University of Rochester

Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

A conversation with President Seligman

In a recent interview for Currents, Seligman talked about his mission as the University's tenth president. The former Washington University law school dean who assumed office July 1 has spent part of the past few months laying the groundwork for the University's most ambitious capital campaign to date. He's also been meeting with University and community leaders as part of a listening tour, an experience he describes as a "wonderful education."

Increasing the University's national profile and identifying ways to foster diversity are a few of the priorities Seligman says he'll focus on in the coming year. He also plans to continue his conversations with faculty, staff, and students in the fall semester and beyond, always asking, he says, "How can we be stronger?"

What has surprised you most about your first months as president?
The biggest surprise has been the constant reminder of how extraordinarily talented the faculty—particularly department chairs, center leaders, and administrators that I've met—are at this institution. This is a university with absolutely first-rate talent. To belabor the obvious, more resources are needed so we can appreciate just how good we really are. But the talent is certainly here.

As you announced on your first day in office, you've been conducting a "listening tour" on the campuses and in the community. What have you been hearing?
The listening tour, so far, has started in the Medical Center, where I've met privately with about two thirds of the senior leadership group, including department chairs and center directors. The tour also has involved about two thirds of the members of the Board of Trustees and a number of community leaders as well.

I've just begun to spend time with department chairs and senior leaders in the other five schools. I have, as part of my regular responsibilities, had a number of meetings with the senior leadership on the River Campus and with the deans. It's a process that, throughout the course of the year, will allow me to meet every department chair, every center director, and then to meet virtually every faculty member in the University. It is a wonderful education for me, and it's a way of refining the type of book learning, or, if you will, the Internet learning, that we all do these days. When you put a human face to a scholar or a program, it takes on much greater significance.

You have identified a few of the priorities you'll focus on during your tenure, such as increasing resources, emphasizing city and community relations, and encouraging diversity. What will faculty and staff see as those plans take shape?
I won't pretend that I can predict everything that will occur over what I hope will be a number of years that I'm here, but certainly during the first year, faculty and staff will see a major effort to strengthen our advancement activities at the central level and make possible what will be the largest capital campaign in the history of the University.

They will see a major effort to focus on key communications at the University and our institutional identity. Each school and each major program will be involved in strategic planning. It's my way of starting a conversation within each school, focusing on, "How can we be stronger? What are our comparative advantages? What should our objectives be? How do we achieve them? How do we measure our success? How do we pay for it?" When strategic planning is done well, it challenges institutions to be significantly stronger than they currently are. This will be a truly major activity.

I do look forward to addressing diversity throughout my entire time here and will, among other things, address it in my inaugural address and in a statement I anticipate making during the spring semester. Diversity is a topic that is not just a matter of words but a matter of actions, and the point of the statement will be to emphasize actions I anticipate taking.

I have begun to reach out to the community in a limited number of ways so far. I've tried to be very supportive of the 19th Ward and Mayor Johnson's efforts with respect to Brooks Landing. I have met with a number of business leaders, including Antonio Perez of Kodak, Ron Zarrella of Bausch & Lomb, and Anne Mulcahy of Xerox. From the perspective of a university, the concept of a community is a broad one and includes our immediate neighbors as well as the means of economic development that benefit both our geographic community and the University itself. This will be a major concern for me as well.

At core, though, it cannot be overstated, this is a University generally in very solid shape. It made tremendous progress during the tenure of Tom Jackson. My real challenge is to accelerate that progress. This is a University with the potential to be one of the very finest in this country across the board.

How does a legal scholar find himself leading a University that includes a medical center and a music school but no law school?
First, start with the role. As I've said at the Medical Center on a number of occasions, I'm CEO not of the Medical Center, but of the holding company. In a decentralized institution, leadership comes from the schools themselves. A lot of the time, my role is to pose questions, such as, "Are you stretching far enough? Is this feasible? Have you coordinated it, whether it's with our chief financial officer or with other schools, in appropriate ways?"

My role is not to second guess a great research scientist, whether in the Medical Center or otherwise, on the design of an important new experiment or clinical trial or research project. Over time, I'm convinced I'll be more effective in my role if I have a better operational sense of what each of the schools is about. But the purpose of developing a stronger sense is typically not going to be to second guess appropriate decisions made in the schools, but to be part of a conversation with the leaders of the schools themselves.

Do you plan to teach while serving as president?
I really do, and I will confess even though the academic year has just begun, I already miss teaching. While I was at Washington University, I taught each semester, including an Introduction to Constitutional Law in the undergraduate program for three semesters.

While involvement in the listening tour prevents me from teaching during my first year at Rochester, I very much hope to start in my second year.

What does it mean for the University, as many analyses put it, to be the area's largest employer?
So far as I can tell at the moment, we are the largest employer. The last count that I saw had the University with 16,900 employees. I believe Kodak currently has about 16,300. Unfortunately, the trend line for Kodak's employment in Rochester is that it's going to decline in the years to come. The University, in contrast, I expect, will increase some.

In terms of how our role changes, it's not going to make a whole lot of difference whether we are first or second or third in terms of employment. What matters is that we are deeply interwoven with the city and community. We are very much involved with activities that further retail, construction, business development, and community relations in Rochester in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. I think the challenge we face as we become larger is identifying the most appropriate ways to work with our various communities. And that's a challenge, I think, best pursued not by fiat from the University president's office but by conversations with the political, religious, or civic leadership as well as with the business community throughout Rochester and the region.

When you're not overseeing University affairs, what do you do in your spare time?
You know when I was a candidate in the presidential search, I said, not entirely facetiously, that I don't fish, I don't golf, I don't hunt. I like to write books. But the nonfacetious answer is I love my family. It has become a dwindling host. My two children have left to go to college, so my wife, Friederike, and I are genuine empty nesters as of a few days ago. My daughter is beginning her third year at the University of Pennsylvania and my son is beginning his first year at the University of California at Berkeley.

When we have spare time, Friederike and I love to spend time reading, exercising, and occasionally going to the beach.

Have you read any good books lately?
Lots of good books. Recently, most of them have been about universities and medical centers. I also enjoy reading history, biography, and, occasionally, novels.

Who inspires you and why?
My father died in 1969. In some respects, he's still the most important inspiration in my life. He was the brightest man I ever knew. He came from a family of reasonably modest means. Certainly the first in his family to complete graduate school education and became a lawyer. Just as World War II was beginning, he ended up spending a number of years in the Army and then afterwards served a role at the Nuremburg Conference.

He had a genius for getting to the heart of the matter, and asking tough questions. I still find, when I'm struggling with a decision, I'll ask myself, How would my father analyze this? What's this really about?

Throughout my life I've been lucky to have worked with some extraordinary people. There have been great scholars like Harvard Law School's Louis Loss, who was my coauthor on the 11-volume Securities Regulation. There have been extraordinary people I've met on organizations like the National Association of Securities Dealers Board. There have been wonderful musicians I've met in part because of my sister's career in music. Wonderful scholars throughout the whole gamut of education I've met because of more than 28 years as a university professor. I've found that I can learn from each of them, but there's never been anyone who is quite as much an inspiration, quite as directive, as my father was.

Any last things to say to faculty and staff?
I'm looking forward to working with you in the years to come, and I wish all of you the best possible start to a great new year.

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