Reflections on Rhodes College and higher academics with Dr. William E. Troutt
by Samuel X. Cicci
Some people never want to leave college, but Dr. William “Bill” E. Troutt was lucky enough to stay at the helm of Rhodes College for almost two decades. At the age of 68, he retires as the longest-serving college president in the country, with a 17-year position at Nashville’s Belmont College preceding his time in Memphis. Thirty-five years is a long time, and the education landscape has changed drastically during his tenure. However, he doesn’t regret a second of it. Marks of his leadership remain on campus, including the $35 million gift for the Paul Barret Jr. Library, opened in 2005, as well as more internal changes, such as restructured trustee governance. The college’s continued growth in the community, as well as the success of its students, may well be Troutt’s greatest legacy, but the bow-tied Tennessee native has many fond memories of his time at Rhodes.
IMB: You were at Rhodes for 18 years?
Dr. William Troutt: I came here on July 1 of 1999, and tomorrow, I finish 18 years of service here and 35 years as a college president. I was at Belmont at Nashville for 17 years before that, so it’s been a wonderful journey.
When I was a college senior, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I had started college thinking I’d be a minister. Then you go to liberal arts college and things are clarified, so I decided I wanted to be a college president. To my surprise and delight, that’s been my occupation for most of life, really. You’re my last interview of my professional career! July 1, 1999, has passed quickly.
Do you have any plans for what comes next?
WT: Well, I’ve been telling my students I’m going to take a gap year. But I really do want to take some time because every morning for 35 years I’ve woken up thinking about what I need to do for college. Last summer, I taught at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, and I really enjoyed that and found that that might be an area where I can be helpful. Not right away, but I can envision working with some college presidents, maybe working with their board of trustees just to try to pass on some of the things I’ve learned over the years.
I’ve been so fortunate; I chaired this commission for Congress right before I came to Rhodes, and I had a chance to be on some other federal commissions, chair of the American Council on Education, and it’s been interesting to see not only changes at Rhodes, but changes in higher education. It’s expanded dramatically. A lot more people are going to college and are often going to different kinds of institutions. A lot of adults are going back to college now. When I started, the primary demographic of college students was 18-22-year-olds. Of course it still is here, but that’s expanded really exponentially. When I started college, there were about seven million people in higher education, and right now there are about 21 million.
You can see how it’s changed. Technology has been a big part of that, with new ways of thinking about how we teach and learn. Although here, there’s a certain timeless quality to what we do: all small classes, great co-curricular learnings out on the campus, and some other amazing things we do for students. Those who want to venture into Memphis learn through internships, learn through service, and learn through research. Looking back on my time here, I’ve been so pleased that we’ve been able to expand student opportunity more than anything else. From what we’ve done to provide support in the classrooms, support for the faculty on campus with new programs, new facilities. We’ve added about $200 million to the fiscal plan over the past 18 years, and it is, of course, America’s most beautiful campus!
We’ve also expanded student opportunity, and think of all the opportunities you have as Rhodes students. If you’re interested in scientific research, you can be part of St. Jude’s Summer Plus Fellowship. If you want a business internship you can look at FedEx or some other places. If you want to learn through service, we’ve got wonderful partners like MIFA, and as you know, Memphis loves Rhodes students and as we’ve become more focused on Memphis, we’ve become a more national institution. We’re more distinctive among our liberal arts national peers because we’re in a city and we try to take advantage of that with these partnerships and relationships.
A nice byproduct for Memphis has been the retention of students. You’re a great example of that. Ninety percent of our students come from somewhere else. Over the last few years, over forty percent of our students are still here in Memphis. Think of what that means to the city to have a talent magnet like Rhodes College bringing the best and brightest to our state. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish regarding expanding student opportunity, in the classroom and across campus. It’s created a real win-win situation for students and the city.
I have a lot of friends interested in the medical scene, and they’re finding great opportunities at hospitals all around the city.
WT: Hospitals love Rhodes students, whether you’re a scribe or interning. The result of that is terrific for our students. Last fall, accounting for students who took a gap year, 59 students entered medical school. For a school of our enrollment, that’s phenomenal. But again, that’s attributed to the great faculty here, the hardworking students, and then these experiences you get in the city. Other healthcare providers also give different experiences, and the results are just fantastic for everybody.
I wanted to ask about a few changes you implemented during your tenure and how they benefitted the school. To start, can you elaborate on how establishing endowed faculty chairs improved each department?
WT: The heart of everything we do here starts in the classroom: small classes, opportunities for great faculty with students. We recruit really well, and have got our top choices each time over the past seven or eight years for a tenure track spot. But to recruit these remarkable people, it’s best to retain them. We need endowed positions, which not only underwrite the salary of the person, but provide support for their research and work with students. As we do that, we not only strengthen the college financially, but we provide opportunities for the faculty to not only see themselves as being valued, but to have extra tools to work with students. I’m very proud of the many positions we’ve been able to secure in terms of having them underwritten by donors.
Next, tell us about the trustee governance structure that you reformatted.
WT: We have always had wonderful individuals serving on the board, but we had a very large board, and a board that had so many talented people. We asked “how do we structure the work to take advantage of that?” Thanks to the leadership of Bob Waller, the former head of Mayo Clinic and one of our trustees, a study team, an ad hoc committee, looked at the best governance practices all over the country, from Wellesley, to Rice, to Stanford. They asked a number of questions among themselves and came up with a structure where we’re able to use the talents of our trustees at the highest level. We could talk about strategic leadership, generative leadership, and were composed and structured in such a way to take advantage of this amazing talent that’s around the table. To have the college governed in this way and to have our trustees provide this level of leadership has been extraordinary.
When you create a very positive culture of mutual respect and candor, and you structure our meetings appropriately, you get amazing results.
Funding for the Paul Barret Jr. Library was one of the biggest acquisitions.
WT: That was the largest gift that the college has received [$35 million]. It began when I arrived, and our accrediting body had said we needed a new library that reflected the tremendous academic quality here and supported our students in the best way. That was a daunting task. We brought in a consultant to help us think about that, and he said that it would take about $14 million to create that kind of structure.
So, we went to work speaking with individuals, and I had the privilege of talking for over a year with the trustees of the Paul Barret Trust about how they might memorialize Mr. Barret here. The result of it was an initial gift of $20 million, and as happens in American life, we went through a period of significant economic downturn, and I began to wonder, how could we raise the other half.
It’s not unusual in college fundraising to ask someone for a naming opportunity — to give half for the building, and then the college raises the other half from supporters. I went back and asked them to do the entire building. After some reflection, and on one of the happiest days for me professionally, Lewis Donelson [head of the Paul Barret trust] said they’d decided to do the entire building. It would be named totally for Paul Barret, and it’s a towering testimony to his good life. It’s become the center of the campus, our cathedral in the village, and it’s where Rhodes students want to be, even as libraries have changed. We knew they would, so we built a lot of flexibility into the building, and that resulted in a building that works as well today as it did when it opened. It’s more a center for technology, but always has been where students and faculty connect, where students can connect with one another, and it’s been a great success story for us.
What message do you send out initially to get investors interested in a venture of that scale?
WT: You always are looking not only to the needs of the college, but what’s meaningful to the donor. There has to be an alignment between your request and their deepest values and most important commitments. That takes a lot of conversation and takes a lot of time. People may think you just come in and ask someone for money, but at the highest level for the largest gifts, it’s a long series of conversations about what matters most to them and what the needs of the college are, and how working together you can achieve something very meaningful for everybody.
And that’s been the case for all of our fundraising efforts here. We just finished, about a year ago, the Campaign for Rhodes, which was $314 million, which included endowment, program support, and the final piece of it, coming together this summer, was Robertson Hall, the great new biochemistry building. That and the renovation of Briggs Hall create a new quadrangle. It’s really a time of completion for me in every way, as it completes our academic core of the campus.
What does Rhodes need to do to continue its successful expansion, into the community, the public eye, and maybe even internationally?
WT: The success of Rhodes has been, and will continue to be, being faithful to its core values. When I arrived here, 18 years ago, I got some great advice from Lester Crane, one of our trustees. He said, “Bill, you’re new. You’re going to want to change some things, and that’s just fine, as long as you don’t change two things: honor code and architecture.” And of course on one level he was talking about our time-honored, student-run honor code, which really works here, and he was talking about our architectural consistency, which has been here since 1925. But he was really talking about staying true to the core commitments: high-level intellectual engagement and high-level service to others. I think what drives everything we’ve done here has been anchored in providing the best education possible and having this ideal of excellency that will continue to sustain the college in days ahead.
Do you think you’ll continue to wear bowties?
WT: My wife Carole, who’s been the best life-partner and first lady the college could have, asked me the other day, “Are you going to continue wearing bowties, or are you going back to long ties?” And I responded, “How about no ties for a while?” So, I don’t know.
I didn’t know how to tie a bowtie until, maybe, 12 or 13 years ago. I was on the Abraham Lincoln Commission for Study Abroad, which was looking at how to enable more American college students to study in another country, and that was a vision of Paul Simon, who’d been a longtime senator from Illinois. I was somewhat helpful on the commission, especially to the Simon family, and he’d been famous for wearing bowties when there was no one else in the Senate who did that. So Martin Simon, his son, sent me one of his bowties, and I thought, “Wow, that’s special, I’ve got to learn how to tie it!” I had no idea. Bud Richey, one of our colleagues here, a gifted and patient teacher, taught me how to tie a bowtie. I grew fond of doing it, and now I can tie it more quickly than a straight tie. I’ve enjoyed it, but we’ll see what happens in the next chapter!
It’s just really amazing. I grew up in a small town, less than 70 miles from here, Bolivar, Tennessee, and again you know my story of wanting to be a college president, now completing 35 years as a college president. But getting to complete my time as president, back home, so to speak, and at one of America’s truly great colleges, what a privilege! As I told the seniors at graduation, my hope for them is really my own life story: Sometimes your life exceeds your dreams.
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