Defining a decade: The presidency of Gregory L. Geoffroy

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Ten years ago, when Greg Geoffroy first stepped onto the Iowa State campus as this university’s 14th president, times were good. The economy was robust, and the new president was optimistic about the future.

“I was really excited about doing some great things at Iowa State,” Geoffroy says. “I knew we’d want to launch a big fundraising campaign sometime after I arrived. I had a lot of great ideas about things we could do, building on the existing reputation of the institution.”

He launched some of those ideas, too: Bioeconomy initiatives, human computer interaction projects, food safety and security research, and others – many bubbling up through faculty proposals requested by Geoffroy during his first year. He said he had hoped to continue encouraging faculty to suggest new, innovative ideas and fund them on a regular basis.

But then came the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 and the economic aftermath that triggered a series of deep budget cuts from the state. Geoffroy and his leadership team responded with belt-tightening measures that were not always immediately embraced: a merging of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences with the College of Education, a streamlined approach to Extension, a new budget model. Over the past three years, state support has decreased by another 24 percent.

Through every budget cut – and every other curve ball thrown his way – Geoffroy has managed to lead the university to a stronger, more secure place and to achieve surprising consensus among his constituents that yes, this is the right thing to do.

And now, as Geoffroy prepares to step down as Iowa State’s chief executive, VISIONS takes a look at his steadfast vision that led us through this tumultuous decade.

A Decade of Focus

President Geoffroy, in his inaugural address, outlined three priorities for Iowa State University: to recruit and retain top faculty, to provide students with an outstanding living/learning environment, and to engage the people of the state of Iowa. In 10 years, those goals have not changed.

On faculty recruitment and retention, Geoffroy says: “Anybody who’s been around me knows that I continue to push that and talk about it. One of the objectives of Campaign Iowa State was to double the number of endowed faculty positions because that helps with the recruitment and retention of great faculty. We’ve continually put emphasis on that. I can think of a number of terrific faculty we’ve recruited, and some of our best faculty we’ve been able to keep here at Iowa State because of that emphasis. Building the overall quality of the faculty is probably the most important thing the institution can do over time.”

On the university’s emphasis on student living/learning, he says: “We’ve expanded the learning communities. We’ve improved the residence system overall, and the dining facilities have been transformed. The recreational facilities [have been expanded] with the new west campus recreation facility opening up. [We’ve added] the Hixson-Lied Student Success Center and worked to keep the Greek system as strong as we can. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on that total living/learning environment. It’s a very unique, special part of Iowa State.”

Executive Vice President and Provost Betsy Hoffman said, “When President Geoffroy charged me to write the strategic plan, he said, ‘I want a strategic plan that is laser-focused on the student experience, the faculty and staff experience, a very limited set of research priorities, and making sure that our extension programs and our outreach programs really serve Iowa.’ He understands that the future of Iowa State is deeply embedded in the future of Iowa.”

University of Northern Iowa President Ben Allen agrees. Allen, a former ISU provost and College of Business dean, says, “He painted a picture, a vision, for Iowa State that I think was exactly the right vision to paint: that is, it’s a land-grant university. Iowa State is more true to its land-grant heritage than any other land-grant university, and so he set a great vision for all of us to follow.”

A Decade of Growth

coverstory_medallionIowa State is growing. In the past 10 years, the university has grown in enrollment, in new facilities, in fundraising, in sponsored funding, in athletics success, in endowed professorships, in Alumni Association membership, and in student scholarships. That, say Geoffroy’s supporters, is a testament to strong leadership at the helm of Iowa State.

“His management skill is amazing,” alumnus and donor Gary Hoover (’61 mechanical engineering) said. “He has tremendous perseverance. In spite of some very difficult budget cuts, he doesn’t look back, doesn’t get frustrated.”

Student enrollment, at an all-time high of 28,682 in fall 2010, appears to be poised for another record-breaking year in 2011 and will likely break the 29,000-student mark for the first time in Iowa State history this fall.

“If you had asked me back in 2004 if we would ever cross 28,000 students, I would have said I didn’t think that’s likely,” Geoffroy said. “We’re going to be over 29,000 this fall, and it’s really because of the reputation of the university. We’ve got a good marketing effort, but you have to have something good to market. And what’s good to market is the reputation of this institution and the quality of the educational experience. So it’s really a tribute to everyone involved on campus who contributes to that quality experience for our students.”

There’s no question that the university’s infrastructure has improved during Geoffroy’s decade as president. Renovations and expansions of key facilities (Morrill Hall, the Memorial Union, Snedecor Hall, Coover Hall, and the College of Design building, to name a few) and the addition of Hach Hall, Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center, Gerdin Business Building, Hixson-Lied Student Success Center, the ISU Alumni Center, Hoover Hall, the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, and other campus buildings have been completed in large part due to Geoffroy’s working relationship with the Iowa legislature and with donors.

Campaign Iowa State: With Pride and Purpose exceeded its $800 million goal, and sponsored funding has seen record-breaking years (including a record $388.2 million in FY10) during Geoffroy’s presidency. External funding agencies have allowed the university to continue important research despite a drastic reduction in state funding.

“Sponsored funding is what drives the research agenda and really drives the impact of what Iowa State does in advancing knowledge,” Geoffroy said. “It’s also a measure of the excellence of our faculty of how well they compete for that sponsored funding. Sponsoring agencies have options of where they want to put their money. So our winning those competitions is a reflection of the excellence of our faculty and the impact of their work.”

Student-athlete success has soared during the Geoffroy decade. In 2010, ISU finished 34th nationally in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, and Cyclone student-athletes set a record with a 79% graduation rate, seventh best in the nation.

“Dr. Geoffroy has believed in us and allowed us to think big and create a plan to completely reinvest in the future of our athletics program through facility upgrades,” Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said. “We’re also seeing tremendous payback in how our students are performing in the classroom.”

Leadership through a Challenging Decade

What will become Gregory Geoffroy’s legacy?

coverstory_kingribbon“I think President Geoffroy’s legacy will be that he led the university through a really difficult budget decade. [There have been] budget cuts almost every year,” College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Wendy Wintersteen (PhD ’88 entomology) said. “I think it will be how he had the leadership and the management skills to really keep the university strong and moving forward on key strategic initiatives during this incredibly difficult decade.”

“He has led through a decade of reducing and reducing and reducing budgets,” Hoffman said. “In the decade he’s been president, he’s had two years of good budgets. And yet Iowa State is in a very, very strong financial position, a very strong enrollment position, a very strong research position.

“We are still a place where faculty want to come. We’re expecting another record number of new faculty this year as well as a record number of new
students.”

“I think Greg has done an excellent job in spite of some very difficult times, budget-wise,” Hoover said. “He has moved the university ahead in terms of quality education and facilities and the quality of the faculty. He has kept the focus on very high quality education here at Iowa State.”

Geoffroy’s decade has been characterized by less-than-desirable state budgets, to be sure, with state appropriations currently at the same level as 1994. But consider also: The post-9/11 economy. VEISHEA rebellion. Contentious coaching changes. College mergers. Faculty tenure issues. Flooding. Tuition increases. Threatened dissolution of the Big 12 Conference. Reductions in Extension service.

“We have had a lot of challenges,” Geoffroy said. “Ultimately, you just have to take each challenge as a challenge and get excited about figuring out how best to address it and go get it done.”

The Big 12 realignment during the summer of 2010 is just one example of “getting it done.”

“Dr. Geoffroy provided a lot of great leadership – calm leadership – and was a leader in the room,” Pollard said.

The end result, Geoffroy says, “came out very well.”

What’s the secret to leadership in challenging times? Allen says it’s two things.

“He’s very efficient and inclusive at the same time,” Allen says. “When he took over the position I remember in one of the first meetings that I attended he said it will be hard for people to keep up with him because he likes things to move fast – which is good, but sometimes you trade off including people. But he was also very successful in being inclusive and making sure all the right stakeholder groups were involved. It’s a very interesting combination. He got things done. And he got ’em done fast.”

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A Student-focused Decade

President Geoffroy is rightfully proud of the students at Iowa State. He said their total immersion in university life was one of the most pleasant surprises of his presidency.

“Something that’s very unique about Iowa State is the deep involvement of students in the life of the university,” he said. “I’ve never seen a university anywhere where students were so involved in the life of the campus as here. That’s great for the students, but it’s also great for the institution. The tremendous loyalty of our alumni to the university, I think in part, is because of how involved the alumni were when they were students. It really translates into a long-lasting connection with the institution.”

coverstory_studentsvisitGeoffroy leads the President’s Leadership Class, a group of 30 first-year students who meet with him weekly at The Knoll. Students are chosen based on academic ability, activities, and service – and they often become some of the university’s top student leaders.

Elisabeth Godfrey (’11 elementary education) was a member of the President’s Leadership Class. The Liberty, Mo., native said it was a “fantastic and really formative time” for her.  “Iowa State is a large school, and I was a little nervous,” she said. “But that experience really let me know that the leader of our university was a good man and his wife [Kathy] was a great woman. That made me feel really comfortable about being at Iowa State.

As my relationship with them grew I felt valued as a member of the Iowa State community.”

Kathy Geoffroy said that getting to know the students has been one of the highlights of her experience at Iowa State. With her own four children living out of state, hosting university students at The Knoll has helped to fill a void.

“I’ve had opportunities to really get to know students,” Kathy said. “There are some students who have become very special. That’s been the most fun – to have the young generation around – because we didn’t have our own children here. It sort of filled that need.”

Godfrey not only was a member of the President’s Leadership Class but was selected to be one of three sophomore advisers for the next leadership class. That experience, she said, allowed her to really get to know President Geoffroy.

“He’s very genuine, very involved, and really sincerely wants to improve Iowa State,” she said. “Being able to have conversations with students and being interested in what they’re doing is a big deal. It’s a big deal that he would take an hour out of every week to spend with freshmen, just regular freshmen. That is pretty incredible.”

President Geoffroy said if he could give advice to his successor, it would be to get to know the students.

“I’d say spend as much time as you can with Iowa State University students,” he said. “They’re fun to be with, and one of the aspects that makes the position so enjoyable is the great students here at Iowa State. Find opportunities to interact with them and spend time with them.”

A Decade of Innovation

Top research faculty, millions of dollars in sponsored funding, and a robust fundraising effort have allowed Iowa State to become a leader in the area of biorenewables despite a growing decrease in state funding. In 2002 Iowa State University launched its campuswide bioeconomy initiative to investigate the use of biorenewable resources as sustainable feedstocks for producing chemicals, fuels, materials, and energy.

Today, Iowa State boasts a Bio-economy Institute, Plant Sciences Institute, BioCentury Research Farm, and a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals.

“President Geoffroy never stopped his focus of growing the research enterprise and through that enterprise serving the state, the nation, and the world…this incredibly strong commitment to science,” Wintersteen said. “He stood up and said, ‘This university is going to be engaged in the bioeconomy…. It’s an opportunity for Iowa, it’s an opportunity for Iowa State, it’s a need that the world has to see how we can reduce our reliance on foreign oil.’”

Iowa State’s research enterprise encompasses much more than bioeconomy initiatives: An Iowa State professor is working to unlock the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease. A recent grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding ISU research on the effect of climate change on agriculture. ISU veterinary researchers are having a global impact on animal and human health, food safety, and the discovery, prevention, and treatment of emerging diseases.

“We have recruited some extraordinary research faculty in a time of declining state budget,” Hoffman said. “President Geoffroy really had the vision that we needed to change the budgeting so as to provide incentive for deans to … keep those high-productivity faculty members who bring in the research dollars and to take care of our very, very best faculty.”

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A Decade of Personal Change

Ten years ago, Greg and Kathy Geoffroy still had a son in high school. The first summer after they moved to Ames, they celebrated the marriage of one of their daughters. And then, in the last three years, they’ve experienced the weddings of their other three children and the births of four grandchildren.

“That’s been a big change,” Kathy says. All the weddings and births have allowed her to “bow out of a few official things,” she says.

“If I can go visit grandchildren or go to a baby shower or wedding shower, that’s the priority. I think I’ve been a little more relaxed since the grandchildren started coming.”

The Geoffroy family now includes Janet and Jason Palmatier and their sons Philip and Lewis, State College, Pa.; Susan and Woody Maynard and son Evan, Sunnyvale, Calif.; David and Kaci Geoffroy and daughter Amelie, San Diego, Calif.; and Michael and Jen Geoffroy of Eason, Md.

President Geoffroy, in a March 25 memo to faculty and staff announcing his decision to step down as president, said, “The Iowa State family is, and will always be, a special part of my life. But my life also includes four children and four grandchildren spread across the country. Kathy and I want to spend much more time with them, and that’s not possible in my current role.”

coverstory_fishThe president is known for his passion for fishing, and it’s widely speculated that he’ll spend more time with his fishing pole after retirement.

The Geoffroys plan to stay in Ames and are currently making housing arrangements for their post-Knoll life. Geoffroy says he intends to become a member of the Iowa State faculty, “at least for awhile,” probably teaching freshman chemistry and higher education leadership.

Kathy says she is most looking forward to more of a sense of belonging in the community and being in charge of her own schedule. “I’m going to enjoy having my own house,” she says. “I’m looking forward to that.:

Good friend and 2008 honorary alumna Donna Hoover says, “I know they’re both anxious to spend more time with their families and their grandchildren, and Kathy has many hobbies. For Greg, I’m sure that there won’t be a fish in the river that he won’t know by its first name. [Gary and I] wish them well, and we’re looking forward to many more times with them.”

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