‘The Oakland way’ – A conversation with Interim President Betty Youngblood

By Kaylee Kean

This month is National Women’s History Month, and in honor of that The Oakland Post sat down for a conversation with Oakland University’s top woman, Interim President Dr. Betty Youngblood, on Friday, March 7.

Youngblood was appointed as interim president after Dr. Gary Russi’s retirement in August 2013 and has been working with Oakland on the many changes currently happening on campus.

It’s been about eight months being interim president now – how are things going?

I think things are going fine. Our primary emphasis has been on keeping the university moving forward and we recently have had a lot of things going on and a lot of forward movement. As you know, a lot of construction projects and a lot of program development, emphasis on planning; the university continues to move forward.

With all of these changes, you’re probably facing some challenges. What are some of the biggest barriers you’re facing? Or are there any barriers?

I wouldn’t really say there are any barriers. We have an excellent faculty and staff. I have great people to work with. There are always complications, there are always challenges that you have to deal with, but in terms of barriers relative to the university moving forward, I don’t really have anything like that to talk about.

I always look at challenges as opportunities. Sometimes we have challenges in getting certain things done, but we regroup and discuss those and come up with a way of getting them done.

Are there any specific goals or programs you can think of that you’re really focusing on right now?

As I’ve mentioned (via email) we do have a strategic planning initiative under way. One of the things that we’re doing is looking at the future of the university and the need to maybe re-focus on quality and not quite so much on growth itself, though they are intertwined in some ways. Certainly that’s a major emphasis.

We have a lot of projects that are on schedule to be completed in the summer or shortly thereafter. The residence hall definitely in the summer. We have a nice athletic project as well; we call it the Upper Fields Enhancement Project. It will create some additional soccer fields, tennis courts, a track – things like that. But that project may go a little bit into the fall in part because of the weather (and other factors).

Have you been in the new housing building? It will accommodate over 500 students. It’s quite a facility. So we have that going on, and we have a strategic planning activity going on where we’re really emphasizing identifying priorities for the university for the future.

That’s very exciting because as we look to the future as a university, we need to be very certain as to what our priorities are because that’s what we’ll need to invest in rather than other things.

Oakland’s always had a great deal of emphasis upon quality; that’s the hallmark of the university. But as times change that means different things, that you need to do different things to maintain that high quality, so that’s something that we’re focusing on.

And then of course looking to the future in terms of additional potential projects. Perhaps more residence halls – we’ve talked about that. We’ve had a lot of discussion about the need to increase the size of Varner Hall, do some renovation over there. We probably need to expand Elliott Hall at some point. We have had a number of changes in the athletic program with a new conference – so a lot of different things going on, all good, and all moving forward.

I have a long history with Oakland University. I graduated from Oakland in the third class of the university. Actually I lived in Anibal House down here, and then I lived in Hill House for one year. Hill House was being built while I was here. There’s always a lot of exciting things going on at Oakland and it’s been a real pleasure over the decades to see the university evolve, and of course I’m delighted to have the opportunity to return to my alma mater.

I’m just really honored and privileged to be a part of Oakland University.

Based on your experience, what do you want to see in the new president?

Well I think the key points are, you know, appropriate experience – this is a complex organization, so that’s kind of a given. Obviously we need a president who has the experience to continue to move the university forward.

In this day and age it’s very important to have outstanding relationships in Lansing, and over the years every president needs to spend a lot of time fundraising for the university. Friend raising and fundraising. More and more people need to know about Oakland University and the tremendous value that we have here and ways in which they can assist us in enhancing the value of the university and the quality of the university.

Above all, the president needs to be deeply committed to academic excellence and the president needs to have a strong appreciation of the values and the history of the university. And the president needs, above all, to be committed to the success of Oakland University’s students.

We do everything we possibly can to help ensure the success of every student that comes through this campus. We need to be doing things that help us help the students that are here.

There are certainly many situations where students can work directly with the faculty and have some experiences that on some campuses that they wouldn’t be able to have. That’s part of the Oakland way, the Oakland experience. This is the way it’s always been at Oakland, and it’s important that what we do now is grounded in our roots and at the same time is forward looking.

When I started out doing this I was in my 20’s. I’m a long ways from my 20’s now, but I still get to do what I used to do and I love it. We do what people call a lot of work, but it’s just a way of life to me.

Any president has to do a lot of things and there’s a great deal that needs to be accomplished. However, it’s very important to know that nobody expects the president to do all of those things by him or herself. We have an excellent staff.

It’s not about us as individuals. It’s about helping our students succeed and giving them the best possible educational experience.

At some point I will quit working, I suppose. Though I tried retirement actually for a couple years and I found it incredibly boring. Some of my friends said I failed retirement. …I enjoy higher ed. Sitting home didn’t cut it.

There’s just so many exciting things going on at the university. It kind of underscores how all of us are continuing to learn.

Do you get to interact with students a lot?

It depends. Every day is not exactly the same.

I go to as many events as I possibly can. I went to almost every basketball game. When you go to games, of course you see lots of students… all kinds of opportunities.

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience: you go home, you may go to the grocery store and you have an Oakland shirt on and somebody will say, ‘Hey!’ I meet students from Oakland all over. I have met students in the grocery store who were working – sometimes they recognize me, sometimes they may not. We get to talking about things that have to do with Oakland because I tend to dress in Oakland apparel most of the time.

One of the somewhat funny situations a student brought to my attention later: we had a very nice conversation in the line to get a sandwich at Subway (in the OC). The student, I think, was surprised that I was standing in that line.

Is there anything else you wanted to say? Students are going to read this, so is there anything you want them to read in particular?

I’m glad they chose Oakland and I hope we’re able to help them achieve the success and the dreams they have, and if there are things that we should be aware of I hope that they share that stuff.