“Doing Good”: Vice President James Pappas Reflects on His Career and Life

Dr. James (Jim) Pappas

Recently Dr. Pappas sat down to discuss and reflect on his career in Outreach, personal life, and where the road to retirement will take him. 

What do you consider to be your top five accomplishments at Outreach?

I think about the development of a number programs but one of the most significant is Aviation. Outreach was given Aviation when it was down to about four students, in significant debt, and had no assigned faculty. Now it has grown to about 200 students, four permanent faculty members, several flight instructors, and a fleet of 21 planes. That was a major accomplishment.

Another one was KGOU. When KGOU joined us, its footprint was smaller than Norman. It was seriously in debt and under sanction from the FCC because some student announcers had said the wrong words on the air. There were literally some times during the day that it had zero listenership. Now it is one of the most listened to stations in the region, with a footprint covering more than a third of the state, winner of many significant awards, a full staff, and not in debt at all. It’s doing very well.

Another achievement was the creation of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE). When I took over, the Southwest Center for Human Relations was engaged in no significant programming. I urged the staff to create a national conference and that resonated. At our last conference, in May, we attracted more than 3,000 participants. The conference has been conducted in major cities across the country and it’s been identified by a number of diversity publications as the top conference of its type in the country. I think that was a major achievement.

When I was made Dean of the College of Liberal Studies, we had about 300 students, none of whom were graduating very fast. CLS was housed in a tiny area in the Admin Building, had no permanent faculty, and was just starting to get involved with technology. Now we have more than 2,000 students, eight full-time faculty, more than 40 staff members, its own building, and an increase in the number of degrees from four to ten. That has been pretty significant over the past 16 years.

The other thing was something that I didn’t do alone, as many people have been involved. I am really pleased that we have created an atmosphere of service. I think we try to emphasize that we are here to serve populations and organizations that are typically underserved. I feel really good that on balance, as we engage in programming, we are working in areas that are helping other people.  

What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in continuing education? In higher education?

Higher education is really in the middle of a major transformation. Many things that have been instrumental in institutions are going to be challenged over the next decade. I think if you are going to be in either higher or continuing ed in the future, you need to build some skill sets in addition to what you already have. You have to be a good academic, but there are other important skills, particularly in administration, that you will need. Technology is not just the future; it’s a critical piece of the current environment. So you must understand it and be comfortable working with it. Budgeting is also critical. We are not going to have limitless resources, so we are going to have to figure out how to make things work (creating programs and finding the funding for them). This will likely require more self-support activities all across higher ed. And we are going to see marketing as a very important part of the future, as the for-profits have already shown us.

Finally, and I don’t know how you prepare for this, we are going to see a lot of cultural, societal, political, economic, and other changes and that means anyone in higher or continuing education will need to be particularly good at environmental scanning to anticipate what is happening.  

You have traveled all over the world. Where have you not been that you’d like to visit?

Australia and New Zealand. Those are two places we would really like to go. While we have been over most of Europe, one city we haven’t seen but would like to is Barcelona. Also, even though we have been all over Italy, we’ve never been to Venice. So, we have a trip scheduled to Venice at the end of March. After that, we plan to visit some Greek Islands like Corfu and Santorini and end up in Athens.  

What advice do you have for someone traveling to Greece?

It’s a great country. People always come back from Greece having really enjoyed it. I encourage people to just enjoy the atmosphere. There is an area in Athens where they have all the little shops called the Plaka. That is a good place to go, sit outside, have hors d’oeuvres and a glass of wine, and just watch the people. The National Museum there is outstanding, especially if you are interested in antiquity. Many people immediately go to the Acropolis, but I recommend going first to the National Museum.

And one of my favorite places that isn’t on the regular tourist track, because it is so far away, is Meteora, where there are monolithic rock formations with little monasteries on top. It’s a different kind of environmental formation. But then to see how they built the monasteries, having to go up with rope ladders, and then when you get inside them, because of that isolation, it is very spiritual. That is something I would definitely recommend.  

Who do you look up to professionally? Personally?

I had a mentor at Utah who was actually my boss, Oakley Gordon. He was an industrial organizational psychologist and dean of general education and continuing education. He really was instrumental in helping me form a lot of my ideas about continuing education when I was working with him.

Someone I really looked up to in academia was Peter Magrath. He had been the president of both the University of Minnesota and Brown University and then ended up being the president of the National Association for State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. He had the capacity to look across the higher education arena and see what was going on, what was good, what wasn’t good, and he also had a sense of the role of higher education in civic engagement. I always enjoyed listening to and learning from him. He came to OU once and gave a speech for our Outreach staff. He was really a significant figure in the field.

Personally, I have always been intrigued with President Eisenhower. He was an interesting figure in my mind in that even though he was a fairly conservative Republican, he was really more bipartisan. He saw the world in a broader way. He gave a famous speech about the industrial-military complex and how that complex impacted and distorted government in some significant ways. I always found it intriguing that a former military general would raise that question. He also did things like create the U.S. highway system. I don’t think he was valued because he wasn’t flashy and was almost too bipartisan. But when he was through, the nation was a lot better. He was a humble leader who got the job done.

I’ve also been pretty impressed with Pope Francis. Even though I am not Catholic, I think what he is trying to do with the Catholic church is pretty significant. He is trying to help people.  

What projects does Peggy have for you at home once you are retired?

(Laughs) Well, we really have to do a lot of work on our house. I think the first step is a lot like this office: we have to declutter! We haven’t done much redecorating in 30 years so we will probably have to redo our kitchen and bathroom.  

After your retirement, what courses will you be teaching?

I am hoping to teach for Advanced Programs the course I already teach, Theoretical Foundations. I enjoy that course because we look at the whole field of human relations psychology. I may teach my career course again, which I have taught fairly regularly and enjoy quite a lot. I have talked with Dr. Banz and I may teach a coaching course, too.  

I heard you like to hang out in Barnes and Noble. What books are you looking forward to reading now that you have more time to do that?

I am a pretty broad reader and I enjoy history, particularly historical novels. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa, a historical mystery series about a detective in ancient Rome. I also am particularly addicted to murder mysteries, anything suspenseful.  

I understand you are a fan of science fiction. Who is your favorite sci-fi writer and what is your favorite sci-fi movie?

I am really old school, so Asimov is my favorite writer. I was always amazed at his ability to imagine future events and it was exciting to see how he created stories that weren’t just science fiction; they dealt with issues. He did a series with robots and I always thought it was neat that the prime directive of robots is that they would not hurt humans. He played the robot-human relationship out in some of his stories so it became a metaphor for how we should treat each other. I thought he did a really good job. I like him a lot.

And for the movie, again, I am old school—I really like Star Wars. I was a bit younger when that started, but I like the epic scale. He created some interesting dilemmas in his characters, especially Darth Vader and how he struggled with good and evil.  

Any unfinished business at Outreach—projects that you’d like to see completed?

There are two or three things I wish we could’ve finished. We have the organizational leadership doctoral degree that has been offered through Advanced Programs to mainly military personnel. I would like to see that degree become more widely offered. I think that having a nontraditional doctorate that people in our region can take would be a very valuable service. Another degree that we need is a master’s in aviation. We recently won the Center for Aviation Excellence contract with the FAA and we really need to have a master’s program.  

For those of us not retiring this year, what advice do you have for us?

It is just going to be challenging. Even though there seems to be support for teacher salaries, I don’t hear much support for higher education. However, I think we should strive to continue to do good work to support people. In the end, I think Oklahomans will be more supportive of higher ed when they see the university helping communities.  

Will you be taking up a new hobby?

I have always enjoyed doodling, so I may take some drawing classes. I don’t know that I have any talent or would be any good, but I’d like to give it a try. 

What will you do on the first day you don’t have to come into the office?

(Laughs) Sleep in! I know it sounds like a cliché, but I am a night person and getting up in the morning is a challenge for me. Especially since when I have to get up early it’s to do some work. So one of the things I am really looking forward to is not having to worry about any of that.  

What will you miss the most about your daily life here?

Well, first and foremost, the people. I’ve made a lot of good relationships with the staff. I enjoy all the people, all across campus. I will also miss putting programs together and seeing them come to fruition. And of course, the people we work with. Among my very favorite things are the graduations, seeing people graduate and succeed. In a lot of the things we do, you don’t have a chance to see it that formally. I will miss that.

I would like to close by thanking the staff who has really done a great job over the years tolerating me. It has been fun. Even though we’ve had our challenges, I have been very pleased with all that we’ve accomplished.  

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Ashley Brand

Ashley Brand worked as a writer and editor for the college.