Elmhurst College In Depth

Big Questions, Real Answers

Those are the enduring preoccupations of S. Alan Ray, the College's thirteenth President.

The next president of Elmhurst College, Alan Ray, is telling me what he thinks of meetings.

We are in a dining room on the lower level of the Frick Center during his first visit to campus since he was appointed in February to be the College’s thirteenth president, and this seems to be at once the most obvious and most unlikely of topics.

Ray has spent the last twelve years working in academic administration, first at Harvard Law School and most recently at the University of New Hampshire. Those jobs have left him with definite views on meetings, especially the long, aimless sort that produce only plans for more meetings. 

“There is nothing more natural to academia than meetings that do not culminate in action,” he is saying matter-of-factly.

Of course, complaining about meetings is as much a part of campus life as are meetings themselves. But at New Hampshire, Ray managed to turn the much-maligned monthly meeting into such an effective part of his management arsenal that even the subordinates who had to attend the meetings sound downright enthusiastic about them now. “People grumble about meetings, but Alan’s meetings encouraged us to step out of our little communities and see the university as a whole, and to do what’s best for the whole,” says Lisa MacFarlane, a professor of English at New Hampshire and director of the University Honors Program. 
“He was very community-minded.”

The State of New Hampshire ranks fiftieth in the union in per capita support for higher education, and Ray often had only limited resources to spread among the dozen or so university centers and departments that reported to him. So his meetings became collective exercises in resource allocation and problem solving. What’s more, his directors learned to work with one another to make the most of investments in programs. In higher education, where departments often jealously guard their access to finite resources, that marked a real achievement.

“He gave his team a sense of shared responsibility,” says Bruce Mallory, the provost and Ray’s boss at New Hampshire. “It was creative and pragmatic.” 

Still, for someone with Ray’s scholarly background, the ordinary, workaday business meeting might seem merely mundane. Ray is a former Roman Catholic seminarian and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a Harvard-trained student of theology and a scholar of federal Indian law. He has written and taught on religion, on philosophy, on Native American issues and the courts. With a range of interests as broad as all that, who wants to talk about meetings?

Ray does, actually. For him, it is all of a piece: the meetings and the theology, the management and the scholarship. A thread of practical engagement runs through his varied career. He says that his decision, for example, to go from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard to law school at the University of California was not just a career shift but also “a way of grounding my religious and philosophical questions in what is often called the real world.”

For the practical scholar, even a monthly meeting is a chance to get dialectical, to get analytical, and above all, to get productive. Ray says he expects his meetings to end in action, for the same reason that he likes his scholarship to be rooted in the actual concerns of the workaday world. 

“I like big questions,” Ray is saying. “But I also like real answers.”

In his new job, Alan Ray will be called on to lead a college that has been on a roll in recent years. The fourteen-year presidency of Ray’s predecessor, Bryant L. Cureton, has been marked by sustained growth in the school’s enrollment and prestige. The entering freshman class is the largest in the school’s history. Between 1994 and 2007, the percentage of freshmen with an ACT score of 21 or higher rose from 46 percent to 83 percent. College guides such as the Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report offer rave reviews. In the spring, the Chicago Tribune described Elmhurst’s “brand identity” as “the ultimate small-college experience.” Moreover, recent construction projects—an academic building, an environmentally friendly residence hall, and new woodland and prairie gardens to complement the campus arboretum—stand as visible signs of institutional progress.  

None of which means Ray’s job will be easy. The night before our conversation in the Frick Center, he had dinner at a restaurant in downtown Elmhurst with the deans and vice presidents who will make up his presidential cabinet. He urged them to think about, among other things, what needs to change at the College.

Some of the challenges are clear. Demographic realities suggest that the boom in the college-age population that has contributed to growing enrollments at Elmhurst and elsewhere will not last forever. A faltering economy will complicate fundraising efforts. The institutional endowment—which last year briefly topped $100 million for the first time—will need to continue to grow to support the College’s mission and ambitions. As it has throughout its history, Elmhurst’s academic reach exceeds its financial grasp. 

Ray says he wants to have a new strategic plan in place within his first year on the job, to be followed by an ambitious fundraising campaign. The goal, he says, is “to make Elmhurst the premier liberal arts college in the Chicago area.”

That ambitious goal is utterly in line with a set of aspirations endorsed by the Board of Trustees more than a year ago. Of course, college leaders are always setting goals like that; it’s part of the job. But Ray’s speaking manner communicates more quiet confidence than bombast. He has a knack for pausing and thinking for a few long seconds before answering a question, a style that ends up lending force to what he has to say. You get the feeling he is more interested in making sense than in making noise. 

“He struck me as cool in the best sense,” says Bill McCarter, the president emeritus of wttw in Chicago and a trustee of the College who served on the search committee that vetted Ray and the other candidates for the job. “When he came in and spoke, it sort of popped that he was clearly a standout. I think this is a case of his time and the College’s time coming together. He’s the one to move us on to the next level.”

The fourteen-member search committee considered hundreds of candidates to succeed President Cureton, who had announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2007–2008 academic year. The committee was headed by Thomas N. Tyrrell ’67, the immediate past chair of the board, and included not only trustees but also faculty, students, alumni, and an administrator. On February 22, the committee unanimously recommended Ray to the full board, which unanimously endorsed the choice. In announcing the appointment, Kenne Bristol, the chair of the board, cited Ray’s “scholarly pursuits and senior experience in higher education administration, as well as an articulated passion for Elmhurst College.”

It couldn’t have escaped the board’s attention that Ray had managed to thrive both at the University of New Hampshire and Harvard Law School: one chronically under-funded, the other fabulously wealthy, and neither much resembling Elmhurst. How will his experiences at those institutions translate to his new job as head of a small college with big ambitions? 

At Harvard, he played a part in a $400-million capital campaign, helping secure large gifts from a remarkable range of donors, including the Oneida Indian Nation and the game-show host Bob Barker. At both Harvard and New Hampshire, Ray taught courses on Native American religion and the law, even as he served as an administrator. At both institutions he developed academic programs; at New Hampshire he led a revision of the school’s general education curriculum.  Ray points out that, despite the University of New Hampshire’s size (12,794 students), the institution aims to provide a liberal arts education in the style of a small college. He helped to introduce a series of multidisciplinary first-year seminars that resemble the first-year projects currently
being launched at Elmhurst. New Hampshire Provost Mallory says Ray “was a champion for the core liberal arts.”

Ray speaks plainly about his early plans for Elmhurst. He wants to encourage faculty research and scholarship, which he says ultimately make for more effective teaching. He wants to build the international programs. He intends to work to “increase the endowment substantially.” 

But he also wants to allow himself the preliminary step of getting to know his new workplace in meaningful ways. “My goal right now,” he says, “is to find and attach myself to the best possible teachers.”

Ray may owe his earliest lessons in management to, of all creatures, an armadillo.

As a thirteen-year-old in central Oklahoma, he found that tending to his newly acquired pet armadillo, Dixie, required some ingenuity. Dixie was eager to bolt for freedom, and Ray learned that grabbing onto and holding the animal only brought her very long claws into play. So he took to gently herding her about his back yard with a stick. 

The tactics proved effective, so the question has to be asked: Can a similar approach be applied to academic management? 

Ray smiles a patient smile. “I’m now more fluent with carrots than with sticks,” he says. 

Ray was born to a Cherokee mother in Oklahoma City in 1956, but because she was unable to care for him, he was adopted as an infant by Stephen and Dorothea Ray, a white couple. He was raised in Guthrie and Edmond, two smallish towns on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Stephen Ray died of a heart attack when Alan was five, and Dorothea Ray raised Alan and his older sister Margaret on her own while completing an advanced degree in library science at the University of Oklahoma. She also did the research and bureaucratic paperwork required to legally establish her adoptive son’s Cherokee heritage, so that he could become an official member of the tribe. 

Ray grew up at once inspired by his adoptive mother’s character (“She has always been a remarkable example to me of intelligence and perseverance and courage,” he says) and proud of the identity he had inherited from the birth mother he never knew. Blue-eyed, light-skinned, and living in a mostly white community, Ray would sometimes tell friends about his Indian background. “This led to me being kidded by some in a very unexpected and unpleasant way. I’d be called ‘half-breed’,” he remembers. “It shows the nature of racism, if you think about it. The stigma can exist apart from phenomenal characteristics.” 

Though raised in Dorothea’s Presbyterian Church, by the time he was 16, Ray had begun identifying himself as Roman Catholic. It was a change driven in part by what he calls his interest in “the big, metaphysical questions of life.” His attraction to Catholic theology and philosophy led him to enroll at St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver, where he began a course of study designed to lead him to a parish priesthood in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

In the mid-seventies, seminaries like St. Thomas were still alight with a post-Vatican II willingness to engage the intellectual currents of the modern world, and Ray delved into philosophy. “In retrospect,” he says, “those years were probably the high-water mark of liberal Catholicism. We’d study Thomas Aquinas in the morning and Sartre and Heidegger in the afternoon. It was an interesting time to be a seminarian.”  

In time, however, Ray became disenchanted with seminary life. Part of the problem was that everyone at St. Thomas was a little too much like Ray—young men from the same part of the country, each with a sense of an incipient priestly vocation. Moreover, Ray was coming to believe that he needed to broaden and deepen his spiritual explorations if he were ever to find satisfactory answers to his questions of faith. After graduating summa cum laude in philosophy from St. Thomas, Ray abandoned his plans for the priesthood and headed east to continue his studies at Harvard Divinity School.

This was something altogether new. “Nothing about the seminary prepared me, first, for the culture shock of going to the East Coast, where I had not been before, and then to Harvard Divinity School, which was very ecumenical,” he says. “I studied with both Catholic and Protestant theologians, I took courses with [the philosopher] John Rawls; I met people from all over the world, people who had not spent their undergraduate years studying to become priests. I was exhilarated by the intellectual free space.” 

At Harvard, he became interested in the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, famous for his critical studies of institutions—medicine, for example, or psychiatry, or the prison system—and how they shape our knowledge of the world. Philosophers like Foucault have a reputation for willful obscurity, but for Ray, his work was thrillingly relevant. “French deconstructionists are not often identified with the real world,” Ray concedes. “But the turn to Foucault was a way for me to ground the questions that interested me in what is often called the real world. I saw that I would have to know more about how society worked if I were going to do justice to the large questions about life I was asking.”

So not long after completing his doctorate, Ray enrolled in the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. There he worked as an editor on the constitutional law journal and began for the first time to work on Native American issues. 

It was while Ray was in law school, in 1988, that the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a case which pitted the religious freedom rights of Native Americans against the government’s desire to build roads and harvest timber on public land that some tribes considered sacred. The ruling, and Ray’s intense reaction to it, drove him into the legal-scholarly fray. 

Ray still remembers his response to the ruling. “I had an immediate and emotional reaction to it. I was very much aware that the history of Euro-American contact with Native Americans had a devastating impact on tribal cultures. To see the law in which I had so recently trained act in such a way as to ignore that history—to the detriment of living tribal cultures—was very disturbing.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the government’s plans to use the public land did not violate the tribes’ rights of religious freedom. For Ray, one of the problems with the ruling was that it failed to take into account the distinctive nature of Native American religion, which often revolves around rituals performed at specific sites. One such site is Chimney Rock in northern California’s Six Rivers National Forest, the location in question in Lyng.  “Our jurisprudence doesn’t fit well when applied to Indian sacred sites,” he says. “It’s based on a Judeo-Christian notion of religion that understands that religion can be conducted anywhere. By contrast, Native American religion is site-specific.” 

Ray critiqued the ruling in a case comment he published in Hasting’s constitutional law journal, faulting the court for neglecting to weigh the cultural differences between native and non-native concepts of religion. “Essentially, the court said there is no constitutional right to practice your religion on public land,” he says. “It’s an indication of the way our legal culture, as part of the larger culture, has recurrently and systematically disadvantaged indigenous people in this country.” The article was his first foray into federal Indian law, legal ground that he still is working.

He spent several years practicing law in Los Angeles and Boston, but says he missed the intellectual atmosphere of the academy. When he learned that Harvard Law School was searching for a director of academic aΩairs, he applied for and got the job. At Harvard, Ray recruited faculty, raised funds, and planned curricula. He was active in the university’s Native American Program, developed new courses on Native Americans and the law, and brought Native American scholars to campus as visiting faculty. The National Law Journal published an article that made prominent mention of Ray’s work, under the headline, INDIAN STUDIES BLOOM ALONG THE CHARLES.

It was also at Harvard that Ray met Angela Katsos, who was then the director of development for the Native American Program. They married in 2000 and have three children: Stephen Alexander Ray, who was born in 2004, and twins Charles Timothy and Helen Dorothea, born in August 2007. Angela Ray says the couple was drawn to Elmhurst in part because the community figures to be an excellent place to raise their children. At the College, she may put to work her extensive experience in fundraising; she held posts at MIT in addition to her eleven years at Harvard. “We know the development office at Elmhurst is very capable, but this is a particular area of expertise for me, and we’ll be looking for ways to balance the needs of my family with ways I can help the College,” she says. 

Ray’s work at Harvard confirmed for him that his future lay in academic administration. He was drawn to the famously intense intellectual environment. “It was exciting to work around people who were so incredibly productive,” he says.  “Everyone was Type A.”

Of course, some of those big achievers carried egos to match. How did he deal with some of the more difficult personalities? 
“I adopted a Zen-like indifference,” he says.

“He was intelligent and conscientious and in some ways he was too qualified for the job,” remembers Robert Clark, the dean of the law school and Ray’s boss during his time at Harvard. “He was ambitious and I could see that he wanted to run his own show someday, but he was always loyal and I trusted him completely.” 

Ray was promoted twice during his time at Harvard, but he became eager to move into an executive position. He moved to the University of New Hampshire in 2004 as vice provost for academic affairs, a post that made him responsible for all undergraduate curricula and academic programs. He remained an active scholar of federal Indian law, publishing, lecturing, and teaching on the subject. 

He also had to deal with a conflict that threatened to divide the UNH campus. Unionized faculty negotiating a new contract with the administration had urged professors to do only the work they were contractually obligated to do. This meant calling a halt to most administrative duties and new initiatives. It also meant that the faculty senate would not meet, frustrating Ray’s efforts to revise the university’s general education curriculum, which required senate approval. 

Provost Mallory, Ray’s boss at New Hampshire, recalls that the episode raised resentments on campus, but that Ray managed to continue working with key faculty members on an informal basis. Those efforts laid the groundwork for completing the curriculum revision once the contract dispute was settled.

Ray recalls the episode mostly as a source of lessons learned. “It gave me an appreciation for the power of individuals working together to make a difference,” he says. “At heart in this work, we rely on trust and enthusiasm to make a better institution.”

Ray officially takes office at Elmhurst on July 1, with his inauguration to follow on November 8, about a year after he first contacted the search committee to apply for the College presidency. During and after the search, he made several visits to campus to meet with trustees, faculty, administrators, staff, students, alumni, and even a coterie of local clergy. 

His first meeting, a preliminary job interview with the search committee, didn’t quite bring him to campus. It was held in a meeting room at O’Hare Airport. From that visit, Ray remembers a series of artificially lit air-terminal corridors and tunnels—“It was a rodent-like experience”—leading to a room where he was relieved to find fifteen people “who seemed genuinely happy” to see him. Later, as a finalist for the job, he spent two-and-a-half days on campus, shaking hands, taking tours, and answering the full range of job-interview questions. 

Ray had some preparation for the experience, having gone through an American Council on Education workshop on advancing to a college presidency. Still, he says the interview process was a surprise to him. “I had never been through anything like it before,” he says. “I think one has to be sort of a long-distance runner to survive and thrive in a search process. What helped was that I really was excited to be here. I saw that this college had so much going for it.” 

Ray will have a joint faculty appointment in the political science and religious studies departments, with the title professor of religion and society. He hopes to teach some small seminar-style classes at Elmhurst, as he did at Harvard and New Hampshire, but says that can wait until he is firmly settled in as president. “I know the president’s job can be like two full-time jobs itself,” he says. 

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked him about some of the things that first intrigued him about the job he eventually landed. Not surprisingly, he mentioned Elmhurst’s tradition of combining the liberal arts and professional preparation. It was a response that fit well with so much of what he had already emphasized: his determination to ground his philosophy in real-world concerns, his career-long search for ways to merge the intellectual and the practical.

“We think about how the things we learn can be related to the world beyond college,” he said of the Elmhurst approach. “That’s unlike some liberal-arts colleges that have an almost monastic model of education, in which the real world is at some distance from learning. We don’t have the problem of reconciling reflection and action. Here, reflection and action have always gone hand in hand.”

Photo by Tom Lindfors

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