Thanks to the shepherds and leaders

The most important leader at a great research university is not the president. UF has about 1,000 administrative entities with leaders, including departments, schools, colleges, centers, institutes, programs and divisions. I hope to visit all of these entities while I am president, which will require I serve until I’m 90 years old, longer than Presidents Albert Murphree and John Tigert.

Last weekend, I spoke to a national meeting of electrical and computer engineering department chairs.

Three hundred universities have such departments. The leaders of those departments are responsible for their departments’ faculty, students, staff, curriculum, research, budget, alumni and facilities.

It is a challenging job — I know from firsthand experience.

For six years, I served as Purdue University’s electrical and computer engineering department chair (the school head at Purdue). Those six years were the most difficult of my life. Because of the weight of responsibility, I often couldn’t sleep at night, and after napping for a few hours, would go into the office at 4 a.m., still exhausted, to work on my administrative duties. I was convinced for the first several years I had ruined my career, since I gave up much of my research and teaching to serve as chair.

I’m so very grateful for all the leaders across our campus, but I have an especially soft spot in my heart for the chairs of UF’s roughly 120 academic departments. They are responsible for recruiting and supporting faculty, the success of the students in their departments and the overall stature of their department, which directly affects our ranking as a university.

Communication was the subject of my hourlong address at the department chairs national meeting. I shared the lessons I am learning about communication. I encouraged the department chairs to work to reach the hearts — not just the minds — of their students and alumni. I shared a photo of Century Tower lit with rainbow colors after the Pulse nightclub massacre last summer.

I talked about my successes and failures in being personal and not presidential in communication, and how being accessible and simply listening is often more important than what I say or write. I shared our plans for the historic town hall that was held Monday night.

Finally, I encouraged the chairs to communicate purposeful fun, something I failed to do as a department chair. They laughed at the videos making fun of the president’s office, and my horrible dancing as Darth Vader, and our April Fools’ Day pranks seen by millions.

UF is blessed with exceptional leaders across all areas of our university. I am particularly grateful for the academic department chairs who aren’t always appreciated, but who are heroic in their work as shepherds and leaders. Thank you.