The 20th president of the University of NH is spending time getting to know stakeholders, embarking on a listening tour to meet with faculty, staff and state and local leaders. James W. (“Jim”) Dean Jr. says he was attracted to the job because UNH is a public and flagship university that has strong supporters.
“When I did the initial interview, I was struck by the affection that the people on the search committee had for the institution.
I came from a place in North Carolina where there was a lot of that, and I was intrigued to see it in a different location. These people feel this strongly about the university, this is something I want to know more about and it ultimately convinced me to come here,” says Dean, who most recently served as executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he was a professor of organizational behavior. He succeeds Mark W. Huddleston, who retired after 11 years.
John Small, chair of the search committee and chair of the University System of NH board of trustees, says the committee selected Dean because he has the right skills at the right time. “What initially, and still, attracts us is not one thing but a combination, [including that] his Ph.D. is in organizational behavior. In higher education there is a strong desire to connect with business and supply an educated workforce,” Small says. “The fact that his own field of study is in business works well for this point in time.”
Small says Dean’s background is ideal as UNC Chapel Hill is one of the highest ranked public universities in the country and noted for its role in the development of the Research Triangle Park, the largest research park in the country. UNH has set aside a 60-acre parcel for a research park that will provide a place for innovation and business development.
“When you look at all the most innovative and attractive places in the country they all have one or more universities nearby,” Dean says. “As a leader of a business, there was a time when labor was the most important commodity and people would search for the lowest cost labor, but that is not what we are seeing now when people are locating plants. Companies want to move to a place with good schools, educated people and we aspire to be part of that as well. There’s a whole ecosystem where economic vitality depends on an educated workforce.”
UNH contributes $1.5 billion each year to the state economy and Dean says it appears the economy is healthy, with the main problem finding qualified workers to fill available jobs. “That’s a problem that a lot of states would like to have,” Dean says. “That doesn’t mean it is not a problem, but unemployment is pretty low and the business community is very vibrant. But economic success is always fragile and anything can happen—you have to be vigilant.”
Asked about UNH’s high tuition rates, Dean says most students are finding a way to manage that cost. “From the statistics, the debt may be high but the default rate is quite low,” he says. “At the University of New Hampshire, students graduate at a very high rate and are very successful in getting employment. You really have to look at the debt question in the context of people’s employment prospects and the money they are going to make.”
According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, the national default rate is around 11 percent, while NH is at about 2.2 percent. (At state universities in Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont, the default rate at the largest state schools runs 3 to 6 percent.)
Dean also points out that statistics are often based on averages rather than medians, which can be skewed by a few students who have taken on immense debt of $100,000 or more. But these are people who have taken on debt to earn graduate degrees and will be able to pay, he says.
Dean says for the next few months he plans to spend a lot of time with people on campus and beyond, “listening to them and trying to understand what they see as opportunities for the university and over time put together some ideas about where we might go as an institution,” Dean says. “It is too big and too complex an institution for me to come and believe I know what needs to happen.”