James Tananan Kamnuedkhun
KAYLA DRAKE | Editor-in-chief
John Porter became the 23rd president of Lindenwood University on July 1. Recently, Lindenlink sat down with him to ask about his past and future plans for Lindenwood, including some student-suggested questions.
Porter is fresh out of the corporate world, having left his position as Vice President of Services for an IBM partner firm in Dubai a month before coming to Lindenwood. His background is in managing IBM divisions in the U.S. and South Africa, primarily working in hardware, software and IT. In total, Porter worked in the corporate world for over 30 years, as well as adjunct teaching at Drury and Evangel universities in Springfield, Missouri. Porter assumed his position in the wake of last semester’s unexpected firing of Michael Shonrock, who was president for three years.
Key takeaways from the interview:
The president will be presenting his first big package to the board in October, complete with plans for new student housing, building renovations and a bigger future for STEM programs.Porter has met with four university presidents from the St. Louis area to see how Lindenwood can partner with other schools in an effort he’s termed “co-opetition.”He is from the South Side of Chicago and is a first-generation college student.He plans to earn his PhD in education from Johns Hopkins University in May 2020. Porter started pursuing his PhD in 2017 with the intention to work in administration in higher education.When asked about the future of a wet campus, Porter said, “Let me just be really frank, no.”
The following interview has been edited for organization, clarity, and succinctness.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago, in a small community called Midlothian or Tinley Park in that area. And my parents were middle class folks, great people. My dad was a truck driver for the city of Chicago and my mother was a secretary and so we grew up with modest means, but a strong family.
My brother and I were first-generation college students. We got our undergrad at Evangel [University]. That’s where I met my wife, and then she and I both got our MBA at Washington University and we graduated in 2011.
What was your undergrad degree in?
Communications and a minor in computer science.
What classes did you teach when you were an adjunct?
At Drury, I taught international business and leadership. In Evangel, I taught risk management and operations management, which was at the Masters level there.
What made you want to switch to the administrative route and not teaching?
I wanted to teach because I love working with the students. My wife and I, prior to going to South Africa, we worked with students for 33 straight years in a church environment, sixth-12th grade, a lot of mentoring. I thought, while I was at IBM, I wanted to continue to work with students. And I thought, certainly with the business background and the leadership positions that I’ve been fortunate with, that would equate well to the classroom for the students.
If you go back to my MBA at WashU, I enjoyed WashU a ton, because most of the instructors I had were actual consultants for companies. It was about the real world: “Here’s what I’m doing at this company, this company and this company.” And that’s the same thing I wanted to do for Evangel and Drury. Not just, you know, put the textbook stuff in there and assignments, but it’s, “How do I draw my experience, and equate that to the environment so the students can learn from real experience?”
You mentioned working with sixth-12th graders, was that like a youth group?
It was, but it wasn’t. It was a competitive program where we competed across the United States. So they would memorize a chapter or a book in the New Testament. And then you would have to recall that information within 30 seconds, you hit a buzzer, and there’s 700 teams in the country. [It’s called the Bible Bowl.] That was an intense program that we did for 33 straight years. And it really challenged the kids. It was two hours of study a day for 10 months out of the year.
Would you describe yourself as more reserved or more outgoing?
Not reserved. I have a lot of energy. I like to get things done. I don’t like standing still. I’m one that says “When we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it and we’re going to execute on it.”
I am a big believer in the team thing. But I’m not one that wants to boil the ocean with 12 things, we’ll do four or five things really well.
What exactly did you do for IBM? If you could, take me through the timeline of your career with IBM?
I graduated in ‘84. My wife and I moved to Chicago… and shortly after moving to Chicago, I started with IBM. I was a banking finance specialist, and then got certified in mainframe computing. Then, I took on leadership roles and management roles. Then I took a worldwide position running a software division for IBM.
Leading up to South Africa, I was running our technology support services. I ran the western half of the United States, a $1.2 billion [yearly business] – great opportunity and some great employees.
Then I was asked to go to South Africa and run two divisions. I ran global technology services and strategic outsourcing, which is – we ran the data centers for major corporations throughout the world. Then I ran Technology Support Services for South Africa also… for a little over two years.
My assignment was coming up in South Africa… and the opportunities weren’t what I liked coming back to the States. I got a call from Dubai from a CEO of an IBM partner firm [Gulf Business Machines] that said “Hey I would love for you to come to Dubai and run the Middle East and run the same divisions I was running at IBM in South Africa…so I left IBM in August, and I started with GBM, Dubai, in September [of 2018].
What are some lessons you learned from life and IBM that you carry with you?
I learned from my parents, my dad in particular, to always think of the other person first and work hard. If you do those two things in life, it can go well. Those were key for me.
At IBM, I was proud to be a part of a company where integrity is a number one priority. Diversity is also a huge priority… IBM was about performance. It’s a high performance company. We had a lot of metrics so there was accountability.
[At IBM] laying out strategy and executing, was what we did a lot. I think that that can equate to the higher education environment, hands down. Hopefully, that’s what I bring here is that experience of leading people of different cultures, looking at diversity, making sure that there’s inclusion and equity.
And at the same time, there’s a large budget here you’ve got to run tightly on the financial management piece. There’s a lot of revenues that flow through here. We’ve got a big campaign that’s coming up here in the next six months, that’ll drive a lot of growth.
Kayla Drake, Editor-in-Chief of Lindenlink, interviews John R. Porter, the 23rd president of Lindenwood University. Photo by James Tananan Kamnuedkhun
Porter’s plans for Lindenwood:
Can you give me any information about the new campaign you’re presenting to the board in October?
It’ll be a hefty package. But it’ll bring some great growth for the university, it will hopefully attract even more students. Let’s be clear that this initiative started before I came, so the thought of bringing STEM, I won’t take credit for that. We’ve certainly put together the packaging around it. I think what I’ve added is, “What are some of the other things that we should be doing on campus here?”
If you look at our health sciences, or in general, we could be giving students even more experiential learning, I’m all about what can be learned more in the classroom. We’re working with all the deans right now… looking at the rigor and quality of the education we have, making sure that we’re doing the best for the students. And then…when they finish their four years or five years, that it’s relevant.
What do you think about the diversity in leadership at Lindenwood?
We have pockets of folks that are doing diversity work…but we have to do a much better job and recognize our shortfalls. It’s through the organization, it always starts with leadership. You don’t change these things overnight. But you have to change behavior, so that you can become diverse.
You know, if you look at Dubai, it is a mostly male-dominated workplace, and women are not as highly-viewed as men are. You get a little bit further out to Saudi Arabia, then you find it’s even worse, right? So I think we’ve got work to do. We have to be more thoughtful in terms of leadership positions and in terms of our student population.
Think about it, in the not-too-distant future, 50 percent of our students coming out of high school, will turn into the minority majority [minorities outnumbering Caucasians, the current majority]. How are we as Lindenwood University ready for that? IBM was huge on diversity, I think that’s what I bring here. We were very cognizant and aware of what value that diversity does bring to IBM, and diversity will bring value to Lindenwood also.
How do you want to make yourself visible on campus?
What I’ve told my team is, I want to be out and about. Think about this past Saturday, I was at the women’s rugby game, that was phenomenal. I gave each of the ladies coming off the field all a high five. They were unbelievable. And then Saturday night, I was at the football game the entire time, from kickoff to to that last play. I want the students to know that I’m interested in them; I’m interested in our athletes and our games.
It’s all about relationship. I want to make myself available to the students, make myself available to faculty, staff, certainly to my cabinet, the deans and so I think they’ve already seen a lot of me, and they’ll continue to see a lot of me. I want to make myself accessible and available. It’s a team here, there’s no one individual that’s going to make the changes or really drive this, it’s going to be about the leadership team and how we do this together. There’s no dictatorship here.
How do you plan to work with the board of trustees?
I probably talk to someone on the board two to four times a week. It’s my role as president to make sure that the board is apprised of things that we’re working on, certainly any issues that we would have. I’m really pleased with the board. There’s a lot of skills and expertise on this board that we’ll take advantage of, it’s going to be good for me and good for the students.
Porter’s impression of Lindenwood:
What has been your impression of Lindenwood’s campus culture?
When my wife and I drove on this campus, for the first time, we were blown away, it is just a phenomenal campus. I think there’s an excitement here that is unique to this campus. I really believe that, not just because I’m here. I mean, on move-in day, I walked around to all the buildings, and just to see the excitement and to see 180 volunteers taking all this stuff up. And I talked to parents, and parents had never seen anything like this.
I hope for the students, this is what college is all about. Enjoy this. This is a great atmosphere. If you’re going to get anything that I say today, we have excellent staff, faculty and leadership here. I really believe that people here are dedicated and they’re passionate about what they do. They truly, truly care about the students. We’ve got a lot to offer. I hope students will take advantage of that and be a part of it.
One big critique of the university in my time here has been the fact that it is run more like a business than an educational institution. Do you think any accountability is owed to students?
I can’t attest to what you just said. I honestly wouldn’t have thought what you’re thinking. From a financial perspective, we make decisions because we want to remain viable, and this institution is in a really good position from a financial perspective. We want to keep it that way. But that’s never been the forefront of any meeting that I’ve been in. The meetings that I’ve been in [have been] centered around the student.
We’ve got dollars to do things that are going to give students the best experience being a part of this university. So to say you run it like a business, well, you have to manage it. If we had poor fiscal abilities and responsibilities, then the students will suffer in the long run. So you’ve got to run the business side, and you’ve got to run the student side, and they work in conjunction with each other.
What’s your beverage of choice? Diet Coke
Are you really living in the president’s house? How do you not really live there?
Do you pick your mail up at the mail room or in your mailbox? My mailbox
Chick-fil-a or Qdoba? Chick-fil-a
Evans recently changed from buffet to a la carte. Have you heard student complaints? There’s been a couple discussions around the athletes. But I think the whole idea here is [Pedestal Foods is] trying to make it a better experience once again, for the students and quality food. I think they made good changes and it’s all based on feedback from the students.
Do you plan to re-open Butler Library in the future? It has a potential.
Is Lindenwood going to have 24/7 visitation in any more buildings? We haven’t had those discussions yet. I think we’re going to wait for that.
Is there a future for a wet campus at Lindenwood? Let me just be really frank, no.
John R. Porter, the president of Lindenwood, responds to a question. Photo by James Tananan Kamnuedkhun