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The Source

Q&A With Interim President David Ellis

January 23, 2017

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Last week David Ellis, a longtime member of the Lewis & Clark community, stepped into the role of interim president. Learn more about David and his plans for the future in the interview below:

For members of the campus community who may not know you, what would you say to introduce yourself?

I have been working at Lewis & Clark since 2000, first at the law school as associate dean for administration and director of Business Law Programs and for the past 14 years as the first general counsel of the college. I love this place—the students and faculties in all three schools are so impressive, and the staff here are great. Although we are one institution, the slight physical separation of our campuses and the programmatic discipline differences, can isolate us from each other. It has been terrific for my understanding of this place to have worked at the law school, then in the central administration, and also to have taught these past two years at the graduate school. The schools are like adult siblings in some ways—loving partnerships and alliances, but distinctly separate, motivated by an overriding commitment to leadership in education, social justice, and global involvement, but only traveling together on special occasions.

In my new role, I am so looking forward to the opportunity to tell the stories of this place and all of its amazing students who I truly care about, and to doing my part to guide this collection of unique, synergistic schools for the benefit of our students. 

What experiences in your professional life have prepared you for this position?

Having had opportunities to work in all three schools makes me feel comfortable in my knowledge of both the place and the people. I typically know fairly quickly who to turn to on campus when I need information or resources, and I believe the campus community is comfortable reaching out to me. Being trained as a lawyer doesn’t hurt—given the regulatory maze the college must navigate. And, having served our committed and talented Board of Trustees as secretary to the Board for the past 14 years will be very helpful as I assist them in helping us. I want you all to know how committed and passionate your Board is, and how much they give of their time, their talent, and their financial support. We are lucky to have them!

How is your role as interim president different?

Interim presidents are often seen as placeholders—keeping the lights on and trains running on time, while “permanent” presidents are expected to lead, articulate vision, and garner resources to achieve it. As interim president, I hope to be much more than a placeholder. Because of my deep knowledge of Lewis & Clark, I believe I can hit the road running, rather than have to spend this valuable time getting up to speed. I believe the future of the college is secure, and our prospects are fantastic, but we have needs that should not be put on hold while waiting to hire a permanent president. 

The challenge will be to convince all who love this place as we do (and there are many), that they should not wait to see who next sits in my chair. Now is the time to give all they can—and I mean time, talent, and treasure here. The timing is in fact perfect to both advance the interests of the college, and help attract that person who will lead Lewis & Clark for the next decade, whoever she or he may be. Lewis & Clark College is already great, and poised to be better. As one trustee and friend has described it to me, “we are in there slugging above our weight class.” This is a good time to keep advancing, and I will be spending every moment I have trying to do just that.

What is your leadership style?

I know “collaborative” may sound cliché, but it fits. No institution is truly led by a single individual. This is a team effort, and without the exceptionally talented team of people we have at Lewis & Clark we would be stranded. I want to find more ways for our off-campus fans and supporters to experience what our students experience in the classrooms, labs, and clinics that shape their experiences here. The more our supporters understand the amazing education that happens here, and the impact of that education, the easier it is to earn their support. I am a lover and a healer at heart; really, more lawyers than you know share this trait. We are not always the cold, calculating type portrayed in the media. Many of us also share that sometimes bothersome trait of wanting to fix things. Well, I know that not all things can (or need to) be fixed. So, note to self: sometimes it is okay to just listen. So, I am listening, but I am not going to sit still. Does that answer the question?

Which successes of the college are you most proud of right now?

We have so much to be proud of—the many awards and achievements of our students and faculties, a growing and necessary spirit of inclusiveness, our location in Portland and the Pacific Northwest; the future scientists, social scientists, artists, musicians, anthropologists, psychologists, lawyers, teachers, counselors, doctors and leaders in all walks of life we are helping to shape. I am very proud of our staff that is unselfishly dedicated to our students and mission, and a board that gives its time, talent, and treasure out of sheer love of this school.

Honestly, I have a bit of a “start-up” bug. I had a hand in the launching of the Small Business Legal Clinic at the law school, although others, Lisa Lesage, Steve Goebel, and the terrific clinical professors working in the clinic deserve the lion’s share of the credit. I am proud to remain a member of the SBLC’s Advisory Board. When I taught at the Law School I was very excited to co-create a class for law students and MBA students at PSU. The students were given potential business ideas from the disclosure deck at OHSU to run with—MBA students working on business plans, while law students formed the necessary business entities, all the while learning to work together. I believe in the power of these types of collaborations. I was also fortunate to have some involvement in starting the Entrepreneurship Program here, and in producing the first two Winterims for that program in the College of Arts and Sciences. (Again, many others deserve much more of the credit: Kellar Autumn, Amelia Wilcox, Michael Kaplan, Brian Detweiler-Bedell, Jane Hunter, to name a few). When liberal arts students are fueled by entrepreneurial coaching and thinking, great things happen! Finally, having the opportunity to teach in the Student Affairs Masters Program at the Graduate School of Education and Counseling has been very fulfilling—another start up—are you seeing a pattern here? I think we all agree that a great liberal arts education produces the best thinkers, the most flexible citizens. (For the record, I graduated with a B.A. in biology from what is now Sonoma State University—where I studied plant physiology and anatomy. My first two years at the university were spent in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies, a cluster school within the university.) I am proud of the way our faculty push the boundaries of an evolving educational landscape, while staying true to this central precept.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ll face during your time as interim president?

First, there is the “you’re only a placeholder” challenge. I am going to choose to ignore that, while recognizing its potential impact. We all know well many of the challenges we face as a college, and many are echoed by the challenges we face locally, nationally and globally. The immediate challenges facing Lewis & Clark are shared by many other institutions—ambitions held back by resource gaps; unfunded regulatory mandates; keeping our community safe; and successfully landing, supporting, and retaining the students, faculty, and staff we need. And we live in a world that seems out of balance, a globe that suffers from lack of resources, seemingly perpetual armed conflict, climate change, political divisiveness, racial and cultural inequities and divides. Education and access to it are ever more relevant in addressing these daunting challenges. So, we have to work every day to address the challenges we face. This will allow Lewis & Clark to continue to produce thinkers and leaders committed to addressing these generation-spanning problems. I plan to collaboratively, joyfully, and relentlessly pursue these challenges with the time I have.

What is the status of the search for the next Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?

In the coming months, we will appoint an interim dean to take office when Dean Kodat leaves us at the end of this term. Then, working with the faculty, the interim dean, and the Board, we will determine the timing and the best way forward for conducting a search.

What are the three most important things you hope to accomplish during your term?

First, we need to solidify and unite around our priorities, to allow us to plan for the short and long term. Then, we need to raise funds to support those priorities, to demonstrate our capacity to do so. Finally, I will strive to motivate every member of our community with the sense of belonging, hope, and love for this place that I have. Let me expand on the fundraising a bit: We don’t just raise money for the hell of it. It is not a game or competition. We owe it to our current and future students to have facilities and programs that propel them into life after college with the tools that they need to succeed in whatever they pursue. To do that well, we need increasing amounts of scholarship dollars to attract, support, and retain a diverse student population who may otherwise be left out. We also need to attend to our physical infrastructure and determine which new facilities we need, so that we have the first-rate educational environment our students and faculty deserve. This requires teamwork, and a team continues working even when there are changes in the team roster.

Do you have a message you would like to give to the students about what this change will mean for them?

Presidential transitions should be pretty seamless for the students. I am working with Dean Gonzalez to find the right venues to meet with students so they have the chance to get to know me better.

When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing with your free time?

I am a gardener, a golfer, a tennis player, a skier, and trying to learn to play guitar. I love walking and talking with my wife, Jeanne, and being around our sons, Sam and Logan. We are hoping to get another dog sometime this year. Our husky, Zoe, the best dog in the world, passed away in 2011 and we are feeling ready to “redog.”

Anything you’d like to add?

I want the community to know how excited I am to have this opportunity to work with everyone to protect and champion what we do for our students. For me, it will be an honor and the highlight of my career!