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An alumnus and eastern Oregon native became EOU’s 12th president on July 1, 2015, the same day a newly appointed local board assumed governance of the university.
Tom Insko’s presidency is nontraditional in that he does not come from a career in higher education, having spent 20 years working for Boise Cascade Company. With the dissolution of the State Board of Higher Education, his appointment also occurred at a pivotal time for EOU and Oregon’s entire system of public higher education.
President Insko sat down with Laura Hancock, managing editor of The Mountaineer Magazine, to share his distinctive experience and approach to ensuring EOU’s success in a new era.
Laura Hancock: What motivated you to leave a successful career in the corporate sector to pursue a leadership position in public higher education?
President Insko: The position as EOU president is the only job in higher education I have ever been interested in and ever will be. It is like a calling for me that stems from my experience and my love for this institution and this region. I believe EOU can impact so many lives and contribute to the revitalization of eastern Oregon. In the past, as I engaged in different ways with the university and saw some of the struggles that persisted because of leadership transitions, I felt a desire to change the EOU culture to be one of consistency.
When the opportunity came up, my wife Emily and I had a heart-to-heart about what we wanted to do – what I wanted to do – going forward. Our passion for EOU, the people of eastern Oregon and the possibility of what EOU could become is what drove us to make the decision to throw my name into the hat. It was high risk. I am not a traditional candidate and I knew there would be some pushback, but I was passionate enough to take the risk and am blessed to get the nod to take on this role.
LH: As an Eastern alumnus, you bring a perspective to the president’s office that is uniquely different. What experiences made a lasting impression on you when you were a student?
President Insko: I am fortunate to have the experience of being an EOU student because it makes it very easy for me to passionately share with others how this institution serves students, our community and region. EOU opened up to me a pathway to possibilities I never considered when I first entered college. I grew up on a farm in a rural community and found at EOU a faculty and staff who were eager to get to know me as an individual and help me reach my full potential. I received degrees in mathematics and business while playing basketball and being involved in student government. These experiences developed me beyond pure academics; they enriched me as an individual, molded me into a leader and prepared me for success in graduate school.
Frequently, the hurdle for many high school students I meet is they do not believe they can succeed in a higher education environment. They do not see it as a possibility. I can speak to my story and explain how my experience transformed me. Ultimately, I hope my perspective as an Eastern alumnus helps them believe in themselves and motivates them to come to EOU.
LH: Your father Lee has strong ties to EOU as a longtime football coach and retired faculty member. Did he offer any advice when you decided to apply for the opening?
President Insko: I had a limited number of people I could reach out to and talk with when deciding whether or not to apply for this position. My father was one of the people I confided in. My conversation with him was more philosophical about grappling with the decision of leaving a successful career with Boise Cascade to come to EOU. He helped me by asking questions about what I valued as an individual and what I was looking for professionally. With his prompting, I identified that the fulfillment from serving at EOU would be more invigorating than what I was currently experiencing at Boise Cascade. It became clear EOU was the right place for me.
LH: You grew up in Union County. Does your immersion in the community give you a different perspective when making decisions that affect the university and region it serves?
President Insko: I think it is a significant advantage. I have well established relationships in eastern Oregon and across the state that are beneficial for the advancement of the university. My context is shaped from being an eastern Oregon native, so this influences my decisions and allows me to better understand regional perspectives. It also changes how people listen and respond to me. Through experience, I have a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist and know individuals we can work with to enact change.
LH: What do you hope will stay the same — or change — at EOU?
President Insko: What I hope will stay the same, and what I think EOU is best at, is building authentic, personal relationships with students. Our advisors, faculty, staff and coaches genuinely care for each individual student and want to help them be successful. EOU is unique in this way. I want this to persist and grow going forward.
There are several areas where I am particularly eager to see EOU embrace the opportunity for improvement and I look forward to seeing a change. To begin with, we must renew the energy on campus. EOU is an exciting place to be and we should be feeling that vitality on campus all the time. Next, our distance programs should be the leaders in online education. To do this, we need to tell our story so prospective students know our regional center directors and advisors provide the same authentic relationships online that our on campus students receive. As I am visiting the regional centers and listening to students, I hear numerous examples of special relationships online students have with their advisors and the support they receive for challenges that may not even directly apply to their education. It could be a family difficulty or something else, but an individual was there to say, “You can do this and I’m here to help you get through it.” We need to motivate people to choose our distance programs by sharing this unique attribute.
EOU also needs to be more engaged in the economic development of our region. To achieve this, we have to integrate the goal into our curriculum, specifically with internships. Engaging with our community provides experiential learning that is invaluable to students in preparing them for success in their careers. I experienced the benefits of an internship my senior year here, and it helped prepare me to take the next step in graduate school. We need to make that opportunity the standard for all students.
Finally, we need to interconnect our classic liberal arts programs with our professional degree programs. Upon graduation, students should possess skills that are in demand by employers while also having the knowledge and ability to adapt to a changing world. If we are effective in our program offerings, every student that graduates from EOU will have the critical thinking, communication and writing skills needed for lifetime success.
LH: Your recurring message is emerging as “together, it’s possible.” What does that mean to you and for the university?
President Insko: Success is usually the result of people who share a collective vision uniting together to achieve a goal. Hearing “together, it’s possible,” reminds us to focus on what can be accomplished together from the context of possibility. If we listen and communicate with that philosophy, it will be amazing what we achieve. The EOU team will be aligning on where we believe the university excels, where it must improve and what our vision is for the future. We will put an extraordinary EOU into the realm of possibility and work together to make it happen. “Together, it’s possible” will be a recurring message from me throughout my tenure as president. It will always be what I aspire for us, but it is a particular focus during this first year.
LH: Have you found anything surprising or unexpected about your new position?
President Insko: The wonderful thing about transitioning into this role is the amount of positive feedback and support coming from the local community and people across the state. Initially there was also some concern expressed with my appointment, but this did not occur to me as being negative. People should be asking questions about whether an individual has the right skill-set to be successful when tasked with leading any kind of institution or organization. Now I have the opportunity to demonstrate, not through words, but through my actions, what type of leader I am. For example, there was a question about my recognition of the value of a liberal arts degree. This was really interesting to hear, because for me, the greatest value of my EOU education was the liberal arts component. It allowed me to have sustaining success in my career.
LH: What are your expectations for EOU one year from now?
President Insko: First, I expect to develop a values-driven culture focused on what is possible when we live by those values. This will be a cultural transformation, which I believe begins with me, as president, and what I stand for. The personal values I aspire to live by are integrity, honesty, trust, respect, care, commitment, knowledge, service and stewardship – all of which will permeate through my leadership. As a community we are in the process of defining what we value, and a year from now, I expect those values to begin to be evident.
Second, we will make better use of data to inform our decisions and actions. In addition to using performance dashboards, we will also create a financial forecasting model, enabling us to consider different ideas and concepts for investments and their impact on EOU’s bottom line. Third, we will establish a robust academic program assessment process allowing us to continuously monitor trends and prioritize where we focus attention and resources.
Third, we will establish a robust academic program assessment process allowing us to continuously monitor trends and prioritize where we focus attention and resources. This will help us identify what is working well and where we have gaps that need attention. We can then work together to address opportunities before we have a crisis or service failure. These tools should also allow for more connectivity between what EOU is producing relative to the needs of our students and the region.
Finally, we will invest in developing the leadership and technical skills of our EOU team. I am a firm believer in creating a learning organization, a place where personal and organizational development is the norm.
LH: During Fall Convocation you said EOU should focus on a student success strategy, not an enrollment strategy. What is the defining difference between the two?
President Insko: From my standpoint, we do need an enrollment strategy, but relying on it alone is like saying the most important meal of the day is breakfast and then showing up at the breakfast table and stating you’ve achieved the outcome. You actually have to consume a healthy breakfast to get the benefit. Enrollment is one small part of a larger picture. Getting a student to campus, or online through a regional center, is just the beginning point. The ultimate objective is for each student to persist through their academic experience, attain their bachelor’s degree and leave the university either employed in a career or prepared to enter graduate school. We need to make sure our strategy focuses on not only getting students here, but also ensuring students are provided the services and support needed for them to attain a degree and be successful upon completion. The focus of a student success strategy is much more broad than just enrollment.
LH: Will the benefits of implementing this strategy be immediate or more long-term?
President Insko: Both. We are already developing systems to ensure students in need of support services do not slip through cracks. EOU was recently awarded a TRiO grant that provides additional funding to invest in these networks and personnel. Our Career Center has also reopened and is helping students find jobs and internships. I expect to see benefits this year from our efforts and the momentum will continue to build far into the future.
LH: Rather than focus on the past, your emphasis is on the future and you’ve used the word “outrageous” when you talk about what you envision. What type of university do you think EOU will be in 2029 when it celebrates its 100th anniversary?
President Insko: The way I look at leadership and creating success is all future-based. We can live in the past, but nothing gets accomplished by looking backward, so I am committed to living in the present and leading toward the future. I am intentionally not articulating a specific vision for how EOU will look in 2029. Instead, I am using these first six months of my tenure to listen and develop relationships internally and externally, gain context about perceptions of EOU and understand the culture of the university.
Under my leadership, the EOU community will work collectively to envision and achieve what EOU will be, and starting in the new year, I will use this information to lead us in a conversation about what we will look like in the future. I do not have a preconceived idea of what EOU’s future will be, though I am certain it will be extraordinary. To get there, we need to think outside of the box. When I use the word “outrageous” I am hoping to encourage an environment where our minds will be open to a new vision that will become EOU’s extraordinary future.
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In the fall of 2015, President Insko sat down with our managing editor of The Mountaineer Magazine to share his distinctive experience and approach to ensuring EOU’s success in a new era.