UA president, a year in job, leading whirlwind of change

2013-06-30T00:00:00Z UA president, a year in job, leading whirlwind of changeCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

From the seventh-floor window of the president's office, the University of Arizona looks much as it did when Ann Weaver Hart took over there a year ago.

But looks can be deceiving.

Though not outwardly apparent, the institution is in a state of flux perhaps unparalleled in its 100-plus-year history.

Seismic shifts are occurring internally, changing everything from the way professors are evaluated to how the school budgets and spends and where the money comes from.

"It's definitely not business as usual," said Wanda Howell, UA's chair of faculty, who has worked under five presidents in 25 years and has never seen so much change in a single year.

"Is it scary? Oh God, yes," Howell said. "But at the same time, I think it really needed to happen."

Hart has acquired many fans since her arrival, though the sentiment isn't universal, Howell said.

"People like (former UA President) Robert Shelton were beloved," she said, but didn't seem to have the stomach for the type of change Hart is tackling.

Hart, UA's first female president, "is not beloved, and that doesn't matter to her," Howell said.

"She's taking the hard road. She's here to do a job, and she's very good at what she does."

Hired to catapult the school into the 21st century, Hart has spent most of her first year laying groundwork in a process she refers to as "disruptive innovation." On Monday, she marks a year in the job.

Budgeting and planning cycles are being synchronized, a first for the institution. Plans are in progress to weed out waste and create new links with business and government as traditional funding fades in the post-recession world.

Hart often crafts short catchphrases to describe in a few words what she hopes to achieve. Her current favorite - "Never settle" - is an exhortation to strive for excellence.

Also in the works: a mammoth fundraising campaign due to launch next year. Hart says she hopes it will raise "more than $1 billion" for the UA over five years.

As well, the new president is aiming to add value to UA degrees and make graduates more employable.

One of her ideas is "The 100% Engagement Initiative." It calls for every UA student to have a chance to apply classroom learning in a real-world setting before graduation. Now, only some get that opportunity.

Hart envisions, for example, mechanical engineering students learning about ergonomics by going into local nursing homes and developing devices to help residents get around.

"There's a huge market for graduates who know how to adapt their classroom knowledge," Hart said.

That ties into another top priority: promoting the UA as an engine of economic development.

So-called "tech transfer" - finding ways to transfer new knowledge and technology into the marketplace - has become a major focus on her watch.

At her suggestion, the UA's Faculty Senate recently updated its promotion and tenure criteria to encourage professors to build bridges with off-campus entities.

Faculty now will be judged, in part, on how well they form "cross-cutting collaborations with business and community partners, including translational research, commercialization activities and patents," the new criteria say.

To curb waste, Hart is pushing something she calls "The Campaign for Common Sense." UA insiders will be asked "to find ways to improve what we do by applying common sense to reduce costs," she said.

Hart, who has expertise in organizational behavior and was president at Temple University and the University of New Hampshire before coming to the UA, said there's nearly always some level of waste in a large institution.

Howell, the faculty chair, agrees and applauds Hart's efforts in that regard.

Until now, "we've been a bunch of well-functioning fiefdoms," Howell said.

"I think Ann Weaver Hart is going to become the first president in the history of the University of Arizona who actually knows where all the money is."

All the weighty matters at work haven't dampened Hart's sense of humor, Howell said.

""I've had the opportunity to sit down and have a martini with her, and she's a hoot," she said.

At the Legislature, Hart has distinguished herself as a "sophisticated thinker" who's well-regarded by lawmakers, said state Rep. Ethan Orr, a Tucson Republican on the higher education committee.

"When she testifies, it's obvious that she knows what she's talking about and that she's one of the smartest people in the room," Orr said.

Not everyone who started out in Hart's inner circle has survived the changes.

Milton Castillo, the UA finance boss hired by Shelton in 2011, suddenly announced his resignation earlier this month and has declined to publicly comment.

The UA also will be looking for a new chief of research after Leslie Tolbert, who held the job, recently decided to return to the research work she was doing before joining UA's executive ranks eight years ago.

Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state's public universities, said Hart was hired as a "change agent" and hasn't disappointed.

In his view, she's earned every nickel of her $620,000 pay package.

"When she first got here, some people thought, 'Well, she's been a university president before and maybe she's just coming here to retire," he said of Hart, 64, who has eight grandchildren.

"Now I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind. She's nowhere near retirement. She's here to make a difference."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

On StarNet: Find more education and UA news and resources at azstarnet.com/education

"I think Ann Weaver Hart is going to become the first president in the history of the University of Arizona who actually knows where all the money is."

Wanda Howell, University of Arizona chair of faculty

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