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Provost James N. Rosse the right man at the right time

STANFORD -- An economist and expert in industrial organization during times of financial pressures and reorganization. An analytical and even-handed presence in years of turmoil. A reserved, process-oriented No. 2 counterbalancing a charismatic, dynamic No. 1.

History may show that James N. Rosse was just what Stanford needed in a provost for the last seven-and-a-half years.

Rosse, 60, completes his term as provost April 15, when he leaves campus to head Freedom Newspapers Inc., a media chain based in Southern California.

Quietly and without much fanfare, Rosse influenced Stanford's inner workings, ranging from faculty appointments to budget allocation to new building construction. During 27 years at the university, he also had a hand in formulating the old Western Culture program, building the Economics Department and developing a set of conditions under which the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library would have been acceptable at Stanford.

Through recent problems "not of his making," Rosse has provided "a very firm hand on the wheel," Earth Sciences Dean Gary Ernst said.

Ray Bacchetti, vice president for planning and management, has worked for six provosts and said that "none has had harder decisions to make and none has applied more intelligence, care and courage to them."

What is a provost?

Rosse is widely known to faculty and many administrative staff, but most others do not recognize him or understand his role. Student residents of Casa Zapata tried to remedy that recently by inviting him to lunch to explain his job and reminisce about his career.

Rosse drew embarrassed laughs recounting the time in spring 1984 when he called his daughter Anne, then a student at Stanford's Vienna campus, to announce he had been named university provost.

After bubbling with enthusiasm and congratulations for about 30 seconds, his daughter paused, then asked: "By the way, Dad, what's a provost?"

Webster's defines "provost" as "the chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter," "the chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh," "the keeper of a prison" or "a high-ranking university administrative officer." (Stanford President-elect Gerhard Casper, himself provost at University of Chicago, pointed out during his campus visit in March that the Oxford English Dictionary adds "assistant fencing-master.")

Stanford's seven school deans and the dean of research report to the provost in his role as chief academic and chief budget officer. Five vice presidents also report to him, emphasizing the role of academics in driving decisions relating to human resources, facilities and land-use planning, student services and libraries and information services.

Achievements as provost

Despite such responsibilities, a smiling Rosse told the Casa Zapata students, "I haven't done anything worthwhile" since taking the title.

That is typical of Rosse, who insists on spreading the credit, and pointing out that neither he nor President Donald Kennedy could have accomplished anything without "a broad range of support across the institution." Indeed, Rosse's major contribution may have been as a team leader whose organizational skills made it easier to analyze and resolve problems.

During his tenure, the Institute for International Studies was launched, interdisciplinary programs grew in importance, and an extensive analysis of race and ethnic relations was undertaken by the University Committee on Minority Issues.

The university established a campus in Washington, D.C., and Rosse and his wife, Janice, donated $100,000 to establish a library there in memory of their daughter Susan, who died in a 1983 automobile accident.

Rosse played a significant role in developing and setting priorities for the recently completed $1.27 billion Centennial Campaign. Preliminary planning already was under way when Rosse was named provost, but as chief academic officer he took over the process of identifying needs and setting campaign priorities.

The campaign was "quite a remarkable achievement," he said, crediting the success to Kennedy, who "was the guy regularly on the line making it happen" while the "rest of us were there to shape and support and build." He also credits the deans, faculty and Development Office for their partnership.

Rosse is most proud of his work improving the quality and diversity of Stanford's faculty. Despite other demands, Rosse reviewed every proposed appointment and promotion (see separate story).

"We have an absolutely superb faculty," he said. "I don't think there is any place that can even hold a candle to us, and it goes from the senior people all the way down to the junior people.

"I can't take credit for that by myself, but I've worked pretty hard over the years to make the appointments process work."

Rosse also has been involved in planning new buildings. Rains Houses for single graduate students gave him the most satisfaction, he said, but he also is especially proud of Keck Laboratory Building and Sweet Hall.

The role that probably brought Rosse the most public exposure was chief budget officer, as which he dealt with three major episodes in three years:

  • In early 1989, he reduced a projected $14 million deficit for 1989-90, Stanford's first deficit budget in 13 years, to $2 million.
  • In February 1990, he launched "repositioning," an effort to streamline and reorganize the institution while cutting $22 million from the 1990-91 budget, mainly in staff positions.
  • In mid-1991, he launched a broadly consultative process to cut $43 million more from the non-medical operating budget, with most of the cuts to come in 1992-93 and 1993-94. For the first time in many years, the plans would include academic program cuts.

Despite years of budget cutting, Stanford's fundamental academic strength remains strong, Rosse said. The university is not losing faculty to other schools and it is "still attractive to students and donors."

Humanities and Sciences Dean Ewart Thomas credits Rosse for skillfully directing the recent $43 million budget-cutting process "in a way that left the community intact." Rosse planned a broad-based process, which turns out to have been "exactly the right thing to," Thomas said.

Criticized in the Faculty Senate for being too deeply involved in the process after he named himself chair of the Cabinet Committee on Budget and Strategic Planning, Rosse responded that he would not shirk his responsibility as chief budget officer.

Before the onset of financial problems, Rosse redesigned the budget process to integrate academic and financial planning in the context of three-year plans by each academic and vice presidential unit. As part of that, he initiated block budgeting - shifting line-item budget decisions from himself to the deans, vice presidents and major directors.

Rosse also wanted other changes - such as developing ways to determine the full cost of university programs rather than just direct costs, or to look at not just the operating budget but such other financial matters as auxiliary enterprises and capital expenditures. However, pressing problems intervened, said University Budget Director Tim Warner.

Rosse said his big budget-related disappointment is that repositioning, which called for major organizational changes, was not completed.

"I think it was well conceived, and by and large well executed, except that the end-game failed," he said. "We just didn't finish it. I feel really badly about that."

In the area of tuition and financial aid, Rosse advocated slowing the rate of tuition increase, a policy the university followed for two years until forced to abandon it because of severe budget problems. For several years, Rosse has allocated additional operating funds to slow planned increases in the self-help component of student financial aid.

Curriculum changes

Rosse also is pleased with the role he played in the mid- 1970s helping develop graduation requirements, known at Stanford as distribution requirements. They had been largely dismantled during the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so that "by 1972-73, there was almost no structure to the undergraduate curriculum," Rosse said.

Soon thereafter, Rosse became a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, serving as its chairman from 1975 to 1977. One of the committee's key achievements, in Rosse's view, was creating the planning process that produced the Western Culture program.

"That's not to say that I take credit for the Western Culture program," he said. "I was there at the beginning and helped get it started."

Rosse will take some credit for pushing the idea that the program should have multiple tracks.

"I did not think we could maintain quality in a single- track program like the predecessor Western Civ," he said.

The transition of Western Culture into Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) during the late 1980s completed the work begun with the Western Culture program, Rosse said.

"It was designed to bring that program into consistency with the changing interest of our student body, of our faculty, and to keep it well grounded in the concepts of Western culture."

The CIV debate became a hot political controversy on campus and nationally when leading conservatives attacked the university. The CIV debate was an eye-opener for Rosse, who said he learned "an enormous amount about political agendas. I used to think of the CIV proposals as like a Christmas tree that had plenty of places on it for people to hang their own agenda. And that's exactly what happened. Everyone in the world hung an agenda, from both inside the institution and outside the institution."

Western Culture, installed in 1980, was just one of a part of distribution requirements developed through the combined efforts of the Committee on Undergraduate Studies, the Faculty Senate, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the deans of Undergraduate Studies. Rosse gives much of the credit for the total package to former undergraduate studies deans Carolyn Lougee and Herant Katchadourian.

"It was a substantial accomplishment" to get the curriculum put back together again, Rosse said, adding that he was "fortunate to be well located at crucial moments" to be "one of the troops that made it happen."

A year before Rosse was named provost, Kennedy asked him to chair an advisory group to consider whether the university should accept the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The group recommended separate deliberations on each of three components. Rosse and his colleagues embraced the library as "a valuable academic resource," but said a proposed museum had "little or no academic value" and a proposed policy center would be "better integrated into Stanford's process of academic governance."

The group also said that a decision either to accept or reject the library complex could be viewed as a political act during Reagan's reelection campaign.

"Stanford could mitigate this 'no win' dilemma by examining the proposal in careful and deliberate fashion while deferring final decisions until after the election," Rosse's group said in its report.

For nearly four years, the issue divided the campus, further straining already difficult relations with the Hoover Institution. In 1987, the Reagan Presidential Foundation announced it would build the library in Southern California.

Looking back, Rosse said he is disappointed that the library was not built at Stanford because of the boost it would have provided to research and scholarship on policy issues. He speculates that part of the reason the foundation pulled out may have been possible trouble in raising money for their separate, off-campus policy center.

"Like a lot of other issues that became public issues," Rosse said, "I think Stanford took an undeserved beating on it."

Leadership: integrity and patience

What lessons has Rosse learned about leadership at Stanford? asked a student during the Casa Zapata lunch.

Patience, Rosse responded.

"One needs patience because once you've figured out the right way for things to happen, it sometimes takes a long time to bring others to the same conclusion."

He also counseled the students to form judgments carefully and then adhere to them.

"Too often people get pushed around in their thinking, sometimes because they haven't taken the time to think things through carefully," he said.

The most important leadership quality, he said, is integrity - "being true to what you think is right. That doesn't mean going down in flames because others don't agree with you."

His commitment to that last quality is obvious to others. Engineering Dean James Gibbons describes Rosse as a man of "extraordinary integrity" who "consistently reasons from principles."

Bacchetti agrees that Rosse never compromises his fundamental values or principles. "That's what's made his tenure so important for Stanford," Bacchetti said, and is one of the reasons "we continue to be so strong, resilient and of such high quality despite some pretty significant shocks."

Law Dean Paul Brest said that Rosse won the trust of deans even if they disagreed with his decisions "because of the sense that he's absolutely fair." The word "fair" comes up often in discussions of the provost.

Medical Dean David Korn said Rosse is "exquisitely fair- minded," and Ernst of Earth Sciences called him a "straight shooter who treated everyone quite fairly. While he hasn't been able to provide me with the resources I've wanted," Ernst said, "I've never come away feeling bad."

Rosse also draws praise from colleagues for his ability to break down major problems into workable components.

Lowell Price, secretary to the University Cabinet, said that Rosse is "one of the most powerfully analytic persons I know." That analysis goes beyond the numbers to their meaning. He answers the "so-what?" question, Price said.

Rosse is good, Price said, at "parsing a problem into solvable parts." After that, he does the "synthesis to put it back together again, sometimes adding other things to it." Rosse is big on defining a problem as well as possible, because he doesn't want an "elegant solution to an ill-defined problem," Price said.

Korn, who said he has "enormous respect and affection" for the "superb provost," also talked of Rosse's "extraordinary capacity" to master complex problems and detail.

Korn said that most people find the Medical School and Medical Center difficult to understand because "so much about them is intrinsically different from the rest of the university." Rosse, however, "came to understand the Medical Center profoundly."

Not that the Medical School dean and the provost always agreed. Korn found Rosse to be somewhat conservative - "anyone who wears both a belt and suspenders is conservative," Korn said - and "a bit obstinate at times. [We've] had our arguments and debates but they've always worked out appropriately."

Rosse makes it a habit to stand in his doorway and shake hands with visitors when they leave his office, a signal of respect and friendship "no matter how difficult" the session preceding it, Gibbons said.

"That act really strengthened a bond," the engineering dean said. "It was just very genuine - it didn't become routinized or unimportant" through repetition.

That respect is returned by deans who credit Rosse as their teacher.

Gibbons, who had no experience as a department chairman before stepping into his deanship the same day Rosse became provost, said he "learned an enormous amount" from Rosse.

Thomas of Humanities and Sciences said Rosse has been a superb mentor, giving him "priceless short tutorials on economics" and "sparing me some minefields."

Calling himself a "greenhorn who didn't know a thing about administration," Research Dean Robert Byer praised Rosse as a "patient teacher in all aspects."

Recruited by Abramovitz

Rosse's own mentor in academic administration was Prof. Moses Abramowitz, former chair of economics. Rosse and Abramovitz met in late 1964 at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association in Chicago, where "10,000 economists" had descended to interview or be interviewed for jobs.

Rosse found in Abramovitz "one of the warmest, friendliest persons I've ever known, and who, furthermore, insisted on talking about intellectual subjects for most of the hour."

"Compared with the maelstrom of interviewing activity that was going on around me," Rosse said, "I sat and talked calmly and quietly with this very special human being. It meant a lot to me."

Rosse said he was impressed that Stanford would send such a representative, and he had no hesitation when the job offer came.

In 1971, when Abramovitz accepted a second term as department chairman, he asked Rosse to be vice chairman, and proceeded to teach him.

"He gave me gentle guidance, reprimands as appropriate, support as needed, and let me do what needed to be done."

When Abramovitz finished his three-year term, Rosse was asked to take over. He agreed to do the job, but only for one year, 1974-75, saying he wanted to return to a more active research and teaching agenda.

In 1976, Rosse was in the first group to earn dean's awards for teaching in the School of Humanities and Sciences. During his academic career, Rosse supervised more than 20 doctoral students, several of whom have gone on to faculty positions at major institutions.

In 1978, Rosse was drawn back into administration when Halsey Royden, then dean of humanities and sciences, asked him to be associate dean. Rosse accepted the position out of self-defense because "I thought it would be easier than being department chairman."

He returned to economics in 1982 as director of the new Center for Economic Policy Research, which sought to focus Stanford's already well-established economics expertise on issues of public policy. Two years later, when Kennedy asked him to serve as provost, Rosse agreed.

Academics vs. administration

Rosse admits to ambivalent feelings about administration.

"It takes a certain amount to keep an institution running, and those of us who can do it with relatively less burden really do carry some obligation to do it. So I always felt like I needed to play a role in it," he said. "On the other hand, that's not the reason I became an academic."

Rosse's academic expertise is industrial organization, a branch of economics concerned with how markets organize themselves: why, for instance, wheat farmers are perfectly competitive but newspapers tend to operate in monopolies. The field appealed to Rosse because it combines theory with public policy issues and requires empirical analysis - practical observation.

"You can't study industrial organization without getting a sense of cause and effect with respect to organizations," Rosse said.

"People in my field quickly get involved in questions of why organizations are put together the way they are, and that plays pretty naturally in a job" like provost.

This branch of economics also "gives you a real sense of the importance of decentralized decision-making," he said.

.A classic example from his field is the study of why General Motors was so successful from the 1930s through the 1950s. The short answer is that the auto giant operated in a decentralized mode.

The word "decentralization," used a lot at Stanford these days, has taken on "a sort of ideological, sometimes magical, sometimes black-magical content," Rosse said.

The university will not save money by decentralizing, but moving decision-making from the provost's office down to the schools and departments strengthens the university's capacity to foster innovation, Rosse said.

"Having a strong central administration in an institution that's as large and complex as this one is now is actually a deterrent to that happening," he said.

Some have criticized Rosse for proliferating vice presidents, suggesting that eliminating a few would save administrative costs. Rosse defends the current structure, saying it is better for Stanford to have a broad, flat organization rather than a "pointy one" in which the same set of individuals is pushed down one or two steps, with new layers of command on top of them.

The role of vice presidents at Stanford has changed in the last six to eight years, he said. Vice presidents now are more specialized than in the past, and each has strong accountability and a fair amount of autonomy. Changing to a pyramid structure "wouldn't save a dime and, in fact, probably would cost us something," Rosse said.

"I believe very, very strongly that an institution like this has to have multiple leaderships. You can't rely on one person for 20 or 30 years, or even necessarily 10 years," he said.

"Whenever you get a strong leader, you get good ideas, but you also get mistakes."

One of his mistakes, Rosse said, was the planning for the Near West Campus science and engineering redevelopment, which "failed to take account of the political reality of what we could accomplish."

The outgoing provost said he hoped his successor would recognize the importance of department chairs and department administrators - the people who really make Stanford work.

"As we become more managerial on the support side of the enterprise, and more academic on the academic side, we're going to keep putting more and more pressure on these people who interface between the two cultures," he said.

Health problems

Rosse was born in Sidney, Neb., where his father was a school teacher and also edited a small weekly newspaper for a time. Rosse's lifelong interest in newspapers started around age 4, when he learned to set type. Several years later, he and his younger brother produced their own small newspaper.

Rosse spent his childhood in several other small Nebraska towns where his father served as county agricultural agent, but attended high school in Omaha when he father went there to take up newspaper work again.

As a teenager in 1946, Rosse was stricken by polio. He stayed home and read extensively. After graduating from high school in 1949, he attended Princeton for two years and suffered more health problems - mononucleosis and jaundice.

At age 20, he married Janice Grimminger and started a family, putting his academic career on hold while he worked for newspapers in Omaha and Minneapolis.

He earned a bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Minnesota in 1961 and started graduate school the same year a son, Stuart, entered kindergarten. Another son, Jay, and daughter Susan were in grammar school, while daughter Anne was not yet born.

Rosse earned a master's degree in 1963 and a doctorate in 1966, also at Minnesota. His dissertation dealt with competition in the newspaper industry.

Rosse's health problems have continued. A diabetic, he was hospitalized last summer when he develop a massive strep infection while on a trip to celebrate his parent's 60th wedding anniversary. He also had laser surgery for an eye problem in 1990- 91.

Byer said that in the last year Rosse sometimes got upset when his body could not keep pace with his mind. He also said that many members of the community have been unaware of the extent of Rosse's personal sacrifice in dealing with Stanford's recent problems.

Indeed, Rosse looked exhausted much of fall quarter, but his appearance dramatically improved within days of his resignation announcement in January.

Asked why he's leaving one stressful job for another, instead of taking a relaxing retirement, Rosse said his stamina is just fine.

"I enjoy working, I enjoy doing things," he said. "When I get to the point where I can't work hard, I'll quit, but that's a long way off."

Rosse said he was encouraged by a recent exercise in which he traced the causes of death for four generations of ancestors. Of the 21 who died natural deaths, the youngest was 76, the oldest 99 and the average 87.

He challenged the notion that he's been shortchanged in terms of health, proudly recounting a consultation with his doctor during the widely publicized budget-cutting debates last fall.

The doctor, well aware of Rosse's position and Stanford's trials, told Rosse that his cholesterol was about 150, his blood pressure was 135 over 75, and all signs from the heart, lungs and kidneys were "very, very sound," Rosse said.

"He then turned to me and said, 'Don't you live under any stress at all?' "

Predicting the future

Looking to Stanford's future, Rosse predicted that recent turmoil and budget problems will not set back the university permanently. Stanford "will be a cutting-edge institution for a long time to come" because of a strong culture of success and the resources to back it up, he said.

The question is not "will this be an important institution," he said, but how important will it be in shaping higher education over the next 15 to 20 years?"

"I think it can be very important, and I'm looking to Casper and the people that he selects to carry out that task."

Rosse said he and Kennedy have tried to lay the groundwork so Casper will have the capacity to do that.


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