Interview with H. Mebane Turner
by Jerry M. Bodman
EL: - What is the level of obligation for leaders to go above and beyond the task - to ensure that the "troops" are taken care of?
President Turner: - First of all, I don't believe people should seek leadership roles or positions of responsibility for others and the conditions of others unless they understand and are willing to fulfill the obligations to do those jobs. As an example, I try to go to as many student events as I can, to be involved with the various organizations on campus, but that's also my job. If you aspire to be a dean of a college or a president of an organization, then you have to be willing to assume the extra things that go along with it. A leader has to have people who want to go along with good ideas, to see that what you are doing can be successful and be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that success. In a leadership position, you want to look around and find that there are people behind you embracing your ideas and dreams.
EL: - Who has made the greatest impact on your leadership style and abilities? Why?
President Turner: - I have really had three areas that have impacted my leadership style and abilities. I think the greatest impact evolved out of my early education. I went to schools that operated on honor systems and I developed a saying out of the experience, "happy audit trails". Now following the honor system does not necessarily mean that you have great ethical values in life, but instead have practical values and that paves a solid life trail. Your actions are such that you don't find yourself embarrassed by what you have done or find you are questioned by anyone as "acting in an inappropriate manner." If you make mistakes, you shoot yourself in the foot and make it very difficult to lead others. If people don't have confidence in you, sooner or later people will stop believing in you.
Also, I played team sports beginning in the third grade all the way through graduate school. In fact, I even then went back to coach at the University of Virginia, which is actually how I got started in college work. If you are going to be a successful coach you have to get people to work together. If you want to be on successful teams, you have to be willing to work with other people. This is a lesson anyone can take from sports. Winning isn't everything. What does become clear is that its morale and the ability of people to be selfless and getting the job done.
And, there have been personal influences as well, coaches and administrators along the way that I have admired. My predecessor, Dr. Pullen, Lorin Thompson at George Mason, Gilly Sullivan at Virginia and others who have been good leaders. I have had the good fortune of having student leadership positions and worked with the deans and presidents who instilled strong leadership beliefs along the way.
EL: - Who do you consider to be a great leader today? Why? I think most people have a tendency to answer such a question based on our political leaders, as they are often the most prominent in our minds. Someone who comes to mind immediately is George Washington. President Washington was one determined person and that determination made our country what it is today. He was dogged in his beliefs and I think a testament to his leadership is that we still discuss his leadership today through textbooks, biographies and case studies. He set farsighted traditions. In today's world I think of Jimmy Carter who is certainly well known for his leadership out of office rather more so than during his Presidential term. He has set a tone of giving, of energies for the benefit of others. I consider both "straight shooters" and I think when you have someone whose word you can trust - they are worthy of admiration.
EL: - How do you use your leadership position at the university to impact the community at large?
President Turner: - I think it is important to realize that this university, our campus, has a rich heritage and is actually an extended part of a community - a neighborhood. With that comes a moral obligation to lead - to set actions in place that benefit a greater group than just our student body. The community around us has been economically challenged and we are in the midst of that - some would call it blight. We invest in both monetary ways and in giving of time. There is a faction of self-interest in those actions and it is important to recognize that self-interest is not necessarily bad - if self-interest is served in a way that is beneficial to everyone. As President of the university, it is my role to lead others to believe and share in extended goals that reach outside the walls of the university into the circle of the community.
EL: - How do you find that leadership is changed or hindered (if at all) in an administrative academic environment?
President Turner: - I don't know that the academic environment is any different than the corporate environment. If people don't get others to work with them, to go along with their strategies, the job is tough no matter what. The academic environment has the same challenges as any other business, a very competitive environment - competition for good people and programs that build the organization. We are engaged in the collegiality game of life where many committees and self- interest groups have to considered in the decision making process and this takes time. My leadership role is to make sure this all functions well structurally and that is not really different than the role of the CEO of Sears or any other major organization.
EL: - Educational institutions are under such financial scrutiny and a push to be profitable. How do you weigh that with your desire to be a leader?
President Turner: - We will always fall under financial scrutiny because we are a financial institution just as any publicly held business falls under the financial eye. As President of the university, I have fiscal responsibilities and I have a desire to watch this organization grow. The key is to pursue every dollar, and that is just good business sense. As an example, if we see we are going to have dollars left over in any part of the Educational Foundation's operation, we want that money to remain in the foundation - to fund the future of the university. My job is really to remind everyone on our staff to make sure we make the best use of every dollar. So, I really blend the fiscal responsibilities with my desire to build a stronger university and they come together to form my leadership style.
EL: - How do you get the students, who are rightfully self-interested in pursuing their education, to be interested in doing more than coming to school and leaving. How do you insert your leadership into their daily life?
President Turner: - Students are asked to complete surveys about how well they were satisfied in their University of Baltimore experience. We are thereby graded on this. However, students have to be willing to put something into the experience as well. We find with the students who are willing to participate in the experience, we make a difference. Not just through my leadership influence, but through our entire organization. If a student comes to us apathetic, it is very difficult to move them from that attitude. It may be they just aren't interested in what other students are interested in, but they have to be willing to explore the experience of learning.
I have always tried to be hands on - I attended sports events and met the kids and their families. I was among the students expressing belief and ideas from the university. It is important to note that 89% of our students are working while attending the university. Time is their greatest commodity so I must interject my leadership role in a manner that can make a difference for them. I find that best done through the programs and activities we offer.