The conference room in IIT’s Downtown Campus could swallow an elephant-or in this case a massive, 30-person table, meticulously polished, sparkling, and free of fingerprints. John L. Anderson walks directly to a seat at the head of the table, nearest to a window overlooking the city. It’s an appropriately big window-the kind that’s made for looking out, thinking, and collecting thoughts.
It is three weeks before Anderson officially takes office as the eighth president of IIT. Anyone would expect a new university president to be doing a lot of forecasting at this time-and he is-though the unusual early-morning quiet of a city on the verge of a downpour offers him a welcome silence for reflection.
“I did not think I would do this,” he says without hesitation. “It’s a good lesson in keeping your options open. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Rewind to 1969. The unforeseeable “this”-a career in higher education-arrived at a crossroads in Anderson’s life. Like many master’s degree candidates, he found himself choosing between entering the workforce and pursuing his doctorate. On top of this, he was about to spend six weeks at ROTC summer camp in Kansas, a necessity brought on by the Vietnam War. He had not anticipated a tough decision, because there had been only one option. “I never thought about an academic position. Almost all my relatives worked at DuPont, and I envisioned a career in industry,” he says.
“The university is on a very positive slope both in terms of its resources as well as its attitude-positive attitude is the most significant. It’s important as an incoming president to be at a university that is strong but that also has a lot of growth potential.”
His thesis advisor, the most influential figure in his life outside of his family, made the case for academe, citing Anderson’s potential as a researcher. “He told me I could do it,” says Anderson, whose towering stature belies his soft-spoken demeanor. “I began to find success in higher education, and I really enjoyed working with students.”
“It was a good decision. I have never looked back.”
Anderson grew up in Wilmington, Del. His parents were the children of Swedish and German immigrants who first settled in Cleveland, Ohio, after moving to the United States.
“Neither of my parents went to school past the eighth grade, so they were very proud that my sister and I both went to college,” he says.
He received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware. It was there that he met his wife, Pat, a fellow student in math and physics classes. “In those days it was rare for a woman to be in those classes. She was smart-Phi Beta Kappa-and better at math than I was, and I thought I was pretty good,” he says, smiling proudly. “I really fell for her and worked hard to get that first date.” Pat worked in computing for DuPont and several universities in the days when knowledge of ‘assembler language’ was critical. They married in 1968, and have one son and one daughter, both in their 30s, and two grandchildren.
Anderson earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he pioneered the development and use of micro-porous membranes to study biological transport phenomena. He began his academic career as an assistant professor of chemical engineering and of applied mathematics at Cornell University.
He has experienced higher education from nearly every vantage point: student, assistant professor, associate professor, professor, center director, department chair, dean (the latter four at Carnegie Mellon University), and provost (at Case Western Reserve). Anderson has held visiting professorships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Melbourne (Australia), and the Landbouwuniversiteit Wageningen (The Netherlands), and guest lectureships throughout the country. He is the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters.
John Quinn, Anderson’s thesis advisor at the University of Illinois and now professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, praises Anderson for holding top administrative positions at Carnegie Mellon “while maintaining a prominent research program as well as building an outstanding faculty,” he says. “He is a natural leader, and he has always had the respect of his colleagues because of his impeccable academic credentials-a quality not always found in academic administrators. John is always up to the challenge, and he is ambitious in the best sense of the word.”
“At Case Western Reserve and Carnegie Mellon, John earned his reputation as a leader with sharp ideas and an unfailing commitment to education,” says IIT Board of Trustees Chair John Rowe, who headed the Presidential Search Committee. “His intelligence, academic credentials, and vision resonated with the search committee, and are the ideal qualities that IIT needs in a new president.”
“I believe I have an opportunity to make a real impact at IIT,” says Anderson, a self-described “glass-half-full” type of person. “The university is on a very positive slope both in terms of its resources as well as its attitude-positive attitude is the most significant. It’s important as an incoming president to be at a university that is strong but that also has a lot of growth potential.”
While he is pragmatic about the process of unleashing this potential, he is precise and thorough in articulating the four key areas of greatest opportunity at IIT.
“Engineering and the sciences are important. There is tremendous competition with other universities, so our investment has to be made in certain areas where IIT has or could have a comparative advantage,” he says. “At the same time, we have to advance other disciplines. We will do this by increasing the size of the pie, not by slicing it into smaller pieces.”
Increasing the undergraduate student body is also a priority. At Case Western Reserve, undergraduate enrollment soared by 25 percent during his tenure, while the quality of admitted students remained high.
“With John, it’s a complete investment in the students,” says Paul McKenzie, vice president and general manager of biologics manufacturing at Bristol-Myers Squibb and a former Ph.D. student of Anderson at Carnegie Mellon. “He was invested in more than our lab and class work. He cared about us personally. John wanted us to be successful wherever we went with our careers.”
“It’s the students who have kept me working at universities,” he says, noting his mentorship of Ph.D. and master’s students as his biggest professional achievements outside of his research and election to the National Academy of Engineering and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “I met with about 15 students right after I accepted the presidency, and they were fantastic. There is a lot we can do to improve student life, the programs we offer students, class size, facilities, and athletics.”
Although he says increasing IIT’s national visibility is a decade-long undertaking, it is an opportunity with implications for the entire IIT community. “This is something I will work both personally and with faculty to improve,” he says. Anderson believes IIT has the potential to experience a successful growth pattern as did both Carnegie Mellon and Washington University-two universities that, once similar to IIT, have grown in the past 25 years from being largely local to internationally known entities.
“Students have told me national visibility is one of the most important things for them. We have many faculty members with national visibility. We want all people associated with IIT-faculty, staff, students, and alumni-to go out and say, “I’m from IIT,” and for others around the country to know our name.”
In his efforts to garner national recognition for IIT, Anderson says it will be equally important for the university to further its relationship with the Chicago community. An increased diversity of the student body, including more local students, offers growth potential stemming from these ties. “IIT has this on its radar screen. It’s important that we attract talented students who may be disadvantaged financially or otherwise.”
It is an issue that is close to Anderson. He is credited with improving diversity of both women and minorities at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering, while also sustaining the college’s ranking among the Top 10 engineering schools in the country.
“I have seen my wife maneuver in a male-dominated field, and my parents were always very inclusive in terms of race and ethnic background. Everyone was a friend to them,” he says. “They shaped my very strong, positive views about inclusiveness and diversity.”
“John is the ultimate networker,” says McKenzie. “He constantly surrounds himself with a variety of people of all nationalities and genders. It’s what makes him tick, and he likes learning new things from other people.”
In seeking new accomplishments for IIT, Anderson plans to spend his first four months in office preparing for the long term while working to maintain IIT’s momentum-learning about the unique culture of IIT, becoming acquainted with the Chicago community and leaders, visiting every building and campus, assessing the quality of existing academic programs, and fundraising.
“I’m a people-oriented person,” he says. “I like to meet alumni and donors.” While at Carnegie Mellon, Anderson increased the number of endowed chairs in engineering from five to 29.
Of course, settling into a new city also tops his agenda.
“Pat and I both come from humble backgrounds, so everything we do is a bit of a surprise for us,” he says. “Chicago is a vibrant city. We are walkers, so walking will be a great way for us to explore the city. We also plan to go from two cars to one and to make great use of public transportation.”
He has also just learned that his daughter and son-in-law are transferring to Chicago from Pittsburgh, which has him beaming.
“You could call it an alignment of many good things,” he says.