New UM president believes his job is a calling

Wallace Loh arrived in Iowa by himself, a 15-year-old with 200 dollars in his pocket and not too many more English words in his vocabulary.

It was 1961 and he knew only that an American education promised opportunities that weren't available in Peru, where his father was a diplomat, or in his native China, where the Communist Party had claimed his family's fortune.

"I was too awestruck to worry about how I would get by," he recalled.

Loh did more than get by. He immediately started college and earned a psychology degree from Grinnell College and a law degree from Yale. He began a steady rise through academia and university administration that brought him back to Iowa, where he became provost of that state's flagship university in 2008. On Tuesday morning, he was named the next president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

He considers his job a calling. "The American dream still lives," he said in reflecting on his story. "I want to make sure the opportunities are available to the next generation that were available to me."

Loh, 65, was appointed by the university system's Board of Regents after a six-month search to replace C.D. Mote Jr., who in 12 years led the university to new plateaus of academic prestige, research funding and student interest. He was chosen from among three finalists and will start his $450,000-a-year job on Nov. 1, with Provost Nariman Farvardin serving as interim president until he arrives.

Chancellor William E. Kirwan said Loh is the perfect modern president given his multinational background, his experience in state politics in Washington and his work leading a comparably sized university through budget and other crises.

"It's hard to imagine any president can match his extreme range of experiences," Kirwan said. "I've watched him several times now talk about his experience with education, and people are just transfixed, because he speaks with such conviction based on his personal story. It moves people."

Colleagues and university officials described Loh as an optimistic man who sees chances to innovate even in dire circumstances, such as 20 percent budget cuts and a flood that severely damaged 18 academic buildings in Iowa.

"This guy's got a great attitude; it's infectious," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, a member of the Board of Regents. "I hire people all the time, and that's the first thing I look for. I want someone who looks at problems and sees opportunities to solve them. We're in unprecedented times economically, and it's going to take tremendous ingenuity to take the university to the next level. This guy can do it."

But Loh is also unafraid to ruffle feathers, which he did by aggressively diversifying the University of Washington School of Law in the early 1990s and by pushing for more online education as a top adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke later that decade.

"In leadership positions, one cannot try to please everyone," Loh said.

When Mote announced his retirement, system leaders said they would seek a replacement who would keep the university on its upward trajectory rather than make sweeping changes. Loh pledged to do that.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "And Maryland doesn't need to be fixed."

Loh said his main task will be to keep the university rolling forward despite budget constraints that might never fully loosen. He will join a kindred spirit in Kirwan, who talks relentlessly about efforts to make the system more efficient.

"I don't know anyone who is more creative or more trusted in higher education," Loh said of his new boss. "Working with him was a major, major draw."

Loh said it's too early to talk about specific solutions but said redesigning curriculum and integrating technology are ways to educate more students without substantially increasing the faculty.

Mote had a tempestuous relationship with civic leaders in College Park, and Loh will have to work with them as the university pursues an ambitious redevelopment of its East Campus. He will also inherit a student body that bristled at faculty and staff cuts made last year in response to statewide budget reductions.

Loh promised to be open with students and listen to their concerns as he weighs difficult budget decisions. Student body president Steve Glickman said Loh had already e-mailed him to say he was looking forward to hearing student perspectives on the university.

"I was very impressed that he showed that kind of interest right away," Glickman said. "I always like to meet people in person but on paper, he's a very interesting and appealing choice."

Loh will need to hire a new athletic director after Deborah Yow left for N.C. State earlier this year. That new leader will face immediate questions about football coach Ralph Friedgen, whose hold on his job was considered tenuous after last season.

Loh called the hire "one of the most important and urgent tasks" facing him early in his presidency. He said he is committed to athletic success at Maryland because of its power to create pride, bring people together and attract prospective students and donors.

"It's like the big front porch of a house," he said of college athletics. "It's not the most important part of the house, but it's the most visible and it has an impact on the rest of what goes on."

Loh was born in Shanghai. His family owned enough land that he could have become the city's " Donald Trump" if the Communist Party hadn't taken over, he quipped. Loh's father was a diplomat and moved the family to Peru. Loh attended high school there and speaks Spanish in addition to Chinese and French.

After graduating at age 15, he received a grant to attend college in Iowa, where he had no personal contacts and spoke little English. Nonetheless, he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Grinnell College and went on to earn a master's degree from Cornell and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan.

His interest turned to law and he was accepted at several top schools. Loh recalled phoning Yale to turn down an offer. An admissions officer insisted that he listen to one last pitch from a student. "She was the most eloquent, persuasive person," he said. "I was spellbound. After an hour on the phone with her, I had changed my mind."

That student? Hillary Rodham, who would go on to become first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state.

At Yale, Loh was also a classmate of future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who impressed him with the strength of his convictions, even if those convictions were different from his own.

After earning his law degree in 1974, Loh threw himself into scholarship as a professor at eight universities, focusing on criminal justice and the intersection of law and social science.

He was a professor at the University of Washington, sitting on the search committee for a new law dean, when the president asked him to leave the committee and become a candidate.

"I am truly an accidental administrator," he said.

He got the job and received a vital piece of advice from his mother, who had been a high school superintendent in China.

"There are those who sing and dance," she told him. "And there are those who enable others to sing and dance. Don't ever forget what your responsibility is."

Ever since then, he said, he has derived his pleasures from creating situations in which talented students and professors can thrive.

Loh served as dean of the law school at the University of Washington from 1990 to 1995, where his aggressive push for a more diverse student body earned him widespread praise and criticism from activists on both sides of the affirmative action debate.

When state leaders deemed a new law school building a low priority, Kirwan said, Loh changed their minds by wooing a large donation from the state's wealthiest son, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

From 1997 to 1999, Loh served as chief policy adviser to Locke, the nation's first Chinese-American governor and now the U.S. secretary of commerce. Loh again earned both praise and criticism for his aggressive push to integrate technology into education. Professors said he was trying to destroy the brick-and-mortar traditions of higher education in favor of a digital revolution. Loh laughed thinking back on those criticisms, noting that universities offer far more online classes now than he ever imagined in 1999.

Loh next spent nine years as dean and professor of public service and psychology at Seattle University. In 2008, he returned to Iowa as the second-in-command at a university with 30,000 students, a $2.8 billion budget and $440 million in annual research funding (similar figures to College Park).

Shortly after he arrived, the Iowa River spilled over its banks and seriously damaged 18 buildings on campus. Loh watched resilient staff members walk books out of the library as the waters rose around them. Instead of growing depressed at the $750 million rebuilding task, he said he threw himself into imagining a new campus that would deliver a better education than the old buildings had allowed.

"A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," he said.

"I spoke to people from Iowa, and they told me he was a voice of calm and gave them a sense of direction during a time of real crisis," Kirwan added.

Loh needed every ounce of his optimism because the next year brought a fiscal crisis — 22 percent budget cuts across 15 months. In the face of those slashes, Loh led the development of a strategic plan to grow and diversify the university over the next decade.

Colleagues said his work during the flood and budget crises prove he's ready for the College Park job.

"He speaks very well publicly, he's very thoughtful, and those qualities make him a great asset when trying to lead people through times that are less than pleasant," said Iowa President Sally Mason. "We both suffer from the same degree of optimism. You know, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade."

Wallace D. Loh

Age: 65

Current Job: Provost, University of Iowa (2008-present)

Previous Jobs: Dean and professor of public service and psychology at Seattle University (1999-2008); director of policy and chief policy adviser for the state of Washington's Office of the Governor (1997-1999); vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of faculties at the University of Colorado-Boulder (1995-1997); dean at the University of Washington Law School (1990-1995)

Education: B.A. in psychology from Grinnell College, M.A. in psychology from Cornell, Ph.D. in psychology from University of Michigan, J.D. from Yale Law School

Achievements: Increased diversity in admissions at Washington School of Law; led a blue-ribbon panel on the future of postsecondary education in Washington and expanded scholarships in the state; helped guide University of Iowa through 2008 flood and 2009 state budget crisis

Family: Married to wife, Barbara, for 25 years with a daughter at Occidental College in California