Inside Iowa State
November 20, 1998
Low profile, high yields
by Linda Charles
Keep a low profile. That's been associate provost Ed Lewis' recipe for success at Iowa State for 41 years, 30 of those spent as an administrator.
"I've always attributed my longevity in administration to my ability to keep a low profile," he says with a self- deprecating smile.
But a low profile does not mean low results. During his time at Iowa State, Lewis was instrumental in getting the tenure system first written in formal fashion, helping set up the professional and scientific system and the P&S Council, smoothing the university's transition from a quarter system to semesters, and most recently, heading a massive effort to take a critical look at undergraduate education.
Lewis is a bit of a rarity in today's age when job change is almost a national pastime. When he came to Iowa State in 1957 with a joint appointment in the department of psychology and the student counseling service, Iowa State was still a college. It would not become a university for two more years. You could still drive your car on central campus (and even park it) and the university closed over the noon hour.
Then the 60s hit and with them, a boom in growth. New programs were instituted, new buildings went up and student numbers started to increase. One of the most significant additions to the campus, Lewis said, was the Iowa State Center, a "tremendous influence" that put Iowa State and Ames on the cultural map.
It was a time when money flowed into the university. "Education" was the buzzword and the Legislature was quick to hand the university money. Federal funds were available for research, and growing enrollments meant an increase in tuition revenues.
Fund raising was pretty much limited to low-key efforts among alumni. The funds that were raised were handed out where needed, often as discretionary funds.
Today, "the Provost Office may be the only unit on campus that doesn't have a fund-raiser," Lewis quipped.
And when funds are raised, they usually already are targeted for specific purposes, Lewis noted. "That makes it harder to do academic things on a university-wide basis."
The students haven't really changed much over the years, Lewis said. Today's students are a bit more sophisticated, "or at least they think they are." Lewis proudly noted one of the biggest changes for students is that many more graduate with an international experience.
Lewis oversees ISU's international programs and has seen the number of students who opt for foreign study opportunities double in recent years. The Study Abroad Program is "going gangbusters," he said.
Lewis also oversees the University Lectures Program, which he calls "one of the best in the country." Its success is due largely to the efforts of its program coordinator and of faculty, staff and students.
Today's faculty is more diverse, Lewis said. When he came to campus, the university routinely hired its own graduates for the faculty. Now, the emphasis is on bringing new expertise to the faculty while sending graduates out to further the school's reputation, Lewis said.
Lewis has been responsible for some of the change in the faculty. He has always championed minority rights and women's interests. He was instrumental in establishing the University Committee on Women and the Women's Center and was on the first state Governor's Commission on the Status of Women.
The university has made progress hiring women and minority faculty and staff, but not at the pace Lewis would like to see.
"We have made more progress on hiring women faculty and staff than in minority hiring, but we still have few women faculty in certain colleges and seem to be making little progress in hiring in those areas," he said.
Lewis, who is 65, will retire from his seven-day-a-week job at the end of December. What one event will stand out most in memory when he leaves?
A computer dance the university put on in the early '60s. Computers were just starting to break into the news and people were still in awe of what the mysterious machines could do. Lewis and members of the computer center matched male and female students, based on their interests, physical attributes ("We weren't politically correct then; we didn't want the woman to be taller than the man"), personality and other characteristics. Students filled out questionnaires, punch cards were punched and Lewis stayed up most of the night before the dance finishing up the details. The computer-arranged dates met for the dance, which turned out to be a huge success.
"We were probably the first major school that matched people by computer," Lewis said, and the dance earned a story in Time magazine.
Lewis said he is going to miss the people he works with and the students. He has taught Honors seminars and supervised student leaders of the freshman Honors seminars throughout his administrative career so that he could keep in touch with students.
"I think one of my strengths has been the ability to identify good people and get them to take on responsibilities," he said. He points to the Honors Program and all the faculty members who have donated their time to make it a success.
He said his wife, Nancy, says it's his turn to do the housework now that he's retiring. Between dustings, he hopes to do some academic writing and consulting. "But mainly, I'm just going to do what I want to do when I want to do it," he said with a chuckle.
As he looks back on his career at Iowa State, Lewis reveals why he thinks a low profile makes for a good administrator.
"One of the things you have to accept in administration is that you're there to serve other people, you're there to make it go, to make it work. Administrators aren't important. The faculty and the students are the important people. You want to create an environment that lets them do their jobs as well as possible.
"We should just help find the money and the facilities and get out of the way."
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