By Bill Robinson
“What is best for the students?”
That’s the first question Dr. Alan Shao says he asks when addressing an issue as a college administrator.
Shao, dean of the College of Charleston’s Business School for the past four years, is one of three finalists to be Eastern Kentucky University’s next president. He spoke Tuesday afternoon during a forum in EKU’s Brock Auditorium and met the public at an evening reception after a full day of meetings that began at 7:30 a.m.
The other two candidates, Michael Benson and Gregg Lassen, visited the campus last week.
The key to success in business, Shao said, is “keep your eye on the customer.”
In higher education, the key is “keep your eye on the student.”
The more he learned about EKU, Shao said, the more amazing he found its accomplishments and potential to be.
Although a college teacher for most of his career, Shao said he was trained to be a marketer, and good marketers always do their research, he said. That’s how he learned so much about EKU.
Good marketers also have stories to tell, based on their research, and Eastern has a compelling story to tell, Shao said.
The university has an illustrious history, excellent faculty and beautiful facilities that he would love to lead and promote, Shao said.
Still, EKU has some great needs, he added. The proportion of students who graduate after initially enrolling is well below the national average and must be improved. Its best private fundraising campaign garnered about $28 million.
After already being asked several times about his management style during his campus visit, he summed it up near the beginning of his remarks with two words -- strategic empowerment.
Students come to college looking for knowledge and for mentors, and they want to be empowered by both to launch a career, Shao said, and successful universities provide that.
Good leaders empower the success of others, Shao added. And the job of college administrators is to empower the success of students and the faculty who teach them.
“I’m not a micromanager, never have been and never will be,” he declared.
The son of a Chinese father and American mother, Shao said his life philosophy is “no excuses.” Whatever he does, he said, “mediocrity is not an option.”
While the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are deserving of their prestige, EKU under his leadership would “refuse to be considered secondary” to any Kentucky institution, he said.
Although not tall, Shao said he loves to play basketball and approaches the sport with the same determination that he approaches everything in life. He begins each day with an exercise workout and goes to work with a smile, even if he may not be smiling when the day is done.
The College of Charleston’s business school last year launched an eight-year plan, but it was the work of all its stakeholders, not primarily the dean, Shao said.
He would like to lead EKU’s stakeholders in a similar plan, beginning with thorough research and setting ambitious goals.
In devising the eight-year plan as well as his school’s daily operation, Shao said he wants to know what students are thinking, especially those who may not be vocal. That’s why the school has a dean’s forum with 12 student representatives who bring other students’ thoughts to him. A “Think Differently” forum is designed to bring minority views to the forefront.
While a business model should be embedded in a university’s operation, academic learning must always come first at an educational institution, Shao said in answer to a question.
However, university stakeholders must realize that state funding will only go down, he added, noting that the College of Charleston is even more dependent on state funds than Eastern.
Even for students majoring in business, Shao said the arts and sciences should be the foundation of their education. Any business person needs good communication and a background in history, among other skills, to be successful. And those come from liberal arts study, he said.
Travel and study abroad, as well as foreign language study, are important to students who will be competing in a global economy, Shao continued.
When his current school’s eight-year plan is fully implemented, every student will be required to study abroad before graduating, he said.
Study abroad, foreign language study, graduate study and internships set students apart and make them more competitive in the workplace, Shao said. He encourages all of them at the College of Charleston and would do the same at EKU.
His entire life has prepared him to be EKU’s next president, he said. His father, who came to the United States in 1948 at age 24, taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
His mother, like his wife does today, taught elementary school. He and his three brothers all earned doctorates in business.
He rose through the faculty ranks at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte before becoming dean of the College of Charleston’s business school and also has run businesses.
Dr. Sheila Pressley, chair of the faculty senate and member of the presidential search committee, presided at Tuesday’s forum.
She reminded the audience that both the search panel and the regents, who will select the president, value their input. Comment forms were available at the forum and also may be obtained online, Pressley said.
The online form for commenting on Dr. Shao is available at www.presidentialsearch.eku.edu/feedback3.
Responses are due by 3:15 p.m. today.
Bill Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or at 624-6690.