Reflecting on ISU President Geoffroy’s legacy


Photo: Kelsey Kremer/Iowa State Daily

President Gregory Geoffroy stands on Central Campus outside of Beardshear Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Geoffroy is stepping down from the presidency, but will still teach on campus.

Jessica Opoien

ISU President Gregory Geoffroy does not like to look back.

Geoffroy, who announced last March that he will step down from the presidency, will have served for 10-and-a-half years as the university’s top administrator when Steven Leath assumes the role on Jan. 16, 2012. But do not expect him to stay away from the campus he has led for the last decade for too long — he is stepping down from the presidency, but not retiring from the university.

“I just like to look forward, to stay focused on the future,” Geoffroy said. “And so, when people talk about legacies, I tend to look ahead and not think about what a legacy might be.”

He is quick to attribute the successes of the last 10 years to his leadership team, shifting the focus away from himself as an individual.

“That’s what’s so incredible about him,” said ISU Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth Hoffman. “He doesn’t take credit for anything. Even though I know this place would not be in as good of shape as it is today if it weren’t for him — for his vision, for his willingness to take risks, for hiring great people and giving them the opportunity to shine, for his emphasis on the bioeconomy, which really has put this university on the map, for his emphasis on student success.”

Hoffman, who met Geoffroy at an Association of American Universities public deans’ meeting in the early 1990s, has worked for him since January 2005. She nominated him for the position of ISU president and said coming to work for him was one of the greatest moves of her life. She praised his collaborative leadership style and high expectations as a winning combination.

“He believes in hiring good people and letting them do their jobs, as long as they never surprise him, and they keep him informed and they consult him on major decisions,” Hoffman said.

Tahira Hira, executive assistant to the president, likened his leadership approach to “having the right people on the bus and having them in the right seats.”

She agreed that Geoffroy has high standards, adding that he always expects excellence, with no margin of error.

“He’s very hard working,” Hira said. “He works fast, and hard and a lot. And when you work with him as closely as I do, you work hard and fast and a lot. And there is no such thing as a deadline. For me, his deadline was always ASAP.”

“Meetings with the president always started and ended on time, if not early,” Hoffman said, quickly adding, “You always know where you stand with him. And he gives praise.”

Hoffman said she knows Geoffroy does not want to look back, but “the rest of us, we have a right to look back.”

A 10-year marathon

When Geoffroy became Iowa State’s 14th president on July 1, 2001, he faced a number of challenges. State funding was down, research funds were strained and enrollment numbers were falling.

Two years into Geoffroy’s tenure, all eyes were on the university when men’s basketball coach Larry Eustachy made headlines for drinking and partying with students, which resulted in his resignation. The following year, Iowa State received more unwanted attention after a riot broke out during its Veishea celebration.

Geoffroy was faced with a difficult decision. Receiving pressure from both sides, he heard calls to put an end to the tradition and to preserve it. After a one-year moratorium, he decided to bring Veishea back.

“Ultimately, that’s one of those classic decisions; there’s only one person that can make that decision, and that was me,” Geoffroy said. “I could get all the advice I wanted, but ultimately that was the decision that I had to make. And I think it worked out well; it was definitely the right decision.”

The decision to continue the tradition was “only the beginning,” said Tom Hill, vice president for Student Affairs. Hill said Geoffroy had to take the necessary steps to ensure there were no repeats of the 2004 disturbance, while also making the celebration’s history and traditions relevant in modern society.

“It’s a continued evolution,” Hill said.

Most recently, Iowa State was thrust into the spotlight along with the rest of the schools in the Big 12 Conference with the threat of its destruction in both summer 2010 and fall 2011.

“The Big 12 Conference almost fell apart twice, and he was the steady voice. We’re not the most powerful institution in the conference, but he was a steady voice,” Hoffman said, adding that Geoffroy was on the phone with other leaders constantly offering options and solutions to keep the conference together.

“Being president of a university is a lot like running a marathon,” Hoffman said, adding that a president has to take care of him- or herself because no one else will do it. She said Geoffroy has done that while managing the time requirements of every aspect of his job.

The overarching challenge throughout Geoffroy’s tenure, though, is one beyond the reach of his team-focused, decision-making approach.

Geoffroy said the budget cuts the university faced in his early years were not as severe as the ones it has suffered more recently. Despite the curtailment of state funding, Hira added, Geoffroy has maintained a positive attitude and a focus on excellence that he has passed on to others.

“Ultimately, the strength of the university is really dependent on the strength of the faculty,” Geoffroy said. “It’s like any organization; it’s the people of the organization that make it great. It’s the leaders that are involved, and the faculty and staff and students all together.”

A student-focused legacy

Ask the people who work with him every day which aspect of Geoffroy’s job he is most passionate about, and they will say that students are his number one priority.

“President Geoffroy came in with a student focus, and during his tenure that focus just intensified and got sharper. It just got better,” Hill said.

Students at Iowa State feel an ownership of their president, Hill said, which is not necessarily the case at other universities. Geoffroy has established that culture by making himself accessible, from teaching a President’s Leadership Class to a select group of freshmen each year, to walking through the student section of football games, shaking students’ hands and saying hello.

Nate Dobbels, senior in agriculture and life sciences education, first met Geoffroy as a student in the President’s Leadership Class. He has since interacted with him in a number of aspects, including as the former vice president of the Government of the Student Body.

“Having the opportunity to have that leadership experience right away was tremendous, and I think it definitely got me going on the right foot as far as the steps toward accomplishing a lot of things within the university,” Dobbels said, adding that he thinks Geoffroy helped motivate a lot of students to come out of their shells at such a large school.

Dobbels said he thinks Geoffroy’s legacy will leave a foundation that truly cares about giving students a valuable experience both in and outside of the classroom. 

“He knows how to bring the best out of everyone,” Dobbels said. “He knows how to help students discover that they can accomplish more than they think they can.”

Geoffroy’s dedication to students is exemplified by his decision not to take any time off between his administrative duties and his return to teaching, Hoffman said.

“He is so student-centered,” she continued. “He’s teaching a course this spring; I think he can’t stand to be away from students very long, which is fabulous.”

The primary purpose of the university, Geoffroy said, is to provide a great educational environment for the students. 

“Students are more involved in the life of this university than I think you’ll find at any other university anywhere,” Geoffroy said, adding that that level of involvement leads to a unique sense of ownership in the university among ISU alumni.

Alumni support is one of the factors that have led to success in other venues during Geoffroy’s tenure. Hoffman described his achievements leading the “Campaign Iowa State: With Pride and Purpose” fundraising campaign as “phenomenal.” The campaign was the most successful fundraising effort in the university’s history, with more than $867 million received in gifts and commitments when it concluded last June.

Under Geoffroy’s leadership, more than 20 major building projects were completed on the ISU campus. His goal of doubling the number of endowed faculty positions at the university, from 75 to 150, was achieved in 2010. In fiscal year 2010, the university received $388.2 million in grants, contracts, gifts and cooperative agreements — a 27 percent increase from the previous year’s record.

Staying true to his commitment to students, Geoffroy and his leadership team were quick to point to the university’s surge in enrollment as one of his most significant successes.

“The momentum on our enrollments is just tremendous,” Geoffroy said. “We’re just a very attractive institution for students who want a top-quality education.”

In Geoffroy’s first year as president, 27,823 students were enrolled at Iowa State. Ten years later, in fall 2011, the university had 29,887 students. The increase was “not by accident,” Hira said, adding that Geoffroy was personally involved in recruitment efforts.

A bright future

When Steven Leath steps into the role of president in January, Iowa State will not have seen the last of Geoffroy. He plans to teach several seminar classes this spring, and next year, freshmen walking into their chemistry courses might see him at the front of the classroom. It has been 25 years since he’s taught a class at that level, and Geoffroy knows he has a lot of catching up to do: PowerPoint, clickers and Blackboard technologies are all tools that did not exist the last time he taught introductory chemistry courses.

“It is important for me to get out of the way — to basically sort of be invisible. Because it’s important for Dr. Leath to have complete freedom from the past leadership to establish his leadership and his platform,” Geoffroy said, adding that he will be there anytime Leath has questions or wants to talk but will otherwise focus on being a “normal Ames resident and normal professor.”

Geoffroy and his leadership team agreed that the university is in good hands with Leath, who has been vice president for research and sponsored programs for the University of North Carolina system since 2007. And despite years of state funding for education being slashed, Geoffroy thinks there are reasons to be optimistic looking forward.

The state’s overall budget situation has improved significantly, Geoffroy said, adding that he thinks the leaders of the Board of Regents communicate well with the governor’s office and the legislature.

The decision to step down from the presidency was largely a personal one for Geoffroy, who said he and his wife, Kathy, want the opportunity to spend more time with their family. The couple has four children who live throughout the country and have had four grandchildren arrive in the past two years. 

“Everybody gets to a stage in life where you ask, ‘What do I want to do for the rest of my life? What’s my next big adventure?’ And I decided, now’s the time. Ten years as president, we’ve done good work. It’s probably good for the institution; certainly it’s the right thing for me, so I made that decision,” Geoffroy said.

“Ten years is a long time for someone to be president and emerge unscathed by scandal,” Hira said, adding that she thinks all the different segments of the university are “at peace” with Geoffroy.

Those who have worked with Geoffroy know exactly which building should bear the president’s name to cement his legacy, Hoffman said. 

“In our minds, the Biorenewables Research Laboratory should be named for him,” Hoffman said. “It was completely state-funded, so there’s no donor name, and it really is his lasting legacy. So we’re all reserving that for him for whenever the Board will let us make that recommendation.”

Hoffman said she has already spoken with Leath about naming the laboratory for Geoffroy — but his name will have more resonance than just one building.

“I predict that 50 years from now, people will still be talking about Greg Geoffroy as one of the great presidents,” Hoffman said. “He’ll be in the same category as Hilton and Parks and Welch.”