Following is the transcript of our exit interview with Larry Nikkel upon his impending retirement. The interview took place Dec. 19, 2007, in his office on campus.
FREE PRESS: Did you ever envision yourself being president of Tabor College before the “courting” process actually began?
LARRY NIKKEL: I don’t know how long the list would have had to have been for it to be on the list of things I either wanted to do, thought I could do, or should do.
The first time it occurred, when I was chairman of the board and Dave Brandt (Tabor president at the time) had resigned, we had some kind of lunch or breakfast at the Village Inn at Ridge and 21st (in Wichita) and we were talking about the future. He said, “You know who should be the next president of Tabor?” I said, “No, who?” He said, “You should.”
That, literally, was the first time I ever really thought about it. I would have never thought about it before. First of all, I wasn’t drawn to it at all at the time. But the other thing was that I really felt that without a Ph.D. I would not have the credentials, I wouldn’t have the integrity, I wouldn’t have the respect of people.
Even when I did decide to come in, that was a concern to me. To my great surprise and pleasure, people received me warmly. Even among the 18 presidents of the KICA (Kansas Independent Colleges Association, I wonder if at the time I was the only academician. But they really received me warmly. In fact, they treated me as though I probably knew more about running a college than they did—which was less than true. But what I’m saying is, they respected the path that I’d been on — the whole business thing.
FP: What about leading the teaching faculty without a Ph.D.?
NIKKEL: I was really apprehensive about that. During my interim year, we had a faculty rep on search committee, and the first question was, ‘What are we looking for in a president?” The first thing said was, “Somebody with a Ph.D.” I started Aug. 1 of 1998 and I’d say that by the end of September, it didn’t take very long for the little messages to start filtering back to me, “Well, maybe a Ph.D. isn’t all that important.”
I had kind of a similar thing in mental health. The thought was you that you had to be a psychiatrist to be CEO of a psych hospital. So, in two of my three CEO positions, I haven’t had quite the traditional credentials. But in both of those, I’d say it worked out reasonably well.
FP: From everything I hear from almost anyone associated with the college, I get the impression that you are universally respected and loved as president — maybe even more than any other president that I’m aware of.
NIKKEL: I’ve been really blessed with people’s generosity. I’m glad to hear that, but people have been very gracious.
FP: Did you begin your time as president with anything in particular that you wanted to accomplish, or with a mandate or goal?
NIKKEL: I remember thinking about it. I came in as an outsider in terms of administration and faculty. I was chair of the board, so I was an insider in that respect, but I was still an outsider to this profession — at least as applying my management profession to higher education. So I knew there was a lot I didn’t know. I knew I couldn’t just come in and have a lot of answers to things.
As for a mandate, I think there were really two. First, in that May 1998 board meeting that I chaired, we had adopted a strategic plan that David Brandt and the administration had brought forward. It was really a fairly ambitious plan. It had more specificity to it than a lot of plans that I had seen. I was excited about it. It was one of the first strategic plans I had seen, especially in higher education, that had goals. It had some stuff to it that you could actually get a hold of, versus being more of a philosophical thing. I was excited about that. I think the board wanted me to be interim president because I knew more about that strategic plan than anybody else would. I took it upon myself in my first year to really try to put wheels to that thing.
So that’s one thing. In a more general sense, when I came, even after the interim year was over, the main thing I wanted was just to strengthen the organization and see it move forward. That sounds very global, and I guess it was. But as we proceeded, we got into lots of specifics. That’s really a lot of fun for me. I love planning and, like that guy on the old “A Team” TV show always said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” That’s very much me. So to see people have a vision for the institution, and a vision for the part they play in that, and to find handles for how we can move in that direction, I love that.
I think in a very general sense, that’s what I wanted to see happen here — that we would be able to be stronger and move forward.
FP: Given the caveat that everything that’s accomplished at a place like Tabor is the result of a team effort, what are some of the things that happened during your tenure that you bring you the most satisfaction?
NIKKEL: This is not false humility, but it’s absolutely true that what we’ve done we’ve done together. Knowing what this article would be about, I made a list of some things I feel really good about — in no particular order.
First, the capital campaign for the townhouses, and bringing those on line has just been huge in terms of people’s feelings about things here. It was enabled by lots and lots of people getting on the bandwagon. It was fun not only to achieve the result, but to connect with thousands — and that is not an exaggeration — of people, and being in their homes and seeing their businesses. That was just really nice.
Second, I’d like to turn the video machine back a while and just remind myself what this place looked like when I came. I think the campus aesthetics have almost entirely revamped the campus, whether it’s flower beds or trees or hard-surfacing parking lots — things like that.
One very satisfying experience I had recently was a guy who I really hadn’t seen on campus for a long time — it had been years, frankly. He said, “When I used to come on campus I’d go (he’d make face like, ‘Ugh, this is not good.’) Now, when I come here this place looks like a university.” Just to know that for some people who knew what it was like here 10 years ago, or longer, and what it’s like now, makes you feel that people have noticed. That was great.
Third, generally people have embraced an idea that I always believed before coming here: that you can get better, you can make progress. On top of that, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to do it. A lot of things you can do are attitudes — like all of us picking up trash when we see it, being friendly to campus visitors. There’s just so much to that.
There are very few things that I can take credit for in terms of cliches, but I’ve often asked the question, “When is ‘good’ good enough?” I think the answer to that is, “When you can’t be better.” If we all adopt that approach to things, there’s so much we can do to be good or to get better.
That commitment to excellence, I think there’s been a pretty decent buy-in to that notion. That feels really good.
Fourth, in that same vein, the adoption of our mission statement and the adoption of our vision statement — I am so proud of those. I was probably more an architect on the mission statement than I was on the vision statement. That was really the product of a lot of people’s vision, and I love it. If we could achieve our vision, we’d be the best college around. It’s been fun working on that.
Fifth, I feel really good about the progress we’ve made with what we used to call Tabor-Wichita. We now call it the Adult & Graduate Studies Program. This has been established as a separate school in kind of a university model. We have very, very good people there now. I think we have the potential for really doing well, so that feels really, really good.
Sixth, I think we have deepened and broadened our donor base. People who were giving before are now giving at higher levels, and people who were not giving before are now giving. I think that’s so important because schools like this will forever need strong support from alumni and friends.
Seventh, I think we’ve had good administration and faculty for a long time, but I think it’s as strong as I’ve seen it, maybe ever. That these people have come to join us in this important work is just so satisfying because they certainly haven’t come for salary. But to come with some sense of passion and competence — wow, that is really great. It’s been a great team to work with.
FP: On the flip side, do you have some disappointments about what wasn’t accomplished at Tabor while you were president?
NIKKEL: That list is very long — not of disappointments, personally, but of what still needs doing. It really is long.
I’m very disappointed that we didn’t achieve the extreme makeover of the Lohrenz Building that it deserves. I think that would have been just a marvelous thing. Of course, it would have been brutal to go through it, because we’d all have to be displaced somewhere (during the project). But to have that done and to secure the future of this building would have been a wonderful achievement. We absolutely did not get it done. I think if you’re energetic and ambitious in a place like this, there are so many things that can be done and need to be done. But that’s really huge.
The other thing, quite aside from understanding all the dynamics, is to not have been able to complete the capital campaign for the stadium project and get it under way. That is a huge disappointment for me. I very much wanted to have that done by the time I left.
Frankly, there were two things that were problems. One was my heart attack, so I was gone for a couple of months when we really would have done a lot more planning and fund-raising. The second thing, of course, is the lawsuit, which was a huge factor in slowing things down.
So I’m very disappointed about that. But you know what? There’s a lot of things we’re not in control of. When that happens, you just have to say, well, OK, somebody else will get to pick it up and finish it.
There are a lot of things I wish we were farther. We didn’t get farther for lack of effort on the part of anyone. Our people have really worked hard and worked effectively, I think. So you get as far as you can, and after a certain point you say I guess somebody else gets to pick it up.
FP: For as long as I’ve been aware of Tabor, growing the enrollment here has been one of those ongoing challenges that has been hard to crack. I know overall enrollment has grown, but do you feel any disappointment for the lack of growth on the Hillsboro campus?
NIKKEL: The good news there is, a year from now we’ll know more than we know now. There is so much reason for optimism. At a certain point, I said to our faculty and staff, and to the board, “I think we have gone as far as we can in terms of growing this place on just sheer energy. From what we know, and from sheer energy, I don’t think we can do it.” But now we have this contract with Noel-Levitz, a national consulting firm, to help us. The truth is, they have been very helpful.
I don’t know how many (potential student) inquiries we used to have every year — by that I mean a formal telephone call or e-mail, some legitimate tell-me-about-your-program kind of thing. I think we used to have around 2,500 of those a year. Noel-Levitz said, “You need at least 1,000 more.” I can tell you that we’ve already exceeded that for this year. I can also tell you that when it comes to applications, and applications accepted, we are way ahead of where we’ve ever been before. If we can continue that, and convert those apps to deposits, and those deposits to matriculants, then we’ll all sit back and say, “Wow, that was really a wise move.” It’s really too early to know, though.
So we want to grow the Hillsboro (student) population, and we want to grow the adult and graduate studies program. I think one of the wonderful things Lawrence (Ressler, vice-president of academics and student development and academic affairs) has brought is that he has a wonderful vision for distance learning and some of those kinds of things. And Jules (Glanzer, incoming president) has a vision for that.
I think there are opportunities to develop additional revenue streams so we aren’t putting all of our eggs in the Hillsboro basket. If we can do that, it will build financial strength into the place because it might be that if we have a down year here, there’s an up year somewhere else. It softens the volatility that schools like this sometimes experience in enrollment.
FP: How has your sense of, or vision for, Tabor College changed while you’ve been president?
NIKKEL: For (wife) Elaine and me, the opportunity to live inside the organization, as contrasted to a kind of looking through windows, has been just fabulous. It’s fabulous because you get to really know the heart of the faculty, and you really get to know students — with all of the frustrations that 18- and 19-year-olds can present, but also with all of the energy and fun and aliveness that kids bring. That’s been good.
Another thing is, while I already said that there’s always room for improvement, when I first came I didn’t know how good we were. How do you measure that? But when you go around and you talk, either to alums who are on the faculty at a different school, or you talk to other board members and other people who are involved, they’ll say, “Your science program is years ahead of our science program,” or things like that. I’ve heard that about our drama department, too — and we have no facility! They say, “Our drama department doesn’t hold a candle to yours.”
What you start catching on to is that in some ways we’re better than we thought we were. That’s an important point — at least for our faculty members and the people who work here. We shouldn’t see ourselves as being the bottom rung on the ladder because it’s not true.
Even though the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings are suspect in some circles, and people wonder “What does this really mean?” I can tell you, having gone from a third-tier school to a first-tier school is not a bad thing! I think, externally and internally, that a lot of what we do is validated as really good.
Again, having said that, there’s no question that there’s a lot of room for improvement, and we’ll work on it.
It’s been really a fun thing to get to know people in the way that we have, and to just be a part of what feels like good progress.
FP: What have you learned about the community of Hillsboro while you’ve been president?
NIKKEL: I have not invested myself very much in local boards and committees and all that kind of thing. I told (Mayor) Delores Dalke one time after I came, that I think the biggest contribution I can make to the community is to see that this place does well. That’s where I’ve really placed my energy.
But, having said that, I’ve been really appreciative of the community of Hillsboro. I’m very much aware that we have people whose loyalties extend beyond Tabor College. But this has been a very welcoming community.
I think we all know that a healthy Hillsboro is good for Tabor and a healthy Tabor is good for Hillsboro. So I think we have a good sense of partnership and common goals. I’m very appreciative for the way the community has supported Tabor and served as a host community.
FP: What do you think you’ll miss most once you are no longer president of Tabor College?
NIKKEL: As of more or less tomorrow (Dec. 20) at 5 p.m., when I hope to be done in the office (I have a week of vacation I hope to take yet), I will have shifted from an insider to an outsider. I mean that in a very real sense. At a certain point here I’m no longer the president. Emotionally, I don’t think there’s going to be too much of a loss in terms of status and ego and stuff like that.
But I think I’m going to be very much aware of the opportunities I’ve had to influence direction, and I’ll step away from that in a very real sense. There will be some sense of loss in that.
I made this decision to retire before my heart attack. But with the heart attack, and with the agenda that faces Tabor — I mean, it’s another significant capital campaign, it’s needing good, strong leadership to take us into a technological world — I’m not the best one to to do that.
I’ll give you an example. On my desk over there is a Dell PDA (personal digital assistant). It’s got more firepower than the Taliban has, I think. It has everything. But I’ve already traded it in for my new, up-to-date, handy-dandy Slimline (appointment book). Jules and Lawrence, and people like that, they know the technology thing, they like it, and they know how to lead in this era.
I’m very much at peace with the decision that this is the right time (to retire). I’m glad I feel that way because I’d hate to leave with a lot of second thoughts and second-guessing myself.
FP: How do you envision retirement?
NIKKEL: What I’ve told people is that I’m going to rest until I don’t feel like resting anymore, then I’m going to do something else. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell very much.
I don’t really know what I’m going to be doing. I do know that I’m going on to the Mennonite Mutual Aid board, and I’ve already been approached about other things, too. The truth us, those feel a little too much like work to me.
But I have lots of interests that I’ve kind of put on the shelf, whether that’s birding or tennis or biking or gardening or reading or spending time with our family and grandkids. I have a lot of things I like to do. I think I want to be reflective — probably not write for publication, but to write for reflection.
We want to move at some point. It’s not because we don’t like Hillsboro. I think it makes sense for us to relocate. We lived in Wichita before we came here and we’ll probably return to Wichita. We’re in no big hurry about that. So that will occupy our time at some point.
I want to do meaningful volunteer work. I don’t know what that means yet. I want to be more involved in congregational life than I’ve been able to be for 15 years or more. The job I had before this I traveled a lot, too.
I don’t know. The list is fairly long of things I’d like to do. I’m not one of these people who have it all figured out and planned out. But I’m not worried about it. I think there will be days when I will stomp around the house and don’t know what to do. (Laugh.)
FP: How much will you be involved in the transition of Jules Glanzer into the presidency?
NIKKEL: I’ve been involved in situations where an incoming pastor is all too happy to see the old guy leave. And the same thing with college presidencies and other things. I just have to tell you that Jules could not have been more gracious than he has been in terms of wanting to meet with me. In fact, I’ve said no to him at least twice about things he wanted me to keep doing — because he would just welcome that.
I have agreed to see one project through — the centennial plaza thing that we’ll do out here (on campus). In fact, we’re going to be sending out 8,000 letters about it. I had said I wanted to sign all of them, but I’ve given up on that. The stack is 6 feet tall, literally. But I’m doing notes and some of that.
I’ve also agreed to keep in involved with whichever of our donors or perspective donors he wants me to be involved with. He’s also asked whether he may meet with me as often as needed just for orientation and mentoring and consulting — which I’m delighted to do.
I have just prepared a briefing book for him, which gives a history of everything — from the all the associations we belong to and what they do, and where we are in the capital development plan. It’s a long list of things that hopefully will help him to start, I don’t know, at maybe at Step 2 instead of Step 1.
I am not at all getting the feeling from him that I really ought to wrap up and step aside. I’m so delighted that he’s inviting me to be involved. I will be careful to know what those boundaries are, and to live withing them.
I am just delighted that he’s wanting to benefit from whatever experience I may have. Frankly, I don’t think he’s going to need me very long. He’ll acclimate very quickly and move on, and I think that’s just great.