, right?

Ed Ray:
If you’ve been in the midst of battle and you take your responsibility seriously, you’re never glad to get out of the fray. I mean that’s what your conditioned to do is, sort of stay in the thick of things. And I don't want to make Bridget feel older, but it actually was 2003 when I started here, not ’13.

Bridget Burns:
Uh, sorry.

Ed Ray:
It’s been a long run. I guess I would say that I'm probably as good as anyone else at feeling sorry for myself, but, my God, look around. 81,000 dead, think about them and their families, think about the 1.5 million who’ve been tested, most of them hospitalized. Think about the 32 million unemployed. There is a path out, but there is no clear timetable. This is a time for people to step up who are in leadership and do their best. I’ll tell you something funny. My successor has been named, F. King Alexander, who just stepped down not too long ago is chancellor at L.S.U. He’s a wonderful, wonderful person. He told me about a month ago that his wife had told him, “Well, you’re lucky because you’re not responsible for L.S.U. and you’re not responsible for Oregon State.”

And I told him, I said, “Well, you know what? Tell me on July 1st whether you feel lucky or not.” This is a pretty tough time and my heart goes out to everyone out there, but particularly leaders trying to cope in these times. We’ve had, you know, difficult times before – 9/11, we’ve had recessions, we’ve had the Great Recession. Nothing as comprehensive and life altering in our lifetimes as the COVID-19 pandemic. So anyone who tells you they got the book on what to do, they’re either a fool or they’re lying. We’re all figuring it out as we go along. And I had told people when the search began for my successor that I wanted to make this transition as seamless and un-dramatic as possible. And I actually put that in my report to the board on my goals for the year. Well, you know, talk about failure. 

Jeff Selingo:
It’s certainly not un-dramatic.

Ed Ray:
So hopefully they won't be judging the rest of my life based on that promise because it isn’t going to happen.

Bridget Burns:
And I'm super curious about the fact that you’re going to be going through a transition in this moment. And in the U.I.A. we’re about to have an interim president and provost at U.T. Austin. We just had a new president named at the University of Central Florida who just started. The fact that you’re about to go through this transition – Drake, at Ohio State, we saw him last week. I think this is a very challenging time for transition and I am curious about kind of how you’re thinking about – if there’s a leadership framework or like a way of thinking about leadership in this moment that might be useful to not just as you’re navigating this, but for others. I'm thinking about those who are either switching mid-stream or in the midst of a search. You know, how do you, as a leader who’s leaving, how do you hand the baton as elegantly as possible? How do you even think about that?

Ed Ray:
So let me talk about two sort of general thoughts I have about leadership in general because I don't think it does much good if I – even if I were right, if I told people how to deal with this year’s problem, three years from now there’s going to be another problem and leader is going to figure out, you know, “Is it a new game plan or do I have the same framework? What do I do?” I had a terrible department chair when I first started out, so he was kind of a negative role model. And what I decided at age 31, when I was going to become a department chair, I decided on what I thought of as the golden rule of leadership. And that is you should do everything you can to be the leader you wish you had. And that means you need to be honest, you need to be open, you need to be transparent, you need to be fair, you need to listen to people and actually care about their issues and try to help them solve them. You need to be about other people and being effective in their lives.

And that’s led me more recently to think about – so why you? I mean why are you the leader? I mean there are lots of ways people come to leadership positions, but people who work for you decide whether they’re going to follow your lead or not. And the question is how do you get them to follow your lead? What are they looking for in you that will make you successful? And I think the answer is that we all want to be successful. We have dreams, we have aspirations that we want to achieve and we want leaders who we think can help us get there better and faster than we could on our own. And so, as a leader, you have to understand that’s your responsibility, to lead effectively to successful outcomes for whatever group you’re leading. And that means you have to celebrate successes of other people. Not yourself, but them. 

What have they accomplished? What should they feel good about? How do you get them to rededicate themselves to the next set of challenges that you’re going to have to deal with? And that leads to something that we almost never think about. And that is – leaders have to own failure. If you’re the leader, it’s because people have every reason to believe as a group they’re going to be successful. And if collectively you fail, then you have to own that as the leader. You have to explain to people about lessons learned and where we’re going next. And you have to get them to get up, brush themselves off and go at it again. And you can't do that if you’re trying to assign blame to someone else or act as if it’s not your fault. So that’s kind of a general framework that I’d recommend. And then, you know, of course having strategic plans, having really good people in leadership positions when you’re going to step away.

There are things you can do that are under your control. There are a lot of things that aren’t, but there are things under your control that you can work on so that your successor doesn’t have to wrestle with them. I think both of you have seen lots of examples of presidents who get fired pretty quickly by buying a house, building a house, renovating a house, decorating a house. So one of the things I could control that we actually have managed is to acquire a house for the new president. And we raised funds from donors to renovate it, to decorate it, so when the new president comes in he can say, “I got to have a place to live. This is where they told me I'm going to live. I had nothing to do with this. You want to get mad about something, get mad about something I did, but I had nothing to do with the house.” Well, that’s a pretty big thing in normal times, old normal times. That’s a pretty big thing to get out of the way. So you try to do things like that to prepare the road for whoever is going to follow you.

Jeff Selingo:
Obviously you’re going back to more than a decade plus – sorry about the 2013. I’ll blame that on Bridget.

Ed Ray:
Hey, I earned those years.

Jeff Selingo:
She forgot about all those years in between, but is there anything like this? We rarely talk to presidents who’ve been in an institution as long as you’ve been. Is there anything else in your presidency that you’re calling upon in this moment for experience? Is there anything else that’s not necessarily similar, but tried you as a leader the way that this one is? Or is this just so different?

Ed Ray:
Every negative draw that you have no control over hurts a lot if you’re in a leadership position. And no two are the same. One of the things I discovered almost immediately as a fresh department chair was we had a recession, we had budget cuts. All of my colleagues were downtrodden and woeful. And I thought pretty early on – you know what? Woeful is not a good leadership quality. So I needed to either stop being woeful and lead and get people to get up and get going again or I needed to get out of the way. So the circumstances will keep changing. There will be disappointments going forward, but as a leader you don't have the luxury of feeling sorry for yourself and being woeful. Your job is to get everybody up and going again. I’ve had lots of different situations and that element never changes.

When I first came here, Oregon State had a – Bridget will remember they had a 10 percent undergraduate tuition increase, they had no salary increases and they were laying off faculty. And I was going into a meeting when I was being interviewed and a friend said, “You need to know – I was meeting faculty leaders – you need to know faculty are really depressed.” And so I went into this meeting and the first thing I said was, “You know, I understand you’re all somewhat depressed.” Lots of nodding heads. And I said, “You know what? If you’re not a little depressed, you’re not in touch with reality. But the question is what are we going to do tomorrow morning so we don't stay depressed all day tomorrow? So let’s start talking about things we actually control and can start shaping differently so that the future is not just a repeat of the past that we’ve been in.” And I think that stands one in good stead, to always understand that you have to be moving forward. There’s a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, that if life is hell, you need to keep moving.

And I think life is hell. And I think for people who found themselves staring at the Great Recession in 2008-09, life felt like hell. And I think after 9/11 it certainly felt like hell. So there are elements of disappointment out beyond one’s control that you have to let go of and you have to ask yourself, “How do I keep helping all of us do better than we would if I weren’t in place? How do we find positive directions to move in?” You always have to be looking for positive steps to take based on the facts on the ground.

Bridget Burns:
That's helpful. So I'm curious about – because I feel fairly aware of how your presidency has gone and I feel like I’ve seen some of the big moments. And I'm curious, as you’re sitting in this position, going through this firestorm that everyone else is going through too and you’re about to retire, I'm wondering if you could share with us for you what has been the best – as you’re looking back, what is your proudest moment or kind of a best moment that through these dark times kind of helps carry you through? I know that people usually talk about how graduation day is so special. There are definitely plenty of moments and there are big accomplishments, but I'm wondering if there’s anything that for you is like, “If I had to choose one memory to take with me, this is the one I would keep in my pocket that I'm really, really proud of.”

Ed Ray:
Well, you know, I think commencement is probably the most memorable occasion, seeing people launching careers and lives after studying at the university. There’s nothing quite as powerful as that. In fact, I guess generally I would say my happiest times have been spending time with students. And in fact I'm actually not retiring. I'm going to go on a sabbatical for a little while, then I'm going to go back as a professor of economics in the School of Public Policy, in the College of Liberal Arts. I reread a book recently that I read probably 40 years ago that I highly recommend. It’s called Goodbye, Mr. Chips. And I think if I could plot the perfect path for me going forward, I want to live it out like Mr. Chips. And if you read it, you’ll find he spent his time always being associated with his school, always feeling a special affection and bond for the students that he knew. And that really was the most enriching part of his life. I think it’s an incredibly enriching part of my life.

Bridget Burns:
Yeah. And by the way, we’re fully aware you’re not really retiring because I have like a whole list of things I need you to do, like, basically starting July 1. So the full retirement that you’re going to go into for a week, that's helpful to hear. 

Jeff Selingo:
We’re getting some questions on LinkedIn about maybe there’s a memory with that ring that’s on your finger there.

Ed Ray:
Ah. This is Beaver Baseball, 2018 Champions. And for those of you who are feeling woeful and it looks like there’s just no way out, let me tell you the way that World Series changed. The Beavers lost the first game. Arkansas was jumping up and down at the beginning of the second game, wearing black armbands out of respect for the dead Beavers. We won the second game. And then the third game came along, and in the ninth inning we were down – I guess it was the bottom of the eighth. We were down two to one, with two outs, I think two balls and two strikes on the batter. The batter hit a pop-up between first base and home play. The pitcher, the first baseman and the catcher all converged on it and the ball fell among them. And E.S.P.N. posted a “Arkansas wins first championship picture,” that they had to pull down right away. Well, as you would expect, what happened the next pitch –

The batter gets a single and run scores. And so now it’s a tie game in the bottom of the eighth, with runners on first and second. And then the next batter up hits a three-run homerun, and the Beavers end up winning it five to two. And then the next day a freshman starter who had good days and bad days ends up pitching a complete game, a five-nothing shut out and becomes the first World Series pitcher to win four games in Omaha. So if it isn’t over, you know, what was the line? It isn’t over till –

Jeff Selingo:
Til it’s over, right?

Ed Ray:
– whatever lady sings. So hang in there. I mean as tough as things are, this will end, we will move on, you’ll do fine. But stay on top of what you can work on, keep working it, you’ll come through just fine.

Jeff Selingo:
Great advice. Great story. I loved that. I loved that World Series. A huge baseball fan.

Bridget Burns:
Yeah. So I'm curious following up on you recommendation, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Are there any other kind of books, movies, just anything that you would recommend for a leader who’s trying to navigate this moment? And remember those big moments, remember that there is some silver lining. We are going to have hope in the future. Are there things that you think as a leader have been really helpful that you’d suggest for others?

Ed Ray:
Now, I know most people would think this is kind of corny, but probably one of my favorite – you know, you remember things that speak to you, personally, and everybody’s different. But one of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Steward and Donna Reed. And the amazing premise of that movie is he gets to see what his world would’ve been like if he had never lived or if he had died in an ice-skating accident when he was a child and not been saved by his brother. And so that notion of always coming back and asking yourself, “So how am I making a difference? What’s the value added?" – that’s what I need to be thinking about. Again, it’s not self-directed. It’s other-directed. How am I making a difference? Five years ago the board asked me at age 70 if I would accept a five-year contract. And I was like, “Are you kidding? Don't people ever retire?” And so I thought about it and obviously it would’ve been easy for me to keep doing the same things that I was doing, maybe drop dead on the job and then I don't have to think about retirement.

But the real question was – “So what?” That’s what I came back to is, “So what? What if I did this? What if I didn’t do it? So what?” And that’s where things like the University Innovation Alliance comes in. I care deeply about students, all students. I care about students of color and students from rural areas and first generation and Pell eligible. And if you look at our performance and most other schools’ performance, we have not eliminated achievement gaps, six-year graduation rates, four-year graduation rates are not as high as they ought to be. And I really sort of said, “I'm going to dedicate my strongest effort over the next five years to moving the needle in the right direction on each of those things. And if I can move it at all, then it was worth it. But if I don't, then it was just self-indulgence.” So that helps me at times to really focus on what matters and what doesn’t matter. It’s not about me. It’s about making a contribution and having an impact that benefits other people.

Jeff Selingo:
And what do you think from this moment is going to stick for the long term in higher ed? Right? There’s all these stories now being written, including some that I’ve contributed to about how, you know, higher ed is going to be reshaped by this pandemic. Of course we’re in, what, week eight or whatever, so I'm not quite sure how anybody really knows what’s going to happen. But as you look across campus, as you see what your colleagues and counterparts are thinking about and planning for, anything in particular that you think you hope or that you think might stick from this thing?

Ed Ray:
So let me talk first about students and then talk about colleges and universities. For students, I’d refer you to a book I really love called In Pharaoh’s Army, by Tobias Wolff. And the basic premise of it – it’s about his experience in the Vietnam War, but also losing someone who he became very close to when he was training in the military, who was killed young. And at the end of the story, he basically says we’re genetically wired to be resilient and to persist because there’s a cycle to everyone’s life. And the mission in life is to get from the start to the finish, and it’s a journey of self-discovery. There are many Native American tribes who in fact talk about the man in the maze. And the idea is when you start life, it’s a maze. And if you actually ever get through the maze, that’s the end of the journey for you.

So I think for students today, this is a defining experience. I think they’re resilient. I think they’re going to know how to persist. And I think, I hope that this generation is going to make changes in the way we deal with healthcare, the way we deal with minimum wage, the way we treat people in nursing home, where we’re housing people till they die – that’s mainly what we do with nursing homes, that they’ll take responsibility for changing those glaring and really awful things that we’re all being forced to stare at during this time. In the same way that the generation I was part of looked at the 1960s and, through television or whatever, saw the ridiculous circumstances in the south and said they would not put up with it. They didn’t solve all the problems in the world, but they made change. I think this next generation is going to make incredible changes. With respect to universities themselves, I got to tell you I'm very proud of my colleagues. They launched 4,000 courses this quarter – we’re on quarters.

Our enrollment is about what we would expect it to be. Our online Ecampus enrollment is up over 13 percent. They mounted those courses and they’re helping students learn as effectively as they possibly can. And that’s a remarkable accomplishment. I think we’ve even had discussions among administrators that, you know, “This Zoom stuff is not so bad and there are a lot of things maybe we could do remotely.” Not to get out of work, but so we can be more effective at the work that we do. One colleague of mine, for example, was talking about Student Affairs. And I said, “You know, I talked to student leaders a while back and they told me that they knew that administrators and staff really cared about them from 9:00 to 5:00. But they said our lives don't end at 5:00 P.M.”

So we started talking that, you know, you could have people available through remote access on Zoom and other means so that when students have a 9:00 P.M. problem and not a 3:00 P.M. problem, they actually can contact another human being and maybe get some of the help that they haven’t been getting. So I think we’re all going to be using technology, whether it’s on the business side, whether it’s on the instructional side. It’ll get better over time. I think we’ll have more blended courses, we’ll have more hybrid courses with in-person and online education. I think there’s a thirst, obviously, to be together with people in one place so I don't expect campuses to disappear. We’re losing a lot of spontaneity, we’re losing a lot of unplanned interaction that can be very creative because things are so scheduled, but I think there’s a much larger role for technology in the future of every college and university. 

And anyone out there who thinks, “Well, that's great other people are doing that. That’s not for us.” You better wake up, because this is a generation that is very comfortable visiting and talking and being very open online, in remote means. And universities and colleges have been slow to come to that realization and accepting it. And that’s only going to accelerate going forward.

Bridget Burns:
Okay. Last question. I know that you were supposed to be giving a commencement speech in-person soon and the students actually voted to have you be the commencement speaker. Not for students, but I'm wondering – you know, one of the things that has been a defining element of Ed Ray-ness is your impatience with others’ willingness to change. You don't like it when people move too slowly, you’ve always been just kind of like, “I don't know what,” and you always kind of call it spade to spade. Do you have any – if you have like a one- to two-sentence commencement speech for current or future college presidents to try and kind of help them think about the future, think about change? What would it be?

Ed Ray:
You need to be resilient. You need to be persistent. You need to never accept standing still. A football coach years ago said, “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.” I think that’s right. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. So if you don't want to get worse, get better, get moving.

Jeff Selingo:
That's great.

Bridget Burns:
All right. Well, thank you so much. And on behalf of all the thousands of students and folks who have worked with you over the past 17 years, thank you so much. The work that you’ve done and that you’ve led at Oregon State has truly transformed the institution. You’ve left an indelible impression on the entire sector and, you know, I'm completely biased so I own it. But thank you for sharing some of your wisdom with us today. And for folks at home, we hope that this has given you a little bit of perspective to start the week out, to keep yourself focused and ready to march ahead. Thanks so much.

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Ed Ray, Professor of Economics, Oregon State University College of Liberal Arts
Dr. Edward J. Ray served as Oregon State University’s 14th president between 2003 and 2020. Under his leadership, Oregon State became an internationally recognized public research university and continues to expand the excellence, scope and impact of its services. During Dr. Ray's tenure, the O.S.U.-Cascades campus in Bend expanded to a four-year university in 2015 and opened a new 10-acre campus. He launched the Marine Studies Initiative, a university-wide effort involving all of Oregon State’s colleges and the O.S.U. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Enrollment grew to more than 30,000 students, and O.S.U. received high U.S. News & World Report rankings as a research university and for its online Ecampus program. Under Dr. Ray’s leadership, the university's first major capital campaign raised $1.14 billion for physical improvements, endowments, scholarships, and fellowships. Dr. Ray previously served at Ohio State University as executive vice president and provost from 1998 to 2003, prior to which he was a member of Ohio State's economics faculty for over 30 years. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Queens College (C.U.N.Y.) in 1966, and a master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University in 1969 and 1971, respectively.

Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.

Co-Host: Jeff Selingo, author, journalist, special advisor at Arizona State University
Jeff Selingo is an author, a journalist, and a special advisor at Arizona State University.  He has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family.

About Weekly Wisdom
Weekly Wisdom is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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