No one would call him “Mr. Charisma.” Least of all himself.
But Nagi Naganathan — Nagi, or “Dr. Nagi” (he holds a doctorate in engineering), to almost everyone at the University of Toledo — is very proud of UT and quietly very proud of his life.
We spent some time together recently at UT — talking in his office and touring the campus.
He is amazed at how far he has traveled. He came from simple folk in India. His family all worked seven days a week. He had no idea about America, or the places where he eventually studied, when he came here. He identifies with UT students in this sense: He did not know much about life when he came to college and grad school. He did not know how higher education worked. He was naive. He did not know what he was capable of, and he believes this is true of many first-generation college students at UT.
“I did not have self-confidence,” Nagi told me. His mentors gave him that.
He’s a great believer in mentors. And hard work. “If you know the stuff,” he told me “you can walk with a quiet swagger — wherever you are from.”
He likes the president’s job. He's operating on the premise that the next year matters and he should be the president, not a caretaker. But also on a second assumption: that someone else will finish his initiatives.
He’s adopted the premise, as well, that what he did for the school of engineering he can begin to do for UT as a whole. The slogan of engineering became: “We do not recruit freshman but graduates.”
This might be harder to apply universally. But it's a good slogan. Better recruitment, plus good mentoring means successful graduates. And Nagi, with a lot of help from others he is the first to say, made the college of engineering excellent — world class.
There is no disagreement on that.
Nagi’s next slogan might almost be: We don’t recruit students, but leaders. He wants every UT student to have that confidence and swagger and to be able to compete in the world with tangible, pragmatic skills.
He’s not really a big liberal arts guy, but a “prepare for the workplace” guy. I think this is the right philosophy for higher education today. Given the cost of higher ed and the lack of good jobs for 22-year-olds with bachelor degrees, it may be the only moral approach.
Nagi has a big idea in this regard: mandatory internships. Students learn how to apply concepts to real-life problems. Workplaces get a burst of new blood. Connections are made — personal and intellectual. He wants faculty out there in the workplace too. It’s been key to engineering’s success and he’d like to extend it to more of the university.
He’d also like every student, eventually, to take a Dale Carnegie course (two four hour sessions). Again the idea is: College should prepare you for life and for success.
It’s a very specific vision, and few educational administrators have that.
Nagi was acting dean of engineering before he was dean. And for two and a half years. He said that made it hard to talk pie in the sky when he interviewed for the deanship. “I had the data,” he said, so his vision had to be a realistic vision.
I assume he thinks that if he does his work well as acting president, things might go the same way with this job.
What short of president would he be, long term?
The same sort of president he has been so far: not splashy or dynamic.
● But someone who will listen. He hates any hint of arrogance and embraces conversation: “Someone who has a complaint usually has some valid point,” he told me. He gets out and talks to students and faculty daily.
● And someone who is hands-on. He pays attention to detail and even campus upkeep. He’s an engineer, after all.
● I think he would also be dedicated to excellence and building the reputation of the school.
What he would not be is a whole new chapter. No matter how dedicated and capable he is, a Nagi appointment would represent continuity at UT. And some would argue that the only way UT goes to the next level is with leadership that is a radical break with the past. Leadership that is truly new. His selection would mean putting off that radical break for another four to five years. It would mean warmth, but maybe not fire. And UT needs fire.
Only UT’s trustees can decide what they need in the university’s next president. But no matter what happens, Nagi makes it clear that he is enormously grateful for his life, his work, UT, and Toledo. He has more to give the UT community, and the larger community of the city and region, either way.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.