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Monday, May 20, 2024

A Tale of Two Presidents

The landscape of post-secondary education in Evansville has seen many changes over the years, but one of the biggest is set to occur at the end of the spring 2018 semester.

In July 2017, University of Evansville president Dr. Thomas Kazee announced he would leave his post with the private institution on May 31. The news marked the end of his eight years leading the university. Then, in August, Dr. Linda L.M. Bennett also announced she would retire from the presidency of the University of Southern Indiana, ending her decade as head of the school.

As both institutions prepare for the departure of these two respected educators — searching for replacements and continuing to build upon the growth and changes they have implemented — we sat down with Bennett, Kazee, and a few of their colleagues to discuss the successes, the challenges, their impacts, and more.

Intentionally Driven

“Decide what you want to achieve, and then leave. Don’t stay too long.”

This was a bit of advice a friend had given Dr. Linda L.M. Bennett when she accepted the position of president of the University of Southern Indiana in 2009. It was something that stuck with her, telling her to find a focus for her tenure at the public university, she says.

▲ Dr. Linda L.M. Bennett says she hopes the faculty and students of the University of Southern Indiana remember her as a president who was approachable. As she regularly met with students in different capacities and worked closely with the staff of the university, it is a reputation that is likely to stick. “When I think about retirement, the exciting things going on give me a great peace about retiring now,” says Bennett. 

As Bennett prepared her retirement announcement in August 2017, she felt ready for the step; that it was time and she had achieved what she set out to when becoming president.

“Then I got up there, and looked at that room full of people, and the enormity of it just hit me,” she says. “I think that is the measure of how much I have loved being here.”

A graduate of the University of Cincinnati in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, Bennett began her career in higher education at the private liberal arts college Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, as a professor of political science (she holds a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in the field). After 13 years, she moved on to Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky, in 1996. Then in 1999, she was hired at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, for a time before she accepted the position as provost and vice president of academic affairs for USI in 2003.

“From each institution I feel as if I’ve gained important experience, and it all came together here at USI,” she says. “I liked the energy of USI when I first arrived. It’s a young university; it’s not locked in the hierarchical bureaucracy. People talk to each other. You get to know students.”

Through her near-decade as president of the public university, Bennett has led the campus through one of the largest growth periods in the school’s history. From USI’s first strategic plan and doctoral program (doctor of nursing practice) to renovations of the Physical Activities Center and addition of the Griffin Center, USI has expanded by leaps and bounds under her guidance.

“I am amazed at what she’s been able to accomplish in her time here,” says Dr. Ann White, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at USI. “And she’s had to make some pretty hard decisions, but she’s been successful at making them.”

For White — who has been with the university for 28 years — the relationship she has had with Bennett has been one of listening and observing.

“She’s just amazing. She listens, she asks thoughtful and sometimes very hard questions, but they also are very important questions,” says White.

Bennett attributes the success of her tenure to the idea of being intentional in all the university worked toward, which plays back into the advice she received when she first became president.

“People always think about growth only in terms of numbers,” she says. “But I think about the broader definition of growth. We wanted to see growth in our geographic reach, in the understanding of the strength of this university, in the number of programs and the diversity of programs we’re offering.

“I took on that notion of growth and then wanted to be very intentional about how we started to tackle some of those issues,” she says.

That intentional drive has shown in the results — growth in the number of degrees granted, in number of students completing degrees in four years, as well as strategic plans and a signature initiative to continue the impact and reach of USI. The signature initiative is something Bennett is particularly excited about.

“There’s so much we do in terms of outreach and engagement with our partners in the region that if we can capture the impact of that through research, I’m excited about the potential of that for the university,” she says.

Through this initiative, the university will encourage faculty and undergraduate and graduate students to research the impact the university and its outreach programs have on the communities and organizations with whom they partner.

“We’ve just been very fortunate she’s been a part of this university for as many years as she has,” says White. “She has become a huge ambassador for this university. At multiple levels she has been the ambassador to say USI is doing great things, come and see what we’re doing.”

For Bennett, retirement still will be busy but it is something she looks forward to. She and her husband Stephen plan to stay in Evansville, which was not a difficult decision for them at all, she says.

“My husband and I love the community. Our friends are here, our connections are here,” says Bennett.

While she is stepping down from her role at USI, she will continue to stay involved in the community through different organizations she has served (WNIN, Deaconess Health System, and Welborn Baptist Foundation boards to name a few). Bennett also looks forward to getting back to writing.

“I would like to do some reflective writing on some of our experiences here and things I think we do that I don’t see happening at other institutions,” she says.

As she nears her retirement date of June 30, Bennett says there is much about the university she will miss — the people and students of the campus, her day-to-day work, and the excitement of being a part of USI. What she hopes she leaves behind, however, is a sense she was approachable and accessible to those around her.

“I think that’s so important — not just from the perspective of the student, but to me in terms of what I learn when I listen,” says Bennett. “If you’re not listening to the people who are experiencing the organization in all kinds of ways, then you’re not thinking in a broad enough way.”

Bennett may not realize it, but it is a quality recognized by her staff; one White says she will miss.

“She was that transparent and communicated that well so we all felt we were a part of this university,” she says. “I will be sad to see her leave, but she’s put us in a very good position to continue forward.”

“I have so loved this job. It’s the best job on the planet,” says Bennett.

An Unplanned Path

Being the president of a university was never something Dr. Thomas Kazee had imagined for himself. In fact, he had no desire to be an administrator at all. But when he was offered a chance to assume that role, he took it.

“As recently as a couple of years before moving into administration, I would have bet you a lot of money I would never become an administrator,” says Kazee. “But I thought, I also don’t want to be 75 years old and look back and say, ‘I never tried anything different.’”

It wasn’t until 1999 that Kazee had the opportunity to move into such a role at The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, serving as the dean of the college. He then served as provost at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina, for seven years.

Having worked closely with a university president before, Kazee thought he had an idea of what the position entailed, but he admits there is nothing to prepare one for such a job.

The last eight years at the University of Evansville have presented challenges, but proved to be rewarding for Kazee. Whether it’s working with potential donors, interacting with students and faculty, or shaking the hands of new graduates, Kazee says he will miss it all.

▲ Kazee does not shy away from assuming the role of Ace Purple as he leads a group in cheering on the Aces. He also often makes time to speak to students and faculty members to listen to their ideas and learn from their perspective.  

There is no doubt those who work closely with Kazee feel the same way about his departure. Dr. Michael Austin, executive vice president for academic affairs at UE, has worked with Kazee nearly every day.

“He’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” says Austin. “He’s very thoughtful. He is kind.”

Though it was UE’s reputation that first attracted Kazee, he says those personal attributes are what further interested him in the university. He noted the people weren’t pretentious or putting on a show; they were welcoming and real. Kazee says that showed through the most when he visited UE for the first time and met faculty members.

“They really cared about their students. They talked about their students in a way that faculty at great schools talked about their students,” he says. “They knew who they were. They cared about what they were going to do with their lives.”

Kazee has spent a large part of his professional life as a faculty member in higher education. After getting his bachelor’s degree in political science from Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, and his Ph.D. in political science from Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, he taught political science at Tulane University in New Orleans for three years before accepting a teaching position at Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina. He remained there for 18 years before making the jump into administration.

While in administration, Kazee always had taught. The first five years at UE, though, he didn’t teach and found he missed it. After working out a schedule, Kazee was back in the classroom and happier than ever.

▲ Kazee strives to welcome new students while getting involved in various Welcome Week activities and says shaking the hands of new graduates is one of the things he will miss the most.  

“I just love the teaching,” he says. “I would highly encourage presidents to teach if they can work it out. It keeps you in contact with students, which is very important. It helps you identify with your faculty.”

Teaching is just one item on his long list of presidential duties, but it’s an important one. Another duty is working with the board of trustees. Dr. Rose Mays, at-large trustee of the university, recalls working with Kazee on issues like diversity on campus. She says he encourages others to make students feel welcome and to understand diverse perspectives.

“He’s really sincere in his approach, he does his homework, he really researches and tries to understand issues, and really makes an effort to take everyone’s perspective into consideration,” says Mays.

Kazee brought this same approach to each issue he has faced at UE. At the top of his priority list is valuing ideas.

“He genuinely likes people but he also genuinely likes ideas and believes in them,” says Austin. “So he’s a very, very good person to lead an academic institution.”

And while the university has seen changes in academic programs and campus appearances, such as the renovation of the Bower-Suhrheinrich library, Kazee says there is a lot that has not changed.

“Our core mission hasn’t changed; our values haven’t changed. We still want to offer a world-class, residential, four-year undergraduate education that is second to none,” he says. “That’s been our focus, and my successor, I’m sure, will embrace that focus as well.”

For Kazee, it is hard to leave because of the great things happening on campus and in the community, but he realizes that would be true any year. Though he is leaving a lot behind, Kazee says he knew it was time to move on and hand over the reigns to someone who is just as passionate about UE as he is.

“I’m excited about leaving new president Christopher Pietruszkiewicz in a position where UE can continue to be the great place it is,” he says.

Kazee is looking forward to returning to South Carolina after his term at the university ends. He and his wife Sharon have owned property in Pawleys Island for 15 years and have often vacationed there.

“It’s been a great getaway place, and it’s going to be a great retirement place,” says Kazee. He adds they are both looking forward to having access to several golf courses and being within walking distance of close friends.

“He’s just really a top-notch leader and his shoes are going to be very hard to fill,” says Mays.

“Working with the very good people that are at a place like UE can do something pretty magical,” says Kazee. “So I’m retiring with very few regrets.”

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