POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2012:
Head of the Class
Geoffrey Orsak embraces lead role with TU
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Of all things, a talk about failure rang true to the super achievers at St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas.
Graduates of the prep school routinely attend the nation's top universities. Geoffrey Orsak -- at the time, dean of Southern Methodist University's engineering school and a St. Mark's parent himself -- addressed the student body in April at an induction ceremony for the school's honor society.
"You will now learn The Big Secret," Orsak told the group of top-flight students near the beginning of a breezy, 18-minute talk.
Orsak, 49, didn't use another s-word -- success -- until later, but it's likely this particular crowd already understood the context of his speech. He continued, referring to the group's childhood memories. "You remember when you're playing third-grade baseball, and your team is just getting killed? And you're crying, and the coach just pulls you over, says something to you. At that moment, he or she almost reveals The Big Secret to you when they say the following: You learn more from failure than you do from success. Do you all remember hearing that? That in reality is The Big Secret."
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Barely a week later, the University of Tulsa announced Orsak as the school's 18th president. Orsak's talk at St. Mark's focused much more on Thomas Edison's reaction to a research-destroying fire than the life of Geoffrey Orsak. He described failure as part of his everyday life, but left any examples unspecified -- probably for good reason.
"He's one of those students that is and was extremely bright and extremely energetic and extremely articulate and very visionary," gushed Behnaam Aazhang, the Rice University professor who oversaw Orsak's work as an electrical and computer engineering doctoral student.
"He wrote a number of publications that have been very nicely cited in the most prestigious journals in our field," Aazhang said, describing Orsak's "quite theoretical" work related to analyzing complex systems.
Along with Orsak's technical talents, Aazhang recalled his attitude.
"He was very, very hardworking and very energetic, but he made it look so easy and so comfortable and so much fun," said Aazhang, now a department chair at Rice. Orsak's enthusiasm for a project was "contagious," Aazhang said. "Everybody liked him because he was such a nice person. It was so easy to like him."
Orsak earned his doctorate in 1990, then began an academic career that took him first to George Mason University in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., before he returned to Texas in 1997 as an associate professor at SMU.
At a school perhaps still best known nationally for a 1980s football scandal, Orsak made his mark as an innovator within the field of education. He helped found the Infinity Project in 1999, an engineering education program for high school students now offering an extended curriculum beginning in middle school. According to the project's website, the program has been taught in about three dozen states.
Around that time, Orsak began taking his case to the public about the need for improved engineering education outreach to young learners, penning a column in 2000 for the Dallas Morning News, one of the first of several such outreach efforts through the news media. A big payoff came quite literally in 2007, when SMU announced a $10.1 million gift from the W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation at Communities Foundation of Texas to support a national center promoting engineering education for students in kindergarten through high school.
By that time, Orsak had been lauded for his work on the Infinity Project, receiving the KPMG High Tech Award in 2001 for helping develop the initiative and later receiving other honors from prestigious engineering organizations for his work in education. In 2004, Orsak had also begun serving as dean of SMU's engineering department.
Yet despite this string of accolades and accomplishments, Orsak did have something personal to share on the topic of failure when speaking to the high-school-aged students at St. Mark's.
Orsak said that for people who embrace failure as a way to grow and learn, "you begin to love it."
"It wasn't always that way for me, that I embraced failure the way I do now. I was just like you, driven to make straight A's in every class. And that unstoppable drive created a fear inside of me that I didn't recognize until much later in life, and that fear framed almost all of my actions. I didn't know that I was taking the easy way out and because of that I didn't challenge myself at your age to do things beyond even my wildest ambitions," he said.
Success is "actually very easy to do," Orsak continued. "You find out what you're good at and you just keep doing that."
After a few quick examples -- Edison, technology outfit Skunk Works -- Orsak closed his speech this way: "You all deserve the successes you've achieved. But we all expect you to take the chances that just might lead to failure as well."
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The speech was "a resounding success," said Arnold Holtberg, the school's headmaster. "Many, many people, particularly the adults, asked for copies of the speech, and, in fact, we have it on our website."
Taking On Great Challenges
Summer was over for Orsak and the students toting belongings into dorm rooms all over the TU campus. By late afternoon, when Orsak sat down to visit with a reporter inside his well-appointed office, he had already met with a visiting Gov. Mary Fallin and attended a luncheon for the football team downtown.
A busy day, to be sure, but also a continuation of a frenetic several weeks for Orsak since being announced as school president. He had travelled literally coast to coast to visit with alumni and others, attending events in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles area.
His words to those groups seemed much in line with the philosophy expressed at St. Mark's a few months earlier.
"As a great university we need to start taking on great challenges," Orsak said, describing his message to alumni. "Not just simply educating people and providing a really strong education, but that there are big issues that our scholars and researchers can contribute to. And that we need to be going after the biggest and boldest of those."
He added: "Of course, that's a very inspiring message for them, but it's also a challenge for us."
Universities become renowned in different ways, but the post of TU president clearly extends far beyond campus borders for Orsak. His first official day on the job, he didn't stay on TU property, instead choosing to visit an elementary school and a high school.
"The storyline was, which was true, that I'm new to town and looking to meet people and looking to know what Tulsa is like. And so asking these kids, what's Tulsa like through the eyes of a third-grader in north Tulsa. That's something that I would not normally get at an event, either a fundraiser or some kind of social event. You really have to go and see it firsthand," Orsak said, describing the visits as a way to think about "additional roles that this university can play, community development, community building, the increased importance in public education that this city needs to bring focus to."
In early August, Orsak spoke at a construction ceremony for the West Park development in the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, TU's home, an area long in decline but perking up with revitalization efforts. Near the mixed-income housing, a building with units for TU graduate students is being constructed, and the university has also agreed to take over upkeep on a city park that's being revamped through funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
On that day, Orsak chatted amiably with Mayor Dewey Bartlett before addressing the crowd about TU's commitment to the project. He noted the history of the school, which came to Tulsa from Muskogee after being purchased by local leaders. Their plan relied on the sale of residential tracts around campus, Orsak told the crowd.
"So from the very beginning our success has relied upon a strong mutual commitment with our neighbors, and today that relationship is stronger than ever," Orsak told the crowd.
Asked in an interview how much he'd studied Tulsa history, Orsak described visiting with city councilors.
"I asked each of them if they would take me to their favorite point of pride in their district and tell me about their district," Orsak said, describing his appreciation for the scene -- and the food -- at White River Fish Market in northeast Tulsa, which he described as a "blue-collar" area.
"I've gotten to know the city through the eyes of some of the current leaders, not so much on the history side, 'cause I think most people are kind of focused right now on how to ensure that the city of Tulsa really grows and can achieve," Orsak said.
He began living in Tulsa full time June 27. Married with two young children, Orsak's wife, Catherine, is a psychiatrist who headed the mental health department of the Veteran's Affairs North Texas health system.
The family now lives in the three-story, 10,000-square-foot Skelly Mansion in the Maple Ridge neighborhood, a building purchased by the university in July for $2.25 million, according to online property records.
To start his tenure, however, Orsak chose to live with his family in a decidedly less spacious student dormitory. And a grand mansion several blocks away was little help when he first arrived at his temporary home on campus.
"It was a little tough moving in and out by ourselves in 110 degree weather on the third floor," Orsak said. Arriving in the early morning hours, "I had to hump everything upstairs," Orsak said.
The family went on campus walks, and he checked out a loaner bicycle to get around. Unknown to most, he could be anonymous. He ate at Arby's on East 11th Street. The experience proved worthwhile, he said.
"It was great. That's how you really get to know a campus, is just living," Orsak said.
During the approximately three-week experience, Orsak also remained mindful of his role as university president.
"Knowing the pressures of this job, I've got to make every minute count," Orsak said. "As I was enjoying the campus and learning the campus, I'm always, as an engineer, not saying what's wrong with this, but really the question is, how do we take what is already very good and continue to make it even better? I mean I do that constantly, just walking down the hallway."
Orsak said he spoke with university officials about his long-term residence before the purchase of Skelly Mansion.
"My main goal was for the residence to be a real public space for the city and kind of a place where ideas are exchanged," Orsak said. He noted that the home, built in 1919, had previously been owned by the university and used for that very purpose.
An energy forum event is planned for the house, with experts discussing "what would a national energy policy look like if the U.S. had one, what role would Oklahoma play in that," Orsak said. "Those are the same kind of conversations that were taking place 80 years ago in that home, so I just think it's fabulous."
Such events could also help the university raise its profile, though Orsak framed it as another way for the university to give back.
"That's one of our responsibilities to this community is to provide good ideas and really balanced ideas, apolitical, if you will, so having that kind of casual environment is a perfect place to do it," Orsak said.
Idea of a University
Orsak's enthusiasm can motivate college students, at least according to engineering enrollment numbers shared by James Quick, SMU's associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies.
Quick said SMU's engineering enrollment fell roughly in line with the national average for similar schools -- in the single digits -- before Orsak's tenure.
"Geoffrey turned that around and made it double digits here at the university," Quick said. "He did that by making it exciting and broadening the concept of what engineers do."
In some ways, TU is like SMU and other private schools competing for the best students. Every college offers unique experiences, but the school's popularity remains comparable to others, for example.
Among students offered undergraduate admission in 2010, 29.9 percent accepted the offer, below Orsak's alma mater, Rice University, which had a 36 percent yield rate, but topping the yield rate of Texas Christian University (24.6 percent) and essentially equaling SMU's yield rate (30.2 percent). According to U.S. News and World Report, which compiled the figures, Harvard University topped the list with a yield rate of 75.5 percent.
TU proclaims on its webpage that it ranks 75 out of all national research universities. Yet it's also among the smallest schools in that group, with about 3,000 undergraduate students and roughly 1,000 graduate students. TU, like other private schools, finds a competitive environment not only for recruiting top students, but also must make tough decisions when it comes to setting tuition rates.
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"As a president of the university, access to higher education obviously is one of my most important issues. Not just access at TU, but access at all universities, from community college all the way up," Orsak said.
If education is expensive "it pays for itself many, many times over," Orsak said, noting research showing college degree holders earn more than those without a degree.
On its website, the university notes that it's been described as a "best value" by a couple of college guides.
"I think TU is an extraordinarily good investment or a good buy, or else I wouldn't be here," Orsak said. "We'll have to watch that as time goes on because things always get more expensive."
Orsak offered plenty of praise for the university. "This is a place that's done so much, so fast and has now emerged as such an important national university. One of the fun things about being here is helping everybody realize really how extraordinary it is," he said.
Expect Orsak to not be shy about getting that message out to the public. In Dallas, Orsak became well-known in the community. Ed Schaffler, president and chief executive officer of the The Catholic Foundation in Dallas, invited Orsak to serve on the charitable organization's advisory board.
"Our council is comprised of leading Catholic individuals in the city of Dallas. He certainly was one of those," Schaffler said.
Perhaps more than others in similar academic positions, Orsak seemed at ease with public appearances.
"Geoffrey often spoke at things around town, and he was very good at it," Schaffler said.
Orsak may have deep Texas roots, but he is attacking his role in a new state like an eager student putting in extra time to master a new subject.
Orsak went to Washington, D.C. not only to meet with alumni, but also with Oklahoma elected officials.
"I had a 45-day plan for trying to meet as many key people who are stakeholders in the university as I possibly could," Orsak explained, describing the D.C. visits as "a fascinating experience."
"Coming from a large state with a lot of political influence in Washington, to now being a part of a smaller state that may feel like it's marginalized from time to time in the national debate, it was interesting for me to be able to see that," Orsak said, adding that "it kind of opened up another avenue for a role that we can play in helping continue to just try to put the state of Oklahoma really on the map as a place for really bold and ambitious ideas."
When speaking about the challenges he expects the university to tackle, his words could be those of almost any Oklahoma political figure.
"Public education, as we talked about, is one of Oklahoma's biggest challenges. We're routinely ranked in the bottom of states in the quality of education. Public health is another, so we're doing a lot of quality thinking right now, how to really provide the greatest health benefits for the most economical means," Orsak said.
He spoke about the new medical school partnership with the University of Oklahoma. The schools have partnered to form the Tulsa School of Community Medicine.
"It's important that it's not just a medical school. It's vital that it's an institution that really addresses core health care needs in the state in kind of a new way, because health care is such an important issue for quality of life. It's an important issue for recruiting businesses and for recruiting new families to the state. You can't be 49th in the country in health care and 49th in the country in public education and think you're going to attract high-tech jobs," Orsak said.
He mentioned the university's Institute for Urban Education, which "provides great promise for what can happen."
Orsak said he left those first-day visits with young learners "realizing that for Tulsa to be successful, we as a university have to start being involved in education at an earlier age, not just wait until they're a freshman in college."
The university partners with the city "in so many areas, it's really key that we exchange ideas and talk regularly about what we can do, what they can do," said Orsak, describing having a close relationship with city leaders as "incredibly important."
He noted that the university's Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education in the Brady Arts District is "something we're doing because it helps the city."
These efforts, in turn, will help the university, Orsak said. "I really believe that as this city improves, so do we. And so we're glued at the hip, and have been for the last century plus," Orsak said, noting that the university serves as perhaps the premier talent magnet for this part of the state.
He's put his analytical background to good use in learning about his new home state.
"I've spent a lot of time trying to study the state from every possible angle from demographics, the shifting demographics of the state, to population increases, educational attainment, incarceration rates -- all the kinds of things you want to know about your home," Orsak said, describing how he wants to put the information to good use. "And then we look at those and say, where can we have the biggest impact? That's the kind of TU that we'll have. We have kids coming from all over the world who want to be in an environment that really matters and that takes on problems that really matter."
He acknowledged that many of these issues might be ones where "normally universities would say, well that's somebody else's responsibility." Not so the best universities, he said.
"That's really the kind of prime vision that I had in my previous roles and one that I brought here," Orsak said.
With such ambitious goals, even defining success can be difficult. Asked if there was a specific statistic that might indicate success down the road, Orsak let out a short sigh.
"That's a great question. We've been trying to figure out what that would be. What would be the definition of success for not just for TU but for the state," he said.
He recounted conversations he's had with health care experts, who he said described the likelihood of slow, incremental change.
"What I was afraid -- and what I heard from the folks that really look at this problem on a daily basis -- was kind of a certain level of concern that, at best, we might move from 49 to 46. And for me that just seems like such a marginal advance that I just have a hard time accepting that that's all we can do," Orsak said. "There's got to be more. So I don't want to be unrealistic about what is possible and at this point it's so unclear with what's happening at the federal level in terms of investment in education and health care, what's happening at the state level," Orsak said, noting that the upcoming November election will "determine a lot about the future of this country."
Some things should be tracked, he said, but as far as measuring success, "until I know more, I couldn't give you an accurate estimate."
"But I would like for people to know it without really having to even look at a data sheet. If I had to convince you that there was progress by showing you hard data and pie charts, I would think that doesn't do it for the person who lives on 11th Street and Delaware. I mean, they want to feel it. They want to feel this town is safer. They want to feel that this town is more vibrant and culture is richer, ideas are more challenging. And that's hard to chart. I think we'll know whether we made an impact or not just by the character of the city."
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