Toward the end of a very long semester, University of Tulsa President Steadman Upham looked forward to new adventures as he reminisced fondly about his formative years. "Growing up in Southern California, I'd go camping with my dad and my friends,"
In his dark-wood paneled office suite in TU's Collins Hall, Upham described how he fell in love with archaeology at a very early age. For before this highly motivated academician became a high-powered (not to mention, third-highest paid) college president in charge of building TU into a university of international caliber, Upham had always been fascinated by digging up evidence of human history.
In the deserts of southern California, Upham marveled at "the perfect erosion landscape," where 10,000 years of human history were hidden in plain sight.
"You could see evidence of the wanderings of hunter-gatherers, up through the cavalry (early American cavalry skirmishes with Native Americans and other battles) to mining activity," he said.
"I was inspired when I was younger, but I never thought I'd become a professor of archaeology," he laughed.
Past As Prologue
His roots are spread throughout the southwest and Rocky Mountains. Upham is originally from Colorado, and he later earned two degrees, including a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1980, from Arizona State University. The college named him an ASU Distinguished Alumnus in 1998.
While busily earning degrees in Arizona, Upham said he took time out to "take advantage" of the state's caves and rock shelters.
In 1981, he joined the staff of New Mexico State University. Over the next 10 years, Upham became a chief archaeologist and tenured professor of archaeology. He also served as the university museum's curator of archaeology, and was associate dean of its graduate school. In 1988, the college gave him the honor of "Master Teacher."
Though the archaeologist insists he's never worn an Indiana Jones-style fedora -- or wielded a whip -- Upham said the 1980s Harrison Ford adventure flicks boosted enrollment in New Mexico State's archaeology department.
In the late '80s, Upham said he worked on one of the most interesting archaeological digs. The southwest's arid environment and very dry soil allows for the preservation of ancient organic materials, he said.
On one dig, Upham and his colleagues discovered a corn cob that was radiocarbon dated to 1225 B.C. At the time, it was the oldest piece of human agricultural evidence. "We also found seeds and arrows with feathers still on them," he said.
From 1990 to 1998, Upham worked at the University of Oregon as vice provost for research, the graduate school dean and anthropology professor. Before coming to TU, Upham was president and CEO of Claremont Graduate University, a doctoral research university.
Throughout the years, Upham has written or edited 10 books and more than 75 book chapters and journal articles.
"I've had a wonderful career," he said.
After he retires from TU at the end of the academic year in June, he will split his time between New Mexico and Oklahoma. "We recently bought a house" in Tulsa, he said.
During the summer break, Upham will brush up on advances made in the field of archaeology while he's been at the helm of TU. Out of the classroom since 1994, Upham said he's looking forward to being an active professor again.
He said he'll teach a Science and Society course. "Everyone is different. Everyone is a product of sorts." Plus, he's set to teach some courses in TU's honors program and conduct research.
"I'll have to work my way back," he chuckled. "I've got a lot of reading to catch up on."
Raiders of the Lost Occupy
Shifting gears in light of new anthropology, Upham was asked for his thoughts on the Occupy protests, a movement largely made up of college students and out-of-work grads. He called the movement an expression of "deep frustration with the system itself and the dysfunction we see every day," along with helplessness people feel "at not being able to affect change."
Upham was a college student in the 1960s, so "I understand the passions," but he warns against repeating the mistakes of that era.
"We made mistakes, things turned violent," he said. Violence is counterproductive to successful social change, he said. He also feels like the Occupy groups are "making moral points about fairness and equity," but he doesn't see an endgame.
In the '60s, the endgame was the end of the Vietnam War. With the Occupy protests, the problems are many and the frustrations diffuse.
Far from disdaining the political uprisings of college kids, Upham instead insists "our students are getting better and better."
He explained, "The world is far more complex than when I started college."
Upham called our world an "evolving consciousness," and that, to be fair, young people are grappling with a difficult and multi-layered world created before they came along. "I have enormous faith and optimism in the younger generation," said Upham, who described himself as an optimist at heart.
Temple of Sustainability
The most meaningful findings we make in life aren't artifacts, but lessons learned, but "There is a lot of fascination with objects," Upham explained, though to some extent, this fascination misses the point.
What do we learn from archeological findings? What do we take away? And how has Upham used what he's learned over his long career to make Tulsa, and TU, better?
Over the decades, he's "used archaeology to better understand why human societies fail," he said. One of the biggest reasons for the failure of a society is "over-utilization of the environment," he said.
Because of these findings, "sustainability has become more and more important to my thinking," he said. TU has caught some flak for not achieving LEED certification (a system that ranks "green" buildings), but Upham said all the recent university projects "are built up to the standards. We just didn't pay to get the certification."
He's also encouraged the grassroots efforts of students who head up recycling efforts on campus.
The private college has minimized its sizable urban and carbon footprint by renovating its lighting and HVAC systems.
The Search for the Next Level
A president of a university acts as its chief executive officer (CEO). Duane Wilson, a chairman on TU's board of trustees, explained the complex job requirements. The president of TU "is responsible for the successful operation of the university, and reports directly to the board of trustees. The president is expected to provide strategic vision, inspirational leadership and management of academic affairs."
Upham said he spends about a third of his time on planning and another third on budgetary concerns and the final third in fundraising. "And around the edges, administrative [tasks]," Upham said.
Wilson is heading up the search for a new president. "I feel, and I think the board feels, that Stead has done a great job of moving the university to a new level," Wilson said. "We just hope to find somebody who can maintain the momentum and perhaps take [the university] to the next level."
On Upham's watch, the university has racked up a laundry list of achievements. Now, the school boasts more than 20 endowed faculty positions and more than 300 new scholarships; a successful public-private partnership to assume management and development of the city-owned Gilcrease Museum; plus, the creation of institutes in up-to-the-minute fields like nanotechnology, bioinformatics, alternative energy, trauma and abuse, and information security.
Other feathers in Upham's cap include a new TU research partnership with Laureate Psychiatric Hospital and the OU Health Sciences Center to pursue research in neuroinformatics; and TU also announced a collaboration with the University of Oklahoma to establish a school of community medicine. Not to mention their athletic programs, which have collectively earned more than 30 conference championships.
Ten years ago, TU was unranked in U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings. Now, the university is 75th among national doctoral universities.
Also in U.S. News' important yearly rankings, TU's College of Law rose 37 places.
This year, Businessweek ranked TU's undergraduate business program 33rd in the nation.
Despite being the smallest competitor in the NCAA Division 1A, Newsweek named TU the best school in the nation for athletics this year.
The university needs a strong and motivated leader to maintain Upham's momentum. Wilson said the board is evaluating a list of strong candidates, and hopes to announce a new president by the end of April. The university is using the "identical process" that they've used in previous searches (to find Upham, the 16th president, Robert Lawless, and the 15th president, Bob Donaldson), Wilson said.
"We've engaged the best search consultant in the country," he said. That consultant is R. William Funk, who owns a firm in Dallas.
"We feel that the University of Tulsa is in the position today to attract really good talent," Wilson said. "We're very proud of our accomplishments. And we think the results (of the search) so far are bearing that out."
What are they looking for in a new president?
"A strong academic background is a plus," Wilson said, "but we're willing to consider all candidates."
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