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Great Chemistry

NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson is looking forward to a little climate change. After 25 years of Indiana winters, Woodson, who served most recently as provost at Purdue University, is excited that the average annual snowfall in Raleigh is less than a third of the nearly 2 feet he’s been accustomed to in West Lafayette. In fact, he was shoveling snow in his driveway when he got the call from UNC System President Erskine Bowles offering him the chancellor’s job at NC State.

As he leads North Carolina’s largest university, Woodson plans to spend many long nights and weekends adjusting to his new environment. As an outsider to both the state and university, he says, “I recognize that the first few months are going to be about getting to know the state, getting to know the alumni, getting to know the members of the Wolfpack Club and the faculty and the staff of the institution.”

We’re eager to get to know him, as well, so we recently sat down with our new chancellor to discuss everything from his plans for NC State’s future to his passion for bluegrass.

NC State magazine: What about this new job—other than the weather—are you most excited about?

Woodson: NC State is an institution that has a clear understanding of its mission and a passion for connecting its mission to the people of the state and the nation. And it has a lot of potential to be even stronger than it is now. When I thought about moving, I wanted to have enough time in a job, if I’m successful, to have an impact. Being chancellor is more analogous to the work that I did as a dean [than the work I do now as provost]. You’re much more involved with alumni, much more involved with the legislature, working not only within the university, but outside the university. I think that aligns well with my skills and my interests, and I’m excited about that. We’re [also] very excited about calling North Carolina home. It’s a state that values higher education in a way that very few states in the country do. It’s got mountains, it’s got ocean, and it’s got some good people in between. So it’s just a great state. It was hard to not be excited about this opportunity.

NC State: Both your parents were teachers. How did that influence you?

Woodson: I grew up in a pretty poor part of [Arkansas]. [T]he only jobs that I could see were working in the sawmill or hauling and pulping wood or working for paper mills and those kinds of things. My parents were focused on all of us going to college and seeking a professional career [where you] used your brain a little more than your back. There were four of us in my family, and all of us have college degrees. [My parents] really pushed the idea that you’re not finished when you graduate high school.

NC State: One of the things you’ve been involved with as provost at Purdue is a teaching initiative for folks with science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degrees who are willing to teach in rural Indiana schools. Is there any connection between your own experience growing up in a rural community and your interest in that program?

Woodson: There’s definitely a connection between what I experienced in being educated in a very rural [school system]. It just didn’t have the resources to offer everything that a good STEM educational background would provide. [Indiana] is a very rural state with a lot of the citizens living in very small communities. And we just know here at Purdue, just like at NC State, a higher educational environment is very technical. The better prepared students are, and the more excited they are about science and engineering, mathematics and technology, the more likely we’re going to attract them to NC State or Purdue and the more likely we’re going to keep the country moving forward, because we’re really in need of a more-educated work force in technical fields. What we did here was participate in a Woodrow Wilson [Foundation] fellowship program to encourage people who have undergraduate degrees in STEM disciplines to come back and get a master’s degree in education with a fellowship. If they would make a commitment to go to work in a rural high school, their educational expenses would be covered. It’s sort of similar to what the country did when it needed rural doctors: Pay for their education if they’ll commit to working in a rural environment.

NC State: Did your own high school education prepare you for a major in the sciences?

Woodson: [I] really didn’t develop a love for the study of science until I got exposed to it in a university setting. [I] think that if the high school had been more prepared to get students excited about science that would have happened earlier. [For example,] I hated chemistry.

NC State: You hated chemistry in high school?

Woodson: I hated it. I hated it.

NC State: And then it ended up being one of your majors.

Woodson: I got to the university and I said, “Man, this is cool stuff!” I had a very good teacher and the next thing I knew, I’d taken 30 credits of chemistry. I think that’s one of the great things, though, about education in the United States. You’re not pigeonholed for your future when you’re in the eighth grade. You have multiple opportunities to reinvent yourself. And for me, it happened in college.

NC State: You had a very active and robust research program going on when you first moved into administration. A lot of researchers who are happy in the lab aren’t as happy when they move in a different direction. Was it hard to give up that part of your career?

Woodson: It wasn’t abrupt. When I was a department head, I still did research. When I was an associate dean, I still had a small research program, so it was sort of gradual. It wasn’t [as if] one morning I woke up and said, “I’m not going to do research, I’m going to be an administrator.” It [ultimately] wasn’t difficult when I effectively got out of research, because I didn’t have the time to devote to the students or the lab. I wasn’t able to give it my best. And, for me, when you’re not able to give something your best, it’s easy to not do it.

NC State: What did you find compelling about becoming an administrator?

Woodson: That was kind of gradual, too. My first administrative role was as the director of a graduate program called the plant biology program, and it was really because I wanted to work with the faculty to develop a graduate program that crossed departmental lines. [P]lant scientists are in multiple departments at Purdue, like they are at NC State. It felt good to start something, to have the vision, to get people on board with the vision and then to see it become a reality. And I think as a result of that experience, I was asked to be a candidate for department head.

So, at the end of the day, what I found that I enjoyed most about academic administration was helping others be successful. You really cannot be fulfilled in an academic administrative role if you don’t enjoy creating an environment where other people can be successful. Because it can’t be about you. It’s got to be about the students and the faculty.

NC State: How did your years as a teacher and researcher and member of the faculty shape your direction as an administrator and a leader?

Woodson: For one, it’s a constant reminder for me why universities exist. We’re here to educate students and to create new knowledge through our research. And, of course, in land-grant universities, a third leg of that stool is to extend that information and see that it has value in the marketplace and in people’s hands. My experience on the faculty brings an understanding of that mission and the full knowledge that, at the end of the day, the people that are responsible for that mission are the faculty and the staff that carry out the programs. I used to be one of them, so I know what it’s like to work in an environment where you’re empowered by the leadership. It really is all about creating the environment where people can be successful, whether it’s students or faculty or staff. And, of course, increasingly as a chancellor, it’s about keeping the state and the alumni, the legislature and the various communities connected to the university.

NC State: What do you see as some of the key differences between NC State and Purdue?

Woodson: Let me start with similarities, because we have very, very similar missions. We’re connected to people across the state in the same way, not only through agriculture and extension but through the economic-development initiatives. [S]ome of the key differences are that there are some bright spots at NC State that are very exciting to me in areas like design. That brings such an interesting mix of students and faculty to the university that really is very different than Purdue. The humanities at NC State are young in their tenure, but very, very strong. And I think the [College of Management] has a lot of untapped potential, at least if I’m to understand where it is relative to its peers. I think one of the areas where [we’re] different from Purdue right now is [that NC State needs] to win a little more in athletics.

NC State: You’ve talked before about the importance of athletics as an avenue through which others view the university. Tell me about that.

Woodson: It enhances the brand when athletics perform at the highest levels. It has the potential to tarnish the brand when things go awry. And what I mean by that is not just losing, but having controversy associated with the athletics program. I’m a firm believer in the value of competitive athletics for the institution. I believe that it’s got to be done with integrity, with strong business principles so that it’s a solid resource and on solid financial ground. When it’s done well, it really adds tremendous value to the NC State brand. You can’t buy the kind of advertising that you get from a successful athletics program.

NC State: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that part of your excitement about becoming the next chancellor here is about being able to take a leadership role and helping to take the university to the next level. What do you see as the next level?

Woodson: For me, the best way to describe that is that the institutional reputation grows. That because of the growth in NC State’s reputation, we’re able to attract the best and retain the best faculty and attract, retain and graduate outstanding students. NC State, of course, already does that. But I think that it’s a university that is stronger than its current national reputation would suggest. Now, I don’t like to use U.S. News & World Report as the only barometer of success, but it has measures that I think are appropriate for us to pay attention to. I would certainly like to think that the faculty, the students, the staff and the state would like to see NC State as nationally prominent as possible. So seeing growth and improvement in reputation, rankings, the success in recruiting the best faculty and retaining those faculty, and recruiting and retaining and graduating great students—that’s the next level for me.

NC State: What needs to happen for that to occur?

Woodson: The story of the institution—of NC State—needs to be told over and over and over again. A good farmer friend of mine said, “In administration you’ve got to know your stuff, you’ve got to know who you’re stuffing, and you’ve got to keep stuffing.” Telling the story of NC State at every chance is a big part of enhancing the reputation. I’d like to work with faculty, with the alumni and with the leadership there to paint a compelling vision for the future of NC State and then get everybody about the business of getting to that, realizing that vision.

NC State: What role do alumni play in this?

Woodson: Alumni play—oh my gosh—a critical role. Alumni are like a family. They’re your biggest cheerleaders and your biggest critics. And they’re critics because they love you, and they want you to be the best. Alumni are great resources for the university in terms of helping to tell the story, to argue for and promote the university, to improve its resource base, to help recruit outstanding students. And alumni are an increasingly important part of the resource for the university financially.

NC State: Is fundraising going to be a significant part of your job?

Woodson: It is a very significant part of my job. But again, the way to successfully develop a campaign is to connect donors’ passion to the goals and vision of the university. And when you’re able to tell a compelling story about NC State and connect that story to the passion that someone has for the institution, then they’re very willing to help you with resources.

NC State: It doesn’t sound like you will have a lot of down time, but do you hope to be able to spend some time with hobbies like playing the guitar and brewing beer?

Woodson: Well, you know what I’ve done? I’ve given all my brewing equipment to my son. He’s taken over every hobby of mine and done it better. He’s a better guitarist than I am, and he brews better beer. [But] I will always play the guitar. It may be at midnight when I get home from a meeting in Charlotte. And it won’t be electric, it’ll be acoustic so I don’t drive my wife, Susan, crazy, but I have to play the guitar a little bit [even though I haven’t played in public, in a band, since college]. It’s something I enjoy, and staying connected to that part of my brain is important to me.

NC State: What kind of music do you enjoy?

Woodson: I tend toward traditional mountain music and bluegrass.

NC State: Is there a bluegrass artist that you’re fond of?

Woodson: There’s some great work that Jerry Garcia did before he died, traditional music that’s really incredible. I’m a big fan of Alison Krauss. But mainly I like bluegrass with a bit of an edge to it, so some of the younger artists that are doing reincarnations of old rock-and-roll songs as bluegrass. [Y]ou haven’t heard “Honky Tonk Women” until you hear it on a banjo.

NC State: Family seems very important to you. What do you draw from your family life that helps you in your work life and vice versa?

Woodson: First of all, Susan is my constant companion, so we both rely on one another for support in each of our careers. That’s a very important part of my life. My kids, I’ve just enjoyed being part of the whole experience, and they’re all different. I probably grew closer to my kids by being involved in what they do through school. I’ve probably driven more country roads in Indiana taking my kids to soccer games. And having two hours in the car to talk; you just can’t replace [that].

NC State: Speaking of young people, you mentioned wanting to be able to work with students here. How do you plan to interact with the students once you’re here and to get to know them?

Woodson: It’s important for the chancellor to get a sense of what the issues are that the students are concerned about, what excites the students about being at NC State. If you’re going to help the institution improve, you can’t ignore the students. One of the things that’s kept me at a university is the fact that there are a bunch of young people that are extremely excited about their future, and it can’t help but give you energy for the job that you do. I couldn’t imagine leading a university like NC State that is so student-centered without being connected to and engaged with the students.

Now, how that manifests itself, we’ll see. One of the things that I’ve admired [at Purdue] is that [the president teaches a once-a-week] leadership class with freshmen. It allows the president to engage with some of the best students on campus in a very meaningful way. Whether I’m able to do something like that or not, I’ll have to rely on the provost and others to help me think through. But I can tell you, I’ve got to have some way to stay connected to the students because I derive so much energy from them.

NC State: With all the years that you spent working with plants and with flowers in particular, do you like plants yourself? Do you grow them or garden?

Woodson: Here’s some real irony. At the end of the day, I’m a molecular biologist and biochemist. For me, the part of plants I love is what’s inside the test tube. Susan, on the other hand, is a tremendous gardener. And I am very good at digging holes.

Editor’s note: Rebecca Morphis is managing editor of NC State magazine, where this story first appeared. The portrait of the Woodsons is by photographer Vincent Walter.