DECATUR — Illinois native Patrick White accepted a college presidency at age 57, about the same time one of his best friends, a career chemist, was retiring.
Taking on a bit of a Chicago accent, White quoted the man as saying, “Gee, Pat, I can’t decide which one of us is crazy.”
Fast-forward seven years, to the office of the president at Decatur’s Millikin University on his second full day in the job, and he clearly suspects it’s him.
“Here I am, doing it again,” said White, 64, managing a chuckle despite a head cold. “Being a university president is an amazing, interesting, hard, delightful, frustrating job, but what I like about it is you’re in the game, in the arena where enormously important things can happen.
“That’s a thrill.”
White, president of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., through June, was named Millikin’s 15th president last month in an unexpected turn of events. Interim president since July 1, he was hired with the understanding he would not be a candidate in the upcoming presidential search.
Van Dukeman, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said in April he hoped to hire a representative of AGB Search in Washington, D.C., to assist the search committee and have that committee in place as early as May.
Dukeman confirmed, however, the search process had not yet begun when the trustees elected White during a special meeting.
“We were so impressed with his leadership during his first 90 days, and we also received unsolicited positive comments from various constituencies,” he said.
Dukeman declined to be more specific, but during that period White assigned himself the role of acting vice president for academic affairs — a position vacated by Barry Pearson in May so he could return to the faculty — and immediately involved the four deans previously under Pearson in Cabinet meetings with vice presidents of university development (Dave Brandon), enrollment (Sarah Shupenus, interim) and finance and business affairs (Ruby Brase, interim).
“It helps the VPs understand the academic side of the house as we deal with concerns that are university-wide,” White said. “It’s very important to me that anyone in a leadership position at Millikin sees their responsibility as leading the university, not just (his or her area).”
Millikin’s new president believes finding the right vice president for academic affairs is a top priority and hopes to help the university get its “chutzpah” back after two years of “administrative leadership turmoil” that saw all four vice presidents resign before former president Harold Jeffcoat retired in January after 21 months in office.
White also made the decision during his first month as interim president to stand by James St. James, an award-winning associate professor of psychology, after the news broke that he had shot his parents and sister to death at age 15 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“There was a lot of passion coming from different sides, but I just kept asking, ‘What kind of institution do we imagine ourselves to be?’ ” White said.
He added that such “flashpoints of focus” are not nearly as important as the steady work of attracting and graduating students and maintaining a solid financial footing.
White said a tuition increase for the 2014-15 academic year is likely after a two-year freeze and that he plans to engage members of the campus community who may not have been asked before to identify ways of reducing costs. “We are not going to cut enough expenses nor raise enough money to address our challenges,” he said. “It’s going to be a little bit of both.”
He said there is little question now that pledges have reached $70 million about whether Millikin’s “Transform MU” capital campaign will reach its $85 million goal by Dec. 31, 2015 — the question is how far ahead of time the goal will be achieved.
White said he feels equally confident Decatur will achieve a renaissance, as has such larger cities as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago, with the help of “one great university.”
“I’m really excited about Decatur and being here,” he said.
Before his presidency at Wabash College, White spent 18 years at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., as a professor of English, associate dean of faculty and most recently vice president and dean of faculty. Earlier, he chaired the Department of Language and Literature at Pfieffer College in Misenheimer, N.C., and taught at Westmar College in Le Mars, Iowa.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago and graduate degrees, including a doctorate in English and American literature, from the University of Iowa.
White grew up in Dixon, graduating from high school there in 1967.
He and his wife, Chris, have three grown children — son Paddy of Indianapolis and twin daughters Molly White, also of Indianapolis, and Katie White of San Francisco — and two grandchildren.
“It’s good to be back in Illinois, but it’s also interesting to be in Central Illinois,” White said. “The area has all kinds of associations and relationships and bonds that tie people together that are different than what I knew in Northern Illinois.
“I’m also a landscape guy, and I’ve always loved the prairie.”