New Leadership for a New Decade

Barry Glassner, a noted cultural commentator, is Lewis & Clark’s 24th president.
  • Barry Glassner
    © Robert M Reynolds

Barry Glassner, a noted cultural commentator, is Lewis & Clark’s 24th president.

At different points in his life, Barry Glassner has been a radio announcer, a freelance journalist, a sociology professor, a best-selling author, a high-level university administrator—even a successful magician. Much like the students who attend Lewis & Clark, he brings with him a wide range of talents. He will make use of them all—minus the card tricks of his youth—in his new position as the 24th president of Lewis & Clark.

Glassner has built an impressive career as a professor and administrator at several institutions—most recently, the University of Southern California, where he served as executive vice provost. A keen observer of American culture, Glassner is the author or coauthor of nine books, including The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (1999), a national best seller that was named a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times. An updated edition was released in 2010.

Prior to becoming USC’s executive vice provost, Glassner served as director of the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, and previous to that he chaired the Department of Sociology. Earlier in his career, Glassner led academic departments at Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut. He received a

BA from Northwestern University and an MA and PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

The Chronicle caught up with Glassner in October, his first month on the job.

Early Years

Tell us about your childhood in Virginia. I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, a small city in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have a brother, Jonathan, who is nine years younger. He is a TV writer, director, and producer. He’s probably best known for his work on Stargate SG-1, but he works on many different things.

When I was growing up, my main hobby was magic. I saw a magician at a birthday party when I was 6 years old, and I thought he was really cool. I started getting books and learning tricks. By the time I was 12, I was doing my own shows all over Roanoke. As a teenager, I was an officer in a national club for young magicians and went to magic conventions. My brother got interested in magic too, and eventually, he took over my act.

How did you come to major in journalism—and later pursue sociology? What attracted you to these fields? I was editor of my high school newspaper, so that’s where my interest in journalism began. As for sociology, I’ve always found it fascinating to observe groups of people. As a boy, I would get distracted on the playground because I was watching other kids, trying to figure out what they were up to.

The kind of sociology I pursued initially, ethnography, is oriented toward that approach.

What was the best part of your college experience? The worst?  The best and worst are one and the same. During my first year at Northwestern, I saw an announcement for a great job at ABC radio network. I was majoring in journalism, and in high school, I’d worked part time at a little radio station near my hometown. But in no way did I meet the qualifications they listed for the position at ABC. I mustered my courage, talked my way into an interview, ironed my best shirt, and somehow convinced the bureau chief to hire me.

Things went fine the first couple of weeks, until one day I was given an assignment I had no idea how to do—on a piece of equipment I’d never seen before. The man who had hired me walked by and saw I was almost in tears. And to add insult to injury, he laughed. This got me so nonplussed, I said the first thing that went through my head: “Why did you hire me, anyway? You must have realized I don’t know how to do this stuff.” He answered that he’d found me to be smart and ambitious and have a lot of energy. He also said that when he called my references, they told him I had something that many brash college students do not.

“You own up to what you don’t know,” he said, “which you just did again.” Then he ordered me to buy lunch for an engineer in exchange for a lesson in how to use the machine.

That’s a lesson that has served me well, to recognize what I don’t know and ask for help.

Why did you make the shift from journalism to sociology? Toward the end of my undergraduate years, I was doing some freelance writing about social issues for newspapers. I remember telling one of my sociology professors about my frustrations at trying to say anything important in a 500-word newspaper article. He suggested I pursue graduate work in sociology—then I could write a doctoral dissertation and say in 50,000 words what I should have said in 500. He was kidding about that last part, of course. But since I was seriously interested in sociology, I ended up following his advice.

Scholarship and Administration

What motivated you to become a public intellectual and write for a broad audience? My father owned jewelry stores, and he wanted me to join the family business. But I’m afraid I broke his heart. I wanted a life of investigation, of research, of teaching—a life of the mind. My writing is a part of that as well.

I got to the point where I’d done a lot of writing for a select audience of people in my field—actually specialists within subdisciplines of my field—which is what we do as professors and scholars. That’s what we should do. But at a certain point, I wanted to use my journalism background and love of writing to talk to a larger audience. Also, I was becoming interested in certain kinds of social problems and how they’re perceived—especially why people seem to be so frightened of things they don’t need to be. I thought these issues would be of interest to a wider public.

How did you become interested in the politics of fear? In the 1980s and into the ’90s, there were scares about pregnant teenagers. These young women were being blamed for all kinds of social ills and economic problems. I thought, “Wow, there aren’t very many of them. They can’t be this powerful. They’re also pretty poor. Could these claims be true?” Then I started looking into other areas, and I saw fears being exploited elsewhere. We were getting confused about what was really going on.

If you look around, Americans are afraid of all sorts of things they don’t need to be. We live in one of the safest eras in history. Where do these ideas come from? How are they perpetuated? These are some of the questions I explore in The Culture of Fear.

Your latest book, The Gospel of Food, also challenges cultural perceptions. Why did you decide to focus on food? I had always enjoyed good food but never in any serious way. Then, when I was an assistant professor at Syracuse, I visited a colleague who was working in Paris. He took me to some French restaurants where the food was beyond anything I had ever experienced. I remember going to Jamin, whose chef at the time was Joël Robuchon—it was almost a religious experience. Once I discovered that this level of artistry in cooking existed, I was hooked.

Eventually, I developed a scholarly interest in the subject. In the early 2000s, I spent about four years studying various aspects of the food scene throughout the country. I noticed Americans are really hung up about food. The idea that pleasurable eating is a good thing is virtually anathema to many Americans.

When did you make the transition from faculty to administration? When I was at Syracuse University, I was elected chair of the sociology department, and it was a slippery slope from there. I’ve been recruited for every administrative position I’ve held since.

I have some professor friends who set out early in their careers to become administrators, with the goal of becoming college presidents. If you had asked me when I was an assistant professor about either of those things, I would have looked at you blankly. They were not on my radar.

What are you most proud of from your time as an administrator at USC? If I had to name just one thing, it would be creating a program called Visions and Voices, an arts and humanities initiative. We hosted more than 100 events each year—films, plays, dances, concerts, and lectures—both on campus and off. Last year, roughly 25,000 people attended, most of them students. The program has had a big impact at USC. And it’s given me a strong sense of how important the arts are in people’s lives and how meaningful they can be in practice.

What is the key to being a successful college leader? I learned early on that whatever is on the agenda, your compass needle should be pointed toward students and their education. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professor, a trustee, a president, an administrative assistant, a groundskeeper. It sounds obvious, but I’ve found over time that it isn’t.

A New Opportunity

Why Lewis & Clark? Lewis & Clark is amazing. It has a configuration that’s unique in higher education: a law school with programs that are top ranked nationally; a graduate school that produces many of the region’s education leaders; and an undergraduate college with phenomenal students—a Rhodes Scholar and seven Fulbright Scholars this year alone—and an unparalleled level of international engagement.

Add to that an accomplished faculty who have a reputation for being uncommonly engaged with their students, a devoted board, and 36,000 proud alumni—not to mention the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen—and it is an incredibly exciting place.

How do you feel the environment of Lewis & Clark will differ from USC? As I mentioned, the makeup of Lewis & Clark—with its three schools—is unique. In a way, though, it’s familiar to me, because at USC I worked with students, faculty, and staff at a college of arts and sciences as well as a range of graduate and professional schools.

But I have never encountered such a high concentration of dedicated faculty who work so closely with their students—in the lab, in the classroom, and in the community—as at Lewis & Clark.

I think the difference in size between Los Angeles and Portland is also relevant. Being the president of a college situated in Portland presents great opportunities for community engagement. I know that the college is already highly connected to Portland organizations, businesses, and public schools and doing important work, and I’m looking forward to identifying ways to do even more. Those connections provide tremendous academic opportunities for students, and for enriching the city.

The Presidency of Lewis & Clark

How does being a sociologist inform your leadership style? Even though I greatly value people’s individuality, I think sociologists, more than people in other professions, tend to see what is going on in group terms rather than individual terms. I believe this is a helpful perspective for leaders of large organizations.

What are the key steps or stages in “raising the profile” of a college, which is one of Lewis & Clark’s ambitions? At USC, I was very involved in making sure the accomplishments of faculty and students received the attention they deserved, especially among those organizations that review and rank colleges. I want to do the same at Lewis & Clark. We need to get the word out farther and wider.

I also plan to leverage my own contacts and activities. For example, this fall, I wrote op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Oregonian. That’s great publicity for the college.

Those in the Lewis & Clark community—particularly alumni— also have an important role in sharing the story of the college with their contacts.

Given Lewis & Clark’s three-school structure, how do you go about building a singular strategic vision? I’ve spent the last five years working between and among the 18 schools of USC. For example, I worked with key stakeholders to create a new interdisciplinary bachelor’s, master’s, and minor degree program among USC’s five schools of art: theatre, music, cinema, architecture, and fine arts. I found that faculty, staff, students, and administrators—once they see the advantages for their own school and for the larger good— get very enthusiastic about working together.

What is the first item on your agenda? I see the next year as a time of study for me. I want to meet as many students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni as I can. I want to learn about the culture and personality of Lewis & Clark—what makes this place work well and where opportunities exist to build on the best aspects of the college.

What do you see in Lewis & Clark’s future? When I look ahead 10 years, if we’re successful, Lewis & Clark is going to be the school of Portland, of the Northwest, and beyond. We will have completed a transformative comprehensive campaign, engaged in even more curricular innovation, pursued exciting new faculty initiatives, and assembled a student body in all three schools that is the envy of colleges and universities everywhere. Lewis & Clark is going to be the place other schools turn to for innovative ideas in higher education.

Outside the Office

What most excites you about Portland? I already love the city, so it’s going to be easy to become a Portlander. My wife and I have been coming to Portland periodically for a while—it’s been a favorite destination of ours.

Plus, I’m a hard-core foodie, and it’s hard to imagine any city in the country that’s better on the food scene than Portland. Also the sheer beauty of Portland and the region is very, very appealing to me. The Japanese Garden is one of my favorite places on the planet.

What do you like to do in your spare time? My wife and I love movies, plays, concerts, and museums and go to as many as possible, and we’re avid walkers and hikers. I’m also a sports fan. Did you see the guy in orange, running up and down the sidelines at Pioneer football games this fall? That was me.