When University of Louisville Provost Shirley Willihnganz announced last month she would step down from the position she’s held for 13 years, it took many in the university community by surprise. Willihnganz, as U of L’s No. 2 administrative official, was thought to be a lifer. She’ll vacate the post July 1.
U of L President James Ramsey turned to current J.B. Speed School of Engineering Dean Neville Pinto to fill the post for at least the next year. It’s a natural fit for Pinto, who previously served as provost of the graduate school at the University of Cincinnati. He’s been at U of L since 2011 and has led innovations at the Speed School, most notably the FirstBuild advanced manufacturing microfactory in partnership with GE Appliances.
Pinto sat down with IL on Wednesday to discuss a wide range of issues facing the university, including U of L’s academic mission, lowering the cost of tuition, how the university might recover from recent scandals, and the tension in public universities partnering heavily with private industry.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Insider Louisville: Where do you think U of L stands right now, in competition with other universities in the state and nationally?
Neville Pinto: What I like to look at is the trajectory of a university, and that’s what caught my attention when I first came here. This university has been on a very, very impressive trajectory. You look at its roots and where it is now, it’s really risen to be a national research university, which takes a lot of dedication, strong leadership, investment of resources, and all of that had to come together in a good way. That has happened here, and it’s difficult to accomplish. I see this university moving in the direction of being one of the premier universities in the country.
We will have our niche areas — we can’t be good at everything. But what I believe we’re doing is pursuing a strategy that is solidly grounded in our mission as a state university. We’re a metropolitan research university. Our goal is to serve the commonwealth. And so we’re aligning what we’re doing with the needs of the commonwealth, and I think that’s a really solid strategy for the long term.
IL: There has been this ongoing conversation about U of L’s identity. Is U of L aspiring to be a national research university, or is it best positioned to be a good community-oriented school?
NP: I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. You’re talking about its impact regionally or nationally — which is more significant?
IL: At a time of limited resources, do you buckle down and focus just on where you are?
NP: I think you need to aspire — you need to aspire to excellence in everything you do. This is what we teach our students, and I think when we’re leading institutions, we need to do that. We need to look for good models out there of universities that have a similar profile to ours, and how they’ve impacted their community, their state, their region and the nation.
And so you look at the strong public universities across this country. When you aspire to national excellence, there’s a tremendous impact on the state, the region and your community. So I think those are not mutually exclusive. In other words, if you root your mission and your expertise in state and local needs, but you aspire to national excellence in education and research, you attain the national reputation but you’re very relevant to your community.
IL: You think that is where the current administration is as well?
NP: Yes. That’s what I was told when I came here, and that’s what has been the philosophy that we’ve implemented since I got here.
IL: You mentioned niches earlier. What are U of L’s niches?
NP: We went through a very detailed process that came up with the 2020 Plan, and more recently we’ve refreshed that with the 21st Century University (plan). Clearly three areas have bubbled up (in terms of) academic and research priorities. Two are in the area of health, and one is in the area of advanced manufacturing, which is centered in (Speed School). The effort we have right now is to identify one or two more areas that would complete that whole array of foci that we will pursue.
That whole process was really an exercise of seeing, what are society’s needs — taken holistically — global, national and regionally, and where are our strengths? So we believe, for example, (at Speed School) we’ve really, through a public-private partnership, defined a paradigm for moving manufacturing forward — both with respect to research in the area, with respect to developing the work for the advanced workforce, in this case engineers and STEM-type people, as well as linking that to economic growth in the region. This paradigm is rooted not just in our current way of doing business, but it’s looking at the future. How is the world changing because of the digital revolution, and how do we bring those two together? It’s a completely different paradigm, and it’s something that’s going to define us in that area, define the university in that area.
To me, that’s how you acquire national repute. You’re defining the paradigm rather than chasing other schools in which you already have been defined by others, and you’re really following.
IL: Where does arts and sciences fall in the long-term vision of the university?
NP: You can’t have a strong research university without a very strong college of arts and sciences. That’s fundamentally the font of knowledge. If you look at the humanities, the social sciences, advances and the creation of knowledge in those fields is going to determine the well-being of our society. That’s the role of a university.
My interest in the partnership with industry and expanding their mission is really secondary to my primary interest, which is how does it impact my students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level? And how does it advance my faculty in their scholarly and research missions? That’s what drives this.
We have to recognize that the funding model for higher education is changing. There is also a general belief that the way universities interact with society has to change fundamentally. We have to leverage these huge resources that we have to more effectively solve the problems of society. But that doesn’t take away from the crucial and fundamental importance of basic, independent, investigative work. That involves creations, creation of knowledge, artistic work — all of that. That essentially defines a sophisticated, advanced society.
IL: How do you bring down the cost for students? I don’t think anybody would disagree it’s going in the wrong direction — and fast. This is an institution that defines itself as a metropolitan research university that has to rely on a student base here, and those costs keep going up.
NP: It’s more than that, actually. We pride ourselves on providing access to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college. So the bar is even higher for us.
To me, figuring out how to keep the costs down for students is the challenge for higher educational leadership right now. If you believe in our core mission, and its not sufficient to say well, I wish the state would give me more money. That’s good, but that’s wishful thinking right now.
So there’s a limited number of ways you can approach this. One is that ultimately, every one of these universities should be fully endowed — that is, all the costs of education should be paid from the endowment. That should ultimately be the goal, but it’s so far away, it’s many lifetimes away because of the size of this university. We’re moving very aggressively on that, and that’s where the commitment of the alumni — people who have been successful giving back — that all builds the base. It takes awhile for that to pay off, but it builds the base. That’s one.
Our role is to also be entrepreneurial. That’s what projects like this research park are about. That’s what a project like Shelbyhurst is about. It’s about generating revenue that supports what you believe in, which is education and research. That’s the model President Ramsey is following. The whole idea of investing university resources to build out streams of revenue that will support our students, increase the resources we have — the costs won’t go down. Costs of everything go up. It’s a cost of living. So costs will keep escalating. And because we’re at the higher end of the knowledge economy, we have to hire people who are highly qualified, so typically that’s more expensive, as it should be, because you want high-quality people to be here.
So the approach is, generate streams of revenue that compliment the other ones you have, but do it in a way that benefits society as well, so people are willing to pay for that. Distance education is another example — that’s an entrepreneurial way to approach this. Typically people who want advanced degrees have jobs, but they want that advanced training to advance themselves. They can pay for it. If they’re paying for it, maybe I can use some of that revenue to support those at a different level who cannot afford an education. That’s the way that cycle should work.
IL: That approach has not been without controversy. It’s a public university, so you worry about accountability when you begin to diversify your revenue streams like that. You worry about risk associated with certain investments. Obviously U of L is invested heavily in real estate as well, which has raised hackles in the development community because people feel like they’re competing against house money. How do you respond to that?
NP: I think often when people look in that direction, they’re saying, Why aren’t universities doing what they’ve always done? That’s not an option anymore. I think we’re wasting a university as a resource if we do that, because a university can impact the community in so many positive ways. We have countless programs that benefit the city of Louisville, the state of Kentucky and this region as a whole.
If you believe in the idea that a university is very valuable to your community and society, and that education is very valuable, and the independent pursuit of knowledge is very valuable to society — and it’s proven for centuries that that is valuable — then it’s important to support the ideas of finding alternative ways to fund these very valuable public entities.
There should be a healthy discussion, and there should be checks and balances. And we have those in place, we have independent boards that overlook our decisions. We like to be transparent in everything we do — the public record is open. We have all that available so people can weigh in and discuss, as it should be in a democracy and a public institution.
What we’re doing here at the university is not adversarial to the community, be it private industry or the general community. It’s very much in the context and in the spirit of strengthening what is so valuable to us, which is people and the ability of those people to be competitive.
General tension between town and gown exists everywhere, and often universities are seen to have an unfair advantage over local businesses, or they take over neighborhoods for development. But to me, every time you invest in a neighborhood, it’s a good thing.
People are passionate about what we do. I know my faculty are passionate about what they do. They need to be supported. They need to have the resources to educate the students so they’re competitive — not just today, but 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now. My responsibility as an administrator is to be able to get those resources for them, to hire the best faculty, to make sure they have the best laboratories, to make sure they have the best continuing development opportunities, that the students have the best facilities available so they’re competitive. That’s what drives us, and I think that’s important to everybody.
IL: What is your view of advanced manufacturing here in Louisville right now?
NP: I don’t think it’s an option for the state of Kentucky to not make advanced manufacturing a top priority, because it’s such an important part of our economic base. It’s critical. And because technology is changing manufacturing drastically, it’s actually an opportunity for us. And that’s what we’re keying in on. It’s changing the equation on where items should be manufactured and how they should be manufactured.
As a university, our role is to see how our knowledge base and the expertise we have here can be leveraged to help the city and state move in that direction. That’s basically what we’re doing. Everybody else (in the state) is doing it. If we don’t do it, we’re going to be left behind. And that’s going to affect the well-being of our operation here.
IL: What you’ve done with FirstBuild is innovative and has gotten a lot of recognition for that, as have the partnerships you’ve set up with GE. Do you worry about the coming change of ownership there?
NP: Of course I do. I’d much rather they weren’t bought up.
IL: Have you talked to Electrolux?
NP: Not yet. There’s clearly a separation (while federal regulators review the deal), and I want to respect that. But I’ll tell you, the folks I work with at GE, and particularly FirstBuild, are very optimistic and confident about their model or their paradigm. They believe that — particularly with the successes they’ve had, they rolled out their first product, that induction cooker, it’s been very successful. They feel very confident that Electrolux will see great value in that experiment.
IL: There have been several instances of embezzlement and theft at the university in the recent past. If you couple that with the dean search that went badly at the business school — you’ve got an interim dean there now, you’ve got an interim at the law school. These are some of the problems the university is facing internally. What do you think the university needs to do to tighten up internally and fix what has become a reputation problem publicly?
NP: There is such a laser focus on things when they go wrong. What keeps me going every day is the successes we have. We graduate all these students, very bright people. There are thousands of students who have made it to college, done very well, are going out getting jobs and being really good citizens, I hope.
IL: But that’s the basic expectation.
NP: It is the basic expectation, I agree. I wish these things hadn’t happened, and we clearly need to improve our processes — particularly with respect to the irregularities on the financial side and, in some cases, outright stealing. That’s happened, and it shouldn’t happen. I feel confident that the changes we have made, particularly the hiring of a COO and CFO, is exactly the step that was necessary.
This is part of the fact of our really aggressive trajectory of success here — that is, we have grown very rapidly from where we were. With that major change, perhaps our systems haven’t kept up.
And now this structure, which is present at most universities, I think will take care of that. It’s a proven model. I don’t believe that fundamentally our employees are any more honest or less honest than anywhere else. You always have perhaps a small percentage of dishonest people who work for you, so you have to have systems in place to ensure that that is caught early if it happens, and is discouraged completely.
I feel confident that working with (CFO/COO Harlan Sands) will make sure the trust of the public in the university — on the academic side, on the financial side — is restored, if there has been some erosion of that.
IL: What do you see as your role and what do you want to accomplish? There’s a fixed time period on it, and it’s a major position at a time when U of L wants to — needs to — have a visionary in that position.
NP: My goal is to make sure the gains we’ve made over the past five, 10 years, the momentum that those gains have given us continue — not to continue but start to accelerate further. The priorities are well-defined in terms of what we’re going to pursue, and those have been defined through the 2020 Plan and the 21st Century University plan that Provost Willinhganz will finalize. Then I want to make sure that all of the initiatives in that direction move forward, they’re focused, and we achieve our goal, so that the university is in a good position when the permanent appointment to the provost position is made.
The question I always ask in any decision I make is, Is it good for the students? That provides tremendous clarity to me. So when I look at this, and I look at what’s happening, I’ve got to make sure that anything I do does not filter down as a negative to the students because it was a transition period.
I’m going to try to make sure it’s seamless, but it’s not just a holding position, it’s not a holding pattern, you’re not circling to land. What you want to do is keep flying.