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Physicist, pianist and college chief

The only sitting president still in the hunt for USF's top job may be the nation's most accomplished academic also running a college.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2000

STEVENS POINT, Wis. -- Khara Lintel is a 20-year-old whirlwind of energy, able to juggle a double load of university courses with an equally strenuous social life.

But even she finds Thomas George exhausting. The guy, she says, just seems to be everywhere.

"I go to the university cafeteria at midnight during finals and he's there flipping pancakes. I go to a dorm banquet and he's there playing the piano," said Lintel, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the 8,500-student campus George has led since 1996.

"He has just boundless energy," Lintel said. "T-George is something else."

George, 52, is the chancellor at UW-Stevens Point, a handsome school nestled amid miles of central Wisconsin farmland. He also is one of three finalists for the University of South Florida presidency, a job the state Board of Regents expects to fill March 10.

George is a world-class chemist and physicist who has published more than 500 articles in major scientific journals. He is a classically trained jazz pianist and a self-described technology freak.

What he isn't, according to people who know him well, is a typical college president.

He plays piano most weekends in the lounge at the local Holiday Inn. He sleeps many nights in a converted dorm room on campus.

He likes to drop in at the student newspaper at 3 a.m., which isn't a problem for him since he sleeps only four or five hours a night. He used to drop in on student parties, though he stopped arriving unannounced after he walked in on a Halloween affair a few years ago that included several kegs of beer.

George says he loves the intimacy of the Stevens Point campus, which allows him to interact with a significant percentage of the students and faculty.

But he sees the USF presidency as an almost perfect fit for his experience and abilities.

"I'm a heavy-duty researcher, and USF is a major research institution," he said during a recent interview in his office. "I look at USF, and it takes me to my roots."

George spent six years as a dean at the State University of New York at Buffalo, an institution USF recently identified as a model for its future growth. He said he learned how to work with branch campuses when he was the provost at Washington State University, which, like USF, has three.

He was asked how the open style that has served him well at Stevens Point would translate to USF, an urban commuter school that has four times as many students.

"It will work anywhere if you're sincere about it," he said. "People will buy into your vision if you give them a good reason. The best way to do that is to show them that you are listening to what they say."

Enormous overachiever

Gerry McKenna, dean of the College of Fine Arts at UW-Stevens Point, is a big fan of George. He especially likes George's management style, which relies heavily on consensus.

But that approach, McKenna says, works best at an institution that already has a solid foundation, rather than one that needs to be ripped apart and built back up.

"If your goal is to get the most out of something that's already good, this is definitely your guy," McKenna said.

State university system Chancellor Adam Herbert has stated clearly what he is looking for in USF's next president: A respected academic and administrator who can build on USF's explosive growth in research over the last several years.

George is the only sitting president still in the hunt for USF's top job. The other finalists are Antoine Garibaldi, the provost at Howard University in Washington D.C., and Judy Genshaft, the chief academic officer at the University at Albany, State University of New York. George provides a sharp contrast to the person he wants to succeed -- former USF President Betty Castor, who stepped down several months ago after a successful five-year run.

Castor was a school teacher-turned-politician with modest academic credentials. Many faculty members, in fact, opposed her candidacy because she lacked a doctorate.

George may be the most accomplished academic in the United States also running a university. Even as a youth, he said, he knew he wanted to be a scientist.

George grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a family he describes as middle class. His mother was a nurse; his father a chemical engineer.

He attended Quaker schools through high school, then enrolled at the University of Gettysburg, a high-quality liberal arts college founded 30 years before the Civil War battle made the town famous.

Even then, George was an enormous overachiever.

As a freshman, he carried a double major in chemistry and mathematics, participated in soccer and wrestling, was a pledge in the TKE fraternity, was in Army ROTC and learned how to play the pipe organ.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, then went on to Yale University, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry in 21/2 years. He still regrets not finishing up a few months earlier.

"Then I would have gotten it when I was still 22," he said. "That would have been pretty good."

He spent a year doing post-doctoral work at MIT, then another year at the University of California-Berkeley.

He met his wife, Barbara Harbach, while at Yale. She is an internationally renowned organist and harpsichordist, a prolific composer and a professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

At the time, George was looking for someone to give him lessons on the pipe organ. Harbach wasn't particularly interested in taking on a chemistry student, but finally agreed.

The lessons went downhill as the relationship improved. George, however, has no complaints. The couple, who have no children but own five cats, will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in April.

What boggles many people at UW-Stevens Point is how George manages to squeeze in cutting-edge research while maintaining his frantic schedule as chancellor.

At its most basic level, his work involves making predictions on how light and lasers will interact with different materials. Many of the applications are in microelectronics.

Most of his research is brain work, George said, involving nothing more elaborate than pencil, paper and sophisticated computer software.

As for finding the time, George said it really isn't that difficult.

"Instead of going to a movie on a Saturday afternoon, I might write a paper," he said.

Almost everyone interviewed made a point of noting how George never flaunts his brilliance.

"He is very approachable," said Andrew Halverson, the student government president at UW-Stevens Point. "He is so smart it would be easy for him to be intimidating, but he makes a real effort to break down that wall."

Hard to keep up

Some have questioned whether even the successful leader of a school as small as UW-Stevens Point is ready to run a university as complex as USF, which has a medical school, a thriving graduate program and annual expenditures in excess of $700-million.

George says it won't be a problem. He points to his four years as provost at Washington State University, which has more than 20,000 students and research ambitions equal to USF's.

His tenure there gets good reviews.

He helped secure an $8-million gift from the Boeing Corp. He defused a controversy over the hiring of minority faculty by promising to hire 10 within a year, and doing it.

He is given considerable credit for a near doubling of minority enrollment, which went from 8 to 15 percent while he was second-in-command.

George said he decided to leave Washington State for Stevens Point because he wanted to get back in touch with undergraduate education. This was shortly after he lost out on the University of Nebraska presidency, where he was one of three finalists.

"I thought the change would be good," he said. "I was right."

Since he took over at UW-Stevens Point, the school's endowment has grown from $9-million to $13-million. That's not much in real numbers compared with USF's $200-million endowment, but the comparison is almost certainly unfair. In terms of wealth, central Florida is light years ahead of central Wisconsin.

Ron Wessels is the president of Bank One in Stevens Point. If George leaves, he says, it will be a sad day for the university. But he said it will be even sadder for the community.

Last year, George was chairman of the local United Way campaign. He is on the area's hospital board and on the district's Boy Scout Council. (George is a former Eagle Scout.) He even rings the bell each winter for the Salvation Army Christmas drive.

"And he's not just on these boards, he is actively involved in them," Wessels said.

"He's not like anyone I've seen before," said Ed Miller, a political science professor at UW-Stevens Point who chaired the search committee that helped hire George. "I get tired just looking at him. Luckily, he doesn't seem to expect the rest of us to keep up."

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