The face of change: Newly-appointed OU President George Hynd pushes for sense of community

Hynd, former provost and executive vice president of academic affairs of the College of Charleston, officially began his term as OU’s president on August 20.

By Oona Goodin-Smith

One interim presidency, two semesters, three open forums, and 385 days  after Gary Russi retired last July, all Golden Grizzly eyes are on George Hynd as he  steps into the spotlight, officially beginning his term as Oakland University’s sixth president on August 20. The Oakland Post sat down with the former provost and executive vice president of academic affairs of South Carolina’s College of Charleston to discuss his vision and goals for the university.

How have your first days as president been?

Energizing; I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve learned much about the university faculty and the students and expectations coming here have been reinforced.

You obviously have a large to-do list in your new job. How are you prioritizing your projects and what is at the top of your list?

I’m now to the point of making a list of the things I’d like to do within the next 120 days. I wouldn’t prioritize the top three or four, but at the top of that list is to connect with the faculty. As an academic and previous faculty member myself, I know that they are the way that we connect to the students, so I need to learn more about them. Working with Jim Lentini, the provost is high on my list because he is my conduit to the faculty, so I’m looking forward to working with him. I absolutely need to connect with the students. I need to know what attracted them to Oakland University and what they believe make this such a unique place to learn. I know we’re a commuter campus, but on the other hand, it must be something else that attracted them to OU, so I want to know more about what our points of pride are from their perspective. I would also really like to communicate with the local community. I would like to get out and meet with the mayor of Rochester, Rochester Hills and Auburn Hills just to say hello and give them an opportunity to connect a name and a conversation with a face, and then listen to them about how they view the university and how they think they could prosper from building a relationship with us.

What attracted you to Oakland?

Well, it’s interesting. First, we’re not a location university. We’re not Eastern, we’re not Southern, we’re not Central and we’re not Northern, so we’re kind of a uniquely-named institution in the constellation of universities that comprise Michigan higher education system.

The other thing, and it may be surprising to some, that even from South Carolina, I was aware of some of the exciting things happening here. The autism initiative was an attractor to me. My wife is a child neuropsychologist and has been working with autistic and language disorder children and my expertise was in a closely allied area. I knew something exciting was going on in the state of Michigan, but as I learned more, I found it was at Oakland. The research capabilities and a health science focus attracted me here, since my background is in neuropsychology, neurology, and neuroanatomy.

Also, when I started learning more, I found that Matilda Dodge Wilson had made it very clear that at least half of the undergrad curriculum needed to be in the field of liberal arts. She felt strongly that the liberal arts should serve as foundation for university, and it’s interesting that we have a liberal arts foundation in a university that is so research-intensive with many health science profession programs. That’s relatively rare. The liberal arts goal is to prepare students to think critically, communicate effectively, and behave respectfully in conversation, so the fact that we have liberal arts focus historically driven by Matilda Wilson, I found that very attractive. It seems like the best of both worlds.

You mentioned your wife. Is your family living with you in Michigan?

My wife will be moving here. We have a daughter who’s just now a freshman starting at the College of Charleston, so she’s kind of already on her path. My second daughter, Elise, is a senior in high school, and my wife, Alison, is going to stay there this year to see her through high school, and then once Elise goes to college, Alison will move here. Now that said, Alison will be coming back and forth for special events and for special times during the year, so she’ll be on campus. It’ll be good to get her here, finally.

So are you living in the area?

I’m currently living locally in an executive apartment until they finish the renovations on Sunset Terrace. I don’t think Sunset Terrace has been renovated for a long time, so as soon as they finish that, I’ll move in there and Alison will join me, realistically next summer.

We talked about what attracted you to Oakland, but this is your first time being a university president. What attracted you to pursue a presidency position?

Well, to be frank, a lot of what I was doing at the College of Charleston. As the provost, I was certainly responsible for all the academic programs, and we started a number of programs that started some unique opportunities to meet needs that we had there, so I’m used to building curriculum, building faculty, and working with boards of trustees. I feel like a president really needs to feel that they are attached to the academic mission. My job as a president is to get out there and talk about what we’re doing academically, not necessarily our infrastructure or whether we have the support team or not, but to say that we’re changing young lives, and you do that primarily through the academic programs. Even when I was at the College of Charleston, I was very engaged in working with our deans to establish strategic priorities and fundraising. Ever since I was at Purdue University, I have enjoyed working with alumni, working with boards of trustees, developing strategic plans, and certainly raising resources for the institution. So while it may seem like a jump in responsibilities from provost to president, I was doing a lot of “presidentially-related” duties as provost and I’m looking forward to continuing on that path and singing the praises of the institution.

I’m also a professor of psychology and thrilled to death to be a member of the psychology department here.

Does this mean you’ll be teaching?

(Laughs) They haven’t hit me up for that one yet, but I can put together a lecture in a heartbeat. In fact I realized when I was doing the welcoming for the faculty [Thursday, August 21] that while I was welcoming them, I was as new as they are, so it was kind of nice to have that shared experience.

Did OU approach you to be president or did you approach them?

Well, [Oakland] hired a search firm (Bill Funk and Associates) and the search firm is the one who contacted me. They said “take a look at the place and let’s talk.” So after doing my own research and due diligence, I decided it might be pursuing the search further.

Were you asked by the search firm to apply anywhere else or just to OU?

I’ve been approached by other search firms to apply at other institutions.

At the beginning of the summer, there were concerns surrounding the presidential search being closed from the public. Were you aware of this and did you feel your previous position was jeopardized as the search became open?

 I understand the perspective that (and there is some truth to this, I might say), that for some candidates, having their names released can put them at risk in their home institution because it may be seen that they are disloyal to the institution that is currently paying their salary. On the other hand, being a faculty member, I was concerned, coming into this, that it was a closed search because I know that if a president comes in through a closed search, even in the best of circumstances, it will take them a year to two years to get past the notion that they may not have been the faculty’s top pick. I didn’t want to go through that. I got a call from the search firm who explained the situation to me and asked if I’d be willing to have my name released and my immediate response was “Of course I would! Why wouldn’t I?” If I’m going to be the successful candidate, I’d better be darn sure that this is a position that I’d be willing to put my reputation on the line for and put my hat in the ring and do it in a public way. I was absolutely happy to do that and frankly more concerned had it remained a closed search.

We’ve had a lot of developments and changes on campus this year from the building of the clock tower and new dorms to new buildings and parking structures. Do you see OU maintaining its small campus feel with all the recent expansion?

Resident life, campus life, things that bring people together should draw high priority. Anything we’re doing, whether it’s in the residence halls, the athletic department, or through other campus activities all help to create a sense of campus identity. One thing that I think is really critical in helping students, particularly on a commuter campus, to understand, is this is their new community. When you graduate from high school, you’re leaving a community, so for those new students coming to campus, particularly, we need to help them find their connection here as they start to mature and move away from their social circle there and into their social circle at Oakland, because this is the circle, the environment, the culture, that will help them to graduate from college and move into a career. Anything that we’re doing on campus to create a sense of identity and loyalty is a good thing. There’s going to be many hundreds of people at the opening of the clock tower. I was just over there today and what struck me were the different views of the tower around campus. Once it’s completed, it will be a beautiful place to hang out and define the center of campus. The Elliots should be congratulated and thanked for their magnificence in funding that.

Obviously you’re still in the infancy of your term, but fast forward fifty years. Looking back, what would you want people to say and remember about your presidential legacy?

Looking back, I’d like people to remember that the institution was able to maintain and enhance its academic reputation and excellence in the context of remaining affordable and accessible. It became a campus known for being friendly to students from outside the region and during my term I would frankly like to see more of our students travel overseas and have the international experience. Having said that, I would also like to have more international students on our campus, so I would like to have us serve as a beacon for a relatively moderate size research university, with accessible programs with opportunities to engage internationally. We do not want to grow to be a Michigan State or University of Michigan. We want maintain ourselves as a high-quality moderate size research institution that is known for our liberal arts curriculum but also the research that our faculty performs and engages our students, both undergraduate and graduate, with. That’s what I want to be remembered for.

Why wouldn’t somebody want to come here to go to school? This is a fabulous place to be. Our students are well-positioned when they come here for a career that not only enhances our reputation as an institution but also the fact that they went here will be widely-respected by those who hear that they came from Oakland University.